Comments on “What they don’t teach you at STEM school”

Comments

Thank you

Aretae's picture

Thank you. I've been building and pushing meta rationality for a dozen years or so...but self constructing it, without the academic reading you've got, and then trying to sell. I was missing 2-3 pieces from my ability to explain it. Youve provided clarity on those, and i owe you thanks. Or even a beverage if we cross paths

It's not quite addressing the

Joshua Brulé's picture

It's not quite addressing the same problem, but I found Hamming's "You and your research" to be particularly helpful in developing "meta-systematic skills". It's dense - I've reread it a few times several months apart and seemed to pick up something new each time.

journal articles don’t explain the thinking process.

I've toyed with the idea of a series of vignettes about the (hypothetical) thought process that went into cool mathematical/scientific discoveries.

One of the best lectures I've ever attended as an undergrad was when my professor started by very informally discussing how one might go about interpolating a series of points. "We could just draw a line straight from x_1 to x_2 then x_2 to x_3... that's an interpolation! But that seems unsatisfactory. Maybe we decide to fit a n-1 degree polynomial for all the points but… we have a problem called 'Runge's phenomena'. … Now if we use this cubic spline approach, we don't have enough constraints, so we could try [description of 'not a knot']. Or maybe we try [description of a natural cubic spline]."

It really stuck with me because it was the first time I'd thought of mathematical discovery as an inherently creative, unpredictable process. I'd love to see a whole book along these lines, but a major difficulty in trying to write something like it is that I'm not good enough at introspecting on my own thought process yet - and writing it for other people is going to be an order of magnitude more difficult still. Plus, the intended audience is pretty small.

I really like this project. Hopefully, as I develop more of these skills on my own, I can contribute in a better way then nodding my head and saying, "Hmm... good idea" a lot.

I realize this isn't really

Nick's picture

I realize this isn't really fair (because of the Buddhist/Tantric angle), but this whole post reads remarkably like one gearhead's attempt to understand how normal people think. I'm pretty sure that most reasonably intelligent people outside of academia are already stage 5 (and not stage 3 as you may have claimed earlier), and that being stuck in stage 4 is basically a neurological disorder.

Furthermore, outside of a conscious understanding of systems and their limitations, I expect it would be futile to try to improve one's "meta-rational aptitude", because it's just a stand-in for general intelligence.

The academic literature finds otherwise

I'm pretty sure that most reasonably intelligent people outside of academia are already stage 5

Well... many academic psychologists have worked in this framework for many decades, and they've done empirical stage assessment of many thousands of people from all walks of life in many countries, and their results all find that stage 5 is rare. Less than 5% of the population; probably much less.

outside of a conscious understanding of systems and their limitations, I expect it would be futile to try to improve one's "meta-rational aptitude", because it's just a stand-in for general intelligence.

This post says explicitly, more than once, that a conscious understanding of systems and their limitations is a prerequisite to meta-rational aptitude. So I'm not sure what you are objecting to here.

Hamming, Polya, Rota

Joshua — Yes, Hamming's guide is excellent. (Or, I thought so 30 years ago; I should re-read it!)

Polya's How To Solve It is often recommended. It didn't do much for me but YMMV.

I haven't read Rota's Indiscreet Thoughts, but it may be the sort of thing you are looking for!

Any ideas why they're all

Duckland's picture

Any ideas why they're all management consultants? It seems you would have one.

Since there never was any ground, you always were walking on clouds—and that worked pretty well! Your eternalistic belief in systems was mistaken, but your activity was relatively effective nonetheless.

In other words: because we do understand and act effectively, therefore we can. The remaining work, from 4.6 to 5.0, is learning more about how that can be, and how to do it better.

At first I read the first two sentences and felt relief at what seems surprisingly obvious. Then I reflected and realized that I don't have good criteria for evaluating whether I understand and act effectively. Clearly everyone reading this page is fed, alive, breathing, not-suicided. Is this good enough?

To me this seems to relate to FOMO -- perhaps there's a better system just around the Internet-corner that I'd miss if I called off the search. Even if I don't believe there's an Ultimate System, I can't rule out that there's an infinite sequence of better systems that I should be chasing (instead of taking other action). Obviously this is exacerbated by the Internet, etc, etc.

