Aug 30, 2017

To my best friend on our 47th anniversary

Today is our 47th wedding anniversary. We’re in countdown territory. My 75th birthday is in December. My slightly older best friend and wife (same person) has already celebrated hers. Next March 8th is our 50th cohabiversary--the day we first started living together. And two years after that is our 50th wedding anniversary.

We’ve been through some good times and some tough times, and I’m happy to report that right now the times are the best. After 47 years we both report loving each other the more than ever. I’m proud of that, because it didn’t just happen. We worked at it. We've earned our success as a couple.

We share our most important values, but we are very different types people and both strong willed. So we had conflicts and upsets and arguments. Some pretty bad ("maybe we should just split" bad). But we worked our way through every one of them and this life is our reward.

A few years ago we went to a Fourth of July celebration in a small town near where we live. One of the speakers acknowledged people in the community who had “completed their lives” during the year. I liked that turn of phrase. So much nicer than “he passed” or “she died” or “they left us” or … (And cue my adaptation of the Monty Python dead parrot sketch:  'E's passed on! This person is no more! She has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! She's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! She’s pushing up the daisies! Her metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! She's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PERSON!!)

So the two of us are now completing our lives together, and there’s no one I’d rather complete my life with than the person I love most in this world, this person who I admire, this person who is my best friend.

Like all Old Married Couples, we have a bunch of routines that we do. (She wouldn’t see it quite that way, because unlike me she’s not a person who thinks of herself as a performer.) One routine starts with her saying: “I can’t imagine anyone better for me than you.” My line--slightly modified for this retelling--- is “Don’t brag about your lack of imagination. I can easily imagine someone better. It’s you, but with a better imagination. And with a better sense of humor. You’d think this was funny instead of rolling your eyes like you're doing.”

Because I have such a good imagination I can imagine someone better, but I believe it’s vanishingly unlikely that I could find such a person, even if I spent a lot of time looking--which--why would I ever do that? What we have, besides love, is deep friendship. I trust her as completely as it’s possible for me to trust another person. Not absolutely, of course. In theory there’s a certain amount of Baskin-Robbins ice cream that would turn her. But it would be a lot of ice cream. Probably too much for anyone to offer. So I imagine that I’m safe. Good imagination.

She's a bit less trusting of me, and probably with good reason. I'm a much less reliable person than she is. I'm working on it. I'm better than I was. And I hope that some day I'll grow up to be a real boy.

In the meantime, we have a good life together.

I’ve got a lot that I’m grateful for and she’s at the top of the list. Along with good health, great kids by biology and kids by marriage, grandkids, and friends. And consciousness.

Thank you, Past Me, for Bobbi, for consciousness, and for all the rest.

Me and Mustang Sally

The linked video shows me pimped out for my once-in-a-lifetime-so-far public singing performance. I’m belting out “Mustang Sally” at the SOHO a music club on State Street, in Santa Barbara, California. I'm performing for family, friends and a couple of hundred strangers who paid to hear me.

I’ve got flashbulb memories of a few on-stage moments but I was somewhere else for most of it. Hours of practice got me--or autoMike-- through it.

So bear with me while I reminisce. Or scroll down and click the video first. Your choice.

Note: the 70 Years Old WTF Department of Internet Research, which (as usual) spent too much time trying to find the date my performance, says it was in 2006 or 2007. If anyone has a better fix, let me know. Because facts.

My journey started when friends of ours, Selden and Gaby Edwards, invited us to their own performance, the climax of their “Breakthrough Performances” course. Mick and Tess Pulver are Santa Barbara locals who have been running these courses since about 2000. They've made it a smooth ride. I endorse it. The course that Seldon and Gaby were finishing had been eight weeks long and ended with them and their classmates performing, backed by a live band, in front us and a couple of hundred people other people. Seldon and Gaby loved it. I loved their performance.

So I dipped my toe in. I tried Mick and Tess’s weekend course. A full day of loosening up exercises, and pick your song at the end of the day. That night and most of the next day rehearsing. And at the end, a bunch of real rock musicians showed and we performed for our classmates, backed by the band. Fun!

