Thursday, December 20, 2007

Deep Thoughts

I made a flip comment in Matt Stover's Star Wars fiction forum to the effect that I didn't care for philosophers in general -- they worked with language and I don't think much of language as a tool in the Search For Truth ... so he asked me to back it up. I'm not done but there's enough here that I thought I'd share. And speaking of Jack Handy:

Who named the Mustang Cobra? Horses hate snakes ...

I believe I'm close to having AI War back from Bantam. I'll let you all know. Maybe for Christmas. Also, I want to publicly acknowledge the work Everett Kaiser's done proofing DR and TF ... his thoroughness is exhausting, remarkable, and slowing me down in getting the books out the door; but the books will be much better for it. I've had professional proofreaders who were no better.

My posts on Matt's forum:


Arguing in language that language is insufficient to the task is sort of a chump's game, but I'll do it anyway, since it's what I've got to work with.

This is going to take a few posts to get through, and I don't have time to write it all at once, so I'll start by laying the foundations of what I think I know.

First, all representational systems are incomplete. Science, math, any human language: incomplete. More, not capable of completion. Goedel. This doesn't mean that a given formal system can't be broadly useful, merely that there's inherent fuzziness in the system: a place where that system stops. (And it's important to be clear that I don't mean a place where the sysem isn't finished: I mean a place where it can't be finished.)

Second, the universe is fuzzy. This is the principle lesson of quantum mechanics. You can skip all the sci-fi stuff about the observer effect -- which isn't as weird as it seems; it just means that the universe is entangled in interesting ways, and the old trope about the need for an intelligent observer to resolve indeterminancy is apparently untrue -- but what is true is that quantum mechanics imposes a hard limit on the degree to which the universe is knowable. It introduces graininess into the observable -- fuzz.

Third, chaos is real. Almost all systems in the real world are non-deterministic and can't be predicted.

Fourth, even systems that are deterministic -- a tiny subset of the universe of systems -- are not necessarily predictable: for complex deterministic systems it can take more time to model and predict than the process takes to run. In a complex always-on system it's likely that you can't take an initial state, make a prediction, and be complete before the system has moved past the point that you predicted to.

Fifth, though capable of rationality, humans are not rational in their drives or desires.

People are capable of knowing the world through two means, reason and experience. You can take things like intuition and lump them under reason for the purpose of this discussion; something you know (and we assume this knowing to be accurate) without knowing exactly how you know it. Doesn't mean some processing didn't take place.

Experience is what's happened to you. I'm not interested in the argument about whether there's a real world out there external to your experience; water is wet, stones are hard, walk in front of a bus and stop bothering me. Maybe our senses are feeding us the Matrix; give me a test and I'll discuss it. Until then, the world is out there and we're all part of it.

The problem with experience is that no one has the same suite of them. This is due to two well-known principles:

1. Shit happens
2. You are unique ... just like everyone else.

The problem with reason is that experience is the subject matter of reason. Now, a valid experience is reading a book -- that's pretty discrete. Same words for every person who comes to it. But the text hits each reader differently because each reader is different -- unique makeup filtered through unique experiences. The lessons one person derives from reading Rush Limbaugh's "The Way Things Ought To Be" can be very different from the lessons I derived -- which were that Limbaugh is a mediocre thinker and not overwhelmingly honest. (Same way I feel about Michael Moore, to play both sides of that fence, though I'm more prone to agreeing with Moore's conclusions than Limbaugh's.)

On the two means people have for knowing the world, reason and experience -- experience diverges and therefore reason, working with the stuff of experience, diverges ...

... and all formal systems are fuzzy, and English or German or Chinese or French or whatever are all substantially worse than fuzzy, and the universe is both fuzzy and chaotic, and even systems that can be modeled, often can't be modeled in real time (meaning no feedback possible), or even in useful time (meaning no results at all possible before the generated results are useless.) People can know the world only through experience and by applying reason to their experience: but everyone has different experiences.

Matt responded with:

I'm right with you on the fundamental fuzziness of reality -- which is exactly what makes mathematics (for example) useful for some flavors of truth, but not for others. Attempting precision modeling of something inherently imprecise strikes me as being akin to picking up lint with a needle. Sure, you get some, here and there, with effort -- but if you want to get it all, it's much more efficient (and useful) to use other lint.

