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Posts Tagged ‘Enlightenment

“As a rule of thumb I say, if Socrates, Jesus and Tolstoy wouldn’t do it, don’t”*…

 

This is the age of big data. We are constantly in quest of more numbers and more complex algorithms to crunch them. We seem to believe that this will solve most of the world’s problems – in economy, society and even our personal lives. As a corollary, rules of thumb and gut instincts are getting a short shrift. We think they often violate the principles of logic and lead us into making bad decisions. We might have had to depend on heuristics and our gut feelings in agricultural and manufacturing era. But this is digital age. We can optimise everything.

Can we?

Gerd Gigerenzer [above], a sixty nine year German psychologist who has been studying how humans make decisions for most of his career, doesn’t think so. In the real world, rules of thumb not only work well, they also perform better than complex models, he says. We shouldn’t turn our noses up on heuristics, we should embrace them…

Why simple rules of thumb often outperform complex models: “Gigerenzer’s simple rules.”

* John Gardner

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As we extrapolate, we might spare a thought for Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis of Condorcet; he died on this date in 1794.  A philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist, he was a rationalist (and biographer of Voltaire) who advocated a liberal economy, free and equal public instruction, constitutionalism, and equal rights for women and people of all races.  He was a formulator of the Enlightenment ideas of progress and of the indefinite perfectibility of humankind.  And with his wife (and intellectual partner) Sophie de Grouchy, he hosted a salon that attracted foreign dignitaries and intellectuals including Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, and Cesare Beccaria.  But he may be best remembered for the Condorcet method of voting, in which the tally selects the candidate who would beat each of the other candidates in a run-off election.

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“The sad thing about artificial intelligence is that it lacks artifice and therefore intelligence”*…

 

For the past few decades, humans have ceded thrones to artificial intelligence in games of all kinds. In 1995, a program called Chinook won a man vs. machine world checkers championship. In 1997, Garry Kasparov, probably the best (human) chess player of all time, lost a match to an IBM computer called Deep Blue. In 2007, checkers was “solved,” mathematically ensuring that no human would ever again beat the best machine. In 2011, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter were routed on “Jeopardy!” by another IBM creation, Watson. And last March, a human champion of Go, Lee Sedol, fell to a Google program in devastating and bewildering fashion.

Poker may be close to all we have left…

But not, perhaps, for long: “The Machines Are Coming For Poker.”

* Jean Baudrillard

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As we cut ’em thin to win, we might spare a thought for Giambattista Vico; he died on this date in 1744. A political philosopher, rhetorician, historian, and jurist, Vico was one of the greatest Enlightenment thinkers. Best known for the Scienza Nuova (1725, often published in English as New Science), he famously criticized the expansion and development of modern rationalism and was an apologist for classical antiquity.

He was an important precursor of systemic and complexity thinking (as opposed to Cartesian analysis and other kinds of reductionism); and he can be credited with the first exposition of the fundamental aspects of social science, though his views did not necessarily influence the first social scientists.  Vico is often claimed to have fathered modern philosophy of history (although the term is not found in his text; Vico speaks of a “history of philosophy narrated philosophically”). While he was not strictly speaking a historicist, interest in him has been driven by historicists (like Isaiah Berlin).

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Written by LW

January 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“If God dropped acid, would He see people?”*…

 

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We had long periods of silence and of listening to music. I was accustomed to playing rock ‘n’ roll while tripping, but the record collection here was all classical and Broadway show albums. After we heard the Bach “Cantata No. 7” Groucho said, “I may be Jewish, but I was seeing the most beautiful visions of Gothic cathedrals. Do you think Bach knew he was doing that?”

Later, we were listening to the score of a musical comedy Fanny. There was one song called “Welcome Home,” where the lyrics go something like, “Welcome home, says the clock,” and the chair says, “Welcome home,” and so do various other pieces of furniture. Groucho started acting out each line as if he were actually being greeted by the duck, the chair and so forth. He was like a child, charmed by his own ability to respond to the music that way…

Paul Krassner, publisher of  The Realist and all-round avatar of counter-culture, guided T. S. Eliot’s buddy Groucho Marx through his first acid trip (using the a dose from the same batch that fueled Richard Alpert’s last trip before he became Ram Dass).  He wrote about it both in High Times and in The Realist.  More of the backstory at Dangerous Minds.

