Saturday, November 10, 2012

Habit: A Response to the Unknown

David Hume explained that we believe by habit that logs will burn, stones will fall, and endless other past patterns will recur. No experiment can prove the future recurrence of past events. An experiment belongs to the future only until it is implemented; once completed, it becomes part of the past. In order for past experiments to prove something about the future, we must assume that the past will recur in the future. That's as circular as it gets.

But without the habit of believing that past patterns will recur, we would be incapacitated and ineffectual (and probably reduced to moping and sobbing). Who would dare climb stairs or fly planes or eat bread and drink wine, without the belief that, like in the past, the stairs will bear our weight, the wings will carry us aloft, and the bread and wine will nourish our body and soul. Without such habits we would become a jittering jelly of indecision in the face of the unknown.

But you can't just pull a habit out of a hat. We spend great effort instilling good habits in our children: to brush their teeth, tell the truth, and not pick on their little sister even if she deserves it.

As we get older, and I mean really older, we begin to worry that our habits become frozen, stodgy, closed-minded and constraining. Younger folks smile at our rigid ways, and try to loosen us up to the new wonders of the world: technological, culinary or musical. Changing your habits, or staying young when you aren't, isn't always easy. Without habits we're lost in an unknowable world.

And yet, openness to new ideas, tastes, sounds and other experiences of many sorts can itself be a habit, and perhaps a good one. It is the habit of testing the unknown, of acknowledging the great gap between what we do know and what we can know. That gap is an invitation to growth and awe, as well as to fear and danger.

The habit of openness to change is not a contradiction. It is simply a recognition that habits are a response to the unknown. Not everything changes all the time (or so we're in the habit of thinking), and some things are new under the sun (as newspapers and Nobel prize committees periodically remind us).

Habits, including the habit of open-mindedness, are a good thing precisely because we can never know for sure how good or bad they really are.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Why We Need Libraries, Or, Memory and Knowledge

"Writing is thinking in slow motion. We see what at normal speeds escapes us, can rerun the reel at will to look for errors, erase, interpolate, and rethink. Most thoughts are a light rain, fall upon the ground, and dry up. Occasionally they become a stream that runs a short distance before it disappears. Writing stands an incomparably better chance of getting somewhere.

"... What is written can be given endlessly and yet retained, read by thousands even while it is being rewritten, kept as it was and revised at the same time. Writing is magic." 
Walter Kaufmann

We are able to know things because they happen again and again. We know about the sun because it glares down on us day after day. Scientists learn the laws of nature, and build confidence in their knowledge, by testing their theories over and over and getting the same results each time. We would be unable to learn the patterns and ways of our world if nothing were repeatable.

But without memory, we could learn nothing even if the world were tediously repetitive. Even though the sun rises daily in the east, we could not know this if we couldn't remember it.

The world has stable patterns, and we are able to discover these patterns because we remember. Knowledge requires more than memory, but memory is an essential element.

The invention of writing was a great boon to knowledge because writing is collective memory. For instance, the Peloponnesian wars are known to us through Thucydides' writings. People understand themselves and their societies in part through knowing their history. History, as distinct from pre-history, depends on the written word. For example, each year at the Passover holiday, Jewish families through the ages have read the story of the Israelite exodus from Egypt. We are enjoined to see ourselves as though we were there, fleeing Egypt and trudging through the desert. Memory, recorded for all time, creates individual and collective awareness, and motivates aspirations and actions.

Without writing, much collective memory would be lost, just as books themselves are sometimes lost. We know, for instance, that Euclid wrote a book called Porisms, but the book is lost and we know next to nothing about its message. Memory, and knowledge, have been lost.

Memory can be uncertain. We've all experienced that on the personal level. Collective memory can also be uncertain. We're sometimes uncertain of the meaning of rare ancient words, such as lilit in Isaiah (34:14) or gvina in Job (10:10). Written traditions, while containing an element of truth, may be of uncertain meaning or veracity. For instance, we know a good deal, both from the Bible and from archeological findings, about Hezekiah who ruled the kingdom of Judea in the late 8th century BCE. About David, three centuries earlier, we can be much less certain. Biblical stories are told in great detail but corroboration is hard to obtain.

Memory can be deliberately corrupted. Records of history can be embellished or prettified, as when a king commissions the chronicling of his achievements. Ancient monuments glorifying imperial conquests are invaluable sources of knowledge of past ages, but they are unreliable and must be interpreted cautiously. Records of purported events that never occurred can be maliciously fabricated. For instance, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is pure invention, though that book has been re-published voluminously throughout the world and continues to be taken seriously by many people. Memory is alive and very real, even if it is memory of things that never happened.