It seems ironic to me that the Holy Grail of rationality -- math -- essentially relies on meta-systematic discovery. Do rigid STEM people experience cognitive dissonance for this? If math discovery were systematic then someone would have already followed the rules to solve one of the remaining Millenium Problems for fame, glory, money.

For the critical feedback: this article reads to me very vague, wishywashy, though I do tend to believe most of what it says. Yeah, I know, nebulosity.

Also your taste in memes seems about 5+ years behind (to this <25 Millenial) (FWIW).

Vagueness

Any ideas why they're all management consultants?

Yeah, interesting question. I don't know. I suspect they think it gives maximum leverage for their ideas. If they can get senior execs in large organizations to implement cognitive development support programs, that could impact tens of thousands of people, or more.

Also, it's probably the highest-paid gig a professor can hope for. On the other hand, JSB (never a professor) has to be very well off indeed, and he's still doing interesting things along these lines.

Maybe I too should go into management consulting for the same reasons!

I don't have good criteria for evaluating whether I understand and act effectively. Clearly everyone reading this page is fed, alive, breathing, not-suicided. Is this good enough? [etc]

Yes, your questions here are the fundamental ones around "purpose," which is one of the main topics of the book. I haven't published more than a summary introduction of that part yet, although it was actually my starting point, and I have a lot of material in draft form, written around 2005.

math relies on meta-systematic discovery. Do rigid STEM people experience cognitive dissonance for this?

Interesting question! I would guess the answer is "yes, so they avoid thinking about that." Most STEM people are actually STE people, and recognize they aren't up to creating new math. (I pretty much include myself in that, although I've proved a novel theorem or two in my time.)

critical feedback

Thank you!

very vague, wishywashy. Yeah, I know, nebulosity.

Well, also it's a preliminary summary of a large project. Sort of like a PhD thesis proposal, maybe. Those tend to be pretty hand-wavy. Or at least, they were handwavy where and when I was when I wrote mine.

your taste in memes seems about 5+ years behind

Yeah, I'm old. I'm so old I remember when cheezburger was good. That was sometime in the Merovingian Dynasty I think. During the reign of Clovis II probably. Anyway, before you were born.

Great post, in general your

Romeo Stevens's picture

Great post, in general your recent (this year) spate of increased post density has been very solid.

I seem to be feeling my way through the same cluster (vajrayana, adult development models, the good-parts continental philosophy flyover, the interesting bits of anthropology sub-fields, etc). I've been pointing some people to How to Think Real Good out of lack of anything better (at least that is a post and not 5 books), so I'm happy to see you mark it out as something worthy of improvement.

Some things that have been fruitful for engaging more with nebulosity as a recovering 4.5 abyss gazer: creativity research (direct engagement with meaning making as play) as exemplified by John Cleese's Open Mode talk, physical practices (why does this work? lol no one has any idea), design pattern stuff (Sarah Perry's reading list). Oh, this paper is great for certain types: http://www.math.cornell.edu/~mathclub/Media/thurston-proof-and-progress.pdf

Would be interested in discussing the indispensability argument with you some time via higher bandwidth channels.

Conjuring

Rich's picture

Great post! Getting to 5 seems a lot more involved than I would've thought. A couple questions:

  1. What are some examples of "legendary feats of meta-rationality," out of curiosity?
  2. What might the steps for an English major, or anyone beginning from a non-rational / true pomo background look like? (Using the same notation or whichever)

Interested in your thoughts!

Conjuration liturgy

Answering #2 first, I would take a look at "metamodernism" which is pretty vague but pointing in I think the right direction. Also, read Kegan's books!

To answer #1, some early draft text from a "metarationality ritual liturgy" I am writing:

I invoke the wisdom and method of Zhuangzi, who regarded all philosophical systems as jokes—neither right nor wrong, but faintly absurd in their blindness to nebulosity.

