05 September 2017


In the new definition of reasoning, what reasoning is, is the process of finding reasons (justifications, rationalisations etc) for decisions made and/or actions taken. First comes the decision, then the reasons. It's always this way around for us, and unless someone enquires, we may not even have reasons for things we do, think or say. Unconscious processes guide all of our actions, but we are equipped to explain them to others if required. But we do this in a post hoc manner: reasons come after the fact and on demand.

Unfortunately, humans have biases in this department. For example, we stop searching when we find any plausible reason, we don't keep searching for the best reason. Unless we are arguing with someone who shoots down our reasoning. Reasoning is a group activity and solo humans don't do it very well.

When we don't have strong intuitions about a decision, it still better to go with our gut. When we stop to reason about a decision it drives us towards decisions that are easier to justify. But in the long run, such reasoned decisions turn out to be less satisfying.

One of the reasons we do this is to appear rational to our peers. This is a very important for humans. We are social and in the modern world appearing to be rational is an important aspect of group membership. Rational is defined locally, however. What is rational for the girl guides, is not rational for the Tory Party or the Hell's Angels or my family.

Rationality is being able to offer reasons for actions and decisions that one's peer group accept as being rational.

Sometimes when trying to fit into our social group we make decisions that seem less than rational to an outsider. "Would you jump off a cliff if they told you to?" Anyone who has heard this in earnest will know what I mean. As if happens my paralysing fear of falling kept me from jumping off cliffs, but it was a situation I faced in real life and yes, had I not been phobic, I would have jumped. I wanted nothing more than to jump off that cliff and be one of the gang. I did other brave things. Just don't ask me a jump of a curb, let alone a cliff. Although I was always fascinated by space, I knew at a very young age that I did not want to be an astronaut for this very reason.

An outsider may see this as irrational. But as human beings, it may be more rational for us to do some mildly irrational things that assure us of group membership because group membership is a long term survival mechanism. We evolved to live in groups.

While making irrational decisions may be suboptimal, losing my social status, let alone being ostracized, is a catastrophe. So there is a delicate balance that we all know. We allow ourselves to be pressured into conforming because instinct tells us that acceptance is more important than rationality. And this is true.

Or it was true 12,000 years ago in our ancestral environment. In that milieu, living as hunter-gatherers, satisfying the expectations of our peers, was probably a good rule of thumb for life. More so when we consider that our "peers" included the older more experienced members of the tribe.

So yes, people succumb to peer pressure. They behave in atrocious ways. But at the time, in their milieu, it may have been the rational thing to do, no matter how ugly it seems to us now. Until you're in the situation, you don't know how you'll react. This is why surveying someone's opinion of how they would react is meaningless. What we do in crucial situations cannot be predicted, especially by ourselves. Asking people about the trolley problem (where you can rescue 5 people by killing 1) for example is meaningless. No one knows what they would do in that situation.

All we can do is imagine that we have done something and how easily we can justify it. If we are further asked to explain ourselves, it will often change our answer, since we have to say the reasons out loud and watch the reactions of the person asking the questions. We get a better idea of how the justifications sound and we chose the best justification, which tells us what action we might do in that situation. I'd be willing to bet that there is no long term relationship between what we say we might do in these extreme hypothetical situations and what we actually do when it comes down to it. Although in more realistic scenarios that we actually have experience of, we can turn to that experience to guide us.

So rationality is not what we were taught. It is not what philosophers have classically defined it to be. Most solo humans are poor at reasoning and only reason well when arguing against someone else's proposed proposition. Reasoning certainly uses inference to produce reasons, but it does not help us find truth or make better decisions. It may help us convince people that the decision we have already made is the only decision they could have made, or the best one, or it may help us describe why someone else's decision is the worst one.

The problem with the classical view of rationality and reasoning is that it is completely at odds with the empirical evidence. It is a fiction maintained in spite of the evidence. The classical view of rationality and reasoning is so far past its use-by date that it approaches being intellectual fraud or hoax. What is actually happening is a lot less grandiose, a lot more banal, but it is what it is. We are what we are. Living a fantasy is the epitome of irrationality.

04 September 2017

Fermented Foods

I'm not into food fads. Not at all. But I am intrigued by a recent documentary I heard about fermented foods. Foods transformed by microorganisms are very common: cheese, wine, beer, yoghurt, pickles, soy sauce, etc. But in most of them, the bugs are either dead or we kill em.

Yogurt, sauerkraut, tempeh, blue cheeses, and other foods contain living microorganisms: bacteria and fungi (including yeasts).

Giving rise to the joke.

Q. What is the difference between yogurt and {country X that you wish to ridicule}? 
A. Yogurt has a living culture. 

And the idea is that these bugs take up residence and help make us healthy.

