Why Hard Decisions are Hard: What are You For?

Why are some decisions so hard?

You've heard the classic advice to list the pros and cons when faced with a tough call, but Shane Parrish at Farnam Street highlights a video from Ruth Chang, who wants to remind you that a hard decision is hard because the right choice cannot be found on a ledger. An accountant's scoring of the problem doesn't work because the problem isn't one of ignorance, but of agency.

Hard decisions bring us face to face with what we value. Ruth Chang:

A world full of only easy choices would enslave us to reasons.... So the lesson of hard choices reflect on what you can put your agency behind, on what you can be for (emphasis supplied).

Stay curious.


Robin van Persie's Feet Have a Mind of Their Own

Exhibiting supreme grace and power, soccer players display how marvelously plastic the human mind is every time they take the pitch.

Right on time, a piece from BBC Future describes in more detail how, through repetition and practice, footballers make the split second calculations needed to dribble through defenders or arrive on the end of a long ball to nod home a goal. It's the same skill, incidentally, that many of us use everyday while driving a car. Tom Stafford:

Intelligence involves using conscious deliberation at the right level to optimally control your actions. Driving a car is easier because you don't have to think about the physics of the combustion engine, and it's also easier because you no longer have to think about the movements required to change gear or turn on the indicators. But just because driving a car relies on automatic skills like these, doesn't mean that you're mindless when driving a car. The better drivers, just like the better footballers, are making more choices each time they show off their talents, not fewer.

Known as embedded cognition, the essential idea is that our intelligence is distributed, which means that Robin van Persie's feet have a mind of their own. And this rather simple shift in how we think about intelligence now informs roboticists, philosophers and the practice of medicine alike.

Check out the video highlight reel of van Persie. And have a closer look at this outrageous World Cup goal against Spain!



Six More Speakers Added to IF 2014 Lineup!

The IdeaFestival has announced six new speakers for IdeaFestival 2014, including the authors of Average of Over, Tyler Cowen, and The Power of Glamour, Virginia Postrel.

Be sure to bookmark this page for the latest information on 2014 speakers, or follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates.

And don't forget to get one of the limited number of 2014 Festival Pass!

Stay curious.


"Shut Up and Calculate" Bad Mojo

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

Success in Circuit lies...

Tell all the truth but tell is slant - Emily Dickinson

Sean Carroll would like his fellow physicists to stop belittling philosophy.

Stephen Hawking believes philosophy is dead, an opinion shared by compatriot Lawrence Krauss, who says that introspection alone "is incapable of addressing... the truly fundamental questions that perplex us about our existence." Neil deGrasse Tyson recently wondered aloud in this podcast about the contribution of philosophy to science. Do philosophers, he asks, really "believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature?"

Entering the fray, Carroll has had his say at Preposterous Universe, suggesting that the benefits of "shut up and calculate" only extend so far, at least if one's goal is a deeper understanding of the world at hand. Naturalists should stop saying "silly things" about philosophy. Carroll:

The idea is apparently that developing a new technique for calculating a certain wave function is an honorable enterprise worthy of support, while trying to understand what wave functions actually are and how they capture reality is a boring waste of time.

I certainly haven't the faintest idea what collapsing wave functions actually are or how they capture reality, or what further insight might lead science there, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if someone outside physics offers up that vital lead.

It seems to me that the charge made against philosophers could be made against librettists, against poets. They are members of one-half of two indissoluble domains, one imaginative and introspective, relying the belief that our private thoughts correspond to the world as it is (and, in point of fact, often wrong in that belief) and appealing to the wholly subjective and singular individual experience, the other with demonstrable third-party access to nature, which can describe matter on vanishingly small scales and use Newton's mechanics to guide metals among Saturn and its moons.

But the observed and transmitted reality of nature, is, after all, observed and transmitted by humans, biological paupers, the nervy embodiment of ancient metallic rains. It is staggering to me that the inheritors of those rains can fashion the remaining littered material into reporting automa, sending machines back to the void billions of years later with questions, questions, questions.

We understand everything in terms of other things. We also know the things that we know, which is the difference between your intelligence and the intelligence of the silicon ordinator you are using to read this blog post. The phenomenal "collapse" of innumerable neural connections in our brains and bodies that produces the experience of the color red is another data point added to red's chroma in a Jackson Pollock painting or its shift as it would appear on an astronomer's spectrographic prints. The sight of a bed of nodding roses, or the scent of orchard pears, or the felt embrace of a child, is absolutely singular. When we describe these things to each other we describe what these things are like, not, materially, what they are. With all due respect to Krauss, the problem is one of translation, not transcription. I can scarcely imagine how an intelligent entity without self-report might meaningfully address the perplexities. Yes, there are immensities folded into wave functions. There are infinities in your private experience.

And yet, I know. The truthers are out there. Notwithstanding my objections to to the objections of materialists, spare me the Moon landing hoaxers and climate-change deniers. Their potted minds grow nothing. "Shut up and calculate" is bad mojo for the same reason all absolutes are corrigible. Any conclusion that sums to "nothing but" should let you know that nothing, eventually, is on offer if what one seeks is understanding.

Carroll touches on an interesting philosophical question near the end of the video posted here, which was recorded just after his IdeaFestival presentation on the arrow of time: since time and space can be traced back to the Big Bang, is asking "what happened before the Big Bang" really nonsense? Is it really like asking "what's north of the North Pole?" Cosmologists, he says, are increasingly investigating scenarios that could make sense of the question. While it's true that a philosopher is unlikely to mathematically theorize about the possibilities, or propose an experiment that might offer empirical hints, she can still raise deep questions. She might, for example, ask if science is capable of proving that all truths about the world are discoverable by its methods.

Unlike, Hawking, Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson, I certainly have my doubts.

Stay curious.


Falling Down the Clickhole

“Look after the senses and the sounds will look after themselves” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The Onion has launched Clickhole, a new site that targets pandering online media with the seriousness it deserves - by relentlessly mocking the just-so narratives, planted stories and malign headlines that characterize clickbait culture and the financial model that powers it.

Eyeballs! Give us eyeballs!

If You Don't Read The Onion's New Clickbait Parody Site, They'll Kill This Dog, Fast Company:

'For us, ClickHole is just another mirror we can hold up to society,' says [managing editor Ben] Berkley. 'There's a lot of this Internet content that's just so vapid and reductive--that's counter-productive to the greater good ... ClickHole is just a cool new medium for us to tell jokes through.'

The writer of the piece also cleverly asks what might happen if Clickhole were to succeed:

...It will be interesting to see what happens when readers get wise to the clickbait trap. Maybe Facebook's fickle algorithm decides to truly surface 'high-quality content,' as it has promised in the past. If the Internet were to ever reach a point where it stopped regurgitating dumb memes and insufferable headlines--as we should all hope it will--Clickhole will, with any luck, grow up alongside it. (Or at least as much as a parody website can.).... The hope is that ClickHole is something that can and will evolve.

I certainly have no idea what a grown-up Clickhole would look like, but the new venture has certainly picked a fat target now.

Stay curious.


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by jackieleigh

IdeaFestival/ICI, Inc. | 200 West Vine Street, Suite 420 | Lexington, KY 40507 | | phone: 866-966-4607 toll-free or 502-966-4607 | fax: 859.259.0986

Copyright @ ICI, Inc. 2014