Libraries are the physical medium of human collective memory, and an essential element in maintaining and enlarging our knowledge. There are many types of libraries. The family library may have a few hundred books, while the library of Congress has 1,349 km of bookshelves and holds about 147 million items. Libraries can hold paper books or digital electronic documents. Paper can perish in fire as happened to the Alexandrian library, while digital media can be erased, or become damaged and unreadable. Libraries, like memory itself, are fragile and need care.

Why do we need libraries? Being human means, among other things, the capacity for knowledge, and the ability to appreciate and benefit from it. The written record is a public good, like the fresh air. I can read Confucius or Isaiah centuries after they lived, and my reading does not consume them. Our collective memory is part of each individual, and preserving that memory preserves a part of each of us. Without memory, we are without knowledge. Without knowledge, we are only another animal.

Friday, May 11, 2012


[S]ince there is an infinity of possible worlds, there is also an infinity of possible laws, some proper to one world, others proper to another, and each possible individual of a world includes the laws of its world in its notion. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

On simple matters we can agree. Water freezes and wood burns. People can agree on social or political issues, though often more from self interest than from reasoned argument.

Agreement is rare or flitting on what is good or bad, worthy or worthless, humane or heartless. Are we simply not wise or intelligent or patient or convincing enough to find consensus?

Agreement is rare because the realm of possibilities is boundless. Every thought or vision carries a cosmos of variations and extensions. A good idea is one that spawns new good ideas, on and on. We are told that God the creator created man and woman in his image: as creators, to be fruitful and to multiply children, and ideas, and worlds.

At first we think that we are the entire world. Then we discover other worlds - things and people - and we think that they are the same as us. Then we discover that they have minds that, like ours, create their own worlds. We learn to communicate with those minds out there. We think that our meanings are their meanings, and this is true for many things, and even for many thoughts. But not for all of them. Then we discover that our deepest feelings are ours alone, and that we have created a continent whose shores are only lapped by waves from distant lands. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

I am a Believer

There are many things that I don't know. About the past: how my great-great-grandfather supported his family, how Charlemagne consolidated his imperial power, or how Rabbi Akiva became a scholar. About the future: whether I'll get that contract, how much the climate will change in the next 100 years, or when the next war will erupt. About why things are as they are: why stones fall and water freezes, or why people love or hate or don't give a damn, or why we are, period.

We reflect about questions like these, trying to answer them and to learn from them. For instance, we are interested in the relations between Charlemagne and his co-ruling brother Carloman. This can tell us about brothers, about emperors, and about power. We are interested in Akiva because he purportedly started studying at the age of 40, which tells us something about the indomitable human spirit.

We sometimes get to the bottom of things and understand the whys and ways of our world. We see patterns and discover laws of nature, or at least we tell stories of how things happen. Stones fall because it's their nature to seek the center of the world (Aristotle), or due to gravitational attraction (Newton), or because of mass-induced space warp (Einstein). Human history has its patterns, driven by the will to power of heroic leaders, or by the unfolding of truth and justice, or by God's hand in history.

We also think about thinking itself, as suggested by Rodin's Thinker. What is thinking (or what do we think it is)? Is thinking a physical process, like electrons whirling in our brain? Or does thinking involve something transcendental; maybe the soul whirling in the spheres? Each age has its answers.

We sometimes get stuck, and can't figure things out or get to the bottom of things. Sometimes we even realize that there is no "bottom", that each answer brings its own questions. As John Wheeler said, "We live on an island of knowledge surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance."

Sometimes we get stuck in an even subtler way that is very puzzling, and even disturbing. Any rational chain of thought must have a starting point. Any rational justification of that starting point must have its own starting point. In other words, any attempt to rationally justify rational thought can never be completed. Rational thought cannot justify itself, which is almost the same as saying that rational thought is not justified. Any specific rational argument - Einstein's cosmology or Piaget's psychology - is justified based on its premises (and evidence, and many other things). But Rational Thought, as a method, as a way of life and a core of civilization, cannot ultimately and unequivocally justify itself.

I believe that experience reflects reality, and that thought organizes experience to reveal the patterns of reality. The truth of this belief is, I believe, self evident and unavoidable. Just look around you. Flowers bloom anew each year. Planets swoop around with great regularity. We have learned enough about the world to change it, to control it, to benefit from it, even to greatly endanger our small planetary corner of it. I believe that rational thought is justified, but that's a belief, not a rational argument.