One of my great science heroes is microbiologist Lynn Margulis (d. 2011), one of the great scientists of the 20th Century. Margulis established that the mitochondria which live in all of our cells were once free living bacteria. She emphasised the role of symbiosis in evolution (in contradiction to the fetishisation of competition amongst male biologists). This has been one of the strongest influences on my thinking about the world: the importance of symbiosis, hybridization, communities, and cooperation. We are not only social animals, but in fact, we are colonies of cells, with many different symbionts living in our gut. A colony of colonies.

For many decades the existence of bacteria and fungi living in our gut, as symbionts, not pathogens was scarcely acknowledged. In the last ten years or so it has started to dawn on the world of biology that Margulis was on to something big. These intestinal flora are not passive hitch-hikers. They are actively involved in homoeostasis - the collection of processes by which we maintain our internal milieu at the optimum for life.

We now know, for example, that gut microbes participate in and contribute to our immune system. They are involved in processes that govern blood-sugar. And so on. Our gut is full of symbionts - a mutually beneficial association. Thousands of species of them and in vast numbers (perhaps as many as 100 of their cells for every cell in our body, though this figure has been challenged).

I think most people are probably aware that yoghurt has this reputation for repopulating the gut with healthy bacteria. But now expand that out to every food with living bugs. And keep in mind that the gut contains a community of bugs, all "communicating" and working together. Thousands of species are involved. And it seems the more the merrier.

I'm certainly not conducting a scientific experiment, but as part of an effort to eat healthily, I'm now regularly including sauerkraut in my diet and some soy-based yoghurt. The sauerkraut is a bit of an acquired taste, but tastes can be acquired with repeated exposure (like olives). And actually, sauerkraut is *very* easy to make so I might have a go at it.

02 September 2017

Life Goes On

The cells that make up our bodies all come from that single fertilised egg created at our conception. It divides into 2, 4, 8, 16, etc. None of our cells was ever dead and infused with life. All of our cells were always living because each cell was created by a mother cell dividing into two daughters.

The sperm and ova that became our first cell were also living cells. produced by cell division in our parents. All of our parents' cells were also always alive and multiplied by dividing.

All the cells of every animal, going back into the mists of time originating by one living cell becoming two living cells. Similarly for all plants, fungi, and bacteria too. All cells come from dividing. All cells except the original cells.

We have a pretty good idea of how such cells might have formed, but we don't know for sure. But in any case, everything alive to day, literally every living cell, was produced by cell division. Every living cell, and thus every living thing, is a direct-line descendant of those first living cells. Every living cell is directly related to every other living cell.

Along the way, some of the cells recombined to make more complex cells or formed symbiotic relationships. Combining is as important as division in evolution, though it happens less often.

The lines of living cells, going back to the original cells, are unbroken for at least 3.5 billion years, possibly longer. Each individual cell eventually dies, but the processes of life continue, without interruption. And even if humans manage to wipe themselves out, bacteria will survive literally anything we can do. Some bacteria live in boiling pools of acid, so nothing we do is going to kill them all. Life will continue on earth at least until our sun expands out to become a red giant, engulfing the earth in fire, about 5 billion years from now. But there is a good chance that by then humans will have seeded life on other planets, if only in our solar system. So in all probability, life will go on indefinitely.

The only limit is that life requires an input of energy which can be put to use. And this will have completely run out in our universe by about 10^100 (1 followed by 100 zeros)  years from now. Then it's curtains for life in this universe. Until then, however, life goes on.

01 September 2017

Theseus's Boat and Grandfather's Axe.

My writing in the last couple of days has been exploring the ancient philosophical problem known as The Ship of Theseus, which you might know as grandfather's axe - when granddad says it's his favourite axe; and that he has replaced the head 3 times and the handle twice. The question philosophers usually as is, "Is it really the same axe?"

Unpacking this problem and establishing useful ways of thinking about it has been very enjoyable.

My way into the problem was to notice that no matter whether we think it is the same axe or a different axe, we never doubt that it is an axe. Because the parts are generic we can replace them at will without changing the intrinsic properties of the object. Any correctly assembled combination of axe-head and axe-handle makes up an axe. Change of a part does not affect the identity of the complex object as a whole.

So, at least at this level, the object has identity and continuity as an axe. It is an axe and we know it is an axe. These are objective facts. The first is an objective fact about what is (ontically objective), the second is an objective fact about what we know (epistemically objective). The object either has the relevant properties or it does not. The fact that it is an axe is dependent on the observer knowing what an axe is. But any observer who knows what an axe is (no matter what they call it) will correctly identify it as an axe.