Before you go on, you might want to define just exactly what flavor of truth you're talking about. Are you a Pythagorean ("The universe is number") on this? Or a Platonist ("What we perceive is is a distorted image of the Universal Ideal"). Math = Truth guys usually fall into one of those two broad camps . . . though I'm sure there may be others. Are you talking about "truth claims" in the technical sense, of statements regarding verifiable fact?

Because the Pursuit of Truth seems to break down into two broad categories: the Search for Fact, and the Search for Meaning. I'm talking about the latter, and I suspect you're talking about the former.

And I responded:

I'm not a Pythagorean; the universe isn't number. I think that number theory is a kind of map, and that what the Incompleteness Theorem says is that the map isn't the thing. Not shocking, but worth noting.

I'm also not a Platonist. The error of the map occurs here too; Plato (or Socrates, channeled, whatever) assert that there's a universal ideal, a thing that exists independently of the real world, and that the real world is a reflection or ghost of that. Maybe, but we're back in Matrix-land now: give me a test. Until someone can, I call bullshit.

"Attempting precision modeling of something inherently imprecise strikes me as being akin to picking up lint with a needle."

Which is why there's statistics in the next post, when I get to it. We can't know any one thing in its entirety: but we can know approximations. The question becomes, how useful is the approximation? The Drake equation is an example of a good approach in one such area: How well do we know Elements A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and so on, in a given area: and multiplying them one upon the other we come up with Statement one, which says AxBxCxDxExFxG = a Probability of .85: Statement One is 85% likely to be true. That's both useful and true within the limits of what we can know.
How you apply that to an individual -- how you produce a Probable Truth (or Probable Fact) that's useable by individuals in their search for meaning, is a much more difficult question, but it's the one modern philosophers should be struggling with. Maybe someone out there is?

"Because the Pursuit of Truth seems to break down into two broad categories: the Search for Fact, and the Search for Meaning. I'm talking about the latter, and I suspect you're talking about the former."

Sure, we're back to the experience/reason dichotomy: is your Search for Meaning divorced from the Facts that surround you? If it is then any answer that makes you feel good suffices. Enough food, entertainment, orgasms, healthy bowel movements, call it a philosophy and move on.
There are only two root reasons to ever do anything: to enjoy yourself, and to help other people enjoy themselves. (Enjoy has to be defined pretty broadly here, and if I knew a better word I'd use it. Maybe "fulfill.")

The first is trivial; if your Meaning of Life can be defined in that context you're no better than an animal. (Though there are plenty of humans who could usefully confine themselves to that.) The second is as complex as it gets and is the place where an accurate set of Facts is essential.


That's all for now. I have the feeling I'm veering toward serious-drunks-in-college territory here, but as I've never had this conversation in public that I can recall, here it is. More as I write it.


Thomas said...

I'm veering toward serious-drunks-in-college territory here

As a Physics major and, later, an English major, I can relate quite well, although our conversations were assisted by a dryer, more easily rolled in paper, substance. I recall one particular conversation that stopped on a dime when the music to which we were listening (Peter Gabriel, "We Do What We're Told") stunned the two philosophy students in the room who'd just completed a unit on Stanley Milgram.

Oddly enough, the one comment on language that I can bring to the conversation is Trent's (and therefore yours, obviously); in that there's nothing that you can do to really change another person through words. The one thing that you can do to really change their world is to steal from them.

I'm mangling that, of course, as it's coming from only having read and re-read that book 25 times (I finally made the club last year. We have special ID cards). I think there's a truism there, however, and it relates to the personal interpretation of symbols. There was a great series of hard-SF books (the name and author escapes me) where the pilots of space ships had to communicate with their software through "idea-grams" which held implicit meanings and had no required interpretation. In order to travel through space, the pilot had to noodle his way through a puzzle of space-time knots and pathways, and the way to do that was to solve a series of equations using these idea-grams. Greg Bear had a similar system in Eon, where the future-folk had dispensed with language and adopted a hologram display by which to communicate with each other through symbolic pictures.

