Sunday, March 31, 2013

the pragmatism triangle

My opinion is that philosophical pragmatism observes and recommends the indispensable triangle of 1. thoughts, 2. actions, and 3. realities.

  • (1 and 2) The meaning of thoughts is demonstrated by the resulting actions. Thoughts guide actions. Without discernible effects on actions, thoughts are suspect. Actions are clues about which thoughts really matter, as opposed to which thoughts are hollow or superficial aspirations. Also, actions are the means both to test the accuracy of new thoughts through experimentation and to discover new thoughts through investigation.
  • (1 and 3) By the basic nature of humanity in the universe, realities are mediated by thoughts. In so doing, preexisting thoughts embellish realities through interpretation, bias, emphasis, and interpolation. On the other hand, realities lead to honest revisions of thoughts. Through the detection of regularities and patterns, as well as exceptions, realities are the raw material of deeper and larger thoughts that can be reapplied to make predictions or to explain the present or past.  
  • (2 and 3) Of course, actions are how realities change. But realities might resist or counter actions and thereby throw doubt on the level of realism that backs those actions. 

Thursday, March 28, 2013

biology and information theory

One sign of a highly technical theory's influence and profundity is the improbable attention it receives in seemingly unrelated if not inappropriate contexts. Information theory certainly qualifies. Unfortunately one of these peripheral contexts is abstract arguments against biology.

The argument based on information theory follows the template of a more popular argument based on the Second Law of the theory of thermodynamics: "Biology cannot increase in orderly complexity because the Second Law states that disorder increases over time." The variant using information theory is "Biology cannot increase in orderly complexity because information theory states that the result of random modifications of an orderly message is nothing more than an unintelligible message. These random modifications are the noise of the corresponding information channel, and the noise reduces its optimal information rate."

However, the intuitive appeal of either argument relies on ignorance of the extraordinary scale of biology's abundant populations and prolonged time periods. Regardless of an event's slim probability, a sufficiently massive number of trials actually implies that it's more likely that the event will happen. In merely 13 die rolls, the probability of never rolling 6 is less than 1 in 10. Perhaps many biological changes are destructive like the metaphors of thermodynamic disorder or noisy information, and the candidates that experience those changes are worse-off. Yet the multitude of candidate organisms throughout epochs can still yield the event of a comparatively rare constructive change, and thereafter the change spreads through reproduction of that singular beneficiary. (Although according to the, y'know, facts, occasionally the constructive events have indeed occurred too rarely to compensate for rapid changes in circumstances—mass extinctions.)

Furthermore, this application of information theory prompts more questions. If it were accurate to analyze biology as an information channel in which all organisms were messages, and all modifications to organisms were noise, then how would the first noise-free organisms originate? Presumably from "The Great Communicator"...but the usual name for theoretical message senders is "Alice". Assuming all the first organisms were perfectly communicated messages from Alice, then later organisms could only have become more noisy or less perfect. Isn't this implied distinction between "message" and "noise" so narrow that it verges on nonsensical? Given all the actual differences between the first organisms and organisms in the present, is it apt for all these differences to qualify as increases in noise, i.e. always relative degradation? Is it accurate to suppose that every grandparent were a more precise expression of Alice's original message than every grandchild? Are the implications of this proposition consistent with human interactions with reality? In other words, is it true in the pragmatic sense?

In contrast, real biology's ambiguity of "message" and "noise" is closer to something else in information theory. Extreme information ambiguity is a defining feature of the unbreakable encryption strategy of a one time pad. The "pad" itself contains a long encryption key that's strongly random: no portion of the key/pad can be calculated from any other portion. Then sequential portions of this key are used to encrypt sequential small portions of a message. In effect, the key from the pad acts like the worst possible kind of communication noise. The key's "noise" affects each small portion of the message and the "noise" is always unpredictably different for each. It's like sending numerous tiny encrypted "micro-messages" and using a separate independent key for each micro-message. This is secrecy by brute-force. Hence the strength of this strategy is also its weakness. The large quantity of random and therefore incompressible key information must itself be exchanged over a sufficiently secure and efficient channel. But if a superior channel meets these requirements then it should communicate the message instead! (The strategy could still be appropriate if the superior channel for the key, e.g. handing over a literal pad in-person in the past, differs from the inferior channel for the secret message, e.g. series of short radio broadcasts in the future.)

Consequently, depending on how closely biological information matches the metaphor of a one time pad, nobody should be surprised by the difficulty of disentangling its "messages" from its "noise". Inquisitive humans are the interceptors of the channel. The recipient of the channel is the organism, and the sender of the channel is the organism's ancestor(s). The biological information has flowed over a staggering number of channels or generations. In doing so, it has absorbed noise coming from an ever-changing key on the one time pad commonly known as the universe.

