Artificial Intelligence: Weak AI vs. Strong AI

This post continues a philosophical examination of Artificial Intelligence started in the previous post.

The distinction between Weak and Strong AI refers to claims about the capabilities of computers. Popular uses of the terms ‘Weak AI’ and ‘Strong AI’ are less carefully defined than their academic uses. The original terms were coined by the philosopher John Searle in 1980. Weak AI is the hypothesis that a powerful enough computer could simulate any aspect of the human mind. Strong AI—in its original intended definition—is the hypothesis that "the brain is a digital computer, and the mind is a computer program". This view implies that if a programmer types the right program into a computer console, then that program would emulate (be equivalent to) a human mind.

Imagine that we created a robot that was built with powerful computer hardware and software. Imagine that the robot was so life-like in appearance that it was indistinguishable from a human being in movement and speech. Those who accept Weak AI but reject Strong AI would say that it is logically possible to create such a computer-powered robot, but it could only ever simulate human intelligence. No matter how much computer technology advanced in the future, it could never literally be intelligence or aware, nor could it have any intrinsic rationality. It would just be a metal and silicon zombie.

Some assume Strong AI and believe that creating consciousness is simply a matter of creating the right computer program (Philosophers Daniel Dennett and David Chalmers). Others reject the view that consciousness is intrinsically computational but accept Weak AI that computers could hypothetically simulate any aspect of human consciousness (John Searle). Others reject both Strong and Weak AI believing that there are some aspects of the human mind that not even a computer could simulate (Mathematical physicist Roger Penrose).

Weak AI Computer software + hardware alone can simulate every aspect of a human mind.
Strong AI Computer software + hardware alone can emulate a human mind.

One can reject either Strong AI or Weak AI and still believe that we could hypothetically create an artificial machine that could literally be conscious. However, that machine could not be a computer. It would have to be a machine that is much more powerful than a computer. According to one theory, a machine could emulate the human mind if it reproduced the causal mechanisms of the human brain that cause consciousness (assuming we will eventually understand how those mechanisms work). More on this in later posts.

Sticker Charts

In the past few years, I have been experimenting with different systems for self-improvement. For most of my experiments, I use my graphic design skills to develop some visual chart or framework to track my thoughts or progress in some area. The most recent system I designed has been very successful in helping me and my family develop habits and daily rituals. It is a simple sticker chart that tracks the daily, weekly, and monthly goals of each member of the family. This system has been more successful than anything else we have tried so far.

The purpose of the goal chart is to help my family develop habits that will help us grow individually and collectively. The chart has one section for the goals of each family member such as individual daily reading goals. There is also a section for goals that can only be accomplished collectively such as daily family prayer.

Here are some pictures of our January and February sticker charts: 

February is partially complete because I am posting this on the 12th. 

For this experiment, no one is rewarded individually when they have earned a certain number of stickers. The system is set up to reward the whole family. My hypothesis is that this will help create a sense of shared purpose and unity and to encourage family members to motivate each other. This month, for instance, we all agreed that when we achieved 10 perfect days — where everyone finished all of their goals for that day— we would go out for ice cream as a family.

The sticker chart system is not meant to get kids to do chores around the house. I want to avoid teaching my kids that chores are only worth doing if they get something in return. This is another reason why the system is focused on self-improvement and uses collective rewards.

In addition to helping us develop better habits, the sticker chart system has other benefits as well. It replaces some of the chaos of life with a feeling of order, structure, and consistency. It is an aid as we talk with our kids about the importance of connecting short-term goals with long term wants and desires. It also helps our young kids understand the basic mechanics of the calendar, giving them a better sense of days, weeks, and months.

The system isn’t perfect however. Sometimes it can seem like it is just about filling in the numbers. For example, one of my my daughter’s goals is to draw a picture every day. One day she did a cursory drawing with very little effort just to get a sticker. Another issue is that the current version of the sticker chart tracks our progress for the length of the whole month. It is great to see the progress over a whole month, but it can seem too rigid if we are ready to adjust or add goals in the middle of the month. Hopefully these and other issues can be resolved as the system evolves over time.

This system probable would not work for everyone. I suspect that it will work better for some personality types than for others. I am really curious about this actually. I also want to find ways to improve the system. For these reasons, I would be willing to make custom sticker chart for anyone that it is interested in trying this system out. The only condition is that you are willing to really give it your best shot for at least a month and share your experience with me. Hope to hear from you soon.

 
 

What is consciousness?

In his biography of Leonardo DaVinci, Walter Isaacson points to a theme that Leonardo returned to often—understanding how human beings fit into the grand order of the universe. This theme was made most explicit in Leonardo's drawing of the Vitruvian man. Leonardo studied art and science with the most intense curiosity to understand the connection between our own nature and the universe.

522924753.jpg

Our knowledge of art and science has grown immensely since Leonardo. And yet the same question is still with us. How do we fit in with our conception of the universe? We think of ourselves as conscious beings possessing rationality, creativity, meaning, and free will, while we think of the universe as purely mechanistic, consisting wholly of mindless, meaningless, physical particles in fields of force. 1 The question of how we fit in is one of the central questions of contemporary science and philosophy. The key to making sense of how we fit in with the universe lies in understanding the nature of consciousness. In this post, I will say a few things about the nature of the definition of consciousness and what consciousness is.

There are many theories that attempt to explain what consciousness is, how it works, and how the mental relates to the physical. These theories go by the following names: substance dualism, property dualism, materialism, physicalism, computationalism, functionalism, behaviorism, epiphenomenalism, cognitivism, eliminativism, panpsychism, biological naturalism and more. There is currently no consensus among experts about which theory is most correct, and there are many unanswered questions about consciousness. Some even argue that we can never fully understand it. 

Currently, the study of consciousness is more of a philosophical issue than a scientific issue. Philosophy differs from science in that science tries to answer questions for which there is a systematic or agreed-upon way of answering those questions. Philosophy, on the other hand, deals with questions for which there is no systematic way of answering those questions. This doesn't mean that consciousness can never be a scientific issue. All issues that are now scientific were once philosophical issues. This explains why early scientists such as Isaac Newton were called "Natural Philosophers". Once a philosophical issue develops enough, it often becomes a scientific issue (though some issues are so fundamental that they will never become purely scientific in the sense described above).

