Speculative Science: The Reality beyond Spacetime, with Donald Hoffman

[from The Institute of Art and Ideas Science Weekly, July 22]

Donald Hoffman famously argues that we know nothing about the truth of the world. His book, The Case Against Reality, claims the process of survival of the fittest does not require a true picture of reality. Furthermore, Hoffman claims spacetime is not fundamental. So, what lies beneath spacetime, can we know about it? And how does consciousness come into play? Join this interview with the famed cognitive psychologist and author exploring our notions of consciousness, spacetime, and what lies beneath. Hosted by Curt Jaimungal.

[watch the video]

Education and Circular Causation: Everything Causes Everything Else

The student will have seen in these educational essays the notion of “Husserl’s rhomboid”:

The great philosopher, Edmund Husserl, who died in 1938, would bring a matchbox to class and show his students they see parts and some surface area of the matchbox (a kind of rhomboid, hence the name “Husserl’s rhomboid”) but never all of it at the same time. Students can walk around the matchbox and see facets. They can twirl the matchbox but whatever they do, the students cannot “espy” or glimpse all of it except in their imaginations, once they have been exposed to all of it, side by side, facet by facet.

Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1974, has something a bit analogous when he speaks of “circular cumulative causation”:

Circular cumulative causation is a theory developed by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1956. It is a multi-causal approach where the core variables and their linkages are delineated. The idea behind it is that a change in one form of an institution will lead to successive changes in other institutions. These changes are circular in that they continue in a cycle, many times in a negative way, in which there is no end, and cumulative in that they persist in each round. The change does not occur all at once, which would lead to chaos, rather the changes occur gradually.

Gunnar Myrdal developed the concept from Knut Wicksell and developed it with Nicholas Kaldor when they worked together at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

In the characteristics relevant to an economy’s development process, Myrdal mentioned the availability of natural resources, the historical traditions of production activity, national cohesion, religions and ideologies, and economic, social and political leadership.

He writes:

“The notion of stable equilibrium is normally a false analogy to choose when constructing a theory to explain the changes in a social system.

What is wrong with the stable equilibrium assumption as applied to social reality is the very idea that a social process follows a direction—though it might move towards it in a circuitous way—towards a position which in some sense or other can be described as a state of equilibrium between forces. Behind this idea is another and still more basic assumption, namely that a change will regularly call forth a reaction in the system in the form of changes which on the whole go in the opposite direction to the first change. The idea I want to expound in this book is that, on the contrary, in the normal case there is no such a tendency towards automatic self-stabilisation in the social system. The system is by itself not moving towards any sort of balance between forces, but is constantly on the move away from such a situation. In the normal case a change does not call forth countervailing changes but, instead, supporting changes, which move the system in the same direction as the first change but much further. Because of such circular causation as a social process tends to become cumulative and often gather speed at an accelerating rate…”

(Gunnar Myrdal, Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions, Gerald Duckworth, 1957, pp. 12–13)

Myrdal developed further the circular cumulative causation concept and stated that it makes different assumptions from that of stable equilibrium on what can be considered the most important forces guiding the evolution of social processes. These forces characterize the dynamics of these processes in two diverse ways.

These essays that you are reading here are examples encouraging students to put causes in a kind of circle: history exists because economics exists because psychology exists because society exists because history exists. Everything is causing everything else. There isn’t a simple “linear parade.”

By way of contrast, in a person’s private life, he/she went to the dentist before buying the batteries and after having lunch. There’s a timeline of events.

In history, there are such linear timelines also: John Kennedy was assassinated before Donald Trump became president. You had breakfast before dinner. You slept before you got up in the morning.

However, processes (industrialism, migration, urbanization, inflation, etc.) are not analyzable as events like meals and one-time occurrences but are more like getting old or learning a language.

Multi-causal interpretations and circular causes get the student out of simple, “this happened and that happened” in favor of “this and that caused each other, going both ways and interacting with other pressures too.” Everything is causing and altering everything else in all directions.

COVID-19 and “Naïve Probabilism”

[from the London Mathematical Laboratory]

In the early weeks of the 2020 U.S. COVID-19 outbreak, guidance from the scientific establishment and government agencies included a number of dubious claims—masks don’t work, there’s no evidence of human-to-human transmission, and the risk to the public is low. These statements were backed by health authorities, as well as public intellectuals, but were later disavowed or disproven, and the initial under-reaction was followed by an equal overreaction and imposition of draconian restrictions on human social activities.