Rational thought, in its many different forms, is not only justified; it is unavoidable. We can't resist it. Moses saw the flaming bush and was both frightened and curious because it was not consumed (Exodus 3:1-3). He was drawn towards it despite his fear. The Unknown draws us irresistibly on an endless search for order and understanding. The Unknown drives us to search for knowledge, and the search is not fruitless. This I believe. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

We're Just Getting Started: A Glimpse at the History of Uncertainty

We've had our cerebral cortex for several tens of thousands of years. We've lived in more or less sedentary settlements and produced excess food for 7 or 8 thousand years. We've written down our thoughts for roughly 5 thousand years. And Science? The ancient Greeks had some, but science and its systematic application are overwhelmingly a European invention of the past 500 years. We can be proud of our accomplishments (quantum theory, polio vaccine, powered machines), and we should worry about our destructive capabilities (atomic, biological and chemical weapons). But it is quite plausible, as Koestler suggests, that we've only just begun to discover our cerebral capabilities. It is more than just plausible that the mysteries of the universe are still largely hidden from us. As evidence, consider the fact that the main theories of physics - general relativity, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics, thermodynamics - are still not unified. And it goes without say that the consilient unity of science is still far from us.

What holds for science in general, holds also for the study of uncertainty. The ancient Greeks invented the axiomatic method and used it in the study of mathematics. Some medieval thinkers explored the mathematics of uncertainty, but it wasn't until around 1600 that serious thought was directed to the systematic study of uncertainty, and statistics as a separate and mature discipline emerged only in the 19th century. The 20th century saw a florescence of uncertainty models. Lukaczewicz discovered 3-valued logic in 1917, and in 1965 Zadeh introduced his work on fuzzy logic. In between, Wald formulated a modern version of min-max in 1945. A plethora of other theories, including P-boxes, lower previsions, Dempster-Shafer theory, generalized information theory and info-gap theory all suggest that the study of uncertainty will continue to grow and diversify.

In short, we have learned many facts and begun to understand our world and its uncertainties, but the disputes and open questions are still rampant and the yet-unformulated questions are endless. This means that innovations, discoveries, inventions, surprises, errors, and misunderstandings are to be expected in the study or management of uncertainty. We are just getting started. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Accidental Education

"He had to take that life as he best could, 
with such accidental education as luck had given him". 

I am a university professor. Universities facilitate efficient and systematic learning, so I teach classes, design courses, and develop curricula. Universities have tremendously benefitted technology, the economy, health, cultural richness and awareness, and many other "goods".

Nonetheless, some important lessons are learned strictly by accident. Moreover, without accidental surprises, education would be a bit dry, sometimes even sterile. As Adams wrote: "The chief wonder of education is that it does not ruin everybody concerned in it, teachers and taught."

An example. I chose my undergraduate college because of their program in anthropology. When I got there I took a chemistry course in my first semester. I was enchanted, by the prof as much as by the subject. I majored in chemistry and never went near the anthro department. If that prof had been on sabbatical I might have ended up an anthropologist.

Universities promote lifelong learning. College is little more than a six-pack of knowledge, a smattering of understanding and a wisp of wisdom. But lifelong learning doesn't only mean "come back to grad school". It means perceiving those rarities and strangenesses that others don't notice. Apples must have fallen on lots of peoples' heads before some clever fellow said "Hmmm, what's going on here?".

Accidental education is much more than keeping your eyes and mind open (though that is essential). To understand the deepest importance of accidental education we need to enlist two concepts: the boundlessness of the unknown, and human free will. We will then understand that accidental education feeds the potential for uniqueness of the individual.

As we have explained elsewhere, in discussing grand unified theories and imagination, the unknown is richer and stranger - and more contradictory - than the single physical reality that we actually face. The unknown is the realm of all possible as well as impossible worlds. It is the domain in which our dreams and speculations wander. It may be frightening or heartening, but taken as a whole it is incoherent, contradictory and endlessly amazing, variable and stimulating.

We learn about the unknown in part by speculating, wondering, and dreaming (awake and asleep). Imagining the impossible is very educational. For instance, most things are impossible for children (from tying their shoes to running the country), but they must be encouraged to imagine that they can or will be able to do them. Adults also can re-make themselves in line with their dreams. We are free and able to imagine ourselves and the world in endless new and different ways. Newton's apple brought to his mind a picture of the universe unlike any that had been imagined before. Surprises, like dreams, can free us from the mundane. Cynics sometimes sneer at personal or collective myths and musings, but the ability to re-invent ourselves is the essence of humanity. The children of Israel imagined at Sinai that the covenant was given directly to them all - men, women and children equally - with no royal or priestly intermediary. This launched the concept and the possibility of political equality.

