Tag Archives: mind

Risky Kakanomics

Gloria Origgi writes:

This is an application of the theory of kakonomics, that is, the study of the rational preferences for lower-quality or mediocre outcomes, to the apparently weird results of Italian elections. The apparent irrationality of 30% of the electorate who decided to vote for Berlusconi again is explained as a perfectly rational strategy of maintaining a system of mediocre exchanges in which politicians don’t do what they have promised to do and citizens don’t pay the taxes and everybody is satisfied by the exchange. A mediocre government makes easier for mediocre citizens to do less than what they should do without feeling any breach of trust.

She argues that if you elect a crappy politician, then there is little chance of progress, which seems like a bad thing. People do this, though, because maintaining low political standards allows people to have low civic standards: if the politicians are corrupt, there is no reason to pay taxes. Likewise, the politicians who have been elected on the basis of being bad leaders have no incentive to go after tax cheats, the people who put them in office. Hence there is often a self-serving and self-maintaining aspect to making less than optimal decisions: by mutually selecting for low expectations, then everyone cooperates in forgiving bad behavior.

This account assumes that bad behavior of some sort is to be expected. If someone all of a sudden starts doing the ‘right thing’ it will be a breach of trust and violating the social norm. There would be a disincentive to repeat such a transaction again, because it challenges the stability of the assumed low quality interaction and implied forgiveness associated with it.

I like Origgi’s account of kakonomics, but I think there is something missing. The claim that localized ‘good interactions’ could threaten the status quo of bad behavior seems excessive. Criticizing someone who makes everyone else look bad does happen, but this only goes to show that the ‘right’ way of doing things is highly successful. It is the exception that proves the rule: only the people in power — those that can afford to misbehave — really benefit from maintaining the low status quo. Hence the public in general should not be as accepting of a low status quo as a social norm, though I am sure some do for exactly the reasons she stated.

This got me thinking that maybe there was another force at work here that would support a low status quo. When changing from one regime to another, it is not a simple switch from one set of outcomes to the other. There can be transitional instability, especially when dealing with governments, politics, economics, military, etc. If the transition between regimes is highly unstable (more so if things weren’t that stable to begin with) then there would be a disincentive to change: people won’t want to lose what they have, even if it is not optimal. Therefore risk associated with change can cause hyperbolic discounting of future returns, and make people prefer the status quo.

Adding high risk with the benefits of low standards could make a formidable combination. If there is a robust black market that pervades most of the society and an almost certain civil unrest given political change (throw in a heavy-handed police force, just for good measure), this could be strong incentive to not challenge an incumbent government.

Posted in economics, game theory, mind, philosophy. Tagged with , , , .

Consciousness Dilemma, take 2

Back in January I wrote up a post on what I believe to be a major problem in the study of consciousness. Now, with the introduction of Consciousness Online (started by the estimable R. Brown), I feel my dilemma should get some renewed attention.

Here’s the argument:

  1. Assume someone knows what consciousness/mind is.
  2. If someone knows something, then it is part of his or her consciousness.
  3. If someone knows what consciousness is, then his or her consciousness has a part that contains consciousness.
  4. Therefore someone has a consciousness that contains consciousness.

Up until this point I am willing to grant that all this is possible. Our consciousness may be able to contain itself within itself. But could we write it down?

  1. We can only write or say finite things.
  2. If someone’s consciousness contains consciousness, then their contained consciousness contains consciousness itself and so on ad infinitum; this person’s consciousness has a self referential infinite regression.
  3. Writing down what consciousness is would require us to write something infinite.
  4. Therefore we cannot write down/ say what the consciousness is.

One might think that we would still be able to figure out pieces and put them together to get the full picture, and use terms like ad infinitum to represent some infinite, but comprehensible, process. However this would require us to know that the picture that we were putting together was an accurate one.  The only way to know that we were putting together an accurate picture would be to already have an overall theory of consciousness that we knew to be correct. Hence the piecemeal approach begs the question.

With no bottom up method possible, nor any top down method available, even if someone were to discover what consciousness is, she wouldn’t be able to tell anyone.  Therefore we will never have a full understanding of our consciousness.

So the dilemma is to come up with a story about philosophy of mind (and associated disciplines) while necessarily lacking a story about consciousness. Anyone have anything to say?

Posted in mind, philosophy, science. Tagged with , , , .

