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Narrow conceptions of determinism

Still haven't had a chance to read Taleb's Black Swan as my local bookshop hasn't received it yet but I did read, last week, his earlier (and entertaining) Fooled By Randomness which is pretty eye-opening by itself. In passing, I was reminded of Popper's stance on determinism - one of the few things I reckon Popper got wrong - and it occurred to me that much of the discussion around determinism is hampered by the fact that the popular conception of determinism, including that of Taleb and Popper, is overly narrow. Taleb makes the correct point that we often mis-identify predictable patterns in mere "randomness". But one needn't posit "true" randomness under indeterminism for this to be true. Even under determinism, any complex system is going to be "functionally" random with causes "effectively" (but not "in principle") impossible to identify. It seems to me that Taleb and Popper try (and fail) to establish an "in principle" objection to determinism but an "in principle" objection to determinism is not necessary to show that "naive determinism" - the idea that simple cause and effect are easy to identify and can be used to make accurate predictions - is wrong. In other words, the problem with Laplace's Demon is not that it would be impossible for such a "vast intellect" to predict the future but that naive determinists vastly underestimate (and misunderstand) just how (unimaginably!) vast that intellect would have to be to process the amount of information required.

Gut feelings

It occurred to me the other day that we reason with our gut much more often than we let on. I think it is regrettable that intuitionism is taken as seriously as it is - intuitions ought only provide a useful check for a line of reasoning rather than a trump card - and I favour critical rationalism but I have recognised a form of reasoning which can often be "ret-conned" as critical rationalism but when examined takes the form of post-rationalising a gut feeling. Example: in my professional work as an architect I often have to deal with suggestions that I "just know" are a bad idea and find myself constructing a line of reasoning to show that it is indeed a bad idea. If it's the case that, upon reflection, there isn't a good reason for my initial instinct, I'm happy to defer to reason but the point is that for every properly set out chain of reasoning leading to a conclusion a lot of the time there's probably an initial gut feeling which inspired the argument in the first place.

Retrospective Predictions

I haven't had a chance to read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book "The Black Swan: The Impact of The Highly Improbable" yet, but I thought that Niall Ferguson's piece in the Telegraph last week, on it and how it relates to the coverage of the Virgina Tech massacre, was pretty eye-opening. The key insight is that there is a human cognitive bias which prevents us from appreciating improbable events - we tend to conflate improbable with impossible - and we are also naturally predisposed towards creating narratives or "retrospective predictions" for such events. It's easy (or rather facile) to see *now* the sequence of events leading to Cho's rampage and it's an easy trap to fall into to (incorrectly) assume that this sequence should have been obvious before the massacre.

By chance a similar discussion about a "family annihilation" has been taking place here in Ireland: Adrian Dunne killed his two young daughters and his wife (the official line is that she wasn't herself involved with the planning and implementation of these killings) before hanging himself. Most of the debate centres around what could and should have been done by the authorities to prevent this tragedy: Dunne had visited a funeral home shortly before and had ordered four coffins and given detailed instructions for the funeral in the event that an "accident" took place. The popular, and in my view incorrect, assumption seems to be that this event was utterly predictable given the (now) compelling narrative leading up to it.

Online discussion ennui

I used to blog at Internet Commentator but have let that pretty much lapse. The principal reason for neglecting it was the overwhelming sense of ennui which had begun to descend (almost) every time I considered any kind of internet commentary, whether by blogging, or even just commenting on websites. This ennui stems from a growing awareness - thanks to discussions here and posts at blogs such as Overcoming Bias - of both my own capacity for bias and - from all sorts of online discussions - of how tenacious and irrationally held many entrenched beliefs are.

The key implication of the former insight is that it's worth checking for over-confidence in the correctness of your opinions and your assessment of the opinions and motivations of your opponents. It's not so much that I'm embarrassed by my blog postings between 2003 and 2006 but I have had cause to revise my opinions on some issues. I don't think that I was overly uncharitable to those with whom I disagreed and if anything my cynicism towards political "activists" has even deepened, but I do think I could have tried harder, say in the case of Iraq, to find the best possible argument against my position as opposed to taking on the median argument or a biased interpretation of a better argument.

An implication of the latter insight is that most online discussions are futile and a wasteful use of precious time and energy. It's so easy to get sucked into a discussion, let it occupy a lot of your thinking and achieve nothing at the end of it save the pointless satisfaction of besting your opponent for the benefit of some hypothetical (and probably non-existent) "neutral" observer. It's not that I seek to restrict online discussions to an echo chamber populated by those with whom I already agree, far from it. It's just that I don't have any interested in getting sucked into debates with those who have entrenched opinions on the matter. Such entrenchment is mercifully rare here so I do hope to get involved.