The limits of pragmatism

This is a personal attempt to identify and articulate a fruitful form of pragmatism, as distinct from what seems to me the many dangerous forms. My starting point is Wikipedia and my notion that the differences it notes can sometimes matter.

Doubt, like belief, requires justification. Genuine doubt irritates and inhibits, in the sense that belief is that upon which one is prepared to act.[2] It arises from confrontation with some specific recalcitrant matter of fact (which Dewey called a “situation”), which unsettles our belief in some specific proposition. Inquiry is then the rationally self-controlled process of attempting to return to a settled state of belief about the matter. Note that anti-skepticism is a reaction to modern academic skepticism in the wake of Descartes. The pragmatist insistence that all knowledge is tentative is quite congenial to the older skeptical tradition

My own contribution to things scientific has been on some very specific issues, but which I attempt to generalise:

  • It is sometimes seems much too late to wait to act on doubt for something that pragmatic folk recognize as a ‘specific recalcitrant matter of fact’. I would rather say (with the skeptics) that we should always be in some doubt, but that our actions require justification, and should only invest in relation to that justification. Requiring ‘facts’ seems to high a hurdle to act at all.
  • Psychologically, people do seek ‘settled states of belief’, but I would rather say (with the skeptics) that the degree of settledness ought to be only in so far as is justified. Relatively settled belief but not fundamentalist dogma!
  • It is often supposed that ‘facts’ and ‘beliefs’ should concern the ‘state’ of some supposed ‘real world’. There is some evidence that it is ‘better’ in some sense to think of the world as one in which certain processes are appropriate. In this case, as in category theory, the apparent state arises as a consequence of sufficient constraints on the processes. This can make an important difference when one considers uncertainties, but in ‘small worlds’ there are no such uncertainties.

It seems to me that the notion of ‘small worlds’ is helpful. A small world would be one which could be conceived of or ‘mentally modelled’. Pragmatists (of differing varieties) seem to believe that often we can conceive of a small world representation of the actual world, and act on that representation ‘as if’ the world were really small. So far, I find this plausible, even if not my own habit of thinking. The contentious point, I think, is that in every situation we should do our best to from a small world representation and then act as if it were true unless and until we are confronted with some ‘specific recalcitrant matter of fact’. This can be too late.

But let us take the notion of  a ‘small world’ as far as we can. It is accepted that the small world might be violated. If it could be violated as a consequence of something that we might inadvertently do then it hardly seems a ‘pragmatic’ notion in terms of ordinary usage, and might reasonably said to be dangerous in so far as it lulls us into a false sense of security.

One common interpretation of ‘pragmatism’ seems to be that we may as well act on our beliefs as there seems no alternative. But I shall refute this by presenting one. Another interpretation is that there is no ‘practical’ alternative’. That is to say, whatever we do could not affect the potential violation of the small world. But if this is the case it seems to me that there must be some insulation between ourselves and the small world. Thus the small world is actually embedded in some larger closed world. But do we just suppose that we are so insulated, or do we have some specific closed world in mind?

It seems to me that doubt is more justified the less our belief in insulation is justified. Even when we have specific insulation in mind, we surely need to keep an open mind and monitor the situation for any changes, or any reduction in justification for our belief.

From this, it seems to me that (as in my own work) what matters is not having some small world belief, but in taking a view on the insulations between what you seek to change and what you seek to rely on as unchanging. And from these identifying not only a single credible world in which to anchor one’s justifications for action, but in seeking out credible possible small worlds in the hope that at least one may remain credible as things proceed.

Dave Marsay

See also my earlier thoughts on pragmatism, from a different starting point.

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What logical term or concept ought to be more widely known?

Various What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known? Edge, 2017.

INTRODUCTION: SCIENTIA

Science—that is, reliable methods for obtaining knowledge—is an essential part of psychology and the social sciences, especially economics, geography, history, and political science. …

Science is nothing more nor less than the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be the human spirit, the role of great figures in history, or the structure of DNA.

Contributions

As against others on:

(This is as far as I’ve got.)

Comment

I’ve grouped the contributions according to whether or not I think they give due weight to the notion of uncertainty as expressed in my blog. Interestingly Steven Pinker seems not to give due weight in his article, whereas he is credited by Nicholas G. Carr with some profound insights (in the first of the second batch). So maybe I am not reading them right.

My own suggestion would be Turing’s theory of ‘Morphogenesis’. The particular predictions seem to have been confirmed ‘scientifically’, but it is essentially a logical / mathematical theory. If, as the introduction suggests, science is “reliable methods for obtaining knowledge” then it seems to me that logic and mathematics are more reliable than empirical methods, and deserve some special recognition. Although, I must concede that it may be hard to tell logic from pseudo-logic, and that unless you can do so my distinction is potentially dangerous.

