Sunday, June 9, 2013

Why There's Nothing Rather Than Something

It seems like despair over the emptiness of existence is something like an occupational hazard for philosophers. Maybe it only seem this way because society especially pushes this image -- or it may be that it primarily affects amateur philosophers who know only enough to be dangerous. Whatever the case, we can at least say that some large number of people who make a habit of analyzing their relation to the universe end up dissatisfied with the results. Probably the only substantial error here is to waste the time analyzing something essentially irrelevant and unanalyzable; but since poorly directed analysis is an entrenched habit of mine, I have a cause to propose for this unfortunate conclusion.

We understand things by analogy, or in other words, "in terms of what we already know." When we attempt to understand the universe itself in terms of things more familiar, we expose the severe limitations of our capacity to understand, to an extent that's almost embarrassing. It's true we can do pretty well predicting some of its behaviors, if we radically isolate the attribute in question and delegate some of the processing to adjunct calculation machinery -- but to me this cannot be called understanding. Understanding is a more rich experience that occurs only with sufficiently complex subject matter which we're able to interact with from many angles.

We create specialized frameworks for anticipating some facet or another of the universe, and we can gain an understanding of several of these with time -- but the degree of their specialization prevents any holistic comprehension. Imagine you must try to understand humans without prior knowledge, but the only route available is to study endocrinology, followed by neurophysiology, followed by rheumatology, etc. When you complete these studies, you will have very good understanding of humans for many definitions of "understanding" -- but as a human, you will find the result dissatisfying, probably because we have divergent modes of understanding which work well only for their respectively appropriate subject matter.

When we ask questions like, "what is the nature of reality?" or "what is the essential character of the universe?" -- questions outside the domain of science -- and seek answers by improving our understanding through the scientific/analytical mode, we have chosen a route than can end only in dissatisfaction. What was confusing to me, though, was which domain these questions are in if not the scientific. What valid modes of understanding could possibly exist besides those grounded in observation and logic? It sounds like since I'm being asked to not use scientific understanding, that I should not observe the phenomena in question, and use some transformations other than logic to elaborate the dubious unobserved starting point of my speculations. This is overreacting.

Why do we ask the question, "what is the nature of reality?" ? One reason is that we are following a chain of causes to some root, because that's what we do. But I think another important and mostly overlooked reason is that it's something we have to co-exist with, and decisions about whether or not to live in the company of some thing are among the most important to humans. So, I propose that "what is the nature of reality?" is really a social question. We want to know whether we can trust the universe, whether he tells good jokes or is always getting into trouble, etc. Our brains are trying to figure out whether a relationship with the universe is the best decision for spreading our genes.

Clearly there's something funny about this question. It gets back to what I was saying about our embarrassingly limited capacity for understanding the universe: our brains try relating it to something already understood and the nearest match is a ways off.

And, when the depressed philosopher reaches the conclusion that reality is fake or empty, what is he getting at? To me, this sounds like a social imputation; that the universe promised to be one thing at some earlier point, but time bore out that it was all pretense. Of course the universe makes no promises, so that she is flaky cannot be a very meaningful claim -- but we did get the idea from somewhere.

When we are young, we just do things, and it's fun. When we get older, and develop our tendencies to abstraction, we want to name things -- especially if we're into creating functional symbolic systems that can compute predictions for us, if only we can find the right set of names for things. To be more precise, we come up with layers of definitions for things, and at the bottom of these definition strata, lie indefinables. Also, it's not always clear to us that these systems are separate from their referents; that a rock flying through the air and F=MA are two different things. So, when we were young, the universe was just mystery -- filled with potential; by the time we lay the groundwork for a more sophisticated comprehension of the universe, we find that it is a series of representations, resting on top of indefinables (i.e. something about which there is nothing whatsoever interesting to say), and no substance. Substance does not exist, only representation. The universe is a charlatan.

