The historic method

History is an intriguing subject of study. In opposition to the tenants of the scientific method, it attempts to derive conclusions on the basis of analyzing existing evidence, where various historical artifacts, chronicles and so forth are used to piece together events using, essentially, simple point interpolation. Attempting slightly more sophisticated methods as linear regression would be a worthwhile exercise.

While the experiments are not repeatable per se, one may make use of the ever heeded saying “history repeats itself” to perform repeated trials in history, seeking cases where a similar conflation of events or “variables”, occurs, and measuring whether the outcomes are predictable as such. Naturally we cannot even hope to identify, let alone control, the control variables involved. Another important aspect is falsifiability, which in principle is possible on the basis of newly uncovered historical evidence, though I suspect this does not work reliably in practice.

Despite these objections and others, I still find history to be both an important and useful tool for advancing human knowledge. I also find it to be interesting, but that clearly does not constitute as an argument in this context. I think the missing key here is a scientific-method like revelation for the humanities, one that is capable of dealing with the type of data available and the limitations on the experiments that can be performed. It can be argued that Bayesian statistics may constitute as such, but I feel that it is too general a tool to be effective and influential in this domain. It was Newton’s discovery of the calculus framework for physics that sparked the revelations that he and scientists that followed him have uncovered, and I wish to see the Newton of the humanities in my lifetime.

Employing machine learning, and unleashing it onto the sheer volume of historical data available, may turn out to be fruitful venture. Envision building a generative model of history, breaking up clusters of interconnected events into causal links and weighted contributing factors. Once these are identified, we may be able to predict events given the existence of their contributing factors. We can also decide the best course of action to take in order to achieve, or avoid, certain outcomes. I appreciate the lack of rigour associated with this type of modelling exercise, and this underpins my disappointment in our progress lately as a humanity. It appears that our methods are starting to scrape against the ceiling of low hanging scientific fruit; we need better tools and processes. With that said, it appears to me that the big data of history remains a, to this day, a ripe low hanging fruit waiting to be picked.


Conway’s game of life

This is my third attempt at spontaneous writing. Prior writing this, I decided to publish all three pieces if this one works out too.

I peer outside the train window, staring at the marvellous tree and fauna growths whirling by at high speed. These structures emerged as the result of nature’s long running optimisation problem, a more complex version of Conway’s game of life with a richer set of rules operating over a multidimensional playing field. How these rules emerged remains a hotly contested topic, and in particular whether the rule set came about with a goal in mind, so to speak, with all the assumptions that this carries forth.

Let us, however, move away from the ever so infinite domain of universal purpose, and closer towards a higher level of abstraction. Thinking from the personal or societal viewpoint is often much more interesting and rewarding. Why should we not use nature’s methods to our advantage? There is plenty of interesting work in this area, notably the methods of so-called genetic algorithms. Amongst other applications, they have been used to optimise circuit board layouts, minimising the distance that signals need to travel between components, and so forth. This to me seems to be a modest utilisation of this “technology”. We need not look further than at the forests, jungles, and other ecosystems, that have been, and continue to be, created organically, aided by none other than their own self perpetuity.

This to me seems to be a far more efficient method of large scale construction (think towns and cities) than the ones we use today. For various reasons our species has decided to ditch the free version of environment construction over time. It started with simple alterations to the environment, which included the derivation of tools from natural resources. This grew more advanced with the advent of farming and land terraforming, until humanity decided that nature’s frameworks simply won’t cut it and turned to full-fledged concrete cities. City building requires a lot of labour and even more ancillary human resources besides construction itself, such transportation.

Reading back through this, I can think of many holes to poke through my arguments. Construction is much less manual than it used to be. The design patterns of architecture, as it were, which provide a high degree of mass production and replication are likely prevalent and in heavy use, particularly for large constructions. As you probably have realised by this point, my knowledge on building and architecture technologies is moot. My most faithful argument is this: I want this to happen simply because it’s beautiful! I want humanity to engineer its own self-perpetuating city builders, much like plants do. I want us to master the elusive equations of chaos and bend them to our will.

3d printers seem to be a good step in that direction.

The semantics of cause and effect

Owing to the nature of habit, I decided to continue my attempt at painting a Picasso by rolling paint onto a blank canvas as it comes.

As I walk down the street I see a lady carrying some flowers. It reminds me of the SMBC comic where an alien species describes humans decorating their homes with “plant genitals” – funny how that works out. I suppose that flowers evolved to look pretty and smell nice to humans, such that they (humans) readily contribute to the task of spreading their seed. This is much like how fruits work too – in exchange for the delicious nutrients they provide, they hope that the animal eating them swallows their seeds, hopefully defecating them in a fertile location. I wonder whether the fact that faeces make good fertiliser has anything to do with this..

A related interesting fact is that avocados have large seeds due to their evolution coinciding with larger sized animals. Human farmers then cultivated the plant in its current form, more or less, thus there was no evolutionary pressure on avocados to reduce the size of their seeds.