We currently do not have a scientific definition of what consciousness is. We only have a common-sense definition. To illustrate the difference between scientific definitions and common-sense definitions, think of water. A scientific definition of water is that it is H2O. A common-sense definition of water is that it is a colorless, tasteless, liquid. We can still understand a lot about water with just a common-sense definition.

In my experience, people often resist defining consciousness. In some cases, it seems that they assume that if there is no scientific definition then you cannot meaningfully talk about consciousness at all. I think this is mistaken. We can make a lot of progress even if the concepts we are using are not fully understood. This is more common in science than many people think. I believe that we can give a definition of consciousness that is a useful starting place even if it is not perfect or fully complete.

A common-sense definition of consciousness goes something like this:

Consciousness is our everyday experience of awareness. It is our experience of reality as well as our own 'inner' states such as dreams or pains.

Examples of consciousness are often described by what we experience through our senses— hearing a bird singing, looking at the sky, feeling rain on your face, touching a rose, etc. Consciousness can also take the form of feelings and emotions or other bodily sensations such as a tickle or a toothache. A specific conscious experience can be pleasant or unpleasant. 

Consciousness is also subjective, meaning that it is experienced by a subject or agent. In technical terms, consciousness has a 'first-person ontology'. Just because it is subjective does not mean it cannot be studied by science. There can be an objective science (in an epistemological sense) about a domain that is subjective (in an ontological sense). The feature of subjectivity is perhaps the cause of the most difficulty concerning consciousness.

Everything that we value in life—science, art, society, etc.—depends on the existence of consciousness. Consciousness is the most important thing in our lives because it is a necessary condition for anything to be important to us at all.

Some relevant questions about consciousness that interest me include:

  • What are the features of consciousness? (in addition to a few mentioned above)
  • Which theory of consciousness is most accurate / best explains our scientific understanding?
  • What is the connection between consciousness and the brain? How does the brain cause conscious experience?
  • Is the brain a digital computer? Is the mind a software program? Can a computer be conscious?
  • How do we understand the concept of the 'self'? 
  • How do we explain our experience of free will? Do we even have free will?

I hope to write more about specific questions and issues related to consciousness and how it fits into our contemporary conception of reality.

 

1. See Freedom and Neurobiology 2007

Value-based New Year's Resolutions

I have set new year goals for most years of my adult life. The years that I did not set goals, I thought that I probably would not follow through or that I should be setting goals more consistently anyway, not just at the beginning of the year. However, when I have set annual goals, I have mostly found them to be helpful especially when I review them regularly throughout the year and keep track of my progress. Aligning goals to an annual timeframe helps me reflect over longer periods of time than I think I normally would.

In 2017 my goals were mostly uninspiring. I only fully completed about 30% of my goals and about 50% of them I didn't complete at all. The rest were only partially completed. Toward the end of the year, I realized that they were uninspiring to me because I did not do a good job of aligning my goals with my governing values.

My governing values reflect what matters most to me. They should guide my decisions more than any other factor. When I was younger and first read Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, I wrote down what I thought my values were as prompted by the book. I lost the list however and don't remember what I wrote. Since 2014, I have kept track of my own values in the form of value statements. Here is one of my value-statements:

Clear Thinking:

  • Remove distraction
  • Avoid confirmation bias
  • Maintain perspective

For me, it has not always been easy to identify my own values. Benjamin Franklin famously had his 13 virtues which he wrote when he was 20 years old. He originally started with 12 but added humility as a 13th later. Unlike Franklin, mine have evolved more dramatically over time. For instance, I add new ones as I reflect on what I enjoy doing and thinking about. Sometimes I combine a few similar value-statements into one to simplify my list. Other times I remove a value-statement from my list because it was something that I thought I should value, but ultimately was not very passionate about. At the beginning of this 2017, I had 11 value statements in my “official” list. A recent revision left me with only 7.

I am much more excited about my goals this year compared to last year because (1) My recent revision of my value-statements is much clearer than it has ever been, and (2) I have tied those values to my 2018 goals. I did this in a list where I wrote down each value with specific goals that I feel connect to that value. I know people are not supposed to share their goals, but here is one example:

Clear Thinking:

  • Write 12 blog posts
  • Write down big decisions and identify what I think the expected outcome of that decision will be. Compare my expected outcome to reality every month
  • Develop meditation habit (meditate 14 days in a row)

This is probably obvious to most people. I suppose when most people set goals they are implicitly tying them to their values anyway. The above approach is just being more explicit. It just seems more apparent to me now than before that really good goal-setting must be connected to really good value-setting.

Happy New Year!

The Expectation Problem of Human-like Interfaces

For more than six decades, many researchers and designers of computer programs have been inclined to make their computer interfaces appear intelligent and human-like. One of the assumptions behind this temptation is that since people already know how to interact with other people, then making a computer program act more like a person will improve the user experience. However, the experience of creating human-like computer programs together with research from the fields of design and computer science have presented challenges to this assumption.

Designing computer programs to look, sound, or behave more like humans is often talked about in terms of personification, humanization, or anthropomorphization. (These are separate concepts  but they are often conflated.)There are many pitfalls associated with such approaches, but one of the most well-documented affects is that it causes users to expect that the computer program is “smarter” than it really is.

I have captured a few quotes and references from specialists in the field and in academia about this effect:

The Reprentation of Agents, Anthropomorphism, Agency, and Intelligence by William King and Jun Ohya presents data from one of their experiments which suggests:

Anthropomorphic [Human-like] …forms may be problematic since they may be inherently interpretted as having a high degree of agency and intelligence.

In the book Make It So, authors Chris Noessel and Nathan Shedroff write:

Anthropomorphism can mislead users and create unattainable expectations. Elements of anthropomorphism aren’t necessarily more efficient or necessarily easier to use. Social behavior may suit the way we think and feel, but such interfaces require more cognitive, social, and emotional overhead of their users. They’re much, much harder to build, as well. Finally, designers are social creatures themselves and must take care to avoid introducing their own cultural bias into their creations. These warnings lead us to the main lesson of this chapter.

Lesson: The more human the representation, the higher the expectations of human behavior.

