RS episode #54: The “isms” episode

In RS #54 — dubbed “The isms episode” —  Massimo and I ask, “Is the fundamental nature of the world knowable by science alone?”, looking at the issue through the lenses of a series of related philosophical positions: determinism, reductionism, physicalism, and naturalism. All of those “isms” take a stance on the question of whether there are objectively “correct” ways to interpret scientific facts — like physical laws, or causality — and if so, how do we decide what the correct interpretation is? Along the way, we debate the nature of emergent properties, whether math is discovered or invented, and whether it’s even logically possible for “supernatural” things to exist.


RS #35: What is philosophy of science good for?

In episode #35 of the Rationally Speaking podcast, Massimo and I explore philosophy of science: What is it about, and should it matter to scientists? We also discuss some of the most important questions in philosophy of science now, and some historical debates between leading philosophers of science, like Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper, over how science should or does work.

So is philosophy of science, as Richard Feynman famously quipped, “as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds?” Or was philosopher Daniel Dennett closer to the truth when he said, “There is no such thing as philosophy-free science, only science whose philosophical baggage is taken on-board unexamined?”

Sense of Meaning in Dreams: NOT too Hard for Science

What questions seem implausible for scientists to answer? Are they really out of reach? In an intriguing new feature at Scientific American, Charles Q. Choi solicited questions that science would have trouble investigating. It’s called ‘Too Hard for Science?‘ It’s a great concept:

The idea here is to interview scientists about pet ideas they would love to explore that seem impossible to investigate in real life. Perhaps they involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun; perhaps they would be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people; perhaps they would be too expensive, or require centuries to run, or could never find volunteers to participate, or are in some way unprovable.

This feature aims to look at the seemingly impossible dreams, the most intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of “Too Hard For Science?” suggests that nothing might be impossible. Perhaps these very interviews could spur brainstorms that actually make these ideas a reality.

I’m looking forward to reading these. Foucault’s Pendulum would have been a good one back in the day, but the 1850’s came and went. What other challenges can we overcome with a new perspective?

One example is “In dreams, could we discover where the mysterious feeling of revelation comes from?” That’s the question which led Choi to start the feature in the first place.

At first blush, it might seem outside the realm of science to ask what gives us meaning. But that’s not the question. We’re asking what gives the feeling of meaning while we dream. What if we’re not reacting to a metaphysical “meaningful” property but can find a physical cause for the sensation? Can it be plausibly tested?

That’s what Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School brainstormed about. He notes that during REM sleep the brain shuts down the release of serotonin – something that only happens during sleep and while using LSD, “when people seem to have these totally uninteresting experiences they describe as profoundly meaningful called ‘acid insights.'”

This sense of meaning may be a physical phenomenon “just like hunger or thirst, save that it’s the excitement we feel upon a great insight, that ‘Aha!’ feeling,” Stickgold says. “Who knows why, for instance, fireworks often seem to trigger it — maybe there’s something about the geometric patterns that evokes this sense of awesomeness, the feeling that we can almost understand something amazing but not quite that drives us to seek a better understanding of things. It’s like what you feel during a religious experience — you sense the oneness of mankind.”

During dreams, the brain might be associating disjointed experiences together to create potentially valuable combinations of thoughts. “It could be the brain is making you focus your attention on material that was only weakly associated before and investing this association with this feeling of profundity to help it mine these connections for something not immediately obvious but potentially important,” Stickgold says. “It makes sense that the sensation would be a positive and reinforcing one.”

Sure there are some obstacles, but now there’s something we can test! Let’s separate people into three groups: one that gets serotonin-boosting drugs, one that gets serotonin-blocking drugs, and a third that gets placebos. Show them each the same poem, piece of music, painting or somesuch and see how ‘meaningful’ they rate it.

It’s important distinguish between what scientists can do and what science can do. Science is the most powerful tool we have to learn about the world, but sometimes we mere mortals have limitations. The more ways we figure out to use science while accommodating those limitations, the more we can learn.