I'm rather uncertain on the many avenues down which a discussion like this can travel, but one thing I know for certain, and that's George Carlin's philosophy regarding obscenity: Words are only hurtful and offensive if you apply those emotions to those words. The words themselves hold no empiric obscenity. This translates for me as a certain futility in attempting to communicate my deepest feelings...the end result being that any attempt I've ever made at creative writing (professional or otherwise) has failed in the light of my own belief that what I'm writing would never been interpreted correctly by the reader, and my time could be better spent watching another rerun of Everybody Loves Raymond...or something.

J.D. Ray said...

Wow. My brain hurts.

I feel like something of a plebe in the company of aristocrats, as it were, as my knowledge of philosophy is terrifyingly thin. Being a good American, though, it won't stop me from commenting as if I have something important to say.

It's been my conclusion that two basic factors in all life, from plants right on up to dolphins and pan-dimensional white mice, can be boiled down to "what do you want?" and "what resources do you have to get it?" I used to say the second question was, "what are you willing to do to get it?" but decided that will was just a resource one has to be willing to expend. Wait, that's redundant. I'll give it some more thought and see what I arrive at. By example, a seed, planted, has the resources of the soil around it, water, and some bit of starter nutrition contained in its own casing. Its goals, programmed in its DNA, involve putting down roots, pushing up the soil in search of sunlight, growing and reproducing. Most creatures in the animal kingdom have goals that, sketched with a heavy chalk, aren't that much different.

One would think that humans, with our grand complexity, would fall under a different set of rules. The Church certainly thinks so, but that's another story. Really, all of society as we know it is based on the presumption that people are going to operate with a certain amount of restraint in choosing what resources they will expend to get what they want. Or, in most cases, how much risk they're willing to endure.

I'm not sure I'm making sense here. This needs more Deep Thought and polishing of presentation. At the root, though, I'm certain of my premise.

Thomas, I marvel that you went from Physics to English. I imagine that a study of philosophy would help make that transition with your sanity in tact. That and a healthy dose of that substance you mentioned.

Dan, on the subject of proofreading, I have a question that I really hesitate to ask, for fear of sounding petulant or whiny. Really, it's not what I intend. I've mentioned before that I'm trying to learn about the craft of writing (taking the "learn by doing" approach), and I feel that the best way to learn is ask a lot of questions. Furthermore, learning a craft by studying its periphery can be useful (I learned a lot about programming by being a QA engineer). So, here it goes...

What is it about the work Everett Kaiser did in proofreading that set his apart from that the rest of us did?

See why I was worried about that sounding whiny? I know what I mean, and it sounds whiny. Damn it. Really, I'm interested to know how to improve as a proofreader, with an eye toward a role as editor (not of your work, but of my own).

It's a matter of resources, you see. I want to use what I have in the best manner I can. They're precious.



sumGirl said...

"I believe I'm close to having AI War back from Bantam." This is such good news Dan, and I hope it works out. I remember back when the Star Wars prequels were just rumors, I had a terrible fear I might die before I got to see them. Now maybe I will be extra careful while I await more Trent!

Chris said...

I read Emerald Eyes and The Long Run when they were new, and I was in High School, that was quite awhile back now.

No more than a couple days have ever passed since without recalling a Trent the Uncatchable quote of some sort.

I was a member of the email list for years, but lost track of it when I switched email adresses quite awhile back. It had been a long time since there was anything new posted on it anyway.

I am very happy to have stumbled across your blogging. It's great to have your Point of View and your words, whether fiction or just as "Deep Thoughts" out here on the net again.


Steve Perry said...

No matter where you go, there you are...

J.D. Ray said...

"No matter where you go, there you are..."

Yup. And, because we're men, we got there without asking directions.

eKaser said...

re: proofreading... I'm happy to have been able to help, Dan. I haven't read the online versions of AB, EE, or TLR, so I may work through those in the coming months. But once in the habit, it's hard to break out:

Paragraph 3: "...the work Everett Kaiser's done..." It's Kaser, not Kaiser. :-)))


eKaser said...

JD wrote: "What is it about the work Everett Kaser did in proofreading that set his apart from that the rest of us did?"