Returning to the subject of flowers, one may argue conversely that flowers smell and look nice because humans cultivated them to be so, i.e. through selective breeding. This distinction falls under the curious domain of conflating cause and effect. As an example of this, I am reminded of Lawrence Krauss mentioning this point in a talk hosted by Julia Galef, where he argues against the position of the earth being intimately suitable for life, suggesting instead that life evolved to be suitable for the environment it found itself in.

This topic of cause and effect is quite an interesting one. I wonder how one could define it formally, and whether these definitions are tied to a notion of chronological precedence, i.e. the event that occurs first is the cause, which I don’t find to be a satisfying definition. For one, it assumes that events are points on the timeline, whereas events actually span across intervals. Also, if it turns out that time is not a line but a multidimensional space, then we can no longer impose an ordering on events.

It is a difficult question I think, because it involves imposing a pragmatic level of abstraction to reason under. To make this idea clear consider the concept of gravitational force. According to Newton’s gravitational law, all objects pull on each other proportionally to the product of their masses. In this model, both (or perhaps neither one) of the objects can be said to have caused the other to be pulled towards it. If however we go up a few levels of abstraction we may well say that the earth’s gravity caused the apple to drop from the tree, but we normally wouldn’t say that the apple caused the earth to come closer to it. This semantic distinction is further confused by the fact that the apple detaches from the tree that was holding it (or was the apple holding the tree.. hmm).

This suggests that cause and effect may often be semantic definitions that are only relevant to explaining phenomena at a particular level of abstraction or model of human thought. I would not preclude the possibility of defining the semantics of this human-centric notion, though I do heartily acknowledge its difficulty.

Uniformly distributed utterances

I came up with the above title while on the bus. My initial thoughts were about how to start writing this as a manifestation of my thought stream. Instead, I opted for a more liberal capture-as-you-go style, in other words simply saying what comes to mind.

Thinking back to the title, “uniformly distributed utterances”, I begin to wonder how uniformly distributed this piece of writing is. However this position quickly recedes to how dull a topic this would be. I could analyse various facets of this piece, for instance how often the word “I” is used, followed by an analysis of the author’s intonation and style in writing.

A period of silence follows, with my head grasping for ideas from thin air. The motion of car wheels induces an image of free body diagrams describing the centripetal forces in operation. As I write this I begin to doubt this statement, but I manage to reassure myself. “Remember”, I tell myself, ” this is simply an exercise in writing”. An idea filter would merely serve as an unhelpful blocker of my flow.

At this point several ideas develop in my head. As I struggle to develop all these ideas in writing, I realise that whilst writing may add a further burden to the thinking process, it is not the root cause. The way we think is, in fact, linear. By this I do not mean that ideas flow chronologically or in some other logically organised way – they clearly do not. Rather my intention is to point out that we are unable to develop thoughts in parallel, we think serially, at least when it comes to conscious intelligible thoughts. I do not believe this to be due to our oral speech constraining the way we think, as we do also think in terms of actions without resorting to a language-based manifestation of these thoughts.

I found this limitation of serial thinking to be a gross one. Why should our brains, at least the conscious persona, be unable to run parallel streams of thought? Playing devil’s advocate for a position supporting the superiority of the brain, one may postulate a utility for this – it’s not a bug, it’s a feature! It is useful for the conscious mind to be presented (or perhaps, present itself?) with a simple interface to the underlying complexity of brain signals and activities, and serial thinking may be a part of this interface. I do not find this convincing, however, as surely an interface enabling parallel thought, despite the complexity, is far superior and more useful.

As I contemplate whether the above “devil’s advocation” was merely a straw man, I conclude that this generally can only be determined by engaging in discourse, where opposing thought criticises these ideas and develops counterarguments for them. Wondering whether a parallel thought stream would mitigate this necessity for external debate, I conclude that this would require a further flexibility in the human mind, being able to passionately hold opposing views. People often hold, or at least consider, opposing thoughts and opinions. These may be all genuinely instilled in their mind simultaneously, or they may be simply held for reasons of internal or academic debate. However, people lack the ability to have strongly driven views which clash directly with each other. I suspect that conflicting thoughts described by cognitive dissonance would not be strongly driven thoughts, at least only a maximum of one would be. Multiple personality disorder and similar also come to mind. Should we possess such an ability, then combined with the ability to think parallel thoughts, humans would be able to perform true internal debates that are much more effective than their lighter “internal conflict” form which people do come across. Such a development can help break our brain’s self-confirmation feedback loop and reduce cases of confirmation bias. If these parallel thought streams are able to exhibit independent associated emotions too, an interesting side effect would be the modulation of emotions such as anger, which would be diluted by the other competing thoughts.
An interesting aspect to consider is that thought streams may also be cooperating (à la cooperative threads in computer science), though I cannot think of examples of this. Perhaps thought streams related to prediction and planning would be a suitable application of this.