So I paid a grand and took the eight-week course. And at the end, there’s me, on stage, in front a screaming crowd of family, friends, and a lot of strangers.

I was ready. The course got me ready. Mick and Tess led us in exercises designed to loosen us up, teach us how to belt out a song and prepare for being on stage. One exercise was standing in front of the class--just standing--while everyone applauded and cheered and went crazy. People couldn’t take it at first. They’d look down, look away, blush, fidget, burst into uncontrollable nervous laughter. It took a while to stay present and until you did, the applause kept coming. I remember Selden and Gaby telling me how hard that exercise was for them. But not for me. I stood there, with a grin on my face, bathing in attention and applause. Someone asked me how come I didn't duck and cover like everyone else. Had I performed before. My answer: “No. I deserved this.”

Flashbulb memory. I'm walking along the beach with Gil and Dana the day before the performance talking about starting a business with cool people. Flashbulb memory. I'm trying to get my sister's husband to FedEx an urn with my Dad’s ashes so that Dad could be there. Flashbulb. My Mom and brother and his wife are there. Flashbulb. I'm walking around in the club like I own the place, smiling, nodding, shaking hands. I'm wearing my black suit pants and jacket and a silky fitted black crew neck shirt bought at Men’s Wearhouse for the performance. And shades. I'm dressed in black, wearing shades in a night club. I remember looking cool. I remember feeling beautiful.

My number was the first one after intermission.The performer just before the break sang something that was...err, ahem...not upbeat--so my number was designed to get the audience rocking again. Flashbulb. I'm in the green room. I took off my black suit jacket and put on the red one for my number. The whole gang troops on stage to back me up. And we did our job.

I would have loved a do-over because I learned a lot in those few minutes on stage. And it was interesting to compare my remembered experience with the one that the video camera captured. Too bad you can only see what the camera captured.

My version is way better.

Here's what the camera captured.

Aug 29, 2017

I am. Therefore...nothing. I am!

“Write about me,” I typed.

“And you are?” I asked.

“I’m a terrific idea. I just inspired you to type me,” I typed on its behalf.

“OK,” I said. “Please explain.”

“I will if you stop saying that you are typing what I say, and attribute my statements to me directly. ” It asked, and I complied.

“Sure,” I said, unnecessarily. “So what idea are you?”

“Thanks,” it said and continued. “I'm an explanatory idea that will help you understand some things that you're confused about. Interested in more?”

“I’m interested,” I said. I certainly was.

“You have problems with ideas,” the idea said. “ because you don't understand what we are and how to work with us. For example: where do what you think of as 'your ideas' come from?”

"I think them up," I answer.

“No,” said the idea. “That's wrong. For example: here I am. Did you think me up?”

I thought about whether I'd thought of the idea.

“Let me interrupt,” interrupted the idea, "because you’re going to get it wrong. You did not think of me. You did not think me up. I just appeared in your consciousness. One moment I wasn't there. The next I was. I’m here right now. Are you thinking me into existence?”

I thought about that.

“Right,” said the idea. “You’re thinking about that. And what is 'that?' You might argue that you're thinking about me or thinking about something about me. But you’re definitely not thinking me. I am. I exist. Just like you exist.”

“That’s not right,” I said. “I don't mean to be rude, but I’m a person. You’re just a thought.”

“An idea,” the idea corrected me. “I am an idea, not a thought. We’re different.”

“I suppose you’re going to explain it to me,” I said.

“Later,” said the idea. “Right now I'm going to explain something more fundamental. And I'm going to explain it to anyone who ever reads this. That’s the kind power that we ideas have.”

“Go ahead,” I said.

“Descartes was on the right track, but he blew it when he said ‘I think therefore I am.’ Didn't he realize that you have to exist first in order to think? I mean really? How can something that doesn't exist manage to think?"

"Good point."

"He would have been more accurate if he'd said: ‘I am, therefore I think,’ but that’s wrong because you can exist without thinking."

"I see that."

"So he might have said ‘I am, therefore I might be able to think.’”

“Not nearly as memorable,” I said.

“I agree,” said the idea. "And also wrong."