In the MIT Press bestselling book Software Agents by Jeffrey Bradshaw, Don Norman wrote the following:

If the one aspect of people's attitudes about agents is fear over their capabilities and actions, the other is over-exaggerated expectations, triggered to a large extent because much more has promised than can be delivered. Why? Part of this is the natural enthusiasm of the researcher who sees far into the future and imagines a world of perfect and complete actions. Part of this is in the nature of people's tendency to false anthropomorphizing, seeing human attributes in any action that appears in the least intelligent. Speech recognition has this problem: develop a system that recognizes words of speech and people assume that the system has full language understanding, which is not at all the same thing. Have a system act as if it has its own goals and intelligence, and there is an expectation of full knowledge and understanding of human goals.

The problem is amplified by the natural tendency of researchers and manufacturers to show their agents in human form. You can imagine the advertisements: "Want to schedule a trip, the new MacroAgent System offers you Helena, your friendly agent, ready to do your bidding." As soon as we put a human face into the model, perhaps with reasonably appropriate dynamic facial expressions, carefully tuned speech characteristics, and human-like language interactions, we build upon natural expectations for human-like intelligence, understanding, and actions.

There are some who believe that it is wrong — immoral even — to offer artificial systems in the guise of human appearance, for to do so makes false promises. Some believe that the more human-like the appearance and interaction style of the agent, the more deceptive and misleading it becomes: personification suggests promises of performance that cannot be met. I believe that as long as there is no deception, there is no moral problem. Be warned that this is a controversial area. As a result, it would not be wise to present an agent in human-like structures without also offering a choice to those who would rather not have them. People will be more accepting of intelligent agents if their expectations are consistent with reality. This is achieved by presenting an appropriate conceptual model — a "system image" — that accurately depicts the capabilities and actions.

In section 12.7 of the popular HCI textbook, Designing the User Interface, the authors write:

The words and graphics in user interfaces can make important differences in people’s perceptions, emotional reactions, and motivations. Attributions of intelligence autonomy, free will, or knowledge to computers are appealing to some people, but to others such characterizations may be seen as deceptive, confusing, and misleading. The suggestion that computers can think, know, or understand may give users an erroneous model of how computers work and what the machines’ capacities are. Ultimately, the deception becomes apparent, and users may feel poorly treated.

Because users naturally expect that human-like program are “smarter” than they really are, designers and marketers should be cautious when creating human-like interfaces. Some interfaces such as chatbots or voice interfaces make it impossible to avoid personification. In these instances, designers and marketers should set clear expectations to avoid user dissatisfaction. For example, one popular communication program "Slack" comes with a chat program called "Slackbot". Before users use Slackbot they are told "Slackbot is pretty dumb, but it tries to be helpful." Similarly, it may be in the best interest of tech companies to refrain from marketing their products as "smart" or "intelligent" to avoid making the problem worse.

As a designer, I personally gravitate toward the principle 4 of calm technology as a means of avoiding some of the problems stated above. Principle 4 states that machines shouldn't act like humans, and humans shouldn't act like machines.

Work from my students Fall 2014

This semester I taught Intro to Graphic Design at Brigham Young University. Here is some of the work from the students. Click the images for higher resolution.

Temari: A Japanese Restaurant
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Plates and Palates: A Restaurant/Caterer in SLC
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Skagen: A Danish Watch Company
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Topo: A Sportswear Company
Designed by a Advertising major

Oriflame: A Cosmetics Company
Designed by a Finance major

Eno: A Hammock Company
Designed by a Advertising major

NASA: A Space Organization
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Wildflower: A Triathlon Event Company
Designed by a Advertising major

Sam Hawk: A Korean Restaurant
Designed by a Graphic Design major

Craft: A Gourmet Food Truck and Caterer
Designed by an Art History major




Apple Watch Dimensions Diagrammed

The new Apple Watch was announced last Tuesday and so far Apple has not released any materials identifying its dimensions, so I spent the afternoon today analyzing Apple videos and Apple's PR photos to try to derive it's dimensions.

The only front facing photo of the watch on Apple's site is the watch next to an iPhone 6. It was clear that it was a 6 and not the six plus because of the app icon to phone ratio. Knowing the dimensions of the iPhone. I was able to estimate the size and dimensions of the new watch as shown below:

Apple Watch Dimensions MM and IN

If you exclude the crown, the dimensions end up being about 36 x 42 mm (1.4 x 1.6 inches). The inner screen appears to be about 40 mm (1.5 inches). 

Apple Watch Dimensions Side

From the side, the dimensions are 9 x 42 mm (.37 x 1.6 inches) without the sensor ring at the bottom. Counting the sensor ring, the total height is about 11.5 mm (.45 inches). That means that the Apple Watch is approximately 67% wider than the new iPhone 6. I suspect that the rounded corners should make the watch seem much thinner than it actually is.

In order to better understand the size of the watch, I have compared it to a credit card, an iPhone 6, and an iPhone 3g. 

Apple Watch compared to credit card
Apple Watch compared to iPhone 6 and iPhone 3g

What makes a great designer?

Tomorrow, I start teaching an intro to graphic design class at my Alma Mater — Brigham Young University. I was thinking about the class outcomes and the lasting influence I want the class to have on the students. The ultimate outcome of the class is to help the students become great designers. A great designer is not only good at their craft, but he or she is also a good person. All of the stated class outcomes ought to create a path to become a great designer. 

But what makes a great designer?
I am sure there are many ways to answer this question, but I just thought about a few fundamental attributes that all designers must develop to become great.

Resources
A designer is only as good as his or her resources. Good designers constantly collect physical and mental resources. Physical resources include the tools of the trade as well as collections of inspiring things. Access to quality paper and drawing instruments, and high performing computers and software, and printers are the basic tools of the trade. Great tools don't make good designers, but great designers need great tools. A great designer will constantly seek after the most inspiring and uplifting designs in order to learn from them and to be inspired by them. Sites like Pinterest can be a great resource for filling the mental and spiritual well.

Mental resources include pure talent, inspiring ideas, or a natural intuitive eye for beauty. Some people are born with more innate talent than others, but as long as one has some innate talent, he or she can nurture that talent through hard work.