The Israelites had no map of the desert because the promised land that they sought was first of all an idea. Only after re-inventing themselves as a free people created equal in the image of God, and not slaves, only after finding a collective identity and mission, only then could they enter the land of Canaan. Theirs wanderings were random and their discoveries were accidental, but their formative value is with us to this day. No map or curriculum can organize one's wandering in the land of imagination. Unexpected events happen in the real world, but they stimulate our imagination of the infinity of other possible worlds. Our most important education is the accidental stumbling on new thoughts that feed our potential for innovation and uniqueness. For the receptive mind, accidental education can be the most sublime.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Genesis for Engineers

Technology has come a long way since Australopithecus first bruised their fingers chipping flint to make knives and scrapers. We are blessed to fruitfully multiply, to fill the world and to master it (Genesis 1:28). And indeed the trend of technological history is towards increasing mastery over our world. Inventors deliberately invent, but many inventions are useless or even harmful. Why is there progress and how certain is the process? Part of the answer is that good ideas catch on and bad ones get weeded out. Reality, however, is more complicated: what is 'good' or 'bad' is not always clear; unintended consequences cannot be predicted; and some ideas get lost while others get entrenched. Mastering the darkness and chaos of creation is a huge engineering challenge. But more than that, progress is painful and uncertain and the challenge is not only technological.

An example of the weeding-out process, by which our mastery improves, comes to us in Hammurabi's code of law from 38 centuries ago:

"If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death. If it kill the son of the owner the son of that builder shall be put to death." (Articles 229-230)

Builders who use inferior techniques, or who act irresponsibly, will be ruthlessly removed. Hammurabi's law doesn't say what techniques to use; it is a mechanism for selecting among techniques. As the level of competence rises and the rate of building collapse decreases, the law remains the same, implicitly demanding better performance after each improvement.

Hammurabi's law establishes negative incentives that weed out faulty technologies. In contrast, positive incentives can induce beneficial invention. John Harrison (1693-1776) worked for years developing a clock for accurate navigation at sea, motivated by the Royal Society's 20,000 pound prize.

Organizations, mores, laws and other institutions explain a major part of how good ideas catch on and how bad ones are abandoned. But good ideas can get lost as well. Jared Diamond relates that bow and arrow technologies emerged and then disappeared from pre-historic Australian cultures. Aboriginal mastery of the environment went up and then down. The mechanisms or institutions for selecting better tools do not always exist or operate.

Valuable technologies can be "side-lined" as well, despite apparent advantages. The CANDU nuclear reactor technology, for instance, uses natural Uranium. No isotope enrichment is needed, so its fuel cycle is disconnected from Uranium enrichment for military applications (atom bombs use highly enriched Uranium or Plutonium). CANDU's two main technological competitors - pressurized and boiling water reactors - use isotope-enriched fuel. Nuclear experts argue long (and loud) about the merits of various technologies, but no "major" or "serious" accidents (INES levels 6 or 7) have occurred with CANDU reactors but have with PWRs or BWRs. Nonetheless, the CANDU is a minor contributor to world nuclear power.

The long-run improvement of technology depends on incentives created by attitudes, organizations and institutions, like the Royal Society and the law. Technology modifies those attitudes and institutions, creating an interactive process whereby society influences technological development, and technology alters society. The main uncertainty in technological progress arises from unintended impacts of technology on mores, values and society as a whole. An example will make the point.

Early mechanical clocks summoned the faithful to prayer in medieval monasteries. But technological innovations may be used for generations without anyone realizing their full implications, and so it was with the clock. The long-range influence of the mechanical clock on western civilization was the idea of "time discipline as opposed to time obedience. One can ... use public clocks to summon people for one purpose or another; but that is not punctuality. Punctuality comes from within, not from without. It is the mechanical clock that made possible, for better or for worse, a civilization attentive to the passage of time, hence to productivity and performance." (Landes, p.7)

Unintended consequences of technology - what economists called "externalities" - can be beneficial or harmful. The unintended internalization of punctuality is beneficial (maybe). The clock example illustrates how our values gradually and unexpectedly change as a result of technological innovation. Environmental pollution and adverse climate change are harmful, even when they result from manufacturing beneficial consumer goods. Attitudes towards technological progress are beginning to change in response to perceptions of technologically-induced climate change. Pollution and climate change may someday seriously disrupt the technology-using societies that produced them. This disruption may occur either by altering social values, or by adverse material impacts, or both.

