Archive for October, 2011

Education

October 30, 2011

Educational institutions in India run from mediocre to abysmal. The demand for good education is incredibly high. Poor parents are willing to spend a large portion of their income to send their child to private “English” medium school. As I found out this weekend, even the richest people are worried about their children’s admission to a good school. When demand is high and supply is low, there is no incentive for producers to improve their product or reduce prices. What can we do to correct this situation? How can we use technology to reduce the gap between supply and demand?

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Intrinsic and Statistical Regularities

October 25, 2011

Mice could roar but they don’t. There is nothing preventing a small organism from growling; we have horns in India that do it all the time. A roaring mouse is improbable but not impossible. Similarly, a cloud shaped object could be hard, but is unlikely to be so. The relation between clouds and fluffiness is a regularity. Unlike the laws of gravity, regularities are not cast in stone. On the other hand, I am reluctant to admit that regularities are purely statistical in nature, if by statistical, one means relations that aren’t intrinsic to the way the world works. A statistical theory of regularities is agnostic as to the way the world makes the regularity just so; it only cares about representing the likelihood that a given cloud like object is soft. In other words, if I walk around the world punching cloud like objects, I am unlikely to get hurt; but I don’t care whether there is some intrinsic relation between fluffiness and density.

The problem is that any intrinsic relation between fluffiness and density is not physical, or at least mediated by the same physical mechanism all the time; cotton balls and clouds are both fluffy and soft but they are not fluffy for the same physical reason. If at all there is a natural relation between fluffiness and density it lies in the world of embodied information rather than physical mechanisms.

PS: Even probability itself is subject to the same questions about intrinsic versus statistical regularities. Consider a one rupee coin. You toss it a hundred times and it comes heads 48 times and tails 52 times. Is the roughly 1/2 heads, 1/2 tails distribution a regularity or is it purely statistical (whatever that means).  The symmetry of the coin argues for a regularity; in other words, a coin comes up heads half the time because it is symmetric and if one can’t control the force with which the coin is tossed, it is going to come heads or tails an equal number of times. In other words, even statistics  are derived from intrinsic regularities rather than the other way around.

Statistical and Intrinsic Regularities.

October 25, 2011

Mice could roar but they don’t. There is nothing preventing a small organism from growling; we have horns in India that do it all the time. A roaring mouse is improbable but not impossible. Similarly, a cloud shaped object could be hard, but is unlikely to be so. The relation between clouds and fluffiness is a regularity. Unlike the laws of gravity, regularities are not cast in stone. On the other hand, I am reluctant to admit that regularities are purely statistical in nature, if by statistical, one means relations that aren’t intrinsic to the way the world works. A statistical theory of regularities is agnostic as to the way the world makes the regularity just so; it only cares about representing the likelihood that a given cloud like object is soft. In other words, if I walk around the world punching cloud like objects, I am unlikely to get hurt; but I don’t care whether there is some intrinsic relation between fluffiness and density.

The problem is that any intrinsic relation between fluffiness and density is not physical, or at least mediated by the same physical mechanism all the time; cotton balls and clouds are both fluffy and soft but they are not fluffy for the same physical reason. If at all there is a natural relation between fluffiness and density it lies in the world of embodied information rather than physical mechanisms.

PS: Even probability itself is subject to the same questions about intrinsic versus statistical regularities. Consider a one rupee coin. You toss it a hundred times and it comes heads 48 times and tails 52 times. Is the roughly 1/2 heads, 1/2 tails distribution a regularity or is it purely statistical (whatever that means).  The symmetry of the coin argues for a regularity; in other words, a coin comes up heads half the time because it is symmetric and if one can’t control the force with which the coin is tossed, it is going to come heads or tails an equal number of times. In other words, even statistics  are derived from intrinsic regularities rather than the other way around.

