What this is about, and other premises.

Right, so I’m starting a new blog. Why is that?
Considering that I’m a lazy person, why should I bother?

Turns out that, as always, when I engage on something that costs me considerable effort, I have more than one motivation:
First, I’m in the process of testing my own ideas about the world, human nature and other trivia. I’m trying to create a coherent discourse, and see if the result is still a heap of disorganised junk or not. That means writing, a lot of writing, and a blog is a good way to make writing a stable part of your own routine: it is good exercise, at the very least.
Second, while I am trying to write for my “off-line”, more scholarly project(s), I come across lots of ideas that don’t really fit with my current subject, but may well find their own place in the future, so the plan is to write them as blog posts, leave them relatively disorganised in their own little page, and possibly pick them up at a later time.
Third, of course, if my own views will attract some interest, it would be personally gratifying.
It’s also possible that I have other, less conscious reasons, but I’m satisfied that the list above is a reasonably complete description of my motivations.

Next: what would I write about? I don’t know, but I suppose it will reflect my own interests:
I have an education on neurobiology, work as a software developer, play a little guitar, get excited about politics and about human stupidity (yes, the latter two subjects are linked). I also have lots of fun just thinking, so you may expect some sort of philosophical discussions on the subjects above, along with whatever else catches my attention.

Another fixation that I have is about premises: I think most intellectual mistakes, most interpersonal trouble, and in general, many human problems arise because we usually overlook premises. In fact, I’ve waited a long time before writing this because I wanted to be able to give a fairly honest account of the premises that underlie my own thought processes, so to clarify them in the initial post.
This is what I’ve figured out so far:

  • I believe that reality exists, and that it’s unique. If I jump, I won’t escape into the outer space, but will naturally fall back down. If I want to get inside my house, I’d better make sure the door is open before I try. I also believe that the same statements apply to all other people on planet earth. So that settles it: reality exists and applies to everyone and everything in the same way.
  • Things get more complex when I think of what I know of this reality, or what knowledge is. To me, all of my knowledge can be seen as a collection of models of reality, and every model of reality that I may hold is shaped and defined on the basis of its purpose. For example, I use an essentially Newtonian model of the physical world that, despite the well-known fact that Newtonian physics doesn’t work neither at cosmological nor microscopic scales, it is still good enough because its purpose is to allow me to interact with the world without breaking things and bumping on every obstacle. On the other hand, if I need to design a wireless network in the office, I may use a different model that includes some elements of electromagnetism and other awkward non-Newtonian stuff.
    In short, I see a model as a symbolic description that reduces the relevant elements of reality to corresponding equivalence classes, and links them with causal connections. It allows simplifying the business of making predictions without having to take into account the whole complexity of the universe.
    When I say that the whole of my knowledge is a model, I mean that I have many different models at my disposal, that I use one or the other according to my current purpose, and that every single bit of usable information that I process belongs to one of the models that I “know”. That’s right: when I stop and search for the keys of my front door, I do this because I’ve seen that the door is closed, that is, some light stimulated my retina, and somehow this was recognised as my own front door, and a closed door. See the model in there? I didn’t see the single photons, I saw my own door.
  • Still about my beliefs: if knowledge is always a model, then all knowledge is false. OK, this seems a bold statement, a little explanation is due: all models are, by definition, a simplified, symbolic description of their object, or, if you wish, an approximation. Hence, they contain some error, they are never, nor try to be, entirely true. But of course, some models are better than others, because even if none of them is error-free, some will still make more reliable predictions than others. Hence, an important part of my discourse is about how good a given model is, and on the importance of striving to constantly improve the models that I use.
  • This leads to science, as science works in a very similar ways. Important parts of scientific effort are aimed to refine existing models, and when this is not possible, to create new models that allow overcome the known limitations of the pre-existing ones. Science doesn’t claim absolute truth, it claims to generate knowledge by using information collected from reality (evidence) and use it to build models of reality that are as accurate and as fit for purpose as possible.
  • Finally, I believe that this process of constant refinement and occasional re-invention of reality representations (models) is inherently good and that it is what makes my own life worth living. In other words, my ultimate motivator is an insatiable hunger for knowledge: I just can’t get enough of it.

So, in conclusion, I’ve managed to expose another motivation of my writing: I get pleasure by exploring and refining my own understandings, I believe that doing so is inherently good and therefore I think that, if my own knowledge is of some value, it is also a good idea to share it.

If you’ve managed to read all of the above then there is a chance that you may find the rest of this blog interesting, or at least amusing. Otherwise, well, it’s too bad, and irrelevant, ’cause you’re not reading this, right?