Teaching the scientific method, with magic

(Written for 3 Quarks Daily)

If you wanted to teach people about science, you probably wouldn’t set out to write a fantasy novel. But the exceptional Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality – an ongoing series of online “fan fiction” by Eliezer Yudkowsky – borrows J.K. Rowling’s world and uses it as a vessel for a sophisticated guide to scientific thinking, while simultaneously crafting a far cleverer and more imaginative story than the original.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality isn’t primarily interested in teaching readers the “what” of science, even though it is liberally sprinkled with interesting facts about genetics, game theory, quantum mechanics, and psychology, among other things. Instead, as the title suggests, it’s about the “how” of science, conceived of not in the narrow sense of research in a laboratory, but in the broader sense of the process of figuring out how anything in the world works.

Like his counterpart in the original series, this Harry Potter is a seemingly ordinary British boy who is thrust into the magic world at the age of eleven. But unlike the mistreated waif of the original series, this Harry has grown up with caring, intellectual parents who bought him all the books he wanted and encouraged his analytic instincts. So when he finds himself plunged into a new, magical world, he immediately starts using that training to find the answers to a host of new questions that confront him: Who can I trust? Why are some people able to do magic and others not? Is there an afterlife? What are ghosts? And how does magic actually work?

Magic may not operate by the logic we’re used to in our world, Harry reasons, but it must operate by some logic. His attempts to methodically figure out what that is are some of the most intellectually enjoyable parts of the series. For example, it appears that you can cause a target to levitate by uttering the magic phrase “Wingardium Leviosa.” But what’s doing the actual work: the sounds made by the spellcaster’s mouth, or the concept in the spellcaster’s head?

Read the rest at 3 Quarks Daily.

Why Asking Why Isn’t Enough

The question “Why?” is an impressively vague word. Used without context, it can be almost useless. I got contacted by the makers of the documentary “The Nature of Existence” whose trailer starts with the filmmaker saying “We all have one thing in common: We exist. But why?” What a nebulous question. It’s met by a stream of responses on completely different topics. When it comes to provoking thought, it’s fine. If you actually want particular information… it’s terrible. (That said, if I can get over my frustration at the ambiguity they’re reveling in, it looks like the film has potential.)

You need to apply some context to the question of “Why?” before it’s even possible to think about as a question. It’s just a request for more information, some information, any information somehow related! “Why do we exist?” is a pretty vague question, so they got a huge range of responses. Let’s take one with a bit more context. When my mom used to ask me “Jesse, why are your dishes still on the living room floor?” sometimes I would answer “Because they lack the capacity to move for themselves.” (Yes, I was an annoying smart-ass. I like to think I’ve gotten over it. Mostly.) I could have also answered “Because gravity is exerting a downward force on them.” From the context of our previous conversations, however, I think the answer she REALLY wanted was “Because I forgot about them when I went upstairs. Sorry.”

But even when you know the context, “Why?” can be a frustrating question. Once you have the desired information, that information can be examined. There’s an excellent video of Richard Feynman explaining how tough it is to answer ‘why’ questions like “why do magnets repel?” I think I’ve posted that before, and Julia found a hilarious clip that makes the point. Enter Louis C.K. trying to answer his daughter’s questions (Language slightly NSFW – what did you expect; it’s Louis C.K.!)

Video below the fold:
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Which Best Explanation?

I rarely come across a source of interesting material as dense and extensive as Edge‘s World Question Center. I’ve been diving into their 2011 question: “WHAT SCIENTIFIC CONCEPT WOULD IMPROVE EVERYBODY’S COGNITIVE TOOLKIT?” Go take a look: One hundred sixty four intelligent people answering in quick essay format. Excuse me while I get a paper towel; I’m drooling.

I’m still going through them, but here’s a taste from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s answer Inference To The Best Explanation:

There is that judgmental phrase, the best, sitting out in the open, shamelessly invoking standards. Not all explanations are created equal; some are objectively better than others… We decide among the remainder using such criteria as: which is the simpler, which does less violence to established beliefs, which is less ad hoc, which explains the most, which is the loveliest. There are times when these criteria clash with one another.

Many of our most rancorous scientific debates — say, over string theory or foundations of quantum mechanics — have been over which competing criteria for judging explanations the best ought to prevail. So, too, have debates that many of us have been having over scientific versus religious explanations. These debates could be sharpened by bringing to bear on them the rationality-steeped notion of inference to the best explanation, its invocation of the sorts of standards that make some explanations objectively better than others, beginning with Peirce’s enjoiner that extraordinary hypotheses be ranked far away from the best.