I invoke the wisdom and method of Friedrich Nietzsche, who sang that the death of God was the death of all eternalisms

I invoke the wisdom and method of Martin Heidegger, who saw that rationality is a mode of intentionality derivative from unimpeded everyday activity

I invoke the wisdom and method of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who realized that language is given meaning in use, and so slew logical positivism

I invoke the wisdom and method of Harold Garfinkel, who observed how meaning is accomplished as a occasion-specific ongoing accomplishment of organized artful social practice

I invoke the wisdom and method of Gail Jefferson, who discovered the details of how people use language

I invoke the wisdom and method of Robert Kegan, who demonstrated empirically the existence of meta-rationality

I invoke the wisdom and method of Gregory Chaitin, who proved that almost all mathematical truths are unknowable

Play as a path beyond 4.5

increased post density

I've had more time to write in the past three months than I've had in many years. Am grateful for that!

creativity research (direct engagement with meaning making as play) as exemplified by John Cleese's Open Mode talk

I hadn't heard about that before! I will take a look (listen). I've found him insightful elsewhere.

physical practices

Yes, really important I think. This also connects with play.

design pattern stuff (Sarah Perry's reading list)

If you like that, check out Donald Schön's stuff. He talks about "design as a way of knowing" and "as a reflective conversation with the materials." Made a big impact on me when I read him around 1988. Need to go back and re-read, I think!

http://www.math.cornell.edu/~mathclub/Media/thurston-proof-and-progress.pdf

I've had time to read only the first page of that, but it already looks extremely interesting! Will come back to it when I get a chance.

the indispensability argument

I had never heard of that! Something else I need to read, clearly...

William Gillis on nihilism

Thank you! Yes, I've seen that before, and I agree it's excellent. He promised follow-on posts, which haven't appeared yet. (I have the same fault :-)

I've mentioned his post on twitter, and in comments here, so it's possible that you did hear about it from me. I'm sure we're not the only ones to think it's worth publicizing, though, so it may have been someone else's recommendation!

Have you read Anathem? It

Romeo Stevens's picture

Have you read Anathem? It strikes me that a fictional account of going from 4-5 could be more effective in that it rolls in the unblending from beliefs that need to change step since it is happening to a character and not the reader. Also just generally more accessible. Siddartha by Hesse is similar.

Fiction as a bridge

Yes, I think a fictional account of the transition is an excellent idea, and might make it accessible to many people who otherwise might not find a way!

I haven't read Anathem, nor Siddartha.

"because I did not have time to write a shorter one"

Dan's picture

For me this is the single best thing you've written on this subject. Thank you!

Strong points:

  1. Framing it as a curriculum makes it easier for my practical, systematic mind to make sense of it. Tying it down to "what you need to do to get such-and-such a result" keeps it from wandering off into suspiciously vague abstractions—and unfortunately "suspiciously vague abstractions" is a fair description of how I read most of the book. I found your pieces on nutrition science and gambling especially clear for similar reasons.
  2. Supplementing all the stubs with recommended reading is really helpful. You've successfully convinced me that you're talking about something important, so it's depressing to know that the most important parts are not likely to be finished anytime soon. But this way, even if reading the book is 100x as hard as whatever you're planning, we have something to fall back on while we wait.

On a different note, is there a shortish answer as to what "Certainty" means in "Beacon of Certainty"? On the face of it, "certainty" sounds like the sort of eternalist ideal you're criticizing.

More detail needed

Glad you liked this!

Since the book would be gigantic if ever finished, it's inevitable that there's a lot of missing detail. I've gone back and forth between writing introductory generalities, and highly specific bits that are missing context (because the middle level is missing).

It seems from today's discussion on Hacker News that there's finally enough material on the site that some people are able to understand some of it (which was mostly not true a couple years ago).

is there a shortish answer as to what "Certainty" means in "Beacon of Certainty"? On the face of it, "certainty" sounds like the sort of eternalist ideal you're criticizing.

An excellent question; well-noticed! I haven't read the book in many years, and don't have an answer off-hand. My recollection is that he doesn't talk much, or at all, about certainty. I'd have to spend some time digging into it to figure out why it is called that. It's possible that he did commit an eternalistic error here, although I would guess not.

Ah, hmm, from http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Beacon_of_Certainty we have:

The title, "The Beacon of Certainty, refers to the fact that unwavering certainty in the view of the indivisible union of appearance and emptiness is a shining beacon that illuminates the spiritual path.