[TotH to buddy Chistopher Enzi]

* Steven Wright

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As we hum “Eight Miles High,” we might send well-reasoned birthday greetings to Enlightenment giant John Locke; the physician and philosopher died on this date in 1704.  An intellectual descendant of Francis Bacon, Locke was among the first empiricists. He spent over 20 years developing the ideas he published in his most significant work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), an analysis of the nature of human reason which promoted experimentation as the basis of knowledge.  Locke established “primary qualities” (e.g., solidity, extension, number) as distinct from “secondary qualities” (sensuous attributes like color or sound). He recognized that science is made possible when the primary qualities, as apprehended, create ideas that faithfully represent reality.

Locke is, of course, also well-remembered as a key developer (with Hobbes, and later Rousseau) of the concept of the Social Contract.  Locke’s theory of “natural rights” influenced Voltaire and Rosseau– and formed the intellectual basis of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

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Written by LW

August 29, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Learning languages is like learning history from the inside out”*…

 

In a way that’s analogous to the evolution of morphology via mutation, the changes in the languages that we speak are driven by “mistakes” that get baked into practice.  For instance…

AMMUNITION

projectiles to be fired from a gun

It is common to misanalyze an article that precedes a word as if it were part of that word. Here the French phrase la munition was misanalyzed so the “a” of the article became part of the word, becoming l’ammunition

ARCHIPELAGO

a group of many islands in a large body of water

The etymology of archipelago seems like it should be from Greek arkhi meaning “chief” andpelagos “sea,” suggesting the importance of a sea with so many islands. The problem is that this form never occurs in ancient Greek, and the modern form is actually borrowed from Italian, with the intended meaning being “the Aegean Sea.” If that’s the case, then the archi- inarchipelago is actually a corrupted version of Aigaion, which is how you say “Aegean” in Greek…

More words that originated in error.

* Eric van Lustbader

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As we misspeak creatively, we might spare a thought for Baruch (or Benedict) de Spinoza, the Dutch philosopher who lived a quiet public life as a lens grinder– but whose rationalism and determinism put him in opposition to Descartes and helped lay the foundation for The Enlightenment, and whose pantheistic views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community in Amsterdam.  He died on this date in 1677.

As men’s habits of mind differ, so that some more readily embrace one form of faith, some another, for what moves one to pray may move another to scoff, I conclude … that everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged only by its fruits; each would then obey God freely with his whole heart, while nothing would be publicly honored save justice and charity.

Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, 1670

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Written by LW

February 21, 2015 at 1:01 am

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”*…

 

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The wonders of modern millinery…

Caffeine-fueled cram sessions are routine occurrences on any college campus. But what if there was a better, safer way to learn new or difficult material more quickly? What if “thinking caps” were real?

In a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, Vanderbilt psychologists Robert Reinhart, a Ph.D. candidate, and Geoffrey Woodman, assistant professor of psychology, show that it is possible to selectively manipulate our ability to learn through the application of a mild electrical current to the brain, and that this effect can be enhanced or depressed depending on the direction of the current…

The success rate is far better than that observed in studies of pharmaceuticals or other types of psychological therapy,” said Woodman. The researchers found that the effects of a 20-minute stimulation did transfer to other tasks and lasted about five hours.

The implications of the findings extend beyond the potential to improve learning. It may also have clinical benefits in the treatment of conditions like schizophrenia and ADHD, which are associated with performance-monitoring deficits.

Read more at “Electric ‘thinking cap’ controls learning speed” in ScienceBlog.

* Shakespeare, Hamlet Act II, Scene 2

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As we crank up our crania, we might recall that it was on this date in 1747 that Benjamin Franklin sent a thank you note to British scientist Peter Collinson:

 Your kind present of an electric tube, with directions for using it, has put several of us on making electrical experiments, in which we have observed some particular phenomena that we look upon to be new. I was never before engaged in any study that so totally engrossed my attention and time.

As the Franklin Tercentenary notes:

The study of electricity was the most spectacular and fashionable branch of Enlightenment natural philosophy. Franklin was immediately hooked when the Library Company’s British agent, Peter Collinson, sent him a glass tube used to generate static electricity. Franklin taught himself to perform basic electrical “tricks” with it and was soon immersed in trying to understand how this surprising phenomenon worked.

Through his electrical investigations, Franklin developed important new theories, complete with new terms and instruments to describe and demonstrate them. As usual, his concern centered on developing useful applications for his discoveries: the result was a lightning protection system that is still in use today, notably on St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Franklin’s experiments were known all over Europe, initially through his personal correspondence and then through publications initiated by colleagues abroad. Later, Franklin’s international fame as a scientist would give him the status and political access to succeed as America’s premier diplomat.

Franklin at work on his most famous experiment

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