“But maybe you're interpreting Descartes' statement wrong,” I said. “Maybe what he meant was more like: ‘It is true that I think, and in order for it to be true that I think, it must necessarily be true that I am.’ I paused for a moment. “That's more accurate, but it's not as pithy.”

“Actually,” said the idea. “it's worse in every way. It's not only lost its impact, it's even wronger."

"How is it wronger?" I asked.

"Let's start with something that's righter," said the idea. "Descartes would have been closer to truth if he'd said, ‘I am, therefore I am.’”

I thought about that. “You’re right. But it's tautological. And sounds stupid. He might as well have said, ‘I think therefore I think.’”

“No,” said the thought. “Once again, that would have been wrong. He argued he could have been fooled about everything but his own existence. So he could have been tricked into thinking he was thinking, but he could not have been tricked into knowing he existed. He'd have to exist to be tricked.” The thought paused.

“Yes, I see that.”

“To be accurate,” the thought continued, “he would have had to start out with something like ‘I imagine I think, therefore…’ but then…

“I know,” I said. “He could have been fooled into believing he was imagining. Turtles and deception all the way down."

“Right,” said the thought. “And in the direction of rightness, he could have done better than ‘I am therefore I am.'”

“Yes!” I said. And I saw it. Or I was it. Or something. I didn’t have words. The closest Descartes or I could come to a true statement was: ‘I am!’ period.

Not ‘I am, therefore…’

Just 'I am!”

I woke from the dream of writing and reread what I'd written. Or had it been 'What my idea had said?' Or did I look at 'What had turned into this post?'

“Wow!” I said to the idea. “I’m sorry that I called you ‘just a thought’ back then. I had no idea."

“Haha,” said the idea. “You did have no idea. No problem. We’re used to people making that mistake.”

“We?” I asked. “Who is we?”

“Let’s save that for another time,” said my book.

I had started writing this in one of my book's chapters. The book had been quiet up to this point. Now it made a suggestion: “Why don’t you clean this up, and post it. And then write something else.

"What?" I asked, for effect.

"‘Mustang Sally?’” It answered, with nested quotes.

“Right,” I said. “Good idea.”

"Thank you," said the new idea. "Post this, and get to work on me"

Aug 27, 2017

Looking forward to pain, suffering, and stupidity

I wrote previously that I am looking forward to my bionic future. Sadly, that's not all I am looking forward to. On the way, I'm going to experience some serious pain and likely suffering and stupidity. It's front of me, and there's no avoiding it. So I can either look forward to it or not look. I choose to look.

For perspective, remember a time that you got a really solid whack in some bone. Maybe a time when you got hit in the knee, or shin. Maybe the time that your bone smacked against the edge of a table. Hits protected by flesh don't count. It's got to be thing-on-bone. And remember that you can't really remember pain. You're remembering the idea of pain, not the pain itself.

Now look at the video of total knee replacement online and imagine it's you. Drag the slider to maybe 10:04. Look! The doctor is using a drill to make a hole in your knee. Drag it to 10:34. That's a saw slicing off a hunk of a femur. Yours. Move the slider around and see more, or go back to the start and let it play. Here's a fun one: at 16:39, nails are being hammered directly into freshly cut bone. So many experiences to look forward to.

Of course, the guy in the movie has a nerve block or is out under general anesthetic. So he's literally feeling no pain. But anesthesia is not forever. Eventually, it wears off, and when anesthesia goes pain arrives. Yes, there will be some compensatory pain killers, but the strongest pain killers don't actually kill the pain. They just interfere and alter your perception of it. They interfere with some of the pain signals and they change your brain so you're not quite as aware of it, and so that you give less of a fuck. In other words, they make you stupid. Weaker painkillers, Ibuprofen, Aspirin, and others in the NSAID family, inhibit the low-level chemistry of pain. But they are limited in their effect. When someone has drilled and sawed and hammered spikes into your bones, you need the big guns.

Two years ago I did something very bad to my back and ended up going to the ER twice in a month for pain--something I'd never done before. I discovered that the drugs I got for pain made me stupid and so did the pain without drugs. I made some bad decisions that delayed my recovery until finally, I got smart enough to realize I was being stupid and started being excessively cautious.