First off there is an error here in that it sounds like we've discovered some metaphysical property of the universe -- unfortunately an overly ambitious hope: instead the discovery is epistemological. We don't experience substance directly; our minds operate through representations. This seems to merely transfer the source of the problem, leaving its effects in place. The error here, however, is to think that this is a problem in the first place, that we understand anything about what it means to experience a reality through representation versus directly, or if such a notion is anything but nonsense. The problem is something like trying to imagine the edge of the universe or time travel. Our brains construct a model of the situation when we query them to, but we know better than to trust the model for much more than amusement.

Again, the solution probably is to admit defeat and go play outside.




Friday, March 1, 2013

Solving Wrist Pain by Writing an IDE

This originally appeared on the my project website for Tiled Text, which can be found here: http://westoncb.com/projects/tiledtext

Late in my 19th year I was writing the third iteration of my ongoing game engine project, when I felt the first typing induced twinge. Saw doctors, half-heartedly tried a number of remedies and some ergonomic upgrades, continued programming. Nothing phased it, the pain got worse. After a few months I decided I would have to stop programming, maybe for a year or so. That was okay: I needed to get caught up in mathematics if I was going to be very good with real-time graphics. Took time off, no improvement. Dropped out of school.

Years passed. I didn't understand compromise then and preferred the prospect of working in another field over being crippled in the one I loved; though I eventually finished a CS degree despite having no real hope of returning to software development. I became more academic in the interim. I thought a lot rather than just building things. I liked philosophy and science (and philosophy of science!) and suspected there was some mathematics out there that would be as good as software. After graduating, my project was to discover why people thought mathematics was beautiful; failing that, at least acquire some rudimentery facility with it. That went so so, made a lot of progress—but it wasn't coding. About a year in, though, while explaining to a friend why coding with the Microsoft Kinect wasn't a real solution (with existing IDE's), the kernal of the idea behind Tiled Text occurred to me.

And, like the warrior who has put killing behind him, I blew the dust off my keyboard and set to work: my wrists would hold out for a few months until I could build this thing.

The initial idea was an early form of the code generation concept (didn't understand what a formal grammar was well enough to see how it would relate; thought of making some kind of linguistic constraint description system—thankfully my dad put me off the path of re-inventing the wheel here), but it was augmented in the early days by a few epiphanies. Real, old-fashioned epiphanies: if I were religious I might have thought they were gifts. The first was on the cycling behavior—the other half of the core concept. The second gave the UI concrete form (was still thinking of building it on top of an existing text editor before this). The third mostly related to the architecture, and led to generalizing beyond just code editing.

Then there was work. And more work. I worked three days a week stocking groceries and four days a week on the project. I did this for about five months, with constant wrist pain. Then I got Type 1 diabetes. I had medical bills in addition to student loans and was barely scraping by. Then I worked for another 9 months or so, with progress slowing some.

I needed a change. I'd been thinking about moving to Boston for a while, inspired by Paul Graham's comments on it from "Cities and Ambition." And now, here I am, in Harvard Square, excited about whatever's next. I'd like to continue with Tiled Text and GIDE, but I realize that may not be possible. What I really want now is to get in an environment where I can learn from others. I've been working in relative isolation for most of the time I've been programming, but I know the only way for me to progress is working with experts. Of course that will involve typing/mousing, but: ironically, I have learned how to mitigate my wrist pain from mouse/keyboard while working on software to obviate my usage of those devices.

And, incidentally, when I would procrastinate work on Tiled Text, I would often go to math books. My studies at these times were very fruitfull and I think now that mathematics has a chance at contending with coding, and I have finally seen some glimpses of mathematical structures that should be called beautiful.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

An Architecture for Deliberate Thought


     The following is a (loose, overly abstract, probably meaningless) formulation of a theoretical cognitive system for thinking with (and without) language. I came up with it after thinking about substrates for thought other than natural language; in particular, by thinking about thought through the creation/manipulation of abstract relationship diagrams.

