Thursday, October 17, 2013

Our Glassy Essence

No, the light you are looking at is not refracted.
Richard Diebenkorn, Knife and Glass, 1963
But man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.

— William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure

* *

The central epistemological problems of philosophy do not arise primarily from within philosophy at all, but from the recurrence in every area of human thought and practice of rival interpretations, and rival types of interpretation, of events and actions. It is for this reason that every academic discipline is to some degree ineliminably philosophical. The literary critic, the historian and the physicist presuppose, even when they do not explicitly defend, solutions or partial solutions to the problems of representation and justification. Shakespeare and Proust, Macaulay and Charles Beard, Galileo and Bohr cannot be read and responded to adequately without epistemological inquiries and commitments. Moreover, the philosophical problems and solutions in each particular area have a bearing on those in other areas; often enough, indeed, they are the very same problems. Hence the need for a synoptic and systematic discipline concerned with the overall problems of justification and representation...

— Alasdair MacIntyre1

* *

The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work.

— John von Neumann2

Press a practicing scientist, O Dearly Beloved, to explain what she does for a living and you will often (usually?) find her describing an extremely elaborate, well-constructed, and beautiful intellectual apparatus built to great height and breadth upon subtly shifting sands. As a von Neumann prediction machine, it is remarkably successful, at least in certain well-defined domains (e.g., quantum physics, astronomy), which she will no doubt point to with pride. Look a little closer, however, and you will begin to see lacunae, cracks, and jury-rigged joints papered over with vagueness and contradiction, especially at the gaps between different scientific disciplines or within the same discipline at different scales. Certain sections of the apparatus (like cosmology) seem to have abandoned their purported identity as prediction machines entirely and devolved into nebulous hypothesizing and vague handwaving. Others barely seem to merit the designation “science” at all. Look longer, and you begin to notice that virtually every section of the beautiful edifice is covered with permanent scaffolding and safety netting, with slightly dusty, battered “Under Construction” signs creaking forlornly in the breeze.

If she has any intellectual honesty, your scientist will acknowledge these defects with a slightly embarrassed shrug and an assurance that she and her colleagues are “working on it.” Pressed further, she will admit that the entire, vast apparatus—and every component section of it—is arguably only temporary, a stand-in theoretically ready to be torn down and discarded at a moment’s notice as soon as a more effective replacement is found. You will notice, however, that despite her protestations to the contrary she seems rather emotionally attached and intellectually committed to the existing bits, especially the ones she has devoted her career to understanding and perhaps improving. She also seems somewhat irrationally fond of the beauty of the apparatus—or what she claims to be its beauty, even though you may be unable to see it—and has real difficulty articulating why she believes the beauty of the machine makes it more fit for purpose, which is predicting future events.

* * *

Now far be it for me, a humble dilettante in all matters scientific, to deny the power, efficacy, and success of Science writ large. Without it—and without the legions of practical engineers and technicians who translate the pristine Platonic forms of pure science into messy, approximate, “good enough” directions for the construction of machines which actually work in the real world—you would not be able to read these words on your computer or mobile device and, more importantly, most of what you and I enjoy as perks of an advanced technological society would not even exist. As a cookbook, modern science is amazingly effective.

But it is important to guard against the notion, so often merely assumed by working scientists but occasionally trumpeted affirmatively by certain mouthpieces thereof, that the instrumental effectiveness of particular sciences provides prima facie proof that their underlying theories correctly describe the underlying reality of the world they purport to. For pace John von Neumann, rare is the scientist (or science writer) who can resist adopting the position that scientific theories actually describe that which is. Rare is the theorist who can treat her pet theory as merely a model which enables her to predict certain outcomes. Rarer still is the scientist who is content to ignore underlying reality (entities, causes, and effects) as a black box which doesn’t matter to the efficacy of her theorem. Such a perspective requires an intellectual rigor and discipline which is both rare and, as a matter of fact, practically unnecessary. Someone once quipped that most scientists are instrumentalists on Sunday and scientific realists the rest of the working week. It is simply easier to believe something like the Higgs Boson exists—or behave as if it does—than to practice particle physics as a mystifyingly effective physico-mathematical game.

The undeniable strength of science as a domain of human thought is that it embeds skepticism and contingency at the very root of its self-justification. Science is not science if it does not consist of theorems and hypotheses which are only—always and forever more—taken as potentially true until they are proven otherwise. And science itself declares its ambition to constantly test and retest its theories and assumptions for completeness, accuracy, and truth, even if this happens more often in theory than in fact. This is a highly admirable thing.