But is this grandfather's axe? Ownership depends entirely on the minds of grandfather and his community. He asserts "this is my axe" and the community either ascent or they don't. So ownership is some kind of subjective fact. In which case, there is no one right answer. Some might feel that property is theft, in which case grandfather's assertion carries no weight. Or grandfather might have become confused with another similar axe.

Maybe it's not so much a matter of ownership, but of close association. In which case this is also a subjective fact. Recognition is a matter of seeing the object and having a feeling about it. In the bizarre neurological disorder, Capgras Syndrome, people visually recognise their loved ones (usually, but it might also include pets or familiar objects like one's home), but the identification does not set off an emotional reaction. The spouse looks exactly right but feels wrong. The person with Capgras is usually at a loss to explain this. And the explanation that they have suffered brain damage doesn't help much. They often confabulate stories - the spouse has been replaced by a duplicate or doppelganger for nefarious purposes. Again there is no right answer. If grandfather feels that this is his axe, then that is what he feels. That we do not feel it only tells us that we are not grandfather (which we already knew).

Objective facts are independent of observers. Metal is hard, it can be shaped into a cutting edge. Wood is firm but flexible and can be shaped into a handle. None of these statements depends on an observer or what they believe. Subjective facts are not always shared. They do depend on the observer. Money, for example, is based on us all agreeing that bits of paper or plastic represent units of wealth. A £5 note is intrinsically almost worthless. But £5 of wealth is enough to redeem for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake (outside of London). If we stop agreeing to those special bits of paper or plastic are valid tokens, then the system breaks down. This is what happens when there is hyper-inflation for example.

The Athenians maintained a boat that at one point in its history carried Theseus and his companions to Minos, where he overthrew the Minotaur, and then it ferried him back to Athens. Theseus went on to become a great general/admiral. So for Athenians the boat is a symbol of a national hero; of  someone they feel epitomises their national character. For the Athenians it is definitely Theseus's boat. If we don't know who Theseus was, or his story, or anything much about ancient Athens, then we may not feel any connection with the symbol. We may conclude that it is not Theseus's boat. But even if we had lived at the time, what we believed would probably not have changed the minds of the Athenians.

If they had been celebrating a goat as the boat of Theseus, then we could have made an objective argument that a goat and a boat are not the same. A goat might be Theseus's goat, but it cannot be Theseus's boat. But because it was a boat, and remained a boat despite repairs, we can only make subjective arguments. And, frankly, why should the Athenians care what we think about their hero and his boat?

And of course it gets much more interesting when we get to the fact that the boat or the axe is a metaphor for ourselves.

31 August 2017

Asimov and his Laws

In the original Asimov books, robots are conceived of as servants to humans, hence the original Laws are formulated the way they are

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The robots in the stories become more autonomous and are portrayed civil servants, especially a detective named  R-Elijah Baley. The name Elijah is surely no coincidence. As a detective in a world with almost total surveillance, Elijah is confronted with highly devious and irrational human behaviour. He has to put himself in the shoes of the criminals in order to solve the crimes.

Asimov, like most writers on robots was basically retelling the Pinocchio story over and over. How does a machine think like a human? It can only do so by becoming ever more human. There is no other solution to this problem.

After writing a bunch of robot stories (and seemingly thoroughly exhausting Pinocchio as a trope) Asimov moved onto the Foundation novels - two sets of them written decades apart. In the first set a shadowy organisation, headed by Hari Seldon, is guiding humanity through an impending crisis. In other words Seldon is also a prophet, though armed with science rather than righteousness. Seldon has invented a calculus of human behaviour, psycho-history. He sees patterns that only become apparent when trillions of us span the galaxy. Using the methods of psycho-history, Seldon sees the crisis coming and he prepares for the knowledge of humanity to survive.

But it gets very weird after this. Asimov becomes increasingly interested in telepathy. And it begins to permeate all the stories. And now he goes back to robots. What if a robot is like a human, but also telepath... of course he would see how human frailty would lead to suffering. Any robot cursed with telepathy would suffer an existential crisis. And so was born the zeroeth law:
0. A robot may not harm humanity, or through inaction allow humanity to come to harm.
Elijah, returns able to read minds. He can understand what motivates humans and tries to stop them from destroying themselves. It is he who guides Seldon to psychohistory and pulls many other strings behind the scenes. Note that Elijah is still bound by the three laws.

Asimov's earlier books place Pinocchio in a future utopia that is marred by humans who are what we might call psychopaths - incapable or unwilling to behave according to the law, despite universal surveillance. Asimov becomes consumed by contemplating impending disaster and how a great empire might avoid collapse. In other words he reflected some of the major social issues of 1950s USA; through a rather messianic lens.