Morphogenesis

The second law of thermodynamics, and much common sense rationality,  assumes a situation in which the law of large numbers applies. But Turing adds to the second law’s notion of random dissipation a notion of relative structuring (as in gravity) to show that ‘critical instabilities’ are inevitable. These are inconsistent with the law of large numbers, so the assumptions of the second law of thermodynamics (and much else) cannot be true. The universe cannot be ‘closed’ in its sense.

Implications

If the assumptions of the second law seem to leave no room for free will and hence no reason to believe in our agency and hence no point in any of the contributions to Edge: they are what they are and we do what we do. But Pinker does not go so far: he simply notes that if things inevitably degrade we do not need to beat ourselves up, or look for scape-goats when things go wrong. But this can be true even if the second law does not apply. If we take Turing seriously then a seeming permanent status quo can contain the reasons for its own destruction, so that turning a blind eye and doing nothing can mean sleep-walking to disaster. Where Pinker concludes:

[An] underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.

This would seem to follow more clearly from the theory of morphogenesis than the second law. Turing’s theory also goes some way to suggesting or even explaining the items in the second batch. So, I commend it.

Dave Marsay

 

 

Heuristics or Algorithms: Confused?

The Editor of the New Scientist (Vol. 3176, 5 May 2018, Letters, p54) opined in response to Adrian Bowyer ‘swish to distinguish between ‘heuristics’ and ‘algorithms’ in AI that:

This distinction is no longer widely made by practitioners of the craft, and we have to follow language as it is used, even when it loses precision.

Sadly, I have to accept that AI folk tend to consistently fail to respect a widely held distinction, but it seems odd that their failure has led to an obligation on the New Scientist – which has a much broader readership than just AI folk. I would agree that in addressing audiences that include significant sectors that fail to make some distinction, we need to be aware of the fact, but if the distinction is relevant – as Bowyer argues, surely we should explain it.

According to the freedictionary:

Heuristic: adj 1. Of or relating to a usually speculative formulation serving as a guide in the investigation or solution of a problem.

Algorithm: n: A finite set of unambiguous instructions that, given some set of initial conditions, can be performed in a prescribed sequence to achieve a certain goal and that has a recognizable set of end conditions.

It even also this quote:

heuristic: of or relating to or using a general formulation that serves to guide investigation  algorithmic – of or relating to or having the characteristics of an algorithm.

But perhaps this is not clear?

AI practitioners routinely apply algorithms as heuristics in the same way that a bridge designer may routinely use a computer program. We might reasonably regard a bridge-designing app as good if it correctly implements best practice in  bridge-building, but this is not to say that a bridge designed using it would necessarily be safe, particularly if it is has significant novelties (as in London’s wobbly bridge).

Thus any app (or other process) has two sides: as an algorithm and as a heuristic. As an algorithm we ask if it meets its concrete goals. As a heuristic we ask if it solves a real-world problem. Thus a process for identifying some kind of undesirable would be regarded as good algorithmically if it conformed to our idea of the undesirables, but may still be poor heuristically. In particular, good AI would seem to depend on someone understand at least the factors involved in the problem. This may not always be the case, no matter how ‘mathematically sophisticated’ the algorithms involved.

Perhaps you could improve on this attempted explanation?

Dave Marsay

Artificial Intelligence?

The subject of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ (AI) has long provided ample scope for long and inconclusive debates. Wikipedia seems to have settled on a view, that we may take as straw-man:

Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. [Dartmouth Conference, 1956] The appropriately programmed computer with the right inputs and outputs would thereby have a mind in exactly the same sense human beings have minds. [John Searle’s straw-man hypothesis]

Readers of my blog will realise that I agree with Searle that his hypothesis is wrong, but for different reasons. It seems to me that mainstream AI (mAI) is about being able to take instruction. This is a part of learning, but by no means all. Thus – I claim – mAI is about a sub-set of intelligence. In many organisational settings it may be that sub-set which the organisation values. It may even be that an AI that ‘thought for itself’ would be a danger. For example, in old discussions about whether or not some type of AI could ever act as a G.P. (General Practitioner – first line doctor) the underlying issue has been whether G.P.s ‘should’ think for themselves, or just apply their trained responses. My own experience is that sometimes G.P.s doubt the applicability of what they have been taught, and that sometimes this is ‘a good thing’. In effect, we sometimes want to train people, or otherwise arrange for them to react in predictable ways, as if they were machines. mAI can create better machines, and thus has many key roles to play. But between mAI and ‘superhuman intelligence’  there seems to be an important gap: the kind of intelligence that makes us human. Can machines display such intelligence? (Can people, in organisations that treat them like machines?)