Hard Work
One will not be great without a lot of hard work and a willingness to stay up late and work on weekends. The designer Bradley Munkowitz, whose work I admire, finished every work week by working Friday night until sunrise on Saturday morning for a year. 

The great inventor Thomas Edison is reported to have said that genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. This is a great quote that can help procrastinators gain perspective. But, for those who have mastered the habit of being proactive, they may gain more inspiration from Edison's rival, Nikola Tesla, who said,

If Edison had a needle to find in a haystack, he would proceed at once with the diligence of the bee to examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search. I was a sorry witness of such doings, knowing that a little theory and calculation would have saved him ninety per cent of his labor.

So even though hard work is a necessary habit of a great designer, one will progress faster if they combine good practice with good theory. Both are necessary. One's resources are worthless unless one works hard to put them together in new and inspiring ways.

Passion
I don't think a designer will ever learn to work hard unless he or she is passionately motivated to constantly improve themselves and their communities. A satisfied person is an unmotivated person. Only unsatisfied needs and desires can truly motivate a person to do whatever is necessary to progress.

In the book Built to Last, Jim Collins analyzed visionary companies and found that they did not focus primarily on beating their competition. According to Collins,

Visionary companies focus primarily on beating themselves. Success and beating competitors comes to the visionary companies not so much as the end goal, but as a residual result of relentlessly asking the question "How can we improve ourselves to do better tomorrow than we did today?" And they have asked this question day in and day out - as a disciplined way of life - in some cases for over 150 years. No matter how much they achieve - no matter how far in front of their competitors they pull - they never think they've done "good enough".  

Just like the visionary companies in Jim Collins study, designers must always have a bit of dissatisfaction with the results of their work. If a designer wants life satisfaction from their craft, then they should not focus too much on the results of their work, but they should focus on the process of design. Paradoxically, the calm of constant improvement comes with a bit of dissatisfaction that fuels personal progress.

Introduction to some philosophical principles

Dear (Friend),

Based on our philosophical discussion today, I wanted to share the ideas I mentioned to you in writing because writing allows for greater articulation and clarity. 

The philosophical study of reality is called metaphysics. The philosophical study of knowledge is called epistemology. One cannot have an epistemology—or systematic view of knowledge—without a metaphysics—or systematic view of what reality is like. Epistemology and metaphysics therefore cannot be separated. Together they form the foundation for every other belief we may hold. Metaphysics and epistemology form a foundation for ethics—(how people should act). Ethics in turn forms a foundation for politics (how people should act with the context of society) and aesthetics (the study of art and what constitutes good or bad art). A complete philosophical system will integrate all of these branches of philosophy. 

Philosophical System

Aristotle said, "The least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousandfold.” Since metaphysics and epistemology are the foundation of any philosophical system, if one makes a metaphysical or epistemological mistake, they will also make mistakes in the areas of ethics, politics, and aesthetics. In other words, mistaken premises lead to mistaken conclusions.

To validate a conclusion we must identify and validate the premises. How do we validate a premise? By identifying and validating the premises that support that premise. Here we can see a potential problem. Either,

  1. each premise will have its own premise going down an infinite chain of premises, or
  2. eventually we will find a stopping point—a foundation. That stopping point would be an irreducible premise that can stand alone. 

If option (1) is true, then knowledge would not be possible because we would not be able to justify our beliefs or know if they are true. If option (2) is true then knowledge is possible.

Knowledge is possible because irreducible premises do exist. I am going to call these premises "Axioms". An axiom is a foundational premise that is self evident. A belief is self evident when one must assume that belief when they are in the process of trying to reject that same idea. For example, if I try to argue against X, and while I am arguing against X, I am forced to assume X, then I will know that X is an axiom.

Knowledge and the ability to think rationally are dependent on the following axioms:

Axiom 1
Reality exists. This is a self-evident truth because if a person tries to deny it through argumentation, he/she must first appeal to reality in order to defend their position that there is no reality to appeal to. It is clearly a self-contradictory statement. Reality (or the world, or the universe) is the widest of all concepts. It includes all that is known and unknown.

Axiom 2
Consciousness exists. It is the awareness of reality. It could have been the case that a universe could have existed without consciousness, but we know that it exists because anyone that tries to deny consciousness through argumentation must appeal to reality to defend their position. And the very process of "appealing to reality" assumes that one is aware of reality. Axiom 1 and 2 combined show us that reality exists independently of our representations of it.

Axioms cannot be proven. The concept of proof is not irreducible. It relies on axioms. For example, the concept of "proof" assumes that there is an existence or reality that exists independently of consciousness. The concept of proof is meaningless without the concept of reality/existence by which beliefs can be compared. If we compare a given belief to reality and the belief does not match reality, then that belief is false. A belief can be proven when it is shown to match reality. This is why the existence of reality itself cannot be proven, because the concept of proof requires a belief in reality. In other words trying to prove that reality exists would result in a circular argument. Even though Axioms cannot be proven, they can be validated. Validation is a larger concept than proof. Axioms are validated because they are self-evident.

If one rejects these axioms, one necessarily undermines their own ability to think correctly. That is why the axioms are so important. If you come across any idea that tries to argue against these axioms, then you know it is false, because that idea is necessarily self-refuting. The axioms are sentries that guard our mind against confusion and ignorance.

Regards,
Gavin

 

Is Economics a Science?

Many people debate the question about whether economics is more like science or philosophy. In my own opinion, science and philosophy deal with different types of questions. Science deals with questions in which there is a systematic method of answering those questions. Philosophy on the other hand deals with questions in which there is not a systemic method for answering those questions. On this view, much of economics is a science because it provides a systematic way of answering many questions about the world. But, there are also parts of economics that are perhaps closer to being philosophy. 

