Friday, August 11, 2017

Tractable problems

From Richard Dawkins Offers Advice for Donald Trump, and Other Wisdom by John Horgan. An interview.

A couple of points.

Richard Dawkins is undoubtedly one of our best public intellectuals and while frequently strident and dogmatic, winning points by rhetoric rather than evidence, it is worthwhile to pay attention to his arguments. He is somewhat like Nassim Nicholas Taleb in that regard. Both of them are so bright and so knowledgeable in their respective fields, that they frequently override alternate opinions in a public argument through bluster and rhetoric rather than engagement - they win arguments rather than engage with them. And to be fair, given how bright they are, the odds of them encountering an alternate opinion different from their own which has merit are slight. Slight but real and the habituation to being usually right seems to me to make them blind to legitimate alternatives. Horgan catches this peculiar balance between the pugnaciousness of the public intellectual and the actual, and more admirable, curious mind.
Richard Dawkins, the biologist and author, is complicated. I reached this conclusion in 2005 when I participated in a fellowship for journalists organized by the pro-religion Templeton Foundation. Ten of us spent several weeks at the University of Cambridge listening to 18 scientists and philosophers point out areas where science and religion converge. Alone among the speakers, Dawkins argued, in his usual uncompromising fashion, that science and religion are incompatible. But in his informal interactions with me and other fellows, Dawkins was open-minded and a good listener. Over drinks one evening, a Christian journalist described witnessing an episode of faith healing. Instead of dismissing the story outright, Dawkins pressed for details. He seemed to find the story fascinating. His curiosity, at least for a moment, trumped his skepticism.
A second point is the debasement of journalism and pitiable editorial practice of clickbait headlines. Donald Trump? What is he doing there in the headline? Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist. That is his domain. He is not a businessman and he is not a politician and he is not a political scientist. What he has to say about business is in general irrelevant and likewise with regard to politics.

It is the most base appeal to authority on the part of the journalist and editor. Appeal to authority is a classic rhetorical fallacy with which both editor and journalist ought to be familiar and ought to resist. No one would attach much value to Albert Einstein's opinion about which car to buy. Einstein was among the most brilliant humans and his view on anything related to mathematics and physics carries weight. Einstein never learned to drive and therefore the value of his opinion about cars and most particularly, which car to buy, is less than that of the mechanic at the garage.

But what actually attracted my attention was this.
Is consciousness a scientifically tractable problem? Do you favor any current approaches and theories?

It certainly isn’t tractable by me. At times I find myself inspired by the confidence of my friend Daniel Dennett. At other times I lean towards his fellow philosopher Colin McGinn’s pessimism: the view that the human mind is flatly incapable of understanding its own consciousness. Our brains evolved to understand how to survive in a hunter–gatherer way of life on the African savanna—understand the behavior of an extremely narrow range of medium-sized objects travelling at medium velocities. It is therefore a wonder, as [cognitive scientist] Steven Pinker has pointed out, that our brains have advanced to the heights of relativity and quantum mechanics. Maybe this should give us Dennettian confidence. Or maybe the “hard problem” of consciousness is forever beyond us, just as calculus is forever beyond the mentality of a chimpanzee.
We are motivated by our enthusiasms which too often fossilize into dogmatism. There is always a continuum of certainty-uncertainty and all science is contingent on new discoveries. Everything is at best usefully true. We need to counter dogmatic certainty with confident humility.

And we need to exercise humility, as Dawkins appears to do here, by acknowledging that there are some problems which are either inherently intractable or are practically intractable. I agree with Dawkins that consciousness might be an inherently intractable problem. There are others which are practically intractable.

I would put the hypothesis that all global warming is caused primarily by human emitted CO2 as being practically intractable for the time being. Our data sets are too recent and too thinly populated, the incentive structures are skewed away from dispassionate research, there are too many inconsistencies among the forms of measurement, the degrees of required measurement precision exceed that which is available, the system has too many variables, the question is too muddied by political/ideological positions, our statistical modeling is too rudimentary, the systems are too complex, our knowledge of the constituent systems is too recent and incomplete and there are too many instances of corrupt practices for us to have material confidence in our current answers. There may be a real reason to be concerned but for the time being, given all those conditions, it is currently an intractable problem.

UPDATE: The quote from Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell seems pertinent. Samuel Johnson: "A generous and elevated mind is distinguished by nothing more certainly than an eminent degree of curiosity."

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