Monday, December 26, 2016

7.  Practical Choices

Experience is filled with direct awareness of predetermination.  The world is filled with prophecies all written down on innumerable appointment calendars on desks.  They probably existed in cuneiform on clay tablets in ancient civilisations, being a such a key instrument of bureaucracies (forget the gods and just look to the chief scribe.)  Decisions are made everywhere based on inescapable facts, where  perfect knowledge leaves no room for choice, as in the absence of forks in a road between intersections.  In technology facts can require elaborate calculations to analyze, so much so computing machines do critical parts of work (not to mention allowing more coffee breaks), and determine how work proceeds devoid of choices.

The role of facts and knowledge thereof reveals a central feature of choices.  Hobart's means-to-ends calculations would view responding to facts as exercises of will, where plainly in experience the opposite is true.  Perfect calculations eliminate responsibility (as on the iconic old TV detective show Dragnet, it's the facts ma'am, just the facts -- so not personal responsibility).  Choices then exist when information is incomplete or impractical to fully use, and the best choice of action is unknown (at least before deliberation).  There is some irony in ignorance being a halmark of decision making compared to blindly programmed behavior.  The proponents of magical will present this in just the opposite way, with choices existing  only when a decision making agent (like everyone works work for the FBI or something) knows the consequences of contemplated action.  Otherwise it is said a person "did not know any better".   The common expression identifies a different fact, that the objective being sought is known, but not how to reach it.   If people knew the consequences and how to achieve objectives  perfectly they would have no need to make choices, and rule books could supply all the needed guidance (just as handbooks of technical data supply answers to engineers and scientists).  Such guidance resembles what religious authorities like to promote, fully equipped with the necessary scriptural handbooks.  All official agents will be equipped with the proper training and associated manuals (and everything will go according to plan, where as in an old joke nothing can go wrong, go wrong, go wrong...).

Ignorance per se can eliminate responsibility when even the objectives are unknown, complete lack of control.  The process of choice, however, is a response made to initial ignorance, often called deliberation, analogous to some official board of inquiry, with more properties.  The response to needing more information is to acquire more knowledge, with an ability supplied by intelligence, a faculty for just such activity.  Empirically based knowledge cannot be acquired all at once by ratiocination (even in purely deductive mathematics, years are spent  solving major problems).  Choices are then classifiable as cognitive processes, the topic of modern Cognitive Science encompassing older separate disciplines like psychology.

One means of acquiring knowledge is scientific inquiry.  The history of science is famous for its serendipity, accidental discoveries while pursuing unrelated problems and so forth.  An entertaining account was James Burke's "Connections" with companion TV show.  The ancient sage Archimedes is thought to have more material lost when he was accidentally killed by soldiers in a Roman Empire invasion of his Greek island.  Science has no more predictability than any other endeavor.  Risk and uncertainty are essential features of human experience and cental to having choices.   Beyond the history of science, a creative element is recognized, the flash of insight, the stroke of genius, hardly predictable.  Were choices predictable they would be unnecessary, the path forward already known.

A governing principle is involved in scientific methods explaining their random aspects.  Empirical research tests theoretical hypotheses for validity.  Theories have to be imagined before they can be tested, and so are unknown territories.  Hypotheses must be imagined with creativity.  Einstein is noted for the scope of his imagination in so radically changing physics.   Theories are spun out of incomplete data in effect as guesses of a sort, informed guesses as the saying goes, though not informed enough to guarantee success (good for continued employment of theorists).  All sorts of factors can be noted rendering the search for knowledge random.  Exploring any unknown territory is unpredictable just because the area is unknown and cannot be planned.  Suspenseful adventure tales of explorers are commonplace and make fine themes for fiction literature and fascinating history.    Ideas themselves are a kind of unknown territory, in a space of ideas.  Daniel Dennett analyzed artistic creativity as similar to evolution in a society presidential address.  Darwin's evolution of course, involves random mutations.  An American secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld is known for his references to "known unknowns" and "unknown unknowns" in his memoir.

The cultural assignment of humanistic knowlege, of values and such, to non-scientific inquiry, rationalist philosophy and divine revelation or whatever, helps obscure the random qualities of cognition at the highest levels.  The argument for "moral luck" is a bit misleading, in that the excuse from responsibility is held to be external determinants and not luck in the sense of randomness or gambling.    The two are intuitively confused by the attitude nature is random while human purpose creates contrasting order.  There is obviously a factor in random outcomes  not being intended and require a particular response finely tuned to that circumstance.  Nevertheless, random events are just what require responses to accomplish control and goal direction of action.   There are no choices in the garden of Eden under perfect determination by God's will.  The mythical expulsion therefrom is one representation of the need for choices when confronted with nature.   A professional gambler needs to recognize his own role in creating random wins and losses in order to effectively work a game.   We are not in the Garden of Eden  (nor Kansas), anymore, and the real world is replete with rabit holes, as the saying goes (from Lewis Carroll stories).