Recently, a Harvard economics professor, Raj Chetty wrote the article, "Yes economics is a science"  in the New York Times. Chetty argues that economics is a science even though many economists disagree with each other. Chetty writes, 

It is true that the answers to many “big picture” macroeconomic questions — like the causes of recessions or the determinants of growth — remain elusive. But in this respect, the challenges faced by economists are no different from those encountered in medicine and public health. Health researchers have worked for more than a century to understand the “big picture” questions of how diet and lifestyle affect health and aging, yet they still do not have a full scientific understanding of these connections. Some studies tell us to consume more coffee, wine and chocolate; others recommend the opposite. But few people would argue that medicine should not be approached as a science or that doctors should not make decisions based on the best available evidence.
Chetty gave several examples of how economics provides a scientific picture of reality. But he also jumped to policy recommendations as if the economic studies naturally lead to those policy recommendations. When Chetty was explaining the scientific observations from economics, I was in agreement with him, but when Chetty jumped to making policy suggestions, I became more skeptical. The economics was science, but the policy suggestions based on the economics was more like philosophy.
 
As I was thinking about this article and randomly surfing the internet, I found this excellent criticism of Chetty's NY Times article by the "Anonymous Commentator".
 
The Anonymous Commentator basically agreed that economics is a science and agreed with the scientific conclusions of the economic studies referenced in Chetty's article. But he showed how one can easily arrive at opposite policy recommendations from Chetty. According to the Anonymous Commentator,
Economics certainly can be seen as a science when it comes to making observations about the world, but when it comes to recommending certain policies, economics is only as scientific as the biases of the economists allow it to be.

One who makes policy recommendations based on economic conclusions are often— though not always—engaging in philosophy. Philosophy is not inferior to science. It just focuses on different questions—questions like "What is the good society?" or "How should we conduct ourselves in society?" for example. We need to make more room for honest debate about those questions even though there may be less room for debating the facts of economics.


 

True Individualism vs. False Individualism

Every fourth friday, I meet with a philosophy group. In our August philosophy discussion, we discussed the essay Individualism: True and False by the social theorist and economist Friedrich Hayek. According to Hayek, there are two opposing ideas about how to understand individuals and the society in which they live.  Hayek calls these ideas true individualism and false individualism. These ideas permeate all social and political thought. They apply to beliefs about reason and knowledge, economics, justice, equality, power, tradition, marriage and family, and government. In this post, I will briefly introduce the concepts of true and false individualism and discuss how they relate to ideas about reason and knowledge.

True Individualism and False individualism
True individualism is a social theory that says that individuals cannot be properly understood without understanding the social processes that surround him. As people make individual decisions they contribute to a social order that is not the result of human design. According to Hayek, “if left free, men will often achieve more than individual human reason could design or foresee.” (individualism: True and False pg 11) Hayek associates true individualism with Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Lord Acton, and John Locke.

False individualism on the other hand asserts that individuals are best understood as existing independently of social processes. And, it seeks to understand society as existing independently of the individuals that compose that society. False individualism assumes that reason "is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason.” False individualism seeks to free individuals from social constraints in order to promote liberated self-expression. This view has been expressed by John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham, René Descartes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and, William Godwin.

Reason and Knowledge
According to true individualism, any individual's own knowledge alone is grossly inadequate for social decision making. Knowledge comes primarily from experience which is “transmitted socially in largely inarticulate forms from prices which indicate costs, scarcities, and preferences, to traditions which evolve from the day to day experiences of millions in each generation, winnowing out in Darwinian competition what works from what does not work.” (Conflict of Visions pg 36)

In another work, Hayek wrote that, “man has certainly more often learnt to do the right thing without comprehending why it was the right thing, and he still is better served by custom than understanding.” There is thus, “more ‘intelligence’ incorporated in rules of conduct than in man’s thoughts about his surroundings.” (Law, Legislation, and Liberty pg 157)

In his essay on individualism Hayek argues that since man’s reason is inadequate to intelligently design society, individuals are justified in following, and ought to follow, social conventions that have evolved over time.

...the individual, in participating in the social processes, must be ready and willing to adjust himself to changes and to submit to conventions which are not the result of intelligent design, whose justification in the particular instance may not be recognizable, and which to him will often appear unintelligible and irrational.

Thus according to true individualism, knowledge comes from experience, is  systemic and dispersed in the many, and is expressed through social norms and customs.

False individualism rejects these ideas in favor of what Hayek calls “Rationalism” which accepts only what can “justify” itself to “reason”. One proponent of rationalism—the philosopher William Godwin—expressed this view when he said that “Reason is the proper instrument, and the sufficient instrument for regulating the actions of mankind.” Traditions and social norms are looked upon with skepticism and disdain unless they are validated via specifically articulated rationality. This is because knowledge is viewed as, “conscious, explicit knowledge of individuals, the knowledge which enables us to state that this or that is so-and-so.”

Implicit in Hayek’s view of rationalism is that it can lead to both socialism and forms of libertarianism such as anarchism. Rationalism can lead to socialism because according to Godwin, “persons with narrow views and observation,” readily accept whatever happens to prevail in their society. (Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol II, pg 206) It is only the “cultivated minds” who can deliberately see past the social norms and traditions of the masses and deliberately design a society that will benefit all. Rationalism thus sees knowledge and reason as concentrated in the few who see themselves as surrogate decision-makers on behalf of the masses. This is why Hayek believes that rationalism often leads “directly to socialism” which assumes that society can only improve if it is deliberately designed by the wisest most cultivated minds. Taken to another extreme, rationalism can also lead to forms of libertarianism such as anarchism which seeks to reduce all social interactions to deliberate contract making between individuals as if they could deliberately design their lives from scratch apart from society or government.

According to Thomas Sowell who wrote extensively about Hayek, “Rationalism at the individual level is a plea for more personal autonomy from cultural norms, at the social level it is often a claim—or arrogation—of power to stifle the autonomy of others,” on the basis of assumed superior wisdom and articulated rationality. (Knowledge and Decisions pg 103)

Summary
Another way to understand true and false individualism with respect to knowledge and reason is to contrast how each side answers the questions, “what is the locus of discretion?” and, “what is the mode of discretion?” 

Individualism-Graphics.gif

According to true individualism, individuals should be left free to make their own decisions within a framework of systemic rationality. By systemic rationality, I am referring to the experience of the many as expressed in social norms, customs, traditions, and even price signals within an economy. According to false individualism, individuals should be free from the constraints of social norms and traditions. They can only be free if they are liberated by experts who exempt themselves from social norms and make social decisions on behalf of “society”. False individualism thus assumes that man can comprehend society enough to design it.