At a guess, this is "certainty" of experience, rather than a formal epistemological certainty... but unpacking that would take quite a bit of work.

What's expected of systems?

Hi, big fan - I enjoy your writing a lot (much of it is revelatory), but I keep finding one thing confusing among all the abstraction: when you talk about systems not being able to provide "solid ground" or lacking ultimate justification, what exactly is required that isn't delivered?

Would such a system need to provide satisfactory answers to any question you might have? Give you an explicit procedure for aquiring certain knowledge or making optimal decisions at all times?

I find it obvious that such systems do not exist. Is that all your critique of systems are supposed to mean or are you making a stronger claim? In other words, are we talking "there is no truly 'correct' map of the territory" or "there is no territory at all, only maps"?

What isn't delivered?

Glad you like the writing; and thanks for the question. This is certainly a point that needs clarifying. That will be the job of "module 4.3"! But I'll try a summary version here.

The "solid ground" problem is not with systems themselves; it is with our attitudes toward systems. "Eternalism" is the attitude that something can provide definite answers. That might be God, or it might be a conceptual system.

Until roughly the middle of the 20th century, many forward-looking people thought Science (with a capital S) could provide definite answers to all questions. Logical positivism was the leading version of this idea. That was a thorough-going eternalism.

A series of negative results undercut this, and sophisticated people now recognize some limitations. Less ambitious philosophies of science (falsificationism, Bayesianism, etc.) are attempts to explain why science works, while recognizing that some uncertainty is inherent and unavoidable.

Here it's important to understand that eternalism is a stance, not a system. It is not a well-thought-out philosophical claim; it is an emotional attitude. Many people retain the stance of eternalism toward Science/rationality, without any deep conceptual understanding of what that might imply. (This is pretty prevalent in the organized rationalist community; for some reason that irritates me unreasonably.)

Rationalist eternalism can manifest as a meta-level certainty: "We can only ever know the Truth probabilistically, but the Dutch Book Argument proves with absolute certainty that our way of asymptotically approaching Truth is optimal."

That recognizes one limitation of conceptual systems, but is blind to the main one. The main problem is that any given system is stated in terms of a vocabulary of entities, categories, properties, and relationships; and those can never accurately correspond to macroscopic reality. Reality is too nebulous for that.

Some apples are definitely red; some are definitely not; some are inbetween. How red does an apple have to be before it counts as "red"? This is not a problem of uncertainty about the Truth; it is a problem of nebulosity. Capital-S Science is not helpful here. This ambiguity cannot be captured in a probabilistic or falsificationist framework.

A framework that recognizes uncertainty only within systems works well so long as reality more-or-less conforms to the vocabulary. (That can be either naturally, or because we force it to, via manufacturing process optimization for instance.) When reality does something that can't be expressed in the system's vocabulary, the systematic mode breaks down.

Systematic eternalism relies on blindness to that kind of breakdown: occasions when what happens can't be described in terms of the system at all. Understanding this is aim of the 4.3 module. Then 4.4 goes through a lot of examples, deepening the analysis of ways reality can fail to fit a vocabulary. Ideally it ought to leave you baffled as to how conceptual systems can ever work. (Then 4.7 explains how they do work!)

So, going back to what you said:

I find it obvious that such systems do not exist.

Excellent!

There's two ways this might be understood. One is that no system can provide complete certainty because we can never know all the facts. This can be accommodated with stage 4 rationality in a falsificationist or probabilistic framework. The other interpretation is that no system can, even in principle, have a fully adequate description vocabulary. That is a 4.3 understanding (at minimum). I think you've got that!

are we talking "there is no truly 'correct' map of the territory" or "there is no territory at all, only maps"?

The former. The latter is usually a claim from the standpoint of nihilistic relativism, or eternalistic Idealism. (There's a "horseshoe" effect where those two seeming opposites wind up with much the same conclusions.)

If we had a complete unified physical theory, it might be a "truly correct map," but (as in one of Borges' stories) it would be useless for most purposes because it would be the same size as the territory. (Metaphorically speaking.)