But science is not immune to the challenges of representation and interpretation which all human attempts to discover and describe the nature of reality are subject to. Science cannot finesse the influences and distortions which its practice by real human beings in real social contexts impose on it. Science cannot evade the problems of justification raised by choices driven more by aesthetics and intellectual convenience—like the preference for theories which are beautiful or which satisfy Occam’s Razor—rather than any a priori necessity. Science possesses no special defenses against the radical skepticism which calls into question our very relation to the world and each other. Science, in other words, does not hold a privileged position outside the core intellectual puzzles of human cognition and relation to reality.

* * *

All of which is simply to say that a scientist who claims that philosophy is dead and science has killed it is a fool. He or she is blind to the fact that philosophy is a discipline and way of addressing radical (from radix: root) mysteries and dilemmas at the core of our relationship to the world that science does not even touch. That science takes for granted. Such a scientist lives in a sort of intellectual Flatland, where the two-dimensional inhabitants are either incapable or terrified of grasping the notion they may be embedded in a universe which operates on them with constraints, causes, and effects they cannot even begin to comprehend. Such a scientist literally doesn’t have a clue what he or she is talking about.

The only cure for this, of course—now and always—is a healthy helping of humility. I struggle to remember mine every day.3

Related reading:
Sovereign Triviality (November 19, 2011)

1Alasdair MacIntyre on the claims of philosophy,” London Review of Books, Vol. 2 No. 11, pp. 15–16.
2 Cited in Derek Abbott, “The Reasonable Ineffectiveness of Mathematics," Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol. 101 No. 10, pp. 2147–2153.
3 Those among you who have read this far only to be disappointed I did not offer stock tips or inside dirt on the size of Jamie Dimon’s washroom may take this post as either self indulgence or self-directed therapy, as you will. Given that this is my blogsite, after all, I couldn’t care less.

© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Punished by Fate

Bad luck
Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899
“Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres.”

— Voltaire, Candide

Then, as his planet killed him, it occurred to Kynes that his father and all the other scientists were wrong, that the most persistent principles of the universe were accident and error.

— Frank Herbert, Dune

Marxist rationalist C.J.F. Dillow recently published a short post illustrating a central contention of his: that ordinary people systematically misallocate praise and blame to others based on their misunderstanding of the importance of chance in human outcomes. In particular, he cites an interesting experiment:
[The researchers] split subjects into a principal and agent. The agent chose between a safe option and a lottery, and the principal then split a sum of money between himself and the agent after seeing the outcome of the lottery. They found that principals’ payments depended upon the outcome of the lottery, even though this was obviously out of the agents’ control. For example, agents who chose the safe option were paid less if the lottery won than if it didn’t.

The researchers choose to explain this finding as the allocation by the principals of “unjustified blame” to the agents. Mr. Dillow finds this outcome

consistent with research... which has also found that people just can’t distinguish between luck and skill even in the elementary conditions.

I find neither of these interpretations satisfying or persuasive. In fact, I think they both fail because they severely underestimate the complexity and sophistication of ordinary people’s implicit understanding of risk, chance, and justice.

* * *

Take the experiment at hand. Consider an ordinary person’s perspective: as a principal, the experiment forces him to cede decision-making authority over whether to take a chance on a lottery or a safe option to an agent. If the agent chooses the lottery, the principal is exposed to the (presumably remote) chance of a large payout or the more likely outcome of a loss. If the agent chooses the safe option, the principal will enjoy a much smaller but far more certain positive payout. So far so good. But the experiment encourages principals to allocate “payment” to the agent with the hindsight of actual results: principals are both informed of the results of the lottery, whether they participated or not, and they have the discretion to award payment to their agent as they see fit. In other words, “payment for services” (the agent’s ex ante judgment) is rendered contingent, rather than contractual: it implicitly depends on the actual outcome of the experiment. And, from the perspective of hindsight, the agent who selected the safe option when the principal could have won much more money had he selected the lottery has made a bad decision. Ex post, the agent’s action has materially harmed the principal. Why should he not be punished for his mistake? Or, if you prefer to think of it this way, why should he not suffer some portion of the principal’s bad luck? It’s only fair.