One successful mainstream approach to AI is to work with probabilities, such a P(A|B) (‘the probability of A given B’), making extensive use of Bayes’ rule, and such an approach is sometimes thought to be ‘logical’, ‘mathematical, ‘statistical’ and ‘scientific’. But, mathematically, we can generalise the approach by taking account of some context, C, using Jack Good’s notation P(A|B:C) (‘the probability of A given B, in the context C’). AI that is explicitly or implicitly statistical is more successful when it operates within a definite fixed context, C, for which the appropriate probabilities are (at least approximately) well-defined and stable. For example, training within an organisation will typically seek to enable staff (or machines) to characterise their job sufficiently well for it to become routine. In practice ‘AI’-based machines often show a little intelligence beyond that described above: they will monitor the situation and ‘raise an exception’ when the situation is too far outside what it ‘expects’. But this just points to the need for a superior intelligence to resolve the situation. Here I present some thoughts.

When we state ‘P(A|B)=p’ we are often not just asserting the probability relationship: it is usually implicit that ‘B’ is the appropriate condition to consider if we are interested in ‘A’. Contemporary mAI usually takes the conditions a given, and computes ‘target’ probabilities from given probabilities. Whilst this requires a kind of intelligence, it seems to me that humans will sometimes also revise the conditions being considered, and this requires a different type of intelligence (not just the ability to apply Bayes’ rule). For example, astronomers who refine the value of relevant parameters are displaying some intelligence and are ‘doing science’, but those first in the field, who determined which parameters are relevant employed a different kind of intelligence and were doing a different kind of science. What we need, at least, is an appropriate way of interpreting and computing ‘probability’ to support this enhanced intelligence.

The notions of Whitehead, Keynes, Russell, Turing and Good seem to me a good start, albeit they need explaining better – hence this blog. Maybe an example is economics. The notion of probability routinely used would be appropriate if we were certain about some fundamental assumptions. But are we? At least we should realise that it is not logical to attempt to justify those assumptions by reasoning using concepts that implicitly rely on them.

Dave Marsay

The money forecast

A review of The Money forecast A Haldane New Scientist 10 Dec. 2011. On-line version is To Navigate economic storms we need better forecasting.

Summary

Andrew Haldane, ‘Andy’, is one of the more insightful and – hopefully – influential members of the UK economic community, recognising that new ways of thinking are needed and taking a lead in their development.

He refers to a previous article ‘Revealed – the Capitalist network that runs the world’, which inspires him to attempt to map the world of finance.

“… Making sense of the financial system is more an act of archaeology than futurology.”

Of the pre-crisis approach it says:

“… The mistake came in thinking the behaviour of the system was just an aggregated version of the behaviour of the individual. …

”    Interactions between agents are what matters. And the key to that is to explore the underlying architecture of the network, not the behaviour of any one node. To make an analogy, you cannot understand the brain by focusing on a neuron – and then simply multiplying by 100 billion. …

… When parts started to malfunction … no one had much idea what critical faculties would be impaired.

    That uncertainty, coupled with dense financial wiring, turned small failures into systemic collapse. …

    Those experiences are now seared onto the conscience of regulators. Systemic risk has entered their lexicon, and to understand that risk, they readily acknowledge the need to join the dots across the network. So far, so good. Still lacking are the data and models necessary to turn this good intent into action.

… Other disciplines have cut a dash in their complex network mapping over the past generation, assisted by increases in data-capture and modelling capability made possible by technology. One such is weather forecasting … .

   Success stories can also be told about utility grids and transport networks, the web, social networks, global supply chains and perhaps the most complex web of all, the brain.

    …  imagine the scene a generation hence. There is a single nerve centre for global finance. Inside, a map of financial flows is being drawn in real time. The world’s regulatory forecasters sit monitoring the financial world, perhaps even broadcasting it to the world’s media.

    National regulators may only be interested in a quite narrow subset of the data for the institutions for which they have responsibility. These data could be part of, or distinct from, the global architecture.

    …  it would enable “what-if?” simulations to be run – if UK bank Northern Rock is the first domino, what will be the next?”

