Choose a topic

.. Society
We Live in the Present

10 Views of Landscape
Affect and Effect
Culture is Ordinary
I pay rent.
Listening to Corn
The Reform vs Revolution Paradox
What is Public Schooling For?

AI and Art
Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Is this picture real?
NonFungible Tokens
Public Art
Tearing Down Statues
What is Art?
Working With Reality

Artificial Intelligence and the Collingridge Dilemma.
Bird Brains
Bounded Rationality
Competence Without Comprehension
Consciousness is More Like Fame Than Television
Developmental Processes
Emergence and Cognition
I Lost My Knife
Incomplete Information and Stories
Is free will an illusion?
Natural Law
Necessary Illusions
On Affordances
Pencil and Paper
Post Phenomenology
Reflective Equilibrium
Return of the Law of Forms
Shifting Meanings
Taking Things on Faith
The Hard Problem
The I Love You Gesture
The Imagined Order
The Phenomenology of Swim Bladders.
Thinking about medical procedures
Thinking About Risk
Underdetermination and Redundancy
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
What Does Google Know?

A Country Is Not Like A Company
Alternate ideas lying around waiting for disaster
Blood and Money
Can Capitalism Survive?
Do Our Minds Own Our Bodies?
Everyday Communism
Invisible Hand
Job Creators
Job Destroyers
Money and Value
Money is Different
National Accounts
Necessary Production
Paper Wealth
Post Capitalist Society
Profit Motive Fails
Rentier Capitalism
Social Wealth vs Surplus Value
Spending Money Into Existence
The Metaphysics of Money
The Ontology of Debt
Thinking about Money
Wealth is What Money Buys

Blowing Up Pipelines

Absolute Knowledge
I do not know everything
Rethinking Knowledge
Rethinking Knowledge
The Curious Ineffectiveness of Facts
The Past and the Future.
Uncertainty and Unpredictability

Competition and Cooperation
Dr Malthus would be pleased
Error Correction
Evolution Defended
Evolution is not Religion
Evolution of Cars
Forces of Nature
Is Natural Selection Obsolete?
Politics and Evolution
The Evolution of Purpose.
The Problem with Natural Selection.
The Source of Bad Behavior
Thinking about Tails
Why Does a Leopard Have Spots?

Free Speech in the age of Twitter
Freedom and Badness
Freedom and Morality
Freedom From and Freedom To
Freedom in the Age of Convoys
Libertarian Coercion

Levels of Abstraction
Levels of Abstraction and Minds
What is a newspaper?

As Much As Possible
Zipfs Law

Emotional Plague
Memes: Imitated Behavior.
The Problem with Memes
What is a replicator?

Beyond Rules Based Morality
Freedom and Morality
Moral Realism.
What do we owe animals?


Maps and Territories
Metaphysics Without Absolutes
Philosophy Buds
Sincerely Held Beliefs
Sorites Paradox
Stereoscopic Vision and The Hard Problem
The Gorilla in the Room of Science
The Purpose of Science
What is Going On?

If It Walks Like a Duck
Right Wing Freedom
The Sovereign Citizen
Tyranny of the Majority


Constructed Life
Correlation Wins
Quack Doctors
The Great Shattering
The Material Space
Thinking about Interconnection
Too Small to See
Watching Pigeons
Weirdness in Physics

A society needs a government.
Belly of the Beast
Cultural Appropriation
Family Values
Griefers and Misinformation and Disinformation
Open Society and Falsification
Rules in a Knife Fight?
Sex and Gender
Society and The State
Spheres of Influence
The Care and Feeding of Free Speech
The Collingridge Dilemma
The Dual Meaning of Power
The Homeless
The Problem with Hedonism
To the Moon
Work - Productive, Useful, Worthless, and Bad.

Implications of Very Productive Technology
Modest Proposal
Problems with Universal Basic Income
Tormenting Unlucky People
Why there are oligarchs

Correlation Wins

Once upon a time data was hard to come by.
For 44 years Billy Barr lived on a mountain in the Rockies and kept notebooks about much of what he saw around him. He'd record stuff like when a particular flower opened or bird appeared and also what the weather was like and how deep the snow was; every day for years!
He did it for the heck of it - to keep himself amused.