Where Does Probability Come From? (and randomness to boot)

I just returned from a cruise to Alaska. It is a wonderful, beautiful place. I zip-lined in a rain forest canopy, hiked above a glacier, kayaked coastal Canada and was pulled by sled-dogs. Anywho, as on many cruises, there was a casino, which is an excellent excuse for me to discuss probability.

What is probability and where does it come from? Definitions are easy enough to find. Google returns:

a measure of how likely it is that some event will occur; a number expressing the ratio of favorable cases to the whole number of cases possible …

So it’s a measure of likelihood. What’s likelihood? Google returns:

The probability of a specified outcome.

Awesome. So ‘probability as likelihood’ is non-explanatory. What about this ‘ratio of favorable cases to the whole number of cases possible’? I’m pretty wary about the word favorable. Let’s modify this definition to read:

a number expressing the ratio of certain cases to the whole number of cases possible.

Nor do I like ‘a number expressing…’ This refers to a particular probability, not probability at large, so let’s go back to using ‘measure’:

a measure of certain cases to the whole number of cases possible.

We need to be a bit more explicit about what we are measuring:

a measure of the frequency of certain cases to the whole number of cases possible.

OK. I think this isn’t that bad. When we flip a fair coin the probability is the frequency of landing on heads compared to the total cases possible, heads + tails, so 1 out of 2. Pretty good.

But notice the addition of the word fair. Where did it come from, what’s it doing there? Something is said to be fair if that thing shows no favoritism to any person or process. In terms of things that act randomly, this means that the thing acts in a consistently random way. Being consistently random means it is always random, not sometimes random and other times not random. This means that fairness has to do with the distribution of the instances of the cases we are studying. What governs this distribution?

In the case of of a coin, the shape of the coin and the conditions under which it is measured make all the difference in the distribution of heads and tails. The two sides, heads and tails, must be distinguishable, but the coin must be flipped in a way such that no one can know which side will land facing up. The shape of the coin, even with uniform mass distribution, cannot preclude this previous condition. Therefore the source of probability is the interdependence of physical conditions (shape and motion of the coin) and an epistemic notion (independence of knowledge of which side will land up). When the physical conditions and our knowledge of the conditions are dependent upon each other then the situation becomes probabilistic because the conditions preclude our knowing the exact outcome of the situation.

It is now time to recall that people cheat at gambling all the time. A trio of people in March 2004 used a computer and lasers to successfully predict the decaying orbit of a ball spinning on a roulette wheel (and walked out with £1.3 million). This indicates that after a certain point it is possible to predict the outcome of a coin flipping or a roulette ball spinning, so the dependence mentioned above is eventually broken. However this is only possible once the coin is flipping or the roulette ball is rolling, not before the person releases the roulette ball or flips the coin.

With the suggestion that it is the person that determines the outcome we can expand the physical-epistemic dependence to an physical-epistemic-performative one. If I know that I, nor anyone else, can predict the outcome until after I perform a task, then the knowledge of the outcome is dependent upon how I perform that task.

This makes sense because magicians and scam artists train themselves to be able to perform tasks like shuffling and dealing cards in ways that most of us think is random but are not. The rest of us believe that there is a dependence between the physical setup and the outcome that precludes knowing the results, but this is merely an illusion that is exploited.

What about instances in which special training or equipment is unavailable; can we guarantee everyone’s ability to measure the thing in question to be equal? We can: light. Anyone who can see at all sees light that is indistinguishable from the light everyone else sees: it has no haecceity.

This lack of distinguishability, lack of haecceity (thisness), is not merely a property of the photon but a physical characteristic of humans. We have no biology that can distinguish one photon from another of equivalent wavelength. To distinguish something we have to use a smaller feature of the thing to tell it apart from its compatriots. Since we cannot see anything smaller, this is impossible. Nor is there a technology that we could use to augment our abilities: for us to have a technology that would see something smaller than a photon would require us to know that the technology interacted at a deeper level with reality than photons do. But we cannot know that because we are physically limited to using the photon as our minimal measurement device. The act of sight is foundational: we cannot see anything smaller than a photon nor can anything smaller exist in our world.

The way we perceive photons will always be inherently distributed because of this too. We cannot uniquely identify a single photon, and hence we can’t come back and measure the properties of a photon we have previously studied. Therefore the best we will be able to accomplish when studying photons is to measure a group of photons and use a distribution of their properties, making photons inherently probabilistic. Since the act of seeing light is a biological feature of humans, we all have equal epistemological footing in this instance. This means that the epistemic dependence mentioned above can be ignored because it adds nothing to the current discussion. Therefore we can eliminate the epistemic notion from our above dependence, reducing it to a physical-performative interdependence.