In a recent paper, LML Fellow Harry Crane examines how these early mis-steps ultimately contributed to higher death tolls, prolonged lockdowns, and diminished trust in science and government leadership. Even so, the organizations and individuals most responsible for misleading the public suffered little or no consequences, or even benefited from their mistakes. As he discusses, this perverse outcome can be seen as the result of authorities applying a formulaic procedure of “naïve probabilism” in facing highly uncertain and complex problems, and largely assuming that decision-making under uncertainty boils down to probability calculations and statistical analysis.

This attitude, he suggests, might be captured in a few simple “axioms of naïve probabilism”:

Axiom 1: more complex the problem, the more complicated the solution.

This idea is a hallmark of naïve decision making. The COVID-19 outbreak was highly complex, being a novel virus of uncertain origins, and spreading through the interconnected global society. But the potential usefulness of masks was not one of these complexities. The mask mistake was consequential not because masks were the antidote to COVID-19, but because they were a low cost measure the effect of which would be neutral at worst; wearing a mask can’t hurt in reducing the spread of a virus.

Yet the experts neglected common sense in favor of a more “scientific response” based on rigorous peer review and sufficient data. Two months after the initial U.S. outbreak, a study confirmed the obvious, and masks went from being strongly discouraged to being mandated by law. Precious time had been wasted, many lives lost, and the economy stalled.

Crane also considers another rule of naïve probabilism:

Axiom 2: Until proven otherwise, assume that the future will resemble the past.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, there was at first no data that masks work, no data that travel restrictions work, no data of human-to-human transmission. How could there be? Yet some naïve experts took this as a reason to maintain the status quo. Indeed, many universities refused to do anything in preparation until a few cases had been detected on campus—at which point they had some data, as well as hundreds or thousands of other as yet undetected infections.

Crane touches on some of the more extreme examples of his kind of thinking, which assumes that whatever can’t be explained in terms of something that happened in the past is speculative, non-scientific and unjustifiable:

“This argument was put forward by John Ioannidis in mid-March 2020, as the pandemic outbreak was already spiralling out of control. Ioannidis wrote that COVID-19 wasn’t a ‘once-in-a-century pandemic,’ as many were saying, but rather a ‘once-in-a-century data-fiasco’. Ioannidis’s main argument was that we knew very little about the disease, its fatality rate, and the overall risks it poses to public health; and that in face of this uncertainty, we should seek data-driven policy decisions. Until the data was available, we should assume COVID-19 acts as a typical strain of the flu (a different disease entirely).”

Unfortunately, waiting for the data also means waiting too long, if it turns out that the virus turns out to be more serious. This is like waiting to hit the tree before accepting that the available data indeed supports wearing a seatbelt. Moreover, in the pandemic example, this “lack of evidence” argument ignores other evidence from before the virus entered the United States. China had locked down a city of 10 million; Italy had locked down its entire northern region, with the entire country soon to follow. There was worldwide consensus that the virus was novel, the virus was spreading fast and medical communities had no idea how to treat it. That’s data, and plenty of information to act on.

Crane goes on to consider a 3rd axiom of naïve probabilism, which aims to turn ignorance into a strength. Overall, he argues, these axioms, despite being widely used by many prominent authorities and academic experts, actually capture a set of dangerous fallacies for action in the real world.

In reality, complex problems call for simple, actionable solutions; the past doesn’t repeat indefinitely (i.e., COVID-19 was never the flu); and ignorance is not a form of wisdom. The Naïve Probabilist’s primary objective is to be accurate with high probability rather than to protect against high-consequence, low-probability outcomes. This goes against common sense principles of decision making in uncertain environments with potentially very severe consequences.

Importantly, Crane emphasizes, the hallmark of Naïve Probabilism is naïveté, not ignorance, stupidity, crudeness or other such base qualities. The typical Naïve Probabilist lacks not knowledge or refinement, but the experience and good judgment that comes from making real decisions with real consequences in the real world. The most prominent naïve probabilists are recognized (academic) experts in mathematical probability, or relatedly statistics, physics, psychology, economics, epistemology, medicine or so-called decision sciences. Moreover, and worryingly, the best known naïve probabilists are quite sophisticated, skilled in the art of influencing public policy decisions without suffering from the risks those policies impose on the rest of society.