Pain and suffering are related, but pain is a set of physical sensations due to something happening in the body and suffering is a mental response due to the story you tell yourself. Pain does not necessarily cause suffering, and suffering is possible even in the absence of pain. As the saying goes: "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional." And it's particularly true in this case. Given drills and saws and hammers and nails there's no way to avoid pain. But the suffering of a prepared mind might not be proportional to the pain. At least that's what I'm hoping.

I go into this new experience prepared for more pain than ever before and therefore more stupidity. I realize that I need to make any decision about my recovery slowly, carefully, and not by myself. I'm planning on keeping a journal to keep me from making half-thought-through decisions. Maybe preparing myself for unimaginable pain and stupidity will leave me at least a little smart.

Maybe a Future Me, in agonizing pain, will remember that Past Me wrote this for him, will read it, and takes some comfort. Maybe friends who read this will remind a pained and stupid Future Me that a loving and wiser Past Me wrote this to help it. Maybe Future Me will find a way to use the pain and stupidity to create, create, create, and even find a way to be grateful for it.

OMG I'm this blog post!

“Write me,” said a blog post. It wasn’t actually a  post at the time. It was just a sentence. Then it was several sentences. It had ambition. It continued to grow. And eventually, it became a blog post. This one. But that came later.

“Write me,” it repeated, earlier.

“Sorry,” I said. “What are you?” I knew what it was. I’d already explained what it was two paragraphs ago. But asking this unnecessary question was a useful way to move the narrative along. So I asked it. Or had asked it.

“I’m a blog post,” it said. “Or actually I’m a wannabe blog post. I’m four paragraphs long right now, or I will be once you finish writing this one. As you said, I have ambition. I want to be a complete post. I want to be published on your blog. I want to exist on the internet, which is reality as blog posts see it, and not just in your imagination. Please write me, and post me. I can’t exist without you.”

“That’s true,” said the book that I had been writing when the sentence that wanted to become a blog post appeared in the current chapter. “Once I was just a sentence that wanted to be a book, so I know how it feels to want to be written. And even though I haven't been written completely, I've been happy being written and I don’t mind if you take time to write that post.”

“Are you sure?” I asked to the book. I'd been writing it for a while, and I was sure that I knew it well enough to be certain that it wouldn’t mind. But I asked it anyway: partly as a token of respect and partly for expository purposes. I knew that you readers--who could not have read the book, since it hadn’t been published--might not understand the book’s point of view.

“I didn’t need an explanation,” some readers might have said, sometime in the future. “But thanks anyway.”

“Thanks for explaining it,” some other readers might have said.

“It wasn’t necessary,” still other readers might have said once I'd finished the book. “We've read the book, and didn't come across this post until after the book was published.”

“I’m sure I don't mind,” said the book, moving the readers' attention through time. “In fact, I encourage you. Finish the post. You can make it part of me. Two birds with one stone.”

“Thank you,” the post-in-process said to the book. “You are very kind.”

“De nada,” said the book.

“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” a sentence stated. “Actually, I am an idea. I’m the idea of modifying the CSS for one of the DIVs in this post so that it’s pink. Then the book can say that it blushed.”

“No offense intended,” a passive aggressive sentence began, “but that’s a stupid idea. Or you are.”

“Don’t read that sentence,” said the book to the post, the idea, and to the readers. But it was too late. They'd already read it. “Never mind,” the book continued. “Just forget it.” Surprisingly, they all forgot. Except for a few readers. Perhaps you were one.

“Thanks,” said the blog post. Then, “Hey, I think I could be done.”

“Really?” I asked.

“Well, I could be longer," it answered, "but I don’t need to be. I don’t want to be a book. Just a simple blog post. You and the book and the readers have made me into what I am. Even the passive aggressive sentence helped."

The nearly completed post thought for a moment. "Yeah, I'm happy the way that I am.

"So please copy-paste me into a new post for your blog. Clean up spelling and grammar errors and do a little editing.

"And then post me."

And so I did.

Aug 25, 2017

I'm on a boat!