Since it is a historical/ evolutionary accident that the photon is the smallest object we can perceive, the photon really is not fundamental to this discussion. Therefore, the interdependence of the physical properties of the smallest things we can perceive and our inherent inability to tell them apart is a source of probability in nature.

This is a source of natural randomness as well: once we know the probability of some property that we cannot measure directly, the lack of haecceity means that we will not be able to predict when we will measure an individual with said property. Therefore the order in which we measure the property will inherently be random. [Assume the contradiction: the order in which we measure the property is not random, but follows some pattern. Then there exists some underlying structure that governs the appearance of the property. However, since we are already at the limit of what can be measured, no such thing can exist. Hence the order in which we measure the property is random.]


If I were Wittgenstein I might have said:

Consider a situation in which someone asks, “How much light could you see?” Perhaps a detective is asking a hostage about where he was held. But then the answer is, “I didn’t look.” —— And this would make no sense.

hmmmm…. I did really mean to get back to gambling.

Posted in biology, epistemology, evolution, fitness, independence friendly logic, logic, measurement, mind, philosophy, physics, Relativity, science, Special Relativity, technology. Tagged with , , , , .

Computers, Intelligence and the Embodied Mind

This interview with Hubert Dreyfus (just the parts about computers: part 1, part 2. via Continental Philosophy) briefly outlines one of the major criticisms leveled against artificial intelligence: computers will never be intelligent because our intelligence is based upon our physical interactions in and with the world. Very briefly, our intelligence is fundamentally tied to our bodies because it is only through our bodies do we have any interaction with the world. If we separate our intelligence from the body, as in the case with computers, then whatever it is that the computer has, it is not intelligence because intelligence only refers to how to bodily interact with the world.

As Dreyfus says this problem is attributed to a Merleau-Ponty extension of Heidegger and the only proposed solution is to embody computers by providing them with a full representation of world and body. I don’t think there is generally much faith in this solution; I certainly don’t have much faith in it.

However, this bodily criticism is a straw man. Computers have ‘bodies,’ they are definitely physical things in the world. But what of the physical interactions required for intelligence? Computers interact with the world: computers are affected by heat, moisture, dirt, vibration, etcetera. The only differences are the actual interactions that computers have as compared to humans: we experience humidity one way and they experience it differently. So yes, computers will have different interactions and hence they will never have the same intelligence that we have, but that does not imply that computers cannot have an embodied intelligence. It only means that computer embodied intelligence will be significantly different than our own intelligence. Therefore the above argument against computer intelligence only applies to those people who are trying to replicate perfect human intelligence and does nothing against people trying to create intelligence in computers.

For example, light-skinned and dark-skinned people have very slightly different physiologies. Now I see the above argument as saying that someone of different skin color cannot have the same sort of intelligence that you have because their interactions with the world are inherently different. Sure, everyone experiences things slightly differently due to having different bodies, but to claim that this creates incompatible intelligences is obviously wrong: No one on the face of the earth would be able to communicate with each other due to everyone being physically unique.  Computers may be physically different to a greater extent, but this does not impact intelligence.

The criticism of computer intelligence based upon the need for a body is no more than subtle techno-racism.

Posted in metaphysics, mind, philosophy, science, technology. Tagged with , , , , .

Intentionality is Dead

After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave–a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead: but given the way of men there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown.–And we–we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.
~F. N.

If want to study the mind, we believed that we needed to understand intentionality:

Intentionality is the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs. —SEP

However intentionality is nowhere to be found. Intentionality is supposed to give us everything, it is the power of the mind, but in giving us everything, it itself is nothing.

These are the cases:

  1. Intentionality is the mark of all mental states.
  2. Intentionality is the mark of some mental states.

If intentionality exists in every mental activities, it’s then on par with ‘It’s raining or it’s not raining,’ and just as vacuous: any and every mental activity would be intentional implying that ‘mental activity’ = ‘intentional activity’. It is a distinction without a difference.

On the other hand allow for some mental things being intentional and other mental things not being intentional, i.e. the intentional is a subset of some greater mental activity. Then we’ve conceded that we aren’t asking about what we are or how we do what we do, but labeling a subset. I’m all for getting things labeled correctly, but we’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

Intentionality is dead. Whatever use we have gotten out of it in the past we should be thankful for but it is time to move on.