Comments

I am unconvinced that archeology, weather forecasting or the other examples are really as complex as economic forecasting, which can be reflexive: if all the media forecast a crash there probably will be one, irrespective of the ‘objective’ financial and economic conditions. Similarly, prior to the crisis most people seemed to believe in ‘the great moderation’, and the good times rolled on, seemingly.

Prior to the crisis I was aware that a minority of British economists were concerned about the resilience of the global financial system and that the ‘great moderation’ was a cross between a house of cards and a pyramid selling scheme. In their view, a global financial crisis precipitated by a US crisis was the greatest threat to our security. In so far as I could understand their concerns, Keynes’ mathematical work on uncertainty together with his later work on economics seemed to be key.

Events in 2007 were worrying. I was advised that the Chinese were thinking more sensibly about these issues, and I took to opportunity to visit China in Easter 2008, hosted by the Chinese Young Persons Tourist Group, presumably not noted for their financial and economic acumen. It was very apparent from a coach ride from Beijing to the Great Wall that their program of building new towns and moving peasants in was on hold. The reason given by the Tour Guide was that the US financial system was expected to crash after their Olympics, leading to a slow-down in their economic growth, which needed to be above 8% or else they faced civil unrest. Once tipped off, similar measures to mitigate a crisis were apparent almost everywhere. I also talked to a financier, and had some great discussions about Keynes and his colleagues, and the implications for the crash. In the event the crisis seems to have been triggered by other causes, but Keynes conceptual framework still seemed relevant.

The above only went to reinforce my prejudice:

  • Not only is uncertainty important, but one needs to understand its ramifications as least as well as Keynes did (e.g. in his Treatise and ‘Economic Consequences of the Peace’).
  • Building on this, concepts such as risk need to be understood to their fullest extent, not reduced to numbers.
  • The quotes above are indicative of the need for a holistic approach. Whatever variety one prefers, I do think that this cannot be avoided.
  • The quote about national regulators only having a narrow interest seems remarkably reductionist. I would think that they would all need a broad interest and to be exchanging data and views, albeit they may only have narrow responsibilities. Financial storms can spread around the world quicker than meteorological ones.
  • The – perhaps implicit – notion of only monitoring financial ‘flows’ seems ludicrous. I knew that the US was bound to fail eventually, but it was only by observing changes in migration that I realised it was imminent. Actually, I might have drawn the same conclusion from observing changes in financial regulation in China, but that still was not a ‘financial flow’. I did previously draw similar conclusions talking to people who were speculating on ‘buy to let’, thinking it a sure-thing.
  • Interactions between agents and architectures are important, but if Keynes was right then what really matters are changes to ‘the rules of the games’. The end of the Olympics was not just a change in ‘flows’ but a potential game-changer.
  • Often it is difficult to predict what will trigger a crisis, but one can observe when the situation is ripe for one. To draw an analogy with forest fires, one can’t predict when someone will drop a bottle or a lit cigarette, but one can observe when the tinder has built up and is dry.

It thus seems to me that while Andy Haldane is insightful, the actual article is not that enlightening, and invites a much too prosaic view of forecasting. Even if we think that Keynes was wrong I am fairly sure that we need to develop language and concepts in which we can have a discussion of the issues, even if only ‘Knightian uncertainty’. The big problem that I had prior to the crisis was the lack of a possibility of such a discussion. If we are to learn anything from the crisis it is surely that such discussions are essential. The article could be a good start.

See Also

The short long. On the trend to short-termism.

Control rights (and wrongs). On the imbalance between incentives and risks in banking.

Risk Off. A behaviorist’ view of risk. It notes that prior to the crash ‘risk was under-priced’.

  Dave Marsay

 

GLS Shackle, imagined and deemed possible?

Background

This is a personal view of GLS Shackle’s uncertainty. Having previously used Keynes’ approach to identify possible failure modes in systems, including financial systems (in the run-up to the collapse of the tech bubble), I became concerned  in 2007 that there was another bubble with a potential for a Keynes-type  25% drop in equities, constituting a ‘crisis’. In discussions with government advisers I first came across Shackle. The differences between him and Keynes were emphasised. I tried, but failed to make sense of Shackle, so that I could form my own view, but failed. Unfinished business.

Since the crash of 2008 there have been various attempts to compare and contrast Shackle and Keynes, and others. Here I imagine a solution to the conundrum which I deem possible: unless you know different?

Imagined Shackle

Technically, Shackle seems to focus on the wickeder aspects of uncertainty, to seek to explain them and their significance to economists and politicians, and to advise on how to deal with them. Keynes provides a more academic view, covering all kinds of uncertainty, contrasting tame probabilities with wicked uncertainties, helping us to understand both in a language that is better placed to survive the passage of time and the interpretation by a wider – if more technically aware – audience.