This has been a pretty long answer to a few pretty simple questions. Please ask more if it just made things muddier!

what exactly is required that

Romeo Stevens's picture

what exactly is required that isn't delivered?

Meaning that is context free, in the same way that science is ostensibly the search for truth that is context free.

Unfortunately, this is a type error, meaning is inextricably bound up in context. The strongest meaning structures have the richest contexts. Observe the trope of 'world building' in fiction and how it interacts with the meaning people assign to the stories told within those worlds.

The scarier part (for stem folk) is the harder to discern fact that even our most context free scientific invariants are not fully context free. Quine is on about exactly this in his famous ontological commitments argument (indispensibility arguments in math).

philosophy of science

anders's picture

This discussion reminds me of when I flunked philosophy of science. We learned about Hume and the problem of induction, but I didn't really see the problem of it. It seemed to me that it could be treated as any other approximation problem; you could try different induction and meta-induction schemes and go with the one that looks like it'll work the best. The weakness of this scheme is that it already assumes that the future will be like the past, but it seems like the best assumption to start from, as it is a zeroth order polynomial fit. It will be wrong sometimes, but whenever you look at the past it will have been probably approximately correct.

Looking back I think the point of the problem of induction was that there is no solid logical ground for predicting anything you haven't yet seen. You cannot prove that your system contains it because there is nothing in logic that FORCES the next instant to be drawn from the same source as all the previous instants.

I couldn't understand why this was a problem at the time because the system I had chosen for the world was based on metaphorical evolution. The motto was: if you stop doing all the things that didn't work, you'll be left with something that usually works. (Which made Penrose's "The Emperor's New Mind" seem very silly)

When I was young I really enjoyed trying to figure out what the full set of parameters you would need to generate all the different bowls cups plates and everything in between (leaving off decorative patterns), or all the intermediates between knives forks and spoons. Or how a desk, table, chair, couch and bed could be transformed into each other.

Thanks for answering

Thanks for taking the time to answer so thoroughly, it's appreciated.

I'm totally on board with everything you said about nebulosity, and the constant inability for this insight to penetrate popular discourse drives me nuts. I'm so sick of the insistence to define categories by drawing lines along their fuzzy boundaries instead of just articulating the imperfect pattern that forms the center of the category (looking at you there, philosophy of science).

The "definite answers" bit is to me what needs unpacking. I find that there are many different kinds of answers and questions and they can't be lumped into a category of "general questions". There is the fact-value distinction for once (including composites), and then there is nebulosity, then vague social concepts like "meaning", and some questions are just nonsensical like "what's the color of tuesdays" (I include questions like "do people have free will?" in this category). So when I hear "answers to questions" I don't know what it refers to. I mean, did logical positivism think it could answer all questions? Didn't it dismiss whole classes of questions and statements as nonsensical? That doesn't sound like eternalism as described.

The rejection of certain knowledge or fully correct maps is often treated as a much bigger deal than what's warranted, I feel. We can't have certainty or perfection, but it still seems obvious that some maps are more accurate than others - truth and falsity are nebulous too and don't cease to exist because they are not sharply delineated categories. That we can't have infinite certainty and correctness doesn't necessarily mean that we can't become more and more certain and correct - even if we can't build an infinitely tall skyscraper there is still no hard limit to how tall one can be.

I also seems to me that nebulosity decreases or possibly even vanishes as we go from the macroscopic to the microscopic, I'd be much less willing call a concept like "methane molecule" nebulous, and that's why physics and chemistry are different (and easier) than sociology. One could argue that it's just another model (á la po-mo) but I think that's making it a little too easy.

This is probably just a matter of differing interests and priorities, but to me stating that there is a real territory and therefore a correct map (even if it's completely impractical and inaccessible) is important on principle - because that, combined with the preceding two paragraphs, counters the idea that our models are completely untethered from any real reality by providing some (hypothetical) real but intractable system that can be used as a theoretical reference point against which our various approximatory models can be evaluated (but never perfectly).

I don't think you mean our models are completely untethered, but many people sound like they do. And it does appear contradictory when you say both that "no system can, even in principle, have a fully adequate description vocabulary" and then "If we had a complete unified physical theory, it might be a 'truly correct map', but (as in one of Borges' stories) it would be useless for most purposes because it would be the same size as the territory". Practically useless but philosophically valuable, I say (somewhat like an existence proof).