Long live Commitment

I stated in my metaphysics that conscious things make commitments. We are committed to doing certain things at certain times and other things at other time because of other commitments we have made. If we are committed to remembering someone’s birthday, then we take steps to ensure that we know what time of year that person was born. If these steps include some power of the mind ‘to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs,’ so be it, but all these things are secondary to the commitment initially made.

Some may call foul at this point: The objection to intentionality above applies to commitment and hence I am not practicing what I preach. If everything is a commitment then commitment is just as vacuous a concept as intentionality was accused of being.

Yes commitment is fundamental and hence may appear vacuous to some, but commitment comes with an internal structure that intentionality lacks. Intentionality is a power of the mind. Powers lack any internal structure: they act without having a more fundamental thing causing them to act, else that thing would be the power.

Say I am committed to my friends’ happiness and because of this commitment I send them cards on holidays. Commitments allow for structured derivative commitments, e.g. being committed to my friends’ happiness means I am committed to sending out letters and a commitment to sending out letters means a commitment to remembering and recording addresses. This food chain of commitments that is created, where the smaller commitments become part of bigger commitments which are part of even bigger commitments (with all sorts of interrelations between chains), gives us plenty of relations to investigate. Therefore it is true that analyzing a single commitment alone will get you no nowhere (e.g. analyzing a commitment to recording addresses) but analyzing groups of commitments will be far from vacuous.

Understanding ourselves and how we do what we do requires us to have a perspective on commitment, which I’ve discussed in briefly in my metaphysics. As meager an analysis as I am currently able to provide, it is still more than I felt we had before. Commitments determine our perspectives on certain situations and our perspectives likewise determine our commitments. Through analysis of our commitments and our perspective on things, we can understand how and why we do what we do. I don’t mean this to be a merely theoretical point but a practical one as well: we try to accomplish different things for specific reasons and when asked, we are able to give those reasons. Sometimes we have to preface our explanations with a description of how we perceived the situation to justify actions that seem unreasonable in hindsight, but this is all part of how we actually do and explain things.

Posted in metaphysics, mind, philosophy. Tagged with , , , , .

Consciousness Dilemma

I watched Dan Dennett’s Ted Talk “Can We Know Our Own Minds” yesterday and it reminded me of a problem I had with the study of consciousness. I am convinced a solution cannot be written down or said.

  1. Assume someone knows what consciousness/mind/divine spark/what-you-will is.
  2. If someone knows something, then it is part of their consciousness.
  3. If someone knows what consciousness is, then the consciousness has a part that contains consciousness.
  4. Therefore someone has a consciousness that contains consciousness.

Up until this point I am willing to grant that all this is possible. Our consciousness may be able to contain itself within itself. But could we write it down?

  1. If someone’s consciousness contains consciousness, then their contained consciousness contains consciousness itself and so on ad infinitum; this person’s consciousness has a self referential infinite regression.

We can’t write down or say something that contains a self referential infinite regress (without some form of hand-waving) and hence we will never have a solution.

I’d really like someone to come up with a solution to this problem. Or not. It is perfectly acceptable to me (if not better) that we will always have more to learn about ourselves. The issue then becomes to properly understand exactly what we are studying and accomplishing in philosophy of mind/consciousness/etc. or in neuroscience.


in b4:

  1. The use of ‘know’ above is illegitimate: we can know what a car is without knowing all the parts and so the above argument is wrong for assuming that knowing implies complete understanding of all parts.
    • In the case of consciousness if we do not know how all the parts work, i.e. there is a black box somewhere that we do not understand, then we can’t say we understand consciousness. The mystery of the whole thing is that we always seem to make progress but the end is never in sight.
  2. It makes no sense to say that when we know something that it is therefore ‘part’ of our consciousness. I may know the average sale price in Amazon.com but that doesn’t mean it is a proper part of my consciousness.
    • The only alternative to saying ‘something is part of your consciousness if you know it’ is to say that things aren’t part of you consciousness when you know them. If you can explain how you know things while keeping those things separate from the consciousness, then more power to you. I don’t buy it.
  3. Perhaps we can’t know our own consciousness but we could know someone else’s, avoiding the regress.
    • If the person whose consciousness you know knew your consciousness, then this would return to the regress. If you disallow a person to learn anyone’s consciousness of anyone who previously learned their consciousness (or anyone in the chain of people who learned their consciousness), besides being ad hoc, it’s ridiculous that you learning something about someone else would prevent that person from learning something.
  4. Hand-waving is a legitimate kind of communication.
    • No.
Posted in mind, philosophy, science. Tagged with , , , .