Sunday, October 26, 2014

Determinism and Predictability

Determinism doesn't entail predictability, even in principle, unless you are going to help yourself to some principles so outlandish that you might as well invoke the supernatural.

To a first approximation, a system is deterministic if every event necessarily follows as a result of prior events. Or, to put it another way, every future state of the system is completely determined by the initial conditions of that system. 

It would seem to follow that every future state of such a system could be predicted, albeit perhaps only in principle. For example, imagine a snooker table at the beginning of a game and suppose the precise location, mass and other physical variables of all the balls are known. Then, given the laws of physics and the momentum and path of the cue ball after cueing off, we might think that some supercomputer could show us a picture of where every ball would be on the table at any future time.

So if the natural world as a whole is considered to be a deterministic system, we might conclude that the future is completely predictable. But there seem to be limits on predictability by any known methods of computation yet devised. 

First, we'd need precise measurements of all of the physical variables, or the error in our predictions would grow so fast as to make them uselessly inaccurate. Suppose that one such measurement had a value that turned out to be a non-computable irrational number? If it is truncated anywhere, that introduces error. But if it is not truncated, we have an infinite amount of information.

Second, even if the supercomputer is as computationally powerful as we like, it is still part of the natural world, so the information state of the computer is manifest physically, which itself would perturb the system leading to an infinite regress. Supposing the computer to be outside the natural world doesn't help either, as we then have the classic dualist problem of how it could interact with the world to take measurements whilst remaining completely separate. 

These reasons suggest that, although we might intuit that with enough information, time and computing power, every subsequent state of a deterministic system can be precisely specified within a given margin of error, this is not the case. Even given a classical deterministic physics model of the world, a precise prediction of the future state of the system is not possible, even in principle. 

This thought experiment predates modern computing by a long way. As far back as 1814 Pierre-Simon LaPlace, in his introduction to Essai philosophique sur les probabilit├ęs, postulated what would later be known as LaPlace's Demon: an intellect with enough calculating ability and knowledge to predict the future. 

Perhaps a demon is more apt a characterization than a supercomputer. Given the arguments considered above, any such entity looks like it would have to be a supernatural agent, able to flout the physical laws which both limit how much information it can store and prevent measurement without interaction. There is an irony here given this is one thought experiment that some hard determinists use to deny free will.

Their argument is that free will is incompatible with a predictable future, unless it is somehow supernatural and able to escape the constraints of a deterministic universe. Since the supernatural is anathema to them, these hard determinists conclude that free will does not exist. Yet in order to establish predictability they have invoked the very thing they deny, something supernatural.  

Friday, June 06, 2014

End of the World

Suppose you knew that you'd live to a reasonable old age, but that 30 days after your death, the earth was going to be destroyed with no escape possible for its inhabitants. Would you live any differently? If so, how?

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Can you sing in your head?

I was reading a book about the psychology of music by Victoria Williamson called 'You Are The Music'.

I enjoyed the book, it was interesting and informative. I was puzzled by one comment the author made though. She said that when she used to work in a gift shop she would sing along to Eva Cassidy songs during quiet periods. But she did this, in her head. Does that strike anyone else as odd?

I had a go at singing along in my head to Tom Waits. I don't think I can do it. In general I mean, not just to Tom Waits. If you think you can do this, what is it like? If you can't or think, like me, that there's something odd about the idea, can you articulate what that is?

Monday, January 13, 2014

Sentiment vs Semantics

A friend recently commented on Facebook that he'd realized that love is nothing to do with gender. I interpreted the sentiment to be one I agree with: support for treating loving relationships as equal regardless of the gender of the participants.

What about trying to ascribe a literal meaning to the comment? In my experience, most individuals use gender as a primary filter for candidates for romantic relationships.  People also use age, intelligence, status and many other filters, albeit perhaps unconsciously, when they judge people as attractive or not. So on that level, gender does have something to do with erotic love for most people in contrast with other forms of loving companionship or friendship. Perhaps it would be good if we returned to using words like 'agape' to distinguish different kinds of love.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Dan Finke's Civility Pledge

I broadly agree with the sentiment that civility should prevail during debate and disagreement. Dan's Pledge is here.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Knack of Faith

There are some activities that seem to require a 'knack', it isn't enough to just follow a set of instructions or to have somebody demonstrate the procedure in order to get it. Nor is there necessarily a gradual improvement via practice until mastery is achieved. More often, we will be hopelessly bad at something like this until it suddenly seems to 'click'. Think of patting your head whilst rubbing your tummy. Practice is still required if you haven't learned how to do it yet, but I don't think progress is usually linear.

I wonder if perhaps faith is a knack. If so, it is one I lack even though I can see that to have faith in some circumstances can be very useful. This seems similar to the realisation that accuracy in appraising our abilities can be inversely correlated with a sense of well-being. In this context the phrase 'ignorance is bliss' is fitting, since those who are unskilled at self evaluation but unaware of it, are also less likely to be responsive to evidence that contradicts the basis of their high self esteem: namely that they think they are good at stuff.

Turning back to faith, the ability to take the Kirkegaardian leap in response to our absurd existence might be good for keeping our spirits up when life is difficult. But if the thought occurs that faith in this sense is a bit like the knack of being able to put your fingers in your ears and sing 'la la la' every time somebody is about to tell you bad news, then you might think it better not to have it.

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Positive Discrimination

I think some people are against positive discrimination because they think it is incompatible with hiring people on merit. I'm not convinced that it is necessarily incompatible in a way that matters though.

Of course it is easy to think of ways in which positive discrimination would preclude a meritocratic outcome. I'm just sceptical that such thought experiments really reflect best practice in the real world.

There has been some debate recently regarding a popular uk television comedy programme called Mock the Week which has been criticised for mostly hiring all male panels. In their defense they argued that the percentage of  professional female comedians is low, so in demographic terms the percentage of women they hire is more than representative. They also said they were against positive discrimination because they believed in hiring on merit.

I think it is the last point there where a false dichotomy has crept in. In the real world it is just not the case that merit is the only criterion used and nor is it the case that assessment of merit is free from cultural bias. Instead I think it would be more useful to consider merit as a threshold criterion. That way, you can look at the pool of candidates you have who meet the threshhold and decide what other criteria to apply. If there are still sufficient numbers in your pool to choose from after all criteria have been met then it is not the case that merit has been trumped by other considerations.