At the same time, the environment of the organism is ever-changing. This means that the definition of sensible biological information is also ever-changing, since biological information is sensible insofar as it corresponds successfully to an environment—oxygen-breathing organisms aren't sensible in an oxygen-deprived environment. Unlike the phantasmal perfection of first organisms communicated by a non-biological Alice, this concept of environmental sensibility is inescapably relative and limited. Metaphorically speaking, the "message" consists of biological information with environmental sensibility, and the rest is "noise". Due to environmental changes, the same bits of biological information can change from message to noise and back. Correct answers cease to be correct when the questions transform.

The inherent uncertainty of a one time pad forces an ignorant interceptor to admit that any possible message could result in any possible encrypted message. The one time pad causes the sender's input message to diverge into a random output message. In the context of restrictive human communication, the recipient is displeased by receiving any other message than the sender's. But in the context of biology, a descendant organism that receives innovative information could thereby surpass the ancestor in the broad criterion of environmental sensibility, if only by a little. To use an overstretched analogy, this biological case is more like a sender who sent the message "The meeting is at 3:30," and then the message changed along the way to "The meeting is at 3:00"...while the meeting was rescheduled to 3:15 anyway.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

the Dumbo feather of ethics

Often, deep discussions about religion handle it as a collection of otherworldly ideas. But these necessary discussions seem irrelevant to many believers. They don't value religion primarily because of the many confusing details of its ideas, which they may not study seriously anyway (angels on pins, anyone?). They value religion because of its pragmatic impact on their everyday lives. They view religion as a cultural tool for specific purposes. Like pounding nails with a rock, the adequate usefulness of a tool like religion overpowers legitimate concerns about the tool's deficiencies.

In particular, throughout the history of civilization, religions have been tools for the encouragement of good behavior. As long as the religion was "proper", few objected to this traditional assignment. Even nonconformist writers, who mostly ignored religion in their own lives, nevertheless assumed that religiosity was essential to the ethical training of the lowly and bestial majority of society. Within prisons, clergy were welcomed as possible rehabilitation tools. In twelve step behavior modification programs such as "______ Anonymous" religiosity was one of the original tools. Schools included religion classes as tools for character development. Parents with religious childhoods, who may have stopped believing long ago, used churches as tools to ensure that their children absorbed the "right" cultural heritage with the corresponding baseline of behavioral expectations.

By contrast, a self-consistent atheistic perspective cannot link good behavior and the questionable ideas of religions. However, breaking the link implies a surprising compliment to the religious humans who consistently exhibit good behavior—who are good whether or not their religion's predominant morality agrees with them (perhaps they respond to the difference by creating a secondary form that's "reinterpreted" or "modernized" or "reformed"). If religiosity isn't a vital factor in their good behavior, then via process of elimination the vital factor is always them. The atheist can't give credit to their gods or to their religions. They may say that they're acting as an appendage of a divine compassionate being or that they're fueled by supernatural love. But the atheist must jump to the less far-fetched conclusion: they're just decent humans...who also are too hasty to accept statements about the existence of gods.

Consequently, the supposed religious basis of good behavior is instead a placebo illusion which yields imaginary additional moral fiber. It's ineffective apart from the believer's thoughts. It's akin to the trick feather in the movie Dumbo that the titular elephant holds while flying ( has alternative examples). Ultimately Dumbo realizes that the feather is a deception; Dumbo can fly without it. Similarly, to blame religion for genuine ethical motivation and determination is to act like Dumbo. Like Dumbo and the feather, genuinely ethical believers could be ethical without their religion. Religion can be a container or setting for describing ethics, but humane ethics aren't limited by it.

In reality, of course, modern decision-makers with faith-beliefs cannot face all modern ethical decisions through overstretched comparisons to ancient religious stories. That's why the more honest ones tend to mention "timeless principles" extracted from the religion, since the "raw" form contains ethical problems like toleration of slavery, religious-warfare, and inequality of all varieties. Religion is the Dumbo feather of ethics. It might be a helpful educational tool at first. Yet the one clinging to it is the real origin of all of its illusory ethical power. They cannot avoid ethical responsibility.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

only bad witches are ugly

The title of this entry is a famous quote from The Wizard Of Oz. Yes, I realize it's awful to spread the idea that goodness is correlated with beauty. But that's not today's topic.

Today's topic is the logic of sets. When a witch says "only bad witches are ugly", which meaning is she communicating in regard to which witches are in which sets? She means that for any witch in the "ugly" set, that witch is also in the set of "bad". This implies that the ugly witches are a subset of the bad witches. Membership in the ugly set is always accompanied by membership in the bad set. Also, any witch that is not bad (good) is therefore not ugly (beautiful); for they could only be ugly if they were also bad.