  1. Friedrich Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order 
  2. Thomas Sowell, Conflict of Visions
  3. Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty
  4. William Godwin, Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Vol II
  5. Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

 

What does holiness mean?

The purpose of this post is to answer the question: 

What is the meaning of holiness? 

Recently, I have been studying John Searle's philosophy of institutional facts. I find that his philosophy answers many interesting questions in a clear and precise way and relates to many different fields of study including religion and theology.

Searle's philosophy shows how new facts can be created by collectively recognizing the assignment of functions to objects that cannot perform those functions by themselves alone. A useful mnemonic device for logically analyzing these social facts is the formula: X counts as Y in context C as in the example "This piece of paper (X) counts as money (Y) in the United States (C). I introduce these concepts in more detail here. I find this philosophy very useful in understanding the concept of "Holiness".

The word holy is synonymous with the word sacred. Holy is an english word that has Germanic roots. Sacred is an english word that has Latin roots. In the scriptures there are several different things that are described as "holy" such as the following:

  • Spoken Words and Texts such as scriptures
  • Rituals and Ordinances such as the activities performed in the temple.
  • Objects such as the Menorah or the Arc of the Covenant
  • Art and Architecture such as temples
  • Time such as the sabbath day
  • People such as priests
  • Institutions or communities such as Zion or the Church
Generally speaking, Holy means that which belongs to God or associated with God. Using the language of Searle's philosophy of institutional facts, something is holy if God recognizes it to have a certain status and by virtue of that status, the object can perform a specific function. Here are a few applications of this concept:

Prophets
 
A person counts as a prophet when they are recognized by God as being a prophet. The person alone is not sufficient to constitute being a prophet. You need the person plus God's recognition. Someone claiming to be a prophet that is not recognized by God is a false prophet. The status of "prophet" gives certain authorizations and obligations to the rightful bearer of that title. Such authorizations include the right to act in God's name and receive revelation on behalf of other people. Since they are recognized by God, prophets are holy. The Holy Prophets are still prophets even if no one but God recognizes their status.

Emblems of the Sacrament
 
The Sacrament is blessed (is made holy) if God recognizes it as being blessed. The bread and water count as a symbols of Christ and the act of eating those symbols and remembering Christ count as performing a covenant with God. The bread and water alone are not sufficient to be symbols of Christ by themselves. You need the bread and water plus God's recognition and the recognition of those engaging in the sacrament ritual. The covenants renewed during the sacrament are holy because they are recognized by God.

Priesthood
 
The priesthood is the authority to act in God's name and use His power. A person counts as having the status of priesthood holder when they are authorized to perform specific functions such as blessing the Sacrament or healing the sick. A person only has the priesthood when they are recognized by God as having that priesthood. God recognizes a person's priesthood when they are righteous and have been given the priesthood by someone else who has the priesthood who has been authorized by a church official such as the Bishop.

Temple
 
The temple is holy because it is God's house. Temples are centers for creating, preserving, and transmitting other Holy symbols. By itself, the physical building that constitutes a temple is not Holy. You need the building plus God's recognition that it is a temple for it to be holy.

I could describe many more religious concepts using these terms. There is a general formula that comes out of these examples:

X counts as something holy if it has a status that is recognized by God in order to perform a specific function that it cannot perform without God's recognition of that status. That status always comes with deontic powers such as rights, authorizations, and permissions, or obligations, duties, and requirements.

Nothing is holy in this context unless God recognizes it as being holy and sacred. And, nothing is holy unless it is assigned a certain status in order to perform a specific function. These concepts should be thought about with an attitude of reverence and we should treat these concepts as God treats them. That which is unholy is that which has a status such that we are obligated to avoid it. God does not dwell in unholy temples. We should likewise not enter unholy places or situations.

Holy objects are different from other social objects (like money) in that an object can be holy even if God is the only person that recognizes them as being holy. Whereas all other social objects exist only if there is a large amount of people that recognize them as existing.

Sources: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/ancient-temples-and-sacred-symbolism-video/ The Construction of Social Reality by John Searle

 

Human Rights

Many talk of rights without describing them clearly. In this post I will.

  1. try to define the concept of rights clearly and describe what type of thing rights are.
  2. argue that universal human rights imply universal human obligations.
  3. argue that human rights exist independently from rights that are granted by an institution like the state.

Defining Human Rights
Human Rights are rights that a person has in virtue of being human. As such they exist independently from any system of laws enacted by any institution such as a state or government. Some argue that universal human rights do not exist independently of a government. Jeremy Bentham called the idea of human rights, "rhetorical nonsense". Bentham thought that because we do not discover human rights in the same way that people have noses, then there must not be any rights "out there" to be found. While it is true that we do not discover human rights in the same way that we discover that water is H2O, it does not follow that human rights do not exist. 

The existence of human rights depends on a collective recognition or acceptance of their existence. The existence of human rights is an observer-relative fact; not an observer-independent facts. The difference between these two types of facts is that observer-relative facts depend on the beliefs and attitudes of human beings while observer-independent facts exist regardless of what human beings think or believe. 

Let me try to explain the distinction between these two types of facts more clearly. An example of an observer-relative fact is money. When one has a $5 bill, he/she is entitled to buy $5 worth of goods. On a $5 note, we read the words, "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private." If one only believed that observer-independent facts existed, they would naturally want to ask, "How do they know that it is legal tender?...Did they perform some chemical test to see if the $5 bill really was money?" Of course these questions miss the point. We do not discover that a certain piece of paper is money. We declare it to be money. The piece of paper and the ink stains that constitute the $5 bill are NOT sufficient to make it money. We need the actual piece of paper PLUS something else to make it money. That something else is the collective recognition that those pieces of paper count as money. 

Human rights are the same way. When one is a human being, he or she has the right to perform certain actions, but the mere existence of a certain biological organism that we call a human being is not sufficient to ensure that person has rights. You need a certain biological organism (a human being) PLUS collective recognition that they have those rights.

I think that the concept of human rights will be clearer when one understands how institutional facts are created in general. I describe how they are created in more detail in my post about Social Ontology. Here I will summarize some of those ideas:

Summary of Social Ontology
There are at least three things that are needed to create institutional facts. You need status functions, collective recognition, and constitutive rules.