Crap, I just wrote 600 words in one go. I'm rambling. Forgive me if this is unclear, I'm just sorting out my thoughts on this and I'll probably have a better model (sic!) soon.

P.S I don't find the problem of induction compelling either.

Popper knew the deal

lk's picture

The current discussion here reminded me of this quote from The Logic of Scientific Discovery:

Time and again an entirely new philosophical movement arises which finally unmasks the old philosophical problems as pseudo-problems, and which confronts the wicked nonsense of philosophy with the good sense of meaningful, positive, empirical science. And time and again do the despised defenders of 'traditional philosophy' try to explain to the leaders of the latest positivistic assault that the main problem of philosophy is the critical analysis of the appeal to the authority of 'experience' - precisely that 'experience' which every latest discoverer of positivism is, as ever, artlessly taking for granted.

He was presumably grumpy about all the positivists converging on Vienna. Ironically the one thing everyone now remembers about Popper is the boiled-down Science! claim that theories must be falsifiable, which is a nice first step but doesn't capture much of what he was interested in.

Thurston's Proof and Progress

@ Romeo— Thank you very much for the link to the Thurston paper. I've read it now, and it's really really great!

Hits all my usual themes about the nature of all activity: it is collaborative, improvisational, embodied, informal, intuitive, emotive, …

And Thurston explains this clearly in a context that STEM people can't possibly dismiss as pseudoscientific woo, postmodernism, romanticism, etc.

Definite answers

did logical positivism think it could answer all questions?

Well, the project was to explain how Science could answer all meaningful questions. "Positivism" meant (very roughly) that metaphysical problems were considered to be meaningless, and so to have no answers (and also no worth). (Which I sort of agree with, actually.)

when I hear "answers to questions" I don't know what it refers to

Well, this is where the fact that eternalism is a stance, not a system, comes into play. Rationalist eternalism isn't—any longer—a coherent philosophical position. (Logical positivism was a coherent version of rationalist eternalism, which failed, and no fully-worked-out alternative has been developed since then.) Rationalist eternalism is a pattern of emotional thinking that craves definite answers and pretends to believe that they must somehow be available through application of rationality.

some maps are more accurate than others - truth and falsity are nebulous too and don't cease to exist because they are not sharply delineated categories. That we can't have infinite certainty and correctness doesn't necessarily mean that we can't become more and more certain and correct

Yes, definitely! This is true and important. This is why I emphasize the inseparability of pattern and nebulosity. Pattern is what makes (incomplete) knowledge and understanding and control possible.

nebulosity decreases or possibly even vanishes as we go from the macroscopic to the microscopic, I'd be much less willing call a concept like "methane molecule" nebulous, and that's why physics and chemistry are different (and easier) than sociology.

Right. (Until you get to the quantum level, anyway; there things get nebulous and difficult again—even though you can make predictions accurate to a dozen decimal places.)

the idea that our models are completely untethered from any real reality

Yes, that is a very wrong and harmful idea.

it does appear contradictory when you say both that "no system can, even in principle, have a fully adequate description vocabulary" and then "If we had a complete unified physical theory, it might be a 'truly correct map', but (as in one of Borges' stories) it would be useless for most purposes because it would be the same size as the territory".

Well, a unified physical theory wouldn't answer questions like "was George Washington really the first American President?" (as I explained in a silly amount of detail in "Judging whether a system applies.") The problem is that "President" is an inherently nebulous term, and no amount of physics could help with that.

Popper

lk — Thanks for that!

I'm embarrassed to say that I've never actually read Popper, although I have a positive impression of him via secondary sources.

Late response, sorry.

Duckland's picture

Late response, sorry.

When I was critiquing your meme taste I had the "how many layers of irony r u on" meme in mind. Later that day I think I saw you reference the same meme on Twitter. What the fuck David?

Doesn't Venketash Rao also do management consulting of some kind? Doesn't the GTD guy also? Seems like a popping gig for people who know everything.

I think I've asked a question on another thread and was also directed to the Purpose section. I'll go there now to expend some angst in the comment section.