But the more notable distinction is what the witch isn't claiming about these sets. The witch said nothing certain about whether all beautiful witches are good. All she told us is that each ugly witch is bad. That doesn't contradict the possibility of a beautiful witch who is also bad. Not all the bad witches are necessarily ugly. It's like a deck of playing cards. Each heart is a red card. But that doesn't mean all the red cards are hearts.

In related news, Oz the Great and Powerful has some slow-paced sections that might cause theater-goers' thoughts to wander.

Friday, March 08, 2013

ill-fitting realities

"It doesn't matter whether it works for you. It works for me." Some thoughts are expected to differ because the thinkers differ. These thoughts are like shirts. Each thinker peruses the rack of various optional thoughts, picks one, tries it on, and finally integrates it into their ensemble. In broad terms the goal is to achieve a suitable fit for the shape and style of prior thoughts.

The name of this category is personal preference. From a pragmatic perspective, two of its essential characteristics are extremely limited: its range and its verification methods. Specifically, the range of personal preference is only the person, and the verification methods are only the person's mental "work". The personal preference of one human doesn't apply elsewhere, and the human is the one witness of it (firsthand). In effect personal preference entails an exceptionally narrow definition of applicability or truthfulness.

However, for any number of reasons, some commentators adore the category of personal preference (they personally prefer personal preference?). As often as possible, they lump inappropriate propositions into it, perhaps to avoid further discussion. "My proposition doesn't fit you? Then we'll treat it as a personal preference and move on."

Nevertheless, their botched classification will show up in practice. Regardless of how poorly it fits a particular human's preferences, it can also be verified repeatedly by impersonal methods. At this point, a reasonable pragmatist judges that the proposition isn't a "personal preference" but an ill-fitting reality. Its incidental discomfort to a human doesn't override the firm clues coming from the alternative methods of verification.

Many examples of ill-fitting realities are obvious and unavoidable. To complain about one is to make a joke, because everyone already knows it's futile to pretend that personal preference constantly affects the real motions of the rest of the universe. "The weather forecast we've been given is awful, in my opinion. I'd like to return it." "Of all the days for my car to have sudden engine trouble. This is unacceptable to me." "I collided with him as I danced carelessly. How dare he throw off my groove." (Of course some personal preferences, i.e. brain signals, eventually trigger bodily actions that in turn affect matter outside oneself, including actions as minimal as a change in facial expression.)

Not all ill-fitting realities are as easy to identify, but the level of abstraction is irrelevant to the underlying principle. Mystical propositions aren't exempt. It's reasonable to continue to demand methods of verification which are consistent, coherent, and feasible. Any proposition is truthful to the degree that its corresponding methods of verification yield sufficient results.

Furthermore, if the proposition is so insubstantial that it's more or less isolated from most realities of the universe, then personal preference could be the solitary remaining data-point behind it. Pragmatically speaking, such propositions are indeed personal preferences of scant meaningfulness. For instance, these conditions might hold for the mystical proposition of a singular unknown plan guiding the universe, namely "Fate". If every actual event is always in accordance with Fate, then Fate is pragmatically indistinguishable from Fate's logical opposite of nonexistence, namely "Not-Fate". Therefore the airy concept of Fate is untethered from earthy minutiae. The basis for accepting it is personal preference. If either Fate or Not-Fate fits someone's brain, they may wear it.

The conflict arises after the believer tries to attach more details to Fate. Once they do, Fate ceases to be compatible with every actual event...theoretically, at least. On the presumption that it's Fate for Marvin and Marcie to be in a romantic relationship, their breakup throws doubt on how well Fate corresponds to the reality of their broken relationship. On the presumption that it's Fate for Marvin or Marcie to work in factories that manufacture videotapes, their loss of employment throws doubt on how well Fate corresponds to the reality of their employment elsewhere (or unemployment). On the presumption that it's Fate for their children to earn incomes at around the 33% percentile of the working population, their children's income at around 80% throws doubt on how well Fate corresponds to the reality of their income. These or any other "violations" indicate that Not-Fate could be an ill-fitting those who feel that Fate fits them better.

The upshot is that generalizable propositions typically venture outside the tiny range of personal preference. It's not sensible to treat these like simple personal preferences, despite the all-too-human urge to quickly reject ill-fitting thoughts. "The idea works for me" doesn't even satisfy pragmatism's easy standard when "works" really means "matches my wishes" rather than means "matches ideas with proven correspondences to realities". In that case a pragmatist may reply that the speaker is under the mistaken impression that the idea works for them; future interactions with an ill-fitting reality could demonstrate in what way the impression turns out to be mistaken.