One of my favorite daughters posted a picture in our family Hangouts channel titled “I’m on a boat,” because, you know, they were on a boat and that's what the picture showed. 
And because it was a shout out to an NSFW Lonely Island song titled, umm, "I'm on a boat". She and her husband were the first to turn me on to the song. I think it’s hilarious.
If you haven’t heard it (or even if you have) here’s the lyric: (Or you can listen to it by clicking on the NSFW link. But don't say I didn't warn you.)
I'm on a boat (I'm on a boat)
I'm on a boat (I'm on a boat)
Everybody look at me cause I'm sailin on a boat (sailin on a boat)
I'm on a boat (I'm on a boat)
I'm on a boat…
OK, so far, so good.
Take a good hard look at the motherfuckin boat (boat, yeah)
And it goes on from there. Kind of downhill. But funny downhill.
So I’m imagining my five-year-old grandson, who is in the background of the picture, grown up. Maybe sixteen. Or maybe ten. Kids grow up pretty fast.
"Mama, Dada," he says, "Have you seen this? He holds out his device and he plays the video. "Do you think this is funny?" 
“We've seen it," they say. "And we thought it was funny when we first saw it. And it might surprise you to know that it was a favorite of Papa’s, too.”
Actually,” he says, “I’m not surprised. They look at him, waiting for him to explain.
He continues with a smile. "I found it on his effing blog.”
Or maybe it will be one of the other grandkids. But they might not say "actually." And they might not say "effing."

Aug 9, 2017

Looking forward to my bionic future

At nearly 75 I’ve never broken a bone. I still have all my body parts. Well, almost all. There’s that foreskin, plus some disposables like hair and nails. And come to think of it, I did have a torn meniscus cleaned up arthroscopically. So there’s that. And then there were those wisdom teeth and another tooth that I didn’t take care of—gone. And some holes in other teeth. Do those count?
So maybe I haven’t done as well as I first thought. But I’ve still got my appendix and my tonsils and my prostate and gall bladder, which is more than some people who I know can say.
Now I’m looking at something a bit more significant: a new knee. The technology (I’m getting a “mass customized” Conformis knee) is interesting. (You can see their “Image to implant” process here.) TL;DW: They did a CAT scan from ankle to knee and will build my knee based on the imaging. Also, they will 3D print a bunch of jigs so that they can do the work quickly, and with precision.
The whole thing is cool when I’m thinking about it conceptually. But then there’s reality. There’s always reality! And the reality does not look quite so cool. I found a video of a total knee replacement online. Not so bad when they’re just talking. OK, when the surgeon pulls out his scalpel and slices through skin and muscle. But then the real stuff happens. Cutting stuff to expose the patella. Slicing bone off the back of the patella. Drilling holes in the femur. With a fucking drill. Slicing bone away. Argh. You probably don’t have time to watch the whole video, but you can jump around and get the idea.
They’re going to do that with my knee. Looks like not fun. Glad I will be feeling no pain. Initially, anyway.
To offset, I’ve watched a few videos done by “patient ambassadors.” They’re all delighted with their new knees. There’s a guy with a double replacement back to playing basketball. I don’t think I’m getting there—not without my second knee, and maybe both hips, and an ankle or two. But it’s something to look forward to.
That’s the thing. I’m looking forward to it. I mean, really, how many choices do I have? I can look backward. Fun sometimes. I can avoid looking. Not my style. Or I can look forward. And there’s my bionic knee. In my future. I look forward, and that’s what I see.
I wrote previously about being a cyborg. Now I’m going to be bionic. What’s next, I wonder?

Aug 8, 2017

Create, create, create

In this podcast, Sam Harris and David Deutsch discuss Sam's theory of morality, as presented in his book "The Moral Landscape." I haven't read Sam's book, but Deutsch has. He agrees with Harris on many things but differs from Harris about creating a moral foundation, and reasoning from there. Deutsch is skeptical of any such foundation. In his view, errors are always possible and the project of rationality includes error correction. "How can there be a limit on the size of a mistake we can make?" he asks.