The activity involved in acquiring knowledge, by reasoning, has been analyzed for the logical operations involved, to reproduce these actions in mechanical constructs, computing machines.  In practical use machines are usually made to be predictable, relied upon to solve problems, their intended use, so do not do this sort of R&D,  Research and Development, as Dennett has termed it.    For uncertainty, human brains are already available and cheaper to make.  The common image of computation is following a set of instructions, an algorithm in mathematics, to get an answer. (This image is humorously satirized in the popular fiction "The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy", where a super computer made to answer the "great question of life, the universe, and everything", after long deliberation announces the answer "42".)   What is not so commonly known is how mathematical calculations can be unpredictable and consist of search procedures to find answers among many possibilities.  For example, finding the solutions of complex equations involve such methods, as do many instances of successive approximation operations.   There are methods of computation duplicating the form of Darwin's evolution, evolutionary algorithms, which deliberately perform random searches.  Such problems as solving a maze illustrate how a machine performs exploration much the same way humans do.   The process is inherent in the data and logical relationships.

A famous example of computation was a milepost passed in the 1990's when a commercial computer was able to beat the world chess champion in a tournament.  This case is misleading because the computer was programmed by a whole team of world class chess masters, pitting them in effect against the lonely opponent unfairly, not what constitutes the game.  The program also did not acquire new knowledge of chess strategy, and just managed to apply it faster than the human mind.   Other programs, however, have made discoveries, as in a simpler problem and simpler machine for playing checkers, where a new tactic was revealed, decades before the chess machine.  The oriental strategy game of GO involving patterns in positioning stones on a grid marking territory, has long defied defining mathematical procedures, with superior human abilities involved of an unconscious sort.  Some programs began to appear in the early 21st century.

Knowledge is treated in philosophy in the topic Epistemology, including the science of logic.  The subject, however, deals with what constitutes knowledge instead of the process by which it is acquired.  The sort of issues examined are when evidence does or does not support conclusions, what sort of information is needed to know something.  How to get information, what action is taken to get it,  is a subject of Cognitive Science instead of philosophy, or at least is covered in different branches of philosophy, philosophy of mind and of science.

Any computation duplicating the scientific method must incorporate the same operational division between hypotheses and testing essential to the method.  The algorithm must take account of what the computer is doing, what hypotheses it has, in order to respond to evidence obtained.  While a program need not represent and calculate theoretical aspects of its own methods as people do, the principles of that method must be included in the steps programmed to occur.  The computer then takes a personal responsibility for its hypotheses just as much as the human thinker, however much the responsibility is built into the program by the programmers.  Unfortunately humans have to puzzle over the philosophy involved (which itself could use more goal-directed improvement).
How problems expand to encounter uncertainty can be illustrated by the widely used autopilot guidance device.  The autopilot  executes finite calculations for the minimal task of keeping a compass course.  It is possible to attach a database of directions to different cities, as with common automobile or pocket navigator devices.  Instead of entering a destination, the device could be connected to appointment schedules, automatically arranging travel and even buying tickets over the internet.  Suppose, however, what is input is not a particular but a parameter to be optimized, as in finding the most profitable appointment to make or most advantageous business client to visit.  Now the problem resembles playing Chess, with more possibilities than can be reduced to any certain outcome; every move carries risk (playing chess with the other businesses maneuvering for market share, all fully versed in Machiavelli and Sun Tsu's "Art of War";  it can drive a computer crazy as dramatized in the famous movie, "2001: A Space Odyssey" -- “sorry Dave, I can't do that now”...).
While science is associated with specialized, advanced knowledge of nature, the same logical principles apply to mundane activities  in life (it has been proposed such things, social cooperation, were the original stimulus for the evolution of intelligence, but who knows).  Facts must be collected and analyzed for their implications.  Problems must be solved, whether business or decisions in personal life.  Choices are acts of cognition, however rare true learning may be involved in human action.  Martin Luther is noted for saying about his act of rebellion against the Catholic Church that he "could do no other", and so appeared determined.  Of course by then he was determined by choices made way before in developing his ideas opposed to church doctrine.

As a random process intelligent learning and discovery fullfills the condition of an originating cause in practical terms previously proposed above.  Adaptive control in goal direction then naturally involves introspective action directed at mental content as the relevant cause in practice of hypotheses to examine.  Attending to purely theoretical prior determinants cannot contribute to control and are not useful as predictive facts.  (The famous Broadway musical West Side Story includes a song satirizing excuses based on determinism, with delinquents remarking about being psychologically disturbed and deprived this way and that.)

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