Note, mind you, that nothing I have related above depends on the principal’s correct or incorrect understanding of the role of chance in the experiment’s outcome. Nevertheless, I find it hard to envision any group of participants the researchers were able to assemble being so dense as to fail to understand that the lottery drawing central to the experiment ties its outcome ineluctably to chance. Of course the outcome of a lottery depends on luck. That’s what lotteries are. Everybody knows this. Accordingly, if you asked them, every principal would acknowledge that the agent’s choice of lottery or safe option has absolutely no causal bearing on the eventual outcome and, therefore, that the agent can in no way be blamed for a poor result.

And yet principals in the experiment punished agents who chose wrong. What is going on here? How can we tie these seemingly contradictory understandings together?

* * *

One way to gain greater insight into this dilemma is to examine the motivations and incentives for agents in this experiment. As an agent, one bears no downside risk for making a decision on behalf of the principal. The agent will get paid one way or another. But the agent understands the contingent, ex post nature of his payment for services, too. Why would an agent not believe that, if he put the principal’s money at risk in the lottery and the principal won, the principal would not reward him with a greater payment than otherwise? Give him a big tip? Share the luck? Of course, if the principal loses the lottery, the agent should have every expectation of getting paid nothing, but this should not matter. The agent who chooses a fair lottery for his principal is also choosing to tie his payout (at least via the mechanism of normal human psychology) to chance as well.

But what of the agent who chooses the safe option on behalf of his principal? He is explicitly choosing to deny his principal the remote chance of a large payout in favor of a low risk, safe return. He is choosing a small, low risk payout for himself over a much riskier payout profile tied to the good or bad fortune of his principal. And the principal knows it. Hence, one might argue that a principal who pays an agent who chooses the safe option less if the lottery wins is punishing the agent for risk aversion, because it is the agent’s risk aversion which has, in retrospect, forced the principal to forgo a windfall of good luck.1

* * *

Unlike Mr. Dillow,2 I believe most people do have a solid if inarticulate understanding of the role of chance in their lives. Most ordinary folks can see the effects of good, bad, or indifferent luck in their own lives and the lives of their families and acquaintances very clearly, and most people understand that good and bad luck is relatively rare. They understand in a way that lucky people cannot that luck has absolutely nothing to do with talent, character, or “just deserts.” They think if only they’d had that lucky break, they could have been as successful and happy as the rich and famous people they see on television. They know that bad things can happen to good people, and good things can happen to the undeserving. They understand that they live in an indifferent or even hostile universe, and that they can fall prey at any moment to bad luck which can ruin or blight their lives or the lives of those they love. They are fatalists.

And because they are fatalists, most people have an instinctive ethos which says that because we cannot avoid the influence of luck in our lives, and good and bad luck happen for no rhyme or reason, therefore we must all take our chances. And, because we are all exposed to chance, and none of us fully deserve what happens to us because of it, we should share the burden or benefit of chance when it is suffered or enjoyed. This is why, I believe, we have so many stories like those of the executed Athenian generals Mr. Dillow recalls, so many examples through history of leaders and commoners alike punished (or rewarded) for things literally out of their control. These are sacrifices, yes, to an indifferent fate, but they are also methods of spreading the terrible burdens and benefits of ineluctable chance from the literally undeserving shoulders of the people it falls upon onto the broader shoulders of the community.

In other words, I think most of us believe, deep in our bones, that none of us blessed or cursed with fickle chance deserves to enjoy or suffer it alone. It is our common burden, because it is our common condition.

This is also known as justice.

Related reading:
C.J.F. Dillow, Misallocating blame (Stumbling and Mumbling, September 27, 2013)
Occupy Galt’s Gulch (May 8, 2012)
To Whom It May Concern (August 31, 2013)

1 I suspect there is an entire other blog post to be written following on from these remarks concerning their implications for principal–agent relations, risk aversion, and Wall Street. I will spare you it for the nonce.
2 Who is focusing on this example of “unjustifiable blame” because, methinks, he is so concerned with the phenomenon of unjustified reward; that is, the rewards and benefits accruing to (mostly socioeconomic) elites from good luck. But my intuition tells me, as I have attempted to articulate above, that most people are willing to let the lucky enjoy most of the fruits of their luck—perhaps because they hope they will have the same chance themselves one day—but not all of them. How much of the good and bad luck accruing to individuals should be redistributed to the larger community—and in what fashion: progressive taxes, social welfare systems, charity, etc.—is of course the central political question, and one which each society answers differently at different times.

© 2013 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.