Posted in Premises
11 comments on “What this is about, and other premises.
  1. […] far I’ve stated that knowledge is a collection of models of the world, and although I have not discussed how such models are created, I have at least […]

  2. […] and by a large margin!) than creationism and intelligent design (ID) theories (please see also my premises on what I think is “good”). I can also claim that the statement above is an objective, […]

  3. […] works, is good in itself [As you may know, I have included this idea in my own premises, explicitly defining it as a primary intuition that drives my intellectual effort]. Rationality (whatever that is) was […]

  4. […] works, is good in itself [As you may know, I have included this idea in my own premises, explicitly defining it as a primary intuition that drives my intellectual effort]. Rationality (whatever that is) was […]

  5. […] the other is “model free”. Remember my definition of knowledge as a collection of models? The pieces of the puzzle keep falling in their place: rationality builds models, and […]

  6. […] reality” is a good thing, conveniently allowing me to remove it from the list of my own assumptions. All in all, I’m concluding that we ought to derive “ought” from […]

  7. Anonymouse says:

    Hey there. I’ve come across your blog a few days ago and decided to start reading through it a bit and make comments here and there, because I think I disagree with you on some but not all points, so a discussion might be fruitful.
    The first thing that jumped at me here is the “all models are wrong” aphorism. Box claim has to be understood in the contxt of statistical models and even then it doesn’t necessarily hold. Two examples:
    a) I have a theory for some process. Now if I turn that into a graph (i.e., a graphical model of the theory), then, unless there’s something wrong (and there rarely is, from the graphical models I’ve seen so far), this model is not wrong at all, but an entirely accurate model of the theory. That the graph is also a model of the process and likely to be at least partly wrong about said process is a different story that I sure wouldn’t want to argue with.
    b) Even in a statistical setting, if the data that I’m modelling was itself generated by a statistical model (especially if it was generated without noise), then using another statistical technique to analyze those data may very well lead me to a statistical model that is not wrong either.
    Maybe I’m being pedantic here (I sure thought the person who once pointed me to this was), but by now I do think it’s a valid point and that this phrase shouldn’t be thrown around the way people often do.
    I don’t like the word model too much in the context of cognitive function. This is for reasons that I think are obvious to you, so I don’t think you actually use that word in the way that I have a problem with, given (from what I read so far) your sympathies for radical embodied cognition and the inner conflict you have about all of this (about respresentations in particular).
    In any case, when thinking about knowledge I like to do away with the modelling aspect and simply think in terms of pure information. To me learning (about) X is the reduction in uncertainty about X by whatever means are available, so an organism comes to use everything that it has available as cues for predicting X to the degree that it has proven to be useful in its experience (i.e. discover informative, predictive relations between stuff in its experience of the world and X). “Knowing (about) X” then is merely a state of low entropy with regards to X, associated with a feeling of ease or comfortableness.
    What this entails, though, is that knowledge is gradual and non-discrete (because the world and learning are). And this may be a point of divergence for us, because you say that you “use an essentially Newtonian model of the physical world” – and I’m not sure what you mean by that:
    What I don’t think you mean is that unconsciously your brain is doing computations that correspond to something like formulas from Newtonian physics in order to anticipate the world. So I take it that you are specifically talking about explicit knowledge here (my definition above was for all kinds of knowledge, I think so was yours).
    On my take, explicit knowledge is no different from any other kind, so it is a state of relatively low entropy and the comfortable feeling that comes with that. I assume that we can agree that the vastly dominant form of explicit knowledge is linguistic, which I think is essential. Because if we focus on that, what this means is that one has explicit knowledge of X to the degree that they are able to talk about X.**
    So when you now say that you “use an essentially Newtonian model of the physical world”, to me, despite not thinking you talk about explicit calculations, this still sounds like you are proposing some sort of (actually represented) mechanistic model that in some sense independent of the particular situation in which you use it and from which you deduce aspects of the world, which you can then verbally access*. This is very different from my view, where all I have learnt (rather than a model like that) are ways of talking about stuff that has to do with Newtonian physics***.
    If we really do differ on how we see this matter, then this might have to do with you stating that you “believe that reality exists”. I do too. But the point to make here is that this is largely irrelevant, because we don’t perceive reality in a veridical manner at all, but something else that gets massively distorted through our senses, our attention and language. Knowledge really isn’t about reality, but about perceived reality, which obviously will be different for everyone. And it wouldn’t make sense (if it were possible) for us to somehow bootstrap some “objective” knowledge about reality, because that would necessarily be less useful to predict and interact with our future distorted perception of it than knowledge about perceived reality.
    * I actually find it really difficult to formulate this, because my thinking is so vastly different from what I’m trying to say here – totally in line with my view on explicit knowledge #uncomfortable
    ** Note also that this view doesn’t make explicit knowledge superficial: In order to be able to use language in a way that is informative in a communicative sense, I need to pay attention to the relevant aspects of the world that allow me to communicate about them, which, for a complicated subject, will take a lot of experience.
    *** It also naturally makes sense of situations in which someone is confronted with a question about a topic that they are really familiar with, yet struggle with answering this question, because it is weirdly phrased, maybe asked by someone from a completely different background, yet, once the answer is found, is embarassed because the question turns out to have been really simple and they should have been able to answer it, because they “knew” the answer all along.