I can only speak for what *I* did (since I never saw anyone else's proofs). When I read fiction, I read pretty much "word by word", as if I were reading out loud. I can and do read some in "speed reading" mode, but when it comes to fiction, slower is better IMO. When PROOFreading, I read about the same speed, but ...differently. During normal reading, I become immersed in the text, forgetting that I'm reading, imagining the world being portrayed in words. When PROOFreading, I keep a 'distance' between me and the book. I can still get some enjoyment while proofreading, but not as much, because that 'distance' is preventing the immersion into the words, while at the same time it's enabling me to catch mistakes in the text. It's kind of like walking a tight-rope.

The kinds of things I caught were grammatical errors ('a' vrs 'an'), wrong words (your instead of you're, then instead of the, etc), wrong tenses (opened instead of open), punctuation errors (missing commas, ellipsis that was split between two lines, etc), typos (VIPS instead of VIPs), formatting errors (indentation problems, italicized words that shouldn't have been, etc), missing copyright statement, continuity problems (although that verges on 'editing', not proofreading, and I only caught one of those).

Basically, just about anything that catches your eye while reading slowly and carefully.

Hope that helps.


Rob said...

... While there are no complete systems that can adequately express all truths, there are a ton of complete systems that can adequately express all truths within their universe of discourse.

Prepositional logic has a fairly small (but interesting) universe of discourse, and is complete. First-order logic has a huge (nearly infinite) universe of discourse, and is incomplete.

... QM does not declare part of the cosmos to be unknowable. It declares part of the cosmos to be indefinite. If I flip a coin and don't look at it, the ultimate resolution is indefinite--but I still know that once the resolution is determined and the waveforms collapsed it will be either heads or tails with a fifty percent chance of either. That's knowledge about the system, even if the system's current state is indefinite.

... Chaos--the hallmark of a chaotic system is not that it cannot be predicted, but that it can be predicted. Systems that cannot be predicted are random, not chaotic, and I honestly can't think of a single one. Not even quantum mechanics. One of my colleagues is doing computer simulation of turbulent blood flow in the heart. It's a disturbingly chaotic system. And yet, the Navier-Stokes equations still hold.

... The lesson of twentieth century science is that we must re-evaluate definiteness. Knowledge and our ability to rely upon it are still with us.

J.D. Ray said...


Thanks for the feedback, and sorry about the name thing.

I generally try to do just as you suggest, reading slowly and slightly aloof from the story at hand. I'm not a fast reader anyway, and in these instances, it helps.

I like challenges, and saw the opportunity to proofread Dan and Jodi's novels as a game of sorts; find all the hidden gems. In the end, I know how many I found. Now I wonder how many there were.

Wait, weren't we just talking about quantum mechanics in this thread? Uncertainty principle? Isn't that a fine howdy-do?

My hat's off to you, sir. Cheers.


Dan Moran said...


"I'm mangling that, of course, as it's coming from only having read and re-read that book 25 times (I finally made the club last year. We have special ID cards)."

I know. Teenagers keep trying to use them to buy booze.


"I feel like something of a plebe in the company of aristocrats, as it were, as my knowledge of philosophy is terrifyingly thin."

You're not missing much. I've done my due diligence in this area, and while there are philosophers I like (Bertrand Russell, who was also a first rate mathemetician, and, unfortunately, a pacifist ... Bertrand's flavor of logical positivism in general annoys me less than most other forms of philosophy) ... while there are philosophers I like, in broad I'd trade the whole lot of them for the internal combustion engine.

Also, you weren't the person who mispelled Everett's name (first); that was me. Apologies.

Rick said...

So who else heard the Pigs in Space announcer voice when they read "drunks-in-college" and thought that would make a hilarious Muppet skit?

Pagan Topologist said...

Bertie Russell was a pacifist during the "Great War" but not during the second world war. And around 1945 or 1946 he suggested that the US should use nuclear weapons to subdue the USSR before the USSR could get its own.

Goedel only proved incompleteness for systems complex enough to contain arithmetic, that is, the natural numbers with induction. Many woule argue that we live in a finite world where this does not apply. (I, myself, would not argue this, but it should be mentioned.)

David Bellamy