Read the paper. [Archived PDF]

Education and the World As “Rorschach Test”

The Rorschach test is a projective psychological test in which subjects’ perceptions of inkblots are recorded and then analyzed using psychological interpretation, complex algorithms, or both. Some psychologists use this test to examine a person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning.

It is also called “an Inkblot test.”

We use this test as a metaphor that suggests that people see what they want to see and choose to see.

Here’s an example based on the Verdi opera La Forza del Destino. The black intellectual leader, William E.B. Du Bois, sees it as a veiled racial story where Professor Niall Ferguson of Stanford/Harvard tells the story of how he emerged from a performance of the opera on the very day that Britain devalued the pound sterling in 1992.

Black Wednesday refers to September 16, 1992, when a collapse in the pound sterling forced Britain to withdraw from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (European Monetary System).

Thus the opera, La Forza del Destino is both a Verdi opera and a kind of “raw material” for personal and private interpretation with Du Bois seeing racism and Ferguson seeing national or financial fate.

La Forza del Destino or The Power of Fate, (often translated The Force of Destiny) is an Italian opera by Giuseppe Verdi. The libretto was written by Francesco Maria Piave based on a Spanish drama, Don Álvaro o la fuerza del sino (1835), by Ángel de Saavedra, 3rd Duke of Rivas, with a scene adapted from Friedrich Schiller’s Wallensteins Lager. It was first performed in the Bolshoi Kamenny Theatre of Saint Petersburg, Russia, on 10 November, 1862 O.S. (N.S. 22 November).


Synopsis—Act 1

The mansion of Leonora’s family, in Seville.

Don Alvaro is a young nobleman from South America (presumably Peru) who is part Indian and who has settled in Seville where he is not very well regarded.

He falls in love with Donna Leonora, the daughter of the Marquis of Calatrava, but Calatrava is determined that she shall marry only a man of the highest birth. Despite knowing her father’s aversion to Alvaro, Leonora is deeply in love with him, and she determines to give up her home and country in order to elope with him. In this endeavor, she is aided by her confidante, Curra. (Me pellegrina ed orfana—“Exiled and orphaned far from my childhood home”).

When Alvaro arrives to fetch Leonora, she hesitates: she wants to elope with him, but part of her wants to stay with her father; she eventually pulls herself together, ready for their elopement. However, the Marquis unexpectedly enters and discovers Leonora and Alvaro together. He threatens Alvaro with death, and in order to remove any suspicion as to Leonora’s purity, Alvaro surrenders himself. As he flings down his pistol, it goes off, mortally wounding the Marquis, who dies cursing his daughter.

This is the racial aspect on which W.E.B. Du Bois focuses.

Niall Ferguson, by contrast, sees a different “Rorschach inkblot” and hones in on the financial policy story which went like this:

Soros’ Quantum Fund began a massive sell-off of pounds on Tuesday, 15 September 1992. The Exchange Rate Mechanism stated that the Bank of England was required to accept any offers to sell pounds. However, the Bank of England only accepted orders during the trading day. When the markets opened in London the next morning, the Bank of England began their attempt to prop up their currency as per the decision made by Norman Lamont and Robin Leigh-Pemberton, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer and Governor of the Bank of England respectively. They began buying orders to the amount of 300 million pounds twice before 8:30 AM to little effect.

The Bank of England’s intervention was ineffective because Soros’ Quantum Fund was dumping pounds far faster. The Bank of England continued to buy and Quantum continued to sell until Lamont told Prime Minister John Major that their pound purchasing was failing to produce results.

At 10:30 AM on 16 September, the British government announced a rise in the base interest rate from an already high 10 to 12 percent to tempt speculators to buy pounds. Despite this and a promise later the same day to raise base rates again to 15 percent, dealers kept selling pounds, convinced that the government would not stick with its promise. By 7:00 that evening, Norman Lamont, then Chancellor, announced Britain would leave the ERM and rates would remain at the new level of 12 percent; however, on the next day the interest rate was back on 10%.

It was later revealed that the decision to withdraw had been agreed at an emergency meeting during the day between Norman Lamont, Prime Minister John Major, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, President of the Board of Trade Michael Heseltine, and Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke (the latter three all being staunch pro-Europeans as well as senior Cabinet Ministers), and that the interest rate hike to 15% had only been a temporary measure to prevent a rout in the pound that afternoon.”

For W.E.B. Du Bois, the story within the story of the Verdi opera is the color-line that governs the world, while Ferguson sees the story as a “dramatic” instance of financial and economic force or working out of trends that becomes a destiny.