Progress occurs in historical and institutional context. Hammurabi's Code created incentives for technological change; monastic life created needs for technological solutions. Progress is uncertain because we cannot know what will be invented, and whether it will be beneficial or harmful. Moreover, inventions will change our attitudes and institutions, and thus change the process of invention itself, in ways that we cannot anticipate. The scientific engineer must dispel the "darkness over the deep" (Genesis 1:2) because mastery comes from enlightenment. But in doing so we change both the world and ourselves. The unknown is not only over "the waters" but also in ourselves.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Age of Imagination

This is not only the Age of Information, this is also the Age of Imagination. Information, at any point in time, is bounded, while imagination is always unbounded. We are overwhelmed more by the potential for new ideas than by the admittedly vast existing knowledge. We are drunk with the excitement of the unknown. Drunks are sometimes not a pretty sight; Isaiah (28:8) is very graphic.

It is true that topical specialization occurs, in part, due to what we proudly call the explosion of knowledge. There is so much to know that one must ignore huge tracts of knowledge. But that is only half the story. The other half is that we have begun to discover the unknown, and its lure is irresistible. Like the scientific and global explorers of the early modern period - The Discoverers as Boorstin calls them - we are intoxicated by the potential "out there", beyond the horizon, beyond the known. That intoxication can distort our vision and judgment.

Consider Reuven's comment, from long experience, that "Engineers use formulas and various equations without being aware of the theories behind them." A pithier version was said to me by an acquisitions editor at Oxford University Press: "Engineers don't read books." She should know.

Engineers are imaginative and curious. They are seekers, and they find wonderful things. But they are too engrossed in inventing and building The New, to be much engaged with The Old. "Scholarship", wrote Thorstein Veblen is "an intimate and systematic familiarity with past cultural achievements." Engineers - even research engineers and professors of engineering - spend very little time with past masters. How many computer scientists scour the works of Charles Babbage? How often do thermal engineers study the writings of Lord Kelvin? A distinguished professor of engineering, himself a member of the US National Academy of Engineering, once told me that there is little use for journal articles more than a few years old.

Fragmentation of knowledge results from the endless potential for new knowledge. Seekers - engineers and the scientists of nature, society and humanity - move inexorably apart from one another. But nonetheless it's all connected; consilient. Technology alters how we live. Science alters what we think. How can we keep track of it all? How can we have some at least vague and preliminary sense of where we are heading and whether we value the prospect?

The first prescription is to be aware of the problem, and I greatly fear that many movers and shakers of the modern age are unaware. The second prescription is to identify who should take the lead in nurturing this awareness. That's easy: teachers, scholars, novelists, intellectuals of all sorts.

Isaiah struggled with this long ago. "Priest and prophet erred with liquor, were swallowed by wine."(Isaiah, 28:7) We are drunk with the excitement of the unknown. Who can show the way?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Mind or Stomach? Imagination or Necessity?

"An army marches on its stomach" said Napoleon, who is also credited with saying "Imagination rules the world". Is history driven by raw necessity and elementary needs? Or is history hewn by people from their imagination, dreams and ideas?

The answer is simple: 'Both'. The challenge is to untangle imagination from necessity. Consider these examples:

An ancient Jewish saying is "Without flour, there is no Torah. Without Torah there is no flour." (Avot 3:17) Scholars don't eat much, but they do need to eat. And if you feed them, they produce wonders.

Give a typewriter to a monkey and he might eventually tap out Shakespeare's sonnets, but it's not very likely. Give that monkey an inventive mind and he will produce poetry, a vaccine against polio, and the atom bomb. Why the bomb? He needed it.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say, but it's actually a two-way street. For instance, human inventiveness includes dreams of cosmic domination, leading to war. Hence the need for that bomb. Satisfying a need, like the need for flour, induces inventiveness. And this inventiveness, like the discovery of genetically modified organisms, creates new needs. Necessity induces inventiveness, and inventiveness creates new dangers, challenges and needs. This cycle is endless because the realm of imagination is boundless, far greater than prosaic reality, as we discussed elsewhere.

Imagination and necessity are intertwined, but still are quite different. Necessity focusses primarily on what we know, while imagination focusses on the unknown.

We know from experience that we need food, shelter, warmth, love, and so on. These requirements force themselves on our awareness. Even the need for protection against surprise is known, though the surprise is not.

Imagination operates in the realm of the unknown. We seek the new, the interesting, or the frightful. Imagination feeds our fears of the unknown and nurtures our hopes for the unimaginable. We explore the bounds of the possible and try breaking through to the impossible.

Mind or stomach? Imagination or necessity? Every 'known' has an 'unknown' lurking behind it, and every 'unknown' may some day be discovered or dreamed into existence. Every mind has a stomach, and a stomach with no mind is not human.