Humans are different from all other forms of animal life because humans can impose functions on objects where the objects cannot perform the function solely in virtue of their physical structure. To continue using the example of money, we can assign the function of money to little green pieces of paper. These pieces of paper have the status of money in virtue of the function that we collectively assign to them. When we create a function by collective recognition of an assigned status, we are creating a "Status Function". Status functions are everywhere. Examples of status functions include money, marriages, touchdowns, sacraments, driver's licenses, presidents, private property, holidays, etc.

Status functions exist as part of a system of "constitutive rules" that are created by language. Constitutive rules create the behavior that they regulate. For example, the rules of chess create the possibility of playing the game of chess. Similarly, status functions are constitutive rules that create observer-relative facts. Constitutive rules of status functions have the logical form "X counts as Y" in context "C". Here are a few examples:

  • A certain area of the field (X) counts as an end zone (Y) in the game of football (C)
  • Such and such a sound wave (X) counts as a sentence (Y) in the english language (C)
  • This piece of paper (X) counts as money (Y) in the United States (C)

The "X counts as Y in context C" formula is not intended to show how people explicitly think about institutional facts. In most cases institutional facts are not explicitly stated. The formula is just a useful way to think about how people are prepared to regard things or treat them as having a certain status.

Status functions are always associated with social power. This power is simply the ability to get people to behave in a certain way. There are positive social powers such as rights, permissions, authorizations, certifications, and entitlements. There are also negative powers such as obligations, duties, and requirements. These powers provide us with reasons for acting that are independent of our inclinations and desires. For example, if I recognize something as your property, then I am obligated not to take it or use it without your permission. Likewise, if I have the status the president of the United States, then I am authorized to command the military.

Status functions are always associated with social powers that lock into human rationality by creating "desire-independent reasons for action". In the game of American football, the end zone creates a conditional power, such that when a player makes it to the end zone with the ball, his team is entitled to 6 points while the opposite team is required to recognize that they have 6 points even though the opposite team would rather not recognize those points.

With this brief foundation in place, I can more precisely describe universal human rights. A universal human right is described by an observer-relative constitutive rule such that:

  • A certain biological organism (X) counts as a human being (Y) in the context of the whole universe (C).
  • The power associated with this constitutive rule is that any organism that satisfies the conditions of the Y term has certain powers (rights and entitlements) such as the right to life or the right to free speech.

Universal Human Rights imply Universal Human Obligations
This framing implies that all universal human rights imply universal human obligations. Rights are always rights against somebody. If I have a right to walk in a park, then everyone else has an obligation not to interfere with that activity. If A has a right against B, then B has an obligation to A. For example, the bill of rights are rights against Congress, they place congress under an obligation not to interfere with the rights articulated in the Bill of Rights such as the right to free speech.

Put more precisely:

  • If a human being (H) has a right to perform action (A), then other people (P) have an obligation (O) not to interfere with (H) performing action (A)

Positive & Negative Rights
Human rights can be categorized into positive and negative rights. The formulation of rights above is an example of a negative right. The type of rights found in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are negative rights. The rights laid out in the founding documents of America impose an obligation on everyone not to interfere with certain human activities such as the establishment or exercise of religion, or free speech, etc. In other words negative rights are rights that people have to be left alone.

Positive rights require more than just non-interference. They require positive action in ensuring that everyone receives those rights. The logical form of a positive right would look something like this:

  • If a human being (H) has a right to (B), then other people (P) have an obligation (O) to ensure that (H) obtains (B)

A formulation of human rights that can apply to both positive and negative rights can go something like this:

  • A Human Being (H) has a human right (R) which generates an obligation (O) for other people (P)

In some situations, the distinction between positive and negative rights is blurred. Nevertheless, I think these concepts can help us to avoid confusion in many cases. For example, if I have the right to life and that right is a negative right, then it is implied that other people are obligated not to harm my life, but it does not imply that people are obligated to provide me with food or expensive healthcare so as to prolong my life as long as possible. Similarly, people in remote parts of the world have a right to life, but since it is a negative right, I have no obligation to provide them with food and healthcare. I think that the right to life can only be properly understood as a negative right in this context. This does not mean that we should not help others, but that it does not make sense to have an enforceable obligation to do so.

Universal Human Rights are Institution-independent
But what happens when other people (P) do not want to fulfill their obligations(O)?  
When other people do not want to fulfill their obligations to other human beings, and those human beings are not in a position to guarantee that their own rights are not infringed, then it becomes necessary for some third party to protect human rights by ensuring that other people fulfill their obligations. That third party could be the government which has the obligation to protect human rights by enacting civil laws that are enforceable because the government can use brute force. Therefore our logical formula that describes human rights can be expanded as follows:

  • A Human Being (H) has a human right (R) which generates an obligation (O) for other people (P) which right creates a different obligation (O2) for a third party (G) to protect (H) and his/her rights.

An application of this formula would be something like this:

  • A human being (Gavin Jensen) has a human right (right to life) which generates and obligation (do not murder Gavin) for other people (everyone in the world) which right creates another obligation (protect Gavin's right to life) for a third party (the United States government) to protect (Gavin Jensen's) right to life.

When the government creates laws, they are obligated to ensure that those laws respect human rights. If human rights are really universal then that means that governments that protect those rights cannot have a system of pure democracy. If they want to protect human rights, then they must enforce certain laws that cannot be changed by popular vote.

For human rights to be universal, they must exist outside of the scope of any government. They do not come from a constitution or any other legal document. Constitutions and laws are attempts to protect pre-existing human rights. The purpose of civil law is to implement human rights. Thomas Paine wrote in The Rights of Man,

"Every civil right has for its foundation some natural right pre-existing in the individual, but to the enjoyment of which his individual power is not in all cases, sufficiently competent. Of this kind are all those which relate to security and protection."

Citizens can sometimes create state recognized rights that do not depend on universal human rights. In these cases the obligations created by those rights should only apply to the citizens of that institution. For instance, if same-sex marriage is not a universal human right and a state wants to grant the right of marriage to same-sex couples, then they can do that but that right would only create an obligation for the citizens of that state. But people outside of that institution would not be obligated to recognize that institution-relative right.