Hence people see what they choose to see and interpreting and seeing are wrapped up in each other.

Students should assimilate this aspect of the world.

Note: one source of the Du Bois interpretation of the opera comes from the University of Chicago book, Travels in the Reich: 1933-1945 (edited by Oliver Lubrich, 2012) which has a chapter on Du Bois in Germany in the thirties where he plunges into music and opera and highlights this Verdi one.

Essay 93: Education and the Movies: The Issue of Political Irrationality

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a movie masterpiece that is enormously educational not for the particular details of the story but for the phenomenon of politics as an outlet for personal problems: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a 1969 British drama film, based on the novel of the same name by Muriel Spark. Directed by Ronald Neame, it stars Maggie Smith in the title role as an unrestrained teacher at a girls’ school in 1930s Edinburgh.

Maggie Smith (whom you know from Downton Abbey as the aggressive matriarch) plays a romantically naive schoolteacher at a girl’s school in Scotland, 1930s. She has a “big time” crush on a handsome gym teacher whom she discovers in bed with one of the young girls—“Sandy” and has a kind of nervous breakdown or better, “image of the whole correctness of the world” breakdown.

The teacher sees newsreels of Mussolini in Italy and begins to think of him as a “romantic savior and ‘world-cleaner’ who will clean up the illegitimate situation at her girls’s school in Edinburgh and salvage her dignity and place and prestige and sense of how the world should be. On the one hand Miss Brodie talks about the girls of the school as ‘la crème de la crème’ but how does that comport with ‘Sandy’ and the male gym teacher sharing their beds with each other? The ‘cognitive dissonance’ (incompatibility) in Miss Brodie’s mind is causing her to break down and flee into fantasy land (i.e., Mussolini will restore the romantic world to the way it’s supposed to be). She goes deeper and deeper into this nutty vision of salvation and romantic re-balancing and at the end of the movie, ‘Sandy’ senses that she’s coming unglued and is borderline bonkers. Thus the title ‘the prime of’ can be thought of as ironical or sardonic since the teacher Miss Brodie is flipping out and ‘maps’ her romantic frustrations” onto Mussolini. This is what makes politics so dangerous (i.e., it serves as a “Rorschach test” for people’s inner irrationalities and yearnings and they “see” what they need to see).

Harold Lasswell (died in 1978) spent his life exploring politics and people’s private lives, order, sense of things, grievances, in such books as Psychopathology and Politics.  If you watch the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie you will see how people use politics as a “screen” on which they project their emotions, grievances, hurts, humiliations, hysteria, anger.

Harold Dwight Lasswell (February 13, 1902 – December 18, 1978) was a leading American political scientist and communications theorist. He was a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, and he was a professor of law at Yale University. He served as president of the American Political Science Association (APSA), of the American Society of International Law and of the World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS).

He has been described as a “one-man university” whose “competence in, and contributions to, anthropology, communications, economics, law, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry and sociology are enough to make him a political scientist in the model of classical Greece.”

Table of Contents for Lasswell’s Psychopathology and Politics Book

I. Life-Histories and Political Science
II. The Psychopathological Approach
III. A New Technique of Thinking
IV. The Criteria of Political Types
V. Theories of Personality Development
VI. Political Agitators
VII. Political Agitators—Continued
VIII. Political Administrators
IX. Political Convictions
X. The Politics of Prevention
XI. The Prolonged Interview and Its Objectification
XII. The Personality System and Its Substitutive Reactions
XIII. The State as a Manifold of Events
Afterthoughts—Thirty Years Later
Appendix A. Select Bibliography
Appendix B. Question List on Political Practices

(2016 reprint of 1930 edition. Full facsimile of the original edition.)

First published in 1930, this classic study of personality types remains vital for the understanding of contemporary public figures. Lasswell’s pioneering application of the concepts of clinical psychology to the understanding of power brokers in politics, business, and even the church offers insights into the careers of leaders as diverse as Adolf Hitler and, arguably to more recent figures such as Richard Nixon, Donald Trump and the Clintons.

Movies should be your off-campus alternate university. You should ask yourself does this movie and Lasswell’s notions of psychopathology in politics help me understand authoritarian leaders today and such bizarre phenomena as half-dead prisoners in Stalin’s gulags bursting into tears in March 1953 when they learned of his death. Why sob over the death of the man who’s murdering you and tormenting you and your family?