Politically, Shackle lacks the baggage of Lord Keynes, whose image has been tarnished by the misuse of the term ‘Keynesian’. (Like Keynes, I am not a Keynesian.)

Conventional probability theory would make sense if the world was a complicated randomizing machine, so that one has ‘the law of large numbers’: that in the long run particular events will tend to occur with some characteristic, stable, frequency. Thus in principle it would be possible to learn the frequency of events, such that reasonably rare events would be about as rare as we expect them to be. Taleb has pointed out that we can never learn the frequencies of very rare events, and that this is a technical flaw in many accounts of probability theory, which fail to point this out. But Keynes and Shackle have more radical concerns.

If we think of the world as a complicated randomizing machine, then as in Whitehead, it is one which can suddenly change. Shackle’s approach, in so far as I understand it, is to be open to the possibility of a change, recognize when the evidence of a change is overwhelming, and to react to it. This is an important difference for the conventional approach, in which all inference is done on the assumptions that the machine is known. Any evidence that it may have change is simply normalised away. Shackle’s approach is clearly superior in all those situations where substantive change can occur.

Shackle terms decisions about a possibly changing world ‘critical’. He makes the point that the application of a predetermined strategy or habit is not a decision proper: all ‘real’ decisions are critical in that they make a lasting difference to the situation. Thus one has strategies for situations that one expects to repeat, and makes decisions about situations that one is trying to ‘move on’. This seems a useful distinction.

Shackle’s approach to critical decisions is to imagine potential changes to new behaviours, to assess them and then to choose between those deemed possible. This is based on preference not expected utility, because ‘probability’ does not make sense. He gives an example of  a French guard at the time of the revolution who can either give access to a key prisoner or not. He expects to lose his life if he makes the wrong decision, depending on whether the revolution succeeds or not. A conventional approach would be based on the realisation that most attempted revolutions fail. But his choice may have a big impact on whether or not the revolution succeeds. So Shackle advocates imagining the two possible outcomes and their impact on him, and then making a choice. This seems reasonable. The situation is one of choice, not probability.

Keynes can support Shackle’s reasoning. But he also supports other types of wicked uncertainty. Firstly, it is not always the case that a change is ‘out of the blue’. One may not be able to predict when the change will come, but it is sometimes possible to see that there is an economic bubble, and the French guard probably had some indications that he was living in extraordinary times. Thus Keynes goes beyond Shackle’s pragmatism.

In reality, there is no strict dualism between probabilistic behaviour and chaos, between probability and Shackle’s complete ignorance. There are regions in-between that Keynes helps explore. For example, the French guard is not faced with a strictly probabilistic situation, but could usefully think in terms of probabilities conditioned on his actions. In economics, one might usefully think of outcomes as conditioned on the survival of conventions and institutions (October 2011).

I also have a clearer view why consideration of Shackle led to the rise in behavioural economics: if one is ‘being open’ and ‘imagining’ then psychology is clearly important. On the other hand, much of behavioral economics seems to use conventional rationality as some form of ‘gold standard’ for reasoning under uncertainty, and to consider departures from it as a ‘bias’.  But then I don’t understand that either!

Addendum

(Feb 2012, after Blue’s comments.)

I have often noticed that decision-takers and their advisers have different views about how to tackle uncertainty, with decision-takers focusing on the non-probabilistic aspects while their advisers (e.g. scientists or at least scientifically trained) tend to, and may even insist on, treating the problem probabilistically, and hence have radically different approaches to problem-solving. Perhaps the situation is crucial for the decision-taker, but routine for the adviser? (‘The agency problem.’) (Econophysics seems to suffer from this.)

I can see how Shackle had much that was potentially helpful in the run-up to the financial crash. But it seems to me no surprise that the neoclassical mainstream was unmoved by it. They didn’t regard the situation as crucial, and didn’t imagine or deem possible a crash. Unless anyone knows different, there seems to be nothing in Shackle’s key ideas that provide as explicit a warning as Keynes. While Shackle was more acceptable that Keynes (lacking the ‘Keynesian’ label) he also still seems less to the point. One needs both together.

See Also

Prigogine , who provides models of systems that can suddenly change ‘become’. He also  relates to Shackle’s discussion on how making decisions relates to the notion of ‘time’.

Dave Marsay

The Logic of Scientific Discovery

K.R. Popper The Logic of Scientific Discovery 1980 Routledge A review. (The last edition has some useful clarifications.) See new location.

Dave Marsay