Western Philosophy vs Chinese Philosophy

Crucial question for Western Philosophy:

“What is the truth?” i.e. how to look before you leap.

Crucial question for Chinese Philosophy:

“Where is the Way?” i.e. how to leap without looking.

via A.C. Graham on page 3 of the ‘Disputers of the Tao’ who notes that

the crucial question for [Chinese philosophers] is not the Western philosopher’s ‘What is the truth?’ but ‘Where is the Way?’

Legibility, Control and Equilibrium in Economics

Peter Lewin notes that

It is an understanding of the incentivized behavior of human beings that allows us to understand and predict invisible-hand outcomes.
Yet, the complexity problem remains. Can we be certain, as a logical matter, that if certain conditions obtain, certain definite types of outcomes will result from the free market process? It is on this type of thinking that the more sophisticated Keynesians might base their arguments for benevolent and effective intervention in the face of economic crisis.

Both the invisible-hand and the mainstream Keynesian argument implicitly take legibility, predictability and stability to be desirable characteristics of economic outcomes. The Keynesian argument sees the illegibility and uncertainty as justification to put in place a system of control whereas the invisible-hand argument claims that the system is legible and at “equilibrium”. The latter operates in a fantasy land and the former through the very act of stabilisation renders stability all the more elusive.

The Importance of Forgetting and Limited Memory

My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.

— Funes the Memorious, Jorge Luis Borges

One popular conception of how systems such as Watson can aid human beings is by acting as a kind of extension of the database of the human brain and giving us better and speedier algorithms. So a doctor could instantaneously access all the information and data that he cannot possibly analyse on his own. Implicit in this conception is as assumption that we are better off if we can process and store more information and that our own limited, forgetful memory is not up to the task of dealing with complex domains such as medical diagnosis. And a robotic aid is surely so much better than memory-enhancing hormones or training to become a memory athlete. However, the assumption that more memory is better is unwarranted. As Gerd Gigerenzer notes “the philosophical world in which perfect memory would flourish is a completely predictable world, with no uncertainty” whereas human cognition is adapted to an unpredictable and uncertain environment.

The importance of limited memory in learning was highlighted in a study by cognitive scientist Jeffrey Elman. Elman demonstrated that under certain conditions, initial restrictions on the memory of an artificial neural network may improve its ability to comprehend the complex grammatical relationships that are key to learning a language. In Elman’s words:

one might have predicted that the more powerful the network, the greater its ability to learn a complex domain. However, this appears not always to be the case. If the domain is of sufficient complexity, and if there are abundant false solutions, then the opportunities for failure are great. What is required is some way to artificially constrain the solution space to just that region which contains the true solution. The initial memory limitations fill this role; they act as a filter on the input, and focus learning on just that subset of facts which lay the foundation for future success.

 It is in this context that the limited memory capacity of infants has a positive impact by acting “like a protective veil, shielding the infant from stimuli which may either be irrelevant or require prior learning to be interpreted.”

The most striking example of how perfect memory can malform human intelligence is the case of the Russian journalist and mnemonist Shereshevsky. While studying him, the neuropsychologist Alexander Luria found that Shereshevsky possessed a memory of almost unlimited capacity and durability. Luria tested Shereshevsky’s memory by asking him to repeat arbitrary series of numbers, words and syllables that Luria provided him with, a task that Shereshevsky completed without error no matter how long the series and how long back the series had been given to him. Indeed, he possessed a flawless recollection of series’ that Luria had given him as long as 15 years ago. In many respects, Shereshevsky’s mind resembles that of a computer. Luria notes that when asked to reproduce a particular word in the series, Shereshevsky “would pause for a minute, as though searching for the word, but immediately after would be able to answer my questions and generally made no mistakes” as if he were searching through a vast database with an incredibly accurate and efficient algorithm. Perfect memory however carried a high cost. Shereshevsky struggled to understand the meaning of simple passages of text (especially poetry or metaphors), “a struggle against images that kept rising to the surface of his mind.” He found it almost impossible to extract any true meaning from them or to be truly aware of anything at an abstract level. In this respect, Shereshevsky resembles Jorge Luis Borge’s famous character ‘Funes the Memorious’ whose prodigious memory meant that he was “incapable of ideas of a general, Platonic sort”.

Hugh Hendry on Uncertainty and Procrastination

A discussion between Hugh Hendry and Steven Drobny at the LSE – well worth watching in full, but this is a section I particularly enjoyed:

Rough Transcript (emphasis mine):

we spend so much time, resources and money trying to see the future. Really we’re spending money trying to delude ourselves. You’ve no chance of seeing the future. It’s better to recognise that.…..the worst thing that happened to western civilisation was the US government’s program in the 1970s to try and reduce fatalities from road accidents and it led to the creation of the airbag and it cost billions to achieve. If they’d asked me, I would have invented a sharp object like a dagger and I’d have had it in the steering wheel and you would eliminate fatalities because by god you’d drive carefully now…..(a hedge fund manager) was running a statistical merger arbitrage fund…I was reading, being deeply impressed by the intellectual rigour that he was applying to his ideas. He then goes on to record his experience in Dallas,Texas with an oil rig business…the degree of knowledge that he brought to bear on his subject matter. In fact, before he took the position on, he took an engineering course at university to get insight. And all he was doing was building this superior airbag. And in 2008, both of their funds disappeared. They were actually driving their cars too fast. So in some respects, I don’t want to know. I had an analyst who left us last year. And he had some fantastic insights on this pharmaceutical business, he started telling me and I started getting excited to think I could see the future and suddenly rather than having a 50 basis point holding in my fund I had a 250 basis point holding. And of course it had a profit warning and fell forty percent. Again we had deluded ourselves, this notion that we have seen the future. So in some respects, I go around and I don’t wanna know. I don’t wanna do stock research. I want to have that itch, that trepidation that says I don’t know the complete picture here. And therefore I watch things like a hawk and if the chart breaks down I trade, I sell. So ‘plasticine man’ is someone who, you can pull it apart very quickly and then put it back together. I used to say…I was the centipede. I had a hundred legs – hundred legs, I could let go of one or two, I ain’t gonna procrastinate. Procrastination kills you in a business which is determined by risk.

Having less information is often better in an uncertain environment because it acts as a defense against overconfidence. If only the paranoid survive, then not having the complete picture is one way to stay paranoid. Once we feel like we have all the information, then we often struggle to cope with our overconfidence. As Daniel Kahneman puts it:

We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know. Most of the time, [trying to judge the validity of our own judgements] is not worth doing.