The fallibility of the mind

In his book Thinking Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman suggests that our minds are fundamentally lazy. Thinking requires attention and effort and these capacities are easily depleted. We prefer the comfort of the familiar and coherent to the discomfort of unfamiliarity and uncertainty. What matters is the narrative, and the best narratives are simple and coherent. As a consequence, we tend, without being aware of it, to substitute easier questions that we can answer for harder questions that we can’t. This unconscious substitution is the basis of the heuristics and biases model that Kahneman developed with Amos Tversky. In their…

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A manifesto for heuristics

In developing my ideas over the last few years, I have been guided by two basic intuitions. The first is that conceptual structures in all domains are, ultimately, heuristic models. The second is that the target for the application of these models is an abstraction from, rather than the totality of, reality. The two ideas are connected. Abstraction is a process of ignoring some aspects of a totality and heuristic models are typically simplifications that deliberately ignore many features of the target domain. The idea about abstraction has been with me for a long time. I think the original inspiration…

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What do we see when we look in the mirror?

The sections below are taken from the slides I used for a talk at the Alliance Francaise de Penang in December 2019. I am grateful to the director and team at the AF for the opportunity to make this presentation. The fundamental question We have at least two different pictures of the cosmos and no obvious means of integrating them. We have no intuitive understanding of the micro-scale of physics and chemistry, only a set of mathematical models. But, at the same time, those mathematical models have nothing to say about the familiar world of our own experience of being…

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Escaping the mind-body dualism

In his book Mind and Cosmos, Thomas Nagel suggests neutral monism as a potentially better way of understanding the relation of the mind to the physical world than the traditional alternatives of materialism, idealism and dualism.However, as Peter Godfrey-Smith pointed out in his review in the London Review of Books, Nagel has in mind here an interpretation of the idea of neutral monism that would:Explain the appearance of mental life at complex levels of biological organization by means of a general monism according to which the constituents of the universe have properties that explain not only its physical but also…

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The real world out there

There are over a dozen different interpretations of quantum mechanics, not including the view that we shouldn’t be trying to interpret the theory at all, the “shut up and calculate” school. We could put that more elegantly perhaps as where we cannot speak, there we should be silent. In his recent book Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, Lee Smolin frames the issue as primarily one between scientific realism and what he calls anti-realism, though non-realism might be better. He argues that generations of scientists have been taught that quantum theory is, from a philosophical perspective, anti-realist. The established view, the Copenhagen interpretation,…

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Mathematics & the interpretation of science

In his essay Form, Substance & Difference, the ecologist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson wrote: It all starts with the Pythagoreans. The argument took the shape “Do you ask what it is made of - earth, fire, water, etc?” Or do you ask, “What is its pattern?” We can reasonably say that this argument has now been resolved decisively in favour of pattern. The basic ontology of nature that we have is an ontology of events rather than entities. The models of physics are mathematical models that describe transformations in space and time of measurable quantities: momentum, energy, charge and so…

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The outer expression of an inner life

In his Journals, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) wrote:It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.The implication of this is that the person with the life to live has a point-of-view that is incommensurable with the point-of-view of, not just of the philosophers, but of theorists in any discipline. I see this as one aspect of the participant observer duality.Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) was one of the first philosophers to think about this and the distinction between the natural sciences and what is usually called…

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