Human rights must be justified 
Even though status functions exist because of collective recognition of those status functions, it does not mean that they are arbitrary. Some claims to human rights are valid if they can be justified, while other claims are invalid when they cannot be justified. In this post, I have not tried to justify any specific human right. I have only tried to outline what human rights are and explain the nature of their existence. Justifying specific human rights is a topic for later posts.

Summary of main points

  1. Human rights exist just as money exists. Both are observer-relative phenomenon meaning that we do not discover human rights (or money) in the same way that we discover that water is made of H2O.
  2. Because human beings have a recognized status function, they have social powers that include rights to perform certain actions.
  3. Analyzing human rights in this way makes it very clear that human rights imply human obligations.
  4. There are two types rights—positive and negative.
  5. Human rights exist independently of laws created within any institution and apply universally.

God, Language, and Reality

In the beginning of the Old Testament, we read "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light." It appears in this verse that God caused light to appear through the use of language. How can language cause the world to change? What would reality have to be like for the language to change reality?

Direction of fit
 
To explore these questions, I want to introduce the concept of direction of fit. Direction of fit refers to the relationship between words and reality. In many cases, words can be used to fit the way the world is. These cases have a " word-to-world direction of fit". In other cases, the world changes in order to fit the words that we use. These cases have a "world-to-word direction of fit". These distinctions will be clearer as I describe the possible uses of language.

5 types of speech acts
 
There are 5 and only 5 things that can be done with language. There are assertives, expressives, directives, commissives, and declarations. These uses of language are called speech acts. Assertives state the way the world is and thus have the word-to-world direction of fit. Assertives refer to statements, descriptions, classifications, explanations, and clarifications. Eg: "The earth rotates around the sun". Expressives do not have a direction of fit but they rely on presuppositions that do have a direction of fit. Eg: "Thank you for passing the guacamole" (which presupposes that the hearer did in fact pass the guacamole).

Directives, commissives, and declarations all have a world-to-word direction of fit. Directives change the world by causing the hearer to do something. Directives include orders, commands, requests and refer to pleading, begging, praying, insisting, and suggesting. Eg: "Go to your room." Commissives change the world by committing the speaker to do something. Commissives refer to vows, threats, pledges, guarantees, contracts, promises, covenants, and oaths. Eg: "I promise to uphold the constitution." Declaratives actually have a dual direction of fit. They change the world by representing the world as being so changed. Eg: "This meeting is adjourned," or, "I now pronounce you husband and wife." A declaration can fail if no one recognizes the declaration. For instance, if I declare that a meeting is adjourned, and the meeting just keeps going on because no one recognizes my speech act, then I have failed to change reality. Therefore declarations are dependent on collective recognition if they are to actually change the world. For a more slightly more thorough introduction to speech acts, check out this post.

Let there be light
 
So what type of speech act is the utterance, "Let there be light"? It doesn't have a word-to-world direction of fit so it cannot be an assertive. It does not seem to be expressing an emotion that assumes another fact so it cannot be an expressive. It doesn't commit the speaker to a specific action so it is not a commissive. The only possibilities left are directives and declarations, or it might not be a speech act at all. I will examine each of these remaining possibilities.

Is it a declaration?
 
If the speech act, "let there be light" is a declaration, then God is changing the world by representing it as being so changed. However, when human beings make a declaration they can only change social reality. For example, the declaration, "This note is legal tender for all debts public and private" only applies to the status function of money which is a social fact that requires collective recognition. Human beings cannot change the brute facts of reality through declarations alone. For example, we cannot change reality by saying, "I hereby declare that I am a billionaire." Nor can we change reality by declaring something like, "Let there be good weather." No amount of collective recognition is going to change those brute facts because beliefs alone cannot cause anything to happen without physical action. If the utterance "let there be light" is a declaration, then I cannot make sense it for the reasons just stated. It would presuppose a type of metaphysical idealism which I believe is self-contradictory.

Is it a directive?
 
Directives are supposed to change the world by causing the hearer to perform some action. The utterance "Let there be light" could be a command to the light itself or it could be a command to an unspecified hearer who is being commanded to create the light through the use of some sort of light-generating technology. If light could be commanded, then that would imply that light has some sort of conscious awareness such that it could understand the meaning of the words and volitionally respond to the directive. In Helaman 12: 8-22, it seems as though Nephi is suggesting that matter obeys God's word which seems to imply that it is conscious. Orson Pratt is said to have more explicitly supported this hylozoistic view. However, I think there is enough room for interpretation to question this interpretation of the scriptures. If light does not have conscious awareness, then some unspecified hearer such as an angel turned on the light after being commanded by God.

Maybe it isn't a speech act at all
 
The last possibility is that the phrase, "Let there be light" is not a speech act at all but just a soundwave that triggers a preprogrammed event that causes the lights to turn on. For example, when I ask Siri (on my iPhone) to launch an app, I say something like "launch Angry Birds." But the meaning of my words did not cause Siri to open the app. It was merely the soundwave that caused Siri to open the app. Siri could have been programmed to launch the app when it heard the soundwave, "Do NOT launch Angry Birds". Or it could have been programmed to launch the app when it heard the sound wave, "Boom Shakalaka!" Likewise some light generating technology could have been preprogrammed to respond to God's words. It could have been programmed to respond to a particular vibration of his vocal cords, or some bodily movement, or perhaps the technology could have responded to some form of thought detection.

Conclusion
 
In this post, I have not been as interested in what God caused to be with His words. I am more interested in how God uses words to cause things to be. Understanding how words can change reality can give us insights into the metaphysical nature of reality. Using the example of light, God's words could have been a declaration, a directive, or they could have been a soundwave that triggers a non-volitional technology. In my opinion, it doesn't make sense that the words could be a declaration for the reasons stated above. I am also skeptical of the speech-as-a technology-trigger explanation because I am not aware of any example where God's words are used this way. Intuitively, it does not seem Godlike for God's words to not have any meaning in this way. Therefore, I believe that the utterance, "Let there be light" was a directive. Either matter volitionally obeyed God's words or God was commanding another volitional being (or beings) to cause a series of events to take place in order for earth to have light.

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Scriptures about the power of God's words: Jacob 4:9 Helaman 12:7-21 1 Ne. 17:46