     So eventually I'll have the whole piece on "schematic thinking" finished, but for now I just have this fragment which I think is kinda neat on its own. What's in the fragment is an explication of a simple system that provides a framework for considering schematic thought in relation to linguistic thought and subconscious processes.

     To make clearer this idea of schematic thinking, though--which I am serious about--at the end of the document I have included two excerpts from Hadamard's "The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field," where he's describing what sounds like the same thing to me.

(Later edit: I know now that what I'm describing here is very similar to the 'state space' concept in AI systems [my terminology even matches in places]—but I had no idea it was old news [or any kind of news!] at the time of writing. There's still some interesting aspects to where I go with it here, though—I think.)
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     Deliberate thought can take place in a number of different substrates, which I shall call "Domains," each of which corresponds to a domain in a more ordinary sense. The mental counterparts to Chess, algebra, social situations, physical situations, drawing, and playing the flute are all different Domains.

     When a Domain is active in the brain, some State is present. A State in Chess is the board layout at a single moment of a particular game; a State in algebra is an algebraic expression or equation; a State in a social situation is mostly made up by the estimated mental state, facial expressions, and bodily gestures of a group of people; a State in a physical situation is a group of objects relatively oriented under the constraints of one's understanding of physical law; a State in drawing is the contents of a piece of paper; a State in playing the flute is the configuration of the fingers of the player combined with an exhalation strength. When thinking in some Domain, words are not present (unless language is the active Domain -- but more on that later), only a chain of States from the Domain. Although, in practice, when playing Chess for instance, the Chess Domain will be your substrate for thinking only a fraction of the time: you may swap in a social situation Domain, or a language Domain, and then jump back to the Chess Domain with new ideas -- but at that point (probably an image of the board is the principle contents of consciousness), words disappear.

     Each of these Domains is defined by a set of assertions considered always true while the Domain is the active substrate; these state the elements of a Domain and limit the valid relationships between those elements. In chess the assertions would comprise the rules of the game and constraints on how a board/pieces may appear; in social situations they would correspond to an experience based collection of verities in human interaction: if I behave violently toward a person, they will return with violence -- etc; in drawing the assertions are that a mark will be left at the point of contact between pencil and paper, and a pencil may be moved while in or out of contact with paper. Each of the States mentioned before has a particular format which is a result of the assertions of the Domain; and so, it is useful to think of the assertions of the Domain as a sort of grammar for the Domain -- this will be returned to later. Now let's view the theory in the abstract.

     A Domain is a collection of assertions considered always true while that Domain is active, and a collection of valid States.

     A State within a Domain is a configuration of mental elements in some arrangement allowed by the assertions of a Domain.

     A Line is a sequence of States, corresponding to the notion of a "line of thought."

     Deliberate thought within a particular Domain consists primarily of finding a desirable Line. Between each State in a Line there is considered to be an operation which changed one State into the next; this collection of operations for a Line forms a set of actions to take in the external counterpart domain (e.g. actual game of chess).

     It is useful to consider a space of all of the possible States within a Domain, called a State-space: each point is a State; each axis of the space corresponds to an operation which may take place in the Domain (e.g. a valid move in chess, yelling in a social situation), resulting in another valid State in the space; any path through this space would be a Line.

     Consciousness, the work table of deliberate thought, holds a small list of States in view at any given time, with the most recently occurred being most prominent. These active States are the input to a recursive process for determining which State to add to the list next. Choosing a next State is identical to selecting an operation, i.e. selecting a direction to step in a State-space.

     Thought within a Domain is exploration of a State-space. The decision making about which direction to move in next is subconscious, and does not operate in the narrow confines of the Domain itself. Every Domain has two assertions which guide this decision making process: the first is that contradictions may not occur, and the second is that composite mental constructs with similar internal relationships are interchangeable to some degree. The first assertion allows the mind to use logic, and the second enables analogy.