By the time he came to reinvent Elijah as telepath, in the second set of Foundation novels, the Cold War and arms race were in full-swing. Asimov was apparently fantasising about how we could avoid Armageddon (and I know that feeling quite well). If only someone (messiah/angel) could come along and save us from ourselves, by reading our thoughts and changing them for us so we didn't mess things up. But what if they could only nudge us towards the good. Note that at present the UK has a shadowy quango department--"The Behavioural Insight team"--designed to nudge citizens towards "good" behaviour (as defined by the government, mostly in economic terms).

Ironically, Asimov's themes were not rocket science. He sought to save us from ourselves.

Humanity is going through one of those phases in which we hate ourselves. We may not agree with Jihadis, but we do think that people are vile, mean, greedy, lazy, untrustworthy, etc. Most of us don't really know how to behave and the world would be a much better place if humans were gone. We are, the central narrative goes, "destroying the planet".

For example. We drive like idiots and kill vast numbers of people as a result. In the UK in 2016 24,000 people were killed or seriously on our roads. This includes 1780 fatalities. AI can drive much better and save us from ourselves. The AI can even make logical moral decisions based on Game Theory (aka psychopathy) - the trolley problem is simply a matter of calculation. Though of course to describe a person as "calculating" is not a compliment.

It's a given in this AI scenario that humans are redundant as decision makers. This is another scifi trope. And if we don't make decisions, we just consume resources and produce excrement. So if we hand over decision making to AIs then we may as well kill ourselves and save the AI the trouble.

If we want AIs to make decisions that will benefit humans, then we're back to Pinocchio. But I think most AI people don't want to benefit humans, they want to *replace* us. In which case it will be war. In a sense the war over whether humans are worth saving has already begun. A vocal minority are all for wiping us out and letting evolution start over. I'm not one of them.

Computers are tools. We already suffer from the bias that when we have a hammer everything looks like a nail. May the gods help us if we ever put the hammer itself in charge.

22 August 2017


Thinking about uniforms. Most schools I attended were run like North Korea.

Inmates wore uniforms. Uniform codes were strictly enforced.

There were many arbitrary rules. Breaking rules resulted in arbitrary detention and in my day beatings, some of which were quite brutal. Prisoners were often kept in solitary confinement.

There was "nationalism", school songs and so on.

We were all indoctrinated with the same useless knowledge designed to make us better citizens.

In my day this included systematic lies about the history of our country and especially the wars of aggression we fought against the Māori in order to steal their land. I believe this has changed to some extent in NZ. Here in the UK, they mostly still seem to believe that the British Empire was a benign force for spreading civilisation.

The leader or headmaster generally had a funny haircut and we had to treat them with exaggerated deference. They held assemblies in which we were forced to listen to interminable speeches which extolled the ideology of the state. [An obvious difference is that we did not have to salute].

The schools were surrounded by fences and no one was permitted to leave.

The staff were frequently paranoid about what inmates got up to and we were constantly under surveillance. Teachers had networks of informants.

I've never been to school in the UK, but looking at the uniforms and the environments, as well as what I can glean from TV, the whole set up is far worse here.

A lot of work places are also like North Korea these days. Democracy has seldom extended to the workplace or school. And they wonder why we don't take it seriously?

20 August 2017

Persuasion (reprise)

A consequence of Einstein's theory of relativity is that we can no longer think of space and time as distinct:
“Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.” — Herman Minkowski, 1908.
I more or less understand the reasoning behind this (if not the maths), but I admit that in terms of my experience it is completely counter-intuitive. So in fact, a century after Einstein, space by itself and time by itself have not faded into mere shadows. Maybe they have in the higher echelons of university physics departments, but not in general use.

And this is the thing about intuition and counter-intuitive ideas. For many people, evolution is simply counterintuitive. It feels wrong. So facts presented without values don't make much difference to how people *feel* about evolution. And how they feel about it determines how they think about it. This is simply a fact about how humans work.

The question then is not why ordinary people who find science counter-intuitive don't change their minds. Why would they? The question is why scientists are so bad at communicating? In fact, there is a well-developed science of persuasion, which we see at work in our daily lives across the media in advertising, promotions, political speeches and so on.

A single example will suffice. A century ago in the West, very few people were in debt. Since the 1970s this has changed so that now almost everyone is in debt. From credit cards to payday loans, we all seem to have forgotten the virtues of thrift, saving, and financial prudence. That we would borrow money rather than save up for something would have been considered counter-intuitive 100 years ago. If my great parents had talked about borrowing money at 30% APR while inflation was at 2%, just to buy something they wanted by did not absolutely need, their family and friends would have thought them mentally ill. Now it is just what everyone does.

I have no credit rating in the UK, having never borrowed money here, and I am still regularly sent credit card applications by major banks.

The counter-intuitive becomes intuitive and vice versa. Persuasion is rocket science, but it is science. It's about time that scientists cottoned on to this and stopped blaming other people for their failures to communicate.