Between IS and OUGHT

October 24, 2011

When human beings investigate their own nature, they ask two seemingly different questions:

  1. Who are we?
  2. Who should we be?

The first is the province of psychology, cognitive science and increasingly, biology.  The second is the province of ethics, arts and philosophy. One of the most interesting developments in modern scholarship is how the two views of human nature are increasingly coming together. Cognitive scientists are now writing about how we ought to live our lives: e.g.,  Steven Pinker‘s new book. One might disaagree with Pinker’s claims but at least he is recognizing that the old dichotomy between IS and OUGHT is breaking down. Perhaps it is time to declare a new compact:

IS = OUGHT

 

In other words, human reality does not distinguish between the way we live and the way things are. While one can make a distinction between the two, the separation between what is and what one should do has no ultimate truth attached to it. It might be useful to think of the two ways of looking at human natures as two stances: the objective stance and the ethical stance.  There are several ways of bridging the gap between the two stances: appropriate design and emancipative politics are two important means. In his thoughful essay on Gandhi as a thinker  Akeel Bilgrami argues that Gandhi’s conception of truth involves a natural flow from the perception of truth to moral action, satyagraha, that is just another facet of the same truth. While philosophers should read Pinker, it might also be useful for cognitive scientists to read Gandhi.

 

 

 

Synthesis

October 23, 2011

Science has mostly been an analytic pursuit; we try to break the universe into its constituent parts and analyze these parts for what they are.  This method is also often called reductionism, but one can be analytic without being a reductionist. Engineering on the other hand is synthetic; while an engineer does analyze cars in terms of engines and carburetors, the analysis is in the service of building a car. The parts are there to create the whole, not the other way around. The irreducibility of the whole is crucial to engineering; people buy cars, not carburetors.

Seeing as technology is mostly tied to production for the market, engineering is driven by pragmatic concerns – “does it work?”  or “will it sell?” A synthetic science that has the innocence of the pure pursuit of knowledge while keeping in mind the synthetic character of the systems it studies and the knowledge it creates might be better suited to the leading problems of our times such as understanding the mind and addressing climate change.

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The Cognitive Synthesis

October 4, 2011

I am giving a talk at NIAS tomorrow on what I am calling the cognitive synthesis. Cognition and it’s cognates such as mind, thought etc are now among the most important topics of investigation in the sciences and in philosophy. We a learning more and more about the biological and psychological roots of cognition. At the same time, cognition itself is being used to understand a variety of topics from art, religion and economics to mathematics and science. By cognitive synthesis, I mean the emerging view of the role of mind in the world.

My own perspective on the cognitive synthesis is grounded in regularity theory, i.e., that the current hodge-podge of ideas about cognition will be replaced by a more unified account of the role of informational constraints that will give us an understanding of cognition from cells to societies.

The Concrete Universal

October 3, 2011

In my previous post I introduced the idea of a concrete universal and asked if it wasn’t a contradiction in terms. The critic might argue that a concrete entity, like this computer in front of me has shape and size and heft, while universals like “computer-ness” is not located anywhere and has neither shape nor size or heft.

I disagree. In our lifeworld, our umwelt, entities appear as concreta and as universals. A person standing in front of me is both Anil (concrete) and a man (universal) and I have no problem perceiving him as both. The Naiyayikas had a point when they said that the universal (maleness) is located in the same location as the particular (Anil). But how do the universal and the particular come together? What is the nature of their conjunction? Isn’t putting universals and particulars together lead to the same sort of problem that Descartes faced when he tried to put the body and the soul together in the Pineal gland?  We have to try to understand these issues, which are both philosophical and scientific.

One slight detour: Cognitive scientists have long studied the fact that we categorize entities in nested categories: dog → animal → living thing. We could argue that identifying Anil as a human or vice-versa is just an extension of the categorization problem; an individual such as Anil is just a special case of a category, namely, a category with one element – Anil. But an individual is not a category. You can point to individuals – they have location and shape and size – but not to categories. Unless you are a Naiyayika and believe that the category is colocated with the individual.

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