  8. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Anonymouse,
    thanks for stopping by, really nice to receive your thought-provoking comment.

    A few non-comprehensive reactions.
    First of all, posts classified as “premises”, especially the early ones (2013), and especially the very first one (!), represent my attempt to put in writing what at the time felt as the guiding principles of my approach to philosophising. At the time, I had the feeling that I actually was using a coherent strategy, and figured the only way to find out if my feeling was right was to write it down and see if it crumbled.
    It didn’t, but over the years it certainly shifted. I’m very happy to keep all the old posts online because this allows (me in primis) to explore the trajectory, and hopefully document how I’ve changed my mind. One of your remarks, on knowledge as “reduction in uncertainty”, falls into this line, I am far more ready to accept this definition now, when compared to myself from 2013. (I’m not entirely ready, but very close!)

    Re your a) and b) points: I think we agree, I’m guessing you haven’t yet stumbled on the post that makes it clear. See here (post 3 in a series of 3) or even better still, start from the first post in the series. You may even want to complement these with the unpacking that happens in the post Against Essentialism.
    Anyway, the short answer is: you are correct, knowledge about knowledge can be exactly right. This applies directly to your case a). For b) one needs to appreciate what’s implied with the expression “if the data that I’m modelling”…

    Re Newtonian Physics, I think I remember what I had in mind. It was a sloppy way of making my point (I hope that I’ve got a bit less sloppy in time – I certainly got more verbose!). The idea is that in my everyday life I treat solid objects as solid, I don’t expect stuff to disappear due to quantum leaps (or whatever), I don’t worry about invisible and not-perceivable force fields (besides gravity, which is constant!), I act as if time was ticking at constant speed, etc – all these behaviours are roughly compatible with classic physics, hence my sloppiness! This is how we perceive stuff, which we now can appreciate is good enough only locally: on this planet, with this amount of gravity, at our kind of size, within the timescale of human actions, etc. So no, I wasn’t implying that I actually solve equations as I move around the room, but I wasn’t talking about explicit knowledge either (I’ve forgotten it all)! My point was much, much more basic.

    Hope this hasty reply clarifies, and hope to read many more comments from you in the near future. [Do note that I’m normally very slow in replying.]

  9. Anonymouse says:

    Sergio,

    it’s good to hear that, because I’ve just started reading your blog posts in a more timeline-y manner (before I commented here I had read two more recent ones) and it started to look like we differ a lot more than I initially thought. I will still comment as I go, though, becasue I won’t be able to read all your posts anyway. I had just arrived at that third post in the series when I checked whether you had already responded – not so slow after all!

    PS: I’ve noticed that some of the hyperlinks in your posts don’t work, like “first post” in your reply here.

    PPS: WordPress has a disqus plugin, maybe you could install that. Disqus has become increasingly popular as a more global commenting system (which neatly allows to keep track of replies) and I definitely don’t want to use my FB or Google Account to comment here.

  10. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Thanks Anonymouse,
    link fixed.
    1. I hope we’ll find some disagreements and tackle them. Maximises the potential of learning for one another.
    2. I hope you’ll help me spotting more evidence that I have changed my mind. The assumption is that I must be wrong about loads of stuff, so if I don’t actually change my mind, it means I’m not finding and correcting mistakes.
    3. Speed: I’m normally very slow. Don’t get fooled by the current streak of luck!
    4. Disqus: yes, I have an account there, and I know of the plugin. Before your comment I had never even considered adopting it. If you can make a stronger case, please do. Otherwise please keep commenting as now, I reckon it isn’t too inconvenient.

    You’ll find plenty about points 1 & 2 if you’ll keep going in a loosely chronological manner.

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