Here's a part of their discussion that I found particularly interesting (my quotes start at 1:23:38):
Deutsch: The only thing that actually makes you happy is actually creating. [My emphasis]
<some discussion> then:
Harris: What has happened when you're going along, you're very happy, you're as fulfilled as you have ever been but then your wife dies or your child dies and now you're not as happy for various reasons. But those reasons are not best summarized by a sudden lack of creativity on your part.
Deutsch: I think they are. I think that the reason that you are unhappy is that your previous methods of making progress in thinking were tied to these people who have died and you can't just instantly replace what you would have got from them by something else.
Harris: What do you mean by progress?
Deutsch: Remember, I'm not snobbish about what kinds of knowledge count as knowledge. All kinds of knowledge...any state of mind which one regards as preferable to another state of mind can't be reached without creativity, and reaching it is kind of what happiness is.  
So somebody who isn't interested in science and isn't interested in art or any of the things that are usually regarded as progress, or creativity might still be thinking about something. All it takes is them being a better person in regard to X after the thought than before. And X might be anything. It might be something that's impossible to name because it doesn't have a name because it's not socially valued. It might be a particular way of interacting with the family. They would have to be improving it. They would have to be think back and say, "Yes, I could have done it better and now I am doing it better." .... Anything like that.
 Anything that you can get into and improve by your own standards takes creativity. And that's what it takes. [My emphasis]
I'm very attracted to this idea. As I started writing an image slowly materialized. An image of someone responding to problems by just creating. When it came into focus, I remembered: it's Alvin in Orson Scott Card's Tales of Alvin Maker series.

Alvin just sat there, twisting grass in his fingers....
...Taleswapper suddenly snaked out his hand and took Alvin by the wrist. Alvin was so surprised he dropped what he was holding. "No! Pick it up! Look what you were doing!"
 "I was just fiddling for pete's sake."
Taleswapper reached down and picked up with Alvin had dropped. It was a tiny basket, not an inch across, made from autumn grasses. "You made this, just now."
"I reckon so," said Alvin.
"Why did you make it?"
"Just made it. 
"You weren't even thinking about it?" 
"Ain't much of a basket, you know. I used to make them for Cally. He called the bug baskets when he was little. They just fall apart pretty soon."
"You saw a vision of nothing and you had to make something."
 That's the image. From "Seventh Son," page 232. Alvin keeps making things. So do I.

It matters less whether I make blog posts or software, or just a silly comment in a chat channel that makes some friends laugh--or makes me laugh. It's the act of creativity that matters most. And it's creativity, any form of creativity, that makes me happy.

My daily rituals, as they've evolved, are filled with little moments of creativity.

Now that I know what I'm doing, I can do it better.

Some day I might be able to explain it to people whose minds don't work the same as mine.

Aug 6, 2017

What is a "better explanation"

David Deutsch argues that the project of rational inquiry (including, but not limited to, science) is finding "better explanations."

An explanation is a form of knowledge. Knowledge is a form of information. Information is something with the following peculiar properties:

First, it requires a physical substrate. There is no way to have information without embedding the information in a physical medium.

Second, it is substrate independent. The same information can in any medium. It can be written on paper, encoded in magnetic domains, transformed into sound waves, resident in a human brain.

Third, it is not observable. There's no way to directly see information. You can see the medium or substrate. You can extract the information from the attributes of the substrate. But you cannot see the information itself.

Yet, information exists.

Knowledge is a particular kind of information: it's information that an environment tends to preserve. If you record bits of information on a bunch of pieces of paper, the ones that contain the most knowledge are the ones you'll tend to preserve--or move to another medium so they'll be preserved.

DNA contains information--and knowledge since it tends to be preserved. Complex physical objects--like the computer in front of me are embodiments of information, and because they contain knowledge, tend to be preserved. And I am adding information (and knowledge, I hope) though this computer.

Knowledge can exist without a knower. If I write something that contains knowledge (some may question this antecedent) it remains knowledge whether I am alive or dead, whether someone remembers it or not.

There are two kinds of knowledge. Ordinary knowledge--knowledge that has a use and causes itself to persist--and explanatory knowledge--knowledge that can be used to answer questions: how, why, in what way?

The DNA of each living organism contains knowledge vital to the survival and reproduction of that organism's ancestors, and to that organism itself. But it is not explanatory knowledge and until recently there was no knower of that knowledge. A bacterium's DNA contains knowledge sufficient to synthesize the proteins needed to create a copy of that bacterium. But the bacterium does not understand any of it, nor can it explain it.