     The Domains considered so far are of a primitive type, which presumably showed up in brains so that animals could carry out simulations within particular domains in order to estimate an optimal decision in that domain. These primitive types all seem to have a clear notion of what an operation within the domain is: moving a chess piece, adding to both sides of an equation, grinning, etc., which results in a successor State to the current one. When we consider a language as a Domain, where its assertions are the grammar and lexicon for the language (e.g. "each sentence must contain a verb," "'triumphant' is in the lexicon"), we find that it has the same basic role in the mind as the others: subconscious processes serve up successive States (sentences in the case of language) to consciousness, and the States in consciousness have an important role in determining which States will follow -- but, when we look at two successor states, no operation which transformed the first into the second is apparent with language. Now, in any Domain, the process which selects the operation is always complex and hidden, but in the primitive domains, given a State and a successor for it, we are at least able to identify the operation, once selected; not so with language.

     It is a hypothesis of this theory that language is a later evolutionary development which generalized the more primitive Domain "simulation" machinery. But with language, there is no counterpart domain external to the thinker, instead language seems to be a meta-Domain, for thinking about other Domains. Its generality also allows it to translate between Domains. (Perhaps analogy didn't appear as a method for navigating State-spaces until language showed up.)

     Before, I said that the assertions of a Domain define a format which the States of the Domain must be in, and that this was good reason for considering the assertions to form a grammar for the Domain -- hopefully this is more clear now that we have a Domain where the assertions are a grammar and lexicon, so that the definition of grammar undertakes only a slight expansion. But viewing them as a grammar is not just an amusing conceit, it gives an idea about how the brain is able to derive meaning from States. In linguistics and computer science, systems exist which can take expressions conforming to a given grammar and analyze them into atomic units which each have a pre-defined role; this is called parsing and is the first step to incorporating semantics in a linguistic machine. Since States in a Domain have a consistent grammar, States can be parsed and each of their elements assigned some role in the context of a semantics for a particular Domain. In this form, a subconscious process could take the labeled elements and determine a value for a State, so that some States can be considered good and others bad, and we have a system in place for preferring certain Lines over others. It is probable that the value determination of a State manifests emotionally.

     In this theory then, the complex system of meanings that we experience when thinking in language is an outgrowth of the semantic systems of the more primitive Domain simulators. It is possible that the correct way of viewing a language's State-space is as an infinite-dimensional space: since it is a meta-Domain rather than a proper Domain, and must be able to talk about all other Domains, it doesn't have a finite set of operations for transforming its States -- instead, it has the general notion of operation itself, which includes all operations. Or it may be that there isn't enough structure between its States to usefully view a State-space for it; perhaps its lack of operations is a testament to its freeness -- it can jump between any States that logic or analogy suggest, guided by semantic-emotional responses to candidate Lines.
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Excerpts from "The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field":
"Indeed, every mathematical research compels me to build such a schema, which is always and must be of a vague character, so as not to be deceptive. I shall give a less elementary example from my first researches (my thesis). I had to consider a sum of an infinite number of terms, intending to valuate its order of magnitude. In that case, there is a group of terms which chances to be predominant, all others having a negligible influence. Now, when I think of that question, I see not the formula itself, but the place it would take if written: a kind of ribbon, which is thicker or darker at the place corresponding to the possibly important terms; or (at other moments), I see something like a formula, but by no means a legible one, as I should see it (being strongly long-sighted) if I had no eye-glasses on, which letters seeming rather more apparent (though still not legible) at the place which is supposed to be the important one."

"About the mathematicians born or resident in America, whom I asked, phenomena are mostly analogous to those which I have noticed in my own case. Practically all of them -- contrary to what occasional inquiries had suggested to Galton as to the man on the street -- avoid not only the use of mental words, but also, just as I do, the mental use of algebraic or any other precise signs; also as in my case, they use vague images."