Goldstein is right; it’s useful to recognize cases in which the same phrase — here, “best explanation” — can be used to mean different things at different times. Offhand, I’d say that when I’ve been calling something the “better explanation”, I’m usually referring to the explanation’s ability to empower me to make correct predictions in as many situations as possible. If I’m wondering why water is falling from the sky, a story about petulant storm gods can be fun and poetic, but I’d consider one about low pressure systems better. When our instruments detect low pressure systems, I have a pretty good rate of success predicting that my feet will soon be wet.
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The Tuned Deck

In Sweet Dreams: Philosophical Objections to a Science of Consciousness, Daniel Dennett recounts the story of “The Tuned Deck,” a mysterious magic trick that’s more — or less? — than it seems. Conjurer Ralph Hull performed it over and over throughout his life, challenging his fellow magicians to figure out how it was done. Here’s Dennett’s account of how Hull’s act went:

“Boys, I have a new trick to show you. It’s called ‘The Tuned Deck’. This deck of cards is magically tuned [Hull holds the deck to his ear and riffles the cards, listening carefully to the buzz of the cards]. By their finely tuned vibrations, I can hear and feel the location of any card. Pick a card, any card… [The deck is then fanned or otherwise offered for the audience, and a card is taken by a spectator, noted, and returned to the deck by one route or another.] Now I listen to the Tuned Deck, and what does it tell me? I hear the telltale vibrations, … [buzz, buzz, the cards are riffled by Hull’s ear and various manipulations and rituals are enacted, after which, with a flourish, the spectator’s card is presented].

Nobody ever figured out how it was done, and Hull only released the secret posthumously. Dennett explains:

Like much great magic, the trick is over before you even realize the trick has begun. The trick, in its entirety, is in the name of the trick, “The Tuned Deck”, and more specifically, in one word “The”! As soon as Hull had announced his new trick and given its name to his eager audience, the trick was over. Having set up his audience in this simple way, and having passed the time with some obviously phony and misdirecting chatter about vibrations and buzz-buzz-buzz, Hull would do a relatively simple and familiar card presentation trick of type A (at this point I will draw the traditional curtain of secrecy; the further mechanical details of legerdemain, as you will see, do not matter).

His audience, savvy magicians, would see that he might possibly be performing a type A trick, a hypothesis they could test by being stubborn and uncooperative spectators in a way that would thwart any attempt at a type A trick. When they then adopted the appropriate recalcitrance to test the hypothesis, Hull would ‘repeat’ the trick, this time executing a type B card presentation trick. The spectators would then huddle and compare notes: might he be doing a type B trick? They test that hypothesis by adopting the recalcitrance appropriate to preventing a type B trick and still he does “the” trick – using method C, of course. When they test the hypothesis that he’s pulling a type C trick on them, he switches to method D – or perhaps he goes back to method A or B, since his audience has ‘refuted’ the hypothesis that he’s using method A or B.

And so it would go, for dozens of repetitions, with Hull staying one step ahead of his hypothesis-testers, exploiting his realization that he could always do some trick or other from the pool of tricks they all knew, and concealing the fact that he was doing a grab bag of different tricks by the simple expedient of the definite article: The Tuned Deck.

It’s a cool story, but it’s also a relevant lesson for scientific research, or any situation in which you’re testing  theories about what’s causing some phenomenon. If you test each possible cause in isolation, you could end up concluding that none of them are responsible for the phenomenon — but in fact it could be that two or more of them are at work, either simultaneously or at different times, and so when you remove one at a time you’re not changing anything. You’d have to remove both at once to see the effect.

I was reminded of the Tuned Deck recently when my friend and I were having trouble with our Skype video chats getting dropped or becoming pixelated and distorted. We came up with a list of possible reasons it was happening: (1) Maybe the connection is weak in this room? (2) Maybe the time of day is a busy one for the Skype servers? (3) Maybe our computer has too many applications running in the background? etc. And we tested each reason in succession, ruling each one out in turn.

But what if there were different reasons Skype was failing at different times? Maybe the time we tested hypothesis (3) by closing all the background applications, it didn’t fix our video chats because we were chatting at a busy time of day. And then the time we tested hypothesis (1) by moving our laptop closer to the router, it didn’t help because we still had too many applications running in the background. So we ruled out both hypotheses, unjustifiably. (Until eventually I exclaimed “Wait a minute! The Tuned Deck!” and we had to overhaul our entire hypothesis-testing protocol.)

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