What a trove of data his notebooks are now for climatologists. But there was no easy way to get that data.

I remember gathering data for physics 101. One lab involved measuring a block of wood. It took an hour of painstaking and repeated measurements entered into a table and then another couple of hours of calculation to get an useful result.
Another lab involved setting up a sheet of graph paper on a sheet of glass arranged to make a slope. Carbon paper was placed on top of the graph paper. A ball bearing was pushed onto the slope and allowed to roll down. This left an impression of the path the ball took on the graph paper. Setting up took a few minutes. Performing the experiment took a few seconds. After a couple of hours of painstaking calculation I got a number that agreed with the acceleration due to gravity.

Data can be very hard to gather and theorizing is needed to narrow the search space so we get useful information. That theorizing is based in part on recognizing patterns in that data.

We live immersed in a technology that gathers data in unimaginable quantities and then analyses that data and presents conclusions about that data.

Facebook and Google and social media in general profits hugely from that capacity. But nobody really knows how the conclusion was drawn. And the conclusions aren't perfect. Google keeps sending me ads for diapers based on my age (I think). But the conclusions are good enough that the diaper maker finds it profitable use the conclusions in marketing campaigns.

But the same sort of tech is used by science a lot. Machines like the Super Collider in Switzerland produce vast streams of data for every instant they are turned on. No human can interpret that data. The raw data get's processed by the machine into a form that some specially trained people can understand. That processing involves various sorts of machine learning. This happens a lot in Big Science. Machines can predict how a protein will fold correctly, but we can't quite explain how it works. It just does. Machines predict the weather from vast data streams fed by myriads of weather stations fed into electronic learning systems. Machines are getting better at interpreting chest xrays for certain sorts of cancer than experienced doctors are, but nobody knows in detail how it is done.
"Somewhere between Newton and Mark Zuckerberg, theory took a back seat. In 2008, Chris Anderson, the then editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, predicted its demise. So much data had accumulated, he argued, and computers were already so much better than us at finding relationships within it, that our theories were being exposed for what they were - oversimplifications of reality.
Soon, the old scientific method - hypothesise, predict, test - would be relegated to the dustbin of history. We'd stop looking for the causes of things and be satisfied with correlations."
With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that what Anderson saw is true (he wasn't alone). The complexity that this wealth of data has revealed to us cannot be captured by theory as traditionally understood. "We have leapfrogged over our ability to even write the theories that are going to be useful for description," says computational neuroscientist Peter Dayan, director of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tubingen, Germany. ""We don't even know what they would look like."

This situation is shocking within an old paradigm of the scientific method of hypothesise, predict, test. Now it's more like gather lots of data and look for an useful pattern within.

This way of working is satisfied with correlations; as in event A correlates with event B rather than event B causes event A. It turns out that situations that are simple enough to be expressed in causal terms are actually quite rare in reality.

I don't think this is as shocking as it may seem.
The thing that makes it shocking is that we are used to thinking of causality in terms of causal chains. Event A causes event B which causes event C . . .
In reality, rather than a causal chain we have a causal web. Any event has an innumerable number of causes. Saying that event A causes event B is a simplification that leaves all the other influences on B out of consideration. In effect, causal explanations just express correlations that people feel are very secure. Sometimes causal explanations turn out to be wrong.

The human brain takes in data from senses and memory and acts on it. If I'm crossing the street and a car isn't slowing down properly I start sprinting away before I can think about it. But if someone asks why I sprinted away I need to answer with a causal story that leaves out most of the influences on me at the moment.
This causes the illusion that those influences weren't there.

Causal explanations may not be necessary for science. Science deals with what actually works and the "shut up and calculate" way of thinking is common. But causality may be significant when it comes to social matters. Perhaps it's significant for anti-vaxxers. They point out that (for instance) that a vaccine doesn't provide certain protection against infection. They may think that the doctors don't know what they are talking about since they don't have a hard causal explanation for why that is so. All the doctors have is a correlation.

I can sympathize. If people try to tell me what to do I need to know the story that justifies the demand. Correlation is generally to complex for stories. A story has a linear structure where one event causes another in an easy to understand way.

But with vast streams of data and machine learning we may be having to deal with stuff where stories don't work very well.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.