Of course, mentioning GTD

Duckland's picture

Of course, mentioning GTD because of the comparison in the Hacker News thread about you

IT'S A CULT

mentioning GTD because of the comparison in the Hacker News thread about you

brb, starting cult nao

Just one more round...

Well, the project was to explain how Science could answer all meaningful questions.

My non-expert sense is that they more or less defined "meaningfulness" as "being answerable by science", which makes it fairly easy to construct a "perfect" system...

Rationalist eternalism is a pattern of emotional thinking that craves definite answers and pretends to believe that they must somehow be available through application of rationality.

Ok, maybe I'm the odd one out here but I never got the feeling that this is very common - almost a straw man. When people talk about things being optimal, rational and such I don't see it as being context-free or metaphysical, more like practical. To me, the fact that I can't have infinite certainty isn't much more relevant than the fact that I can't make infinitely much money. I could be assuming too much about others, though.

Well, a unified physical theory wouldn't answer questions like "was George Washington really the first American President?"

By complete system I was thinking more along the lines of "complete history of the locations and interactions of every particle in the universe" rather than just unified physics. It'd have difficulty with such questions too, but that's because of the limitations of the (different) conceptual system embodied in ordinary language, not the hypothetical complete system itself. In theory, all questions posed in terms of the constituents of the system themselves (i.e particles) could be answered correctly.

When I read your writing I try to work out whether you're saying that I'm wrong about something or whether you're saying things I agree with but coming from a different direction with a different emphasis. This exchange has made things clearer (looks more like the second), so thanks, and I'm looking forward to reading the full book when it gets finished.

Science

they more or less defined "meaningfulness" as "being answerable by science", which makes it fairly easy to construct a "perfect" system

That's funny—I hadn't thought of it that way! That seems about right.

On the other hand, they soon found that Science couldn't, even in principle, answer the questions they expected it could, which is why the project collapsed. So, it wasn't easy to construct a perfect system at all; it was impossible.

In theory, all questions posed in terms of the constituents of the system themselves (i.e particles) could be answered correctly.

Yes. Note, though, that this (by itself) has almost no implications for any of the things most people mostly care about. Note also that "we could predict perfectly if we had complete knowledge of the initial conditions of the entire universe, plus more computational power than the entire universe has" is essentially meaningless, because we don't and never can, and neither can anyone/anything else. (Unless there's some sort of God outside the universe, which seems unlikely.)

Gödel woo?

Steve Alexander's picture

What's Gödel woo?

I don't think I've come across that. As a computer scientist, learning about Gödel's proof, and also the halting problem, was helpful in leading me to see the inherent limits of systems, and start to wonder what other ways of engaging with the world there might be.

That sounds like a pretty straightforward conclusion from an elegant proof.

Is this the woo? Or is it attributing some sort of mystical meaning to incompleteness... perhaps something like "normal systems are limited by Gödel's incompleteness proof, but the human brain isn't because magic?"

Gödel woo

attributing some sort of mystical meaning to incompleteness... perhaps something like "normal systems are limited by Gödel's incompleteness proof, but the human brain isn't because magic?"

Yes, exactly!

"Gödel proved that logic is no good, but human beings are special because we have mystical intuition and Romantic poetry! So you advocates for doing the logical thing are primitive children, and we should use astrology to guide the economy, which will bring a New Age of universal prosperity."

I think this was more popular twenty years ago or so.

Pseudoscience goes in fashion waves. When I was a kid, there was still Einstein woo around. Hippies went about saying "whoa, man, don't you know it's all relative? Einstein proved that." Haven't heard that since quantum woo came in; mid-70s maybe.

Final words

Note, though, that this (by itself) has almost no implications for any of the things most people mostly care about.

Oh, absolutely! The "things we care about" often don't have true answers at all (and those that do still have conceptual nebulosity and epistemic uncertainty). I just find a hypothetical "absolute correctness" useful as a sort of navigational aid and standard against which to ground and judge the merits of approximations, even if we can't reach it. A philosophical North Star, if you will.

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You are reading a metablog post, dated November 27, 2016.

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This page’s topics are Rationalism and Systems.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.