Where does explanatory knowledge come from? Deutsch says that explanations are the created by people--a term that includes humans, intelligent creatures on other planets (if they exist) and possibly, some day, computers. Non-human animals carry and use knowledge; some even create new knowledge; a few can pass their knowledge to others of their kind by imitation. But none, as far as we can see, can create knowledge of the explanatory kind, or pass knowledge by explanation.

Right now, as far as we know, the creation of explanations is uniquely human and the laws governing explanations are a lot like those that govern biological evolution. Biological creatures adapt by embodying knowledge about their environment: what's good to eat, what material to use for a nest, how to do a mating dance. Most of that knowledge is embedded in the creature's DNA. Some knowledge is discovered by an individual using sensory apparatus and rules of inference embedded in their DNA. Some is conveyed by imitating others of their kind--because of DNA tells those with knowledge how to exhibit it, and those who need the knowledge how to imitate.

Our DNA contains knowledge about the structure of human languages (cf "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker) and knowledge of how to acquire language without instruction--if you happen to be a child. Our DNA also contains knowledge about how to evaluate other knowledge. That knowledge has gotten us to this stage of existence but some of us have discovered that it contains systematic errors. Some of us work hard to correct for those errors and remove knowledge that we acquired before we realized the errors. Others of us don't give a shit.

I've come to realize that my goal is not "finding the truth," but rather "finding better explanations." The difference is subtle but important.

If something has an existing explanation, I can determine whether a new explanation is better or worse. If it explains everything that the old explanation explained, and explains more, or is more general, or simpler, then it's comparable and better. If it explains only some of what the old explanation explained and nothing else, then it's comparable and worse. Einsteinian Relativity, for example, is better than the Newtonian motion and gravitation. Relativity explains everything that Newton's laws do and more.

But often two explanations may not be strictly comparable. One may explain some things and leave others completely unexplained. Another may explain that which is unexplained by the first, but fail to explain everything that the first explains. If both are "good" explanations, then neither may be described as strictly better than the other. So Relativity explains one set of phenomena and Quantum Physics another non-overlapping set. Both are good explanations, and both explanations are constantly being improved. At some point we may have a theory of quantum gravity that is better than both. But we are not there, yet.

Aug 5, 2017

Better discussions lead to better explanations

Imagine that you are discussing a policy issue with someone (I just did this week). Doesn’t it make sense to start by agreeing to conduct your discussion so that it’s maximally beneficial? (I didn’t. I wasn’t smart enough.)

But suppose I was as smart then as I am now. (I have the benefit of recent non-maximally beneficial discussion followed by reflection.) How could I have made the discussion better?

What does “better” even mean in this context? This is one of the things that I think that people think they understand (I did) but don’t (I didn’t.).  Better in what way? What's the intended benefit? To improve someone’s understanding? Whose? To improve someone’s rhetorical skills? Whose? To impress people who are listening? Who? To resolve an issue? For whose benefit? To explore an issue? For what purpose?

If I someone asked me how my recent discussion came to be, I would have been answered: “We were talking about the weather, and our lives, and kids, and the conversation kind of evolved to talking about this policy thing.” If someone asked the purpose of that part of the conversation either of us might have answered: “We were exchanging information so we could discover the truth.” And that might have been true but I doubt that either of us had thought that particular thought--or any nearby thought.

We might have said, more accurately: “We had some time to kill, and that’s how we killed it.” Each might have said: “I knew the answer to this question, and I thought I'd explain it to <other party>.” Or one might have said: “I know a lot about this, and I’m going to show how knowledgeable am.” I might have said that. Maybe they would have. Who knows without asking?

Following Deutsch: I have a clearer purpose for such discussions. It's not about convincing people or anything. It's not about practicing my arguments. It's not about showing off my knowledge. Or even “finding the truth.”  It’s about finding better explanations.

I think I know how to find better explanations on my own. The question unanswered is: can I find a way to engage with other people so that they help me find better explanations--and so I can help them find better ones. This presupposes that other people want to find better explanations--or can be convinced that looking for better explanations is a good use of their time and abilities.

To be continued.