Alcohol or Algorithm?

  

On an exceptionally relaxing family break (with the in-laws last week) I had an epiphany; floating for the first time in my life in a hot tub…

If I feel like I have no time… if I’m often tired… if work (as Aristotle predicted) is “absorbing and degrading my mind”… and there’s no way out until my middle 50s… what’s the solution? 

The solution, requires a lot less C2H6O in it. Yes alcohol is terrific: a mood enhancer, a relaxer, a taker away of social inhibitions – it helps me (in the right circumstances) to be the life and soul of the party; or at least not a party pooper.

But alcohol is also rubbish: a low grade tranquilliser, a duller of the senses and a bringer of a fuzzy mouth and an even fuzzier head. And there’s the alcohol rub – it leaves you doped, dulled and dozy, and at times downright poorly.

I came to me, as I lolled in that hot tub – at this stage in my life and work, I haven’t got enough time to be regularly tranquillised, dulled and fuzzy; still less to be feeling below par. 

The opportunity cost of pouring that glass of red or a cheeky prosecco is a welcome numbness; but also a decline in judgement, self-control and useful activity… 

I begin to graze the fridge and sweetie cupboard, as my expanding waistline testifies. And since starting my new job I’ve been more and more attracted to the tranquillising effect… and that’s not good.

So the antidote to less time; is to consume less C2H6O. 

A weekend into my new regime, more jobs were getting done, more of the things I know are good for me – reading, cooking, washing, learning languages, domestic innovations, getting to bed earlier, exercise, cups of tea, hanging out the washing, sitting in the garden.

This week at work, I have carried all before me, with a combination of good cheer and industriousness. As well a packing in 10 hour days and a stack more exercise.

Not that most of this wouldn’t have got done before; but I’m far less tired, I haven’t eated half a kilo each of cheese and chocolate en route and I just feel better.

And so to the second half of my epiphany – if less alcohol is one good move, on what should I spend the time and energy dividend? I’ve bought a book on Machine Learning and algorithms to see what computer science and coding can offer a modern life… 

A life is, after all, just developing our own ever-improving Bayesian algorithm: as we see more, do more and learn more. Assuming we’re not sleeping off a heavy night that is.

But I’ll not be saying no to booze full stop. Oh no!

When there’s a fun to be had; people to enjoy a drink with and a reason to celebrate – bring it on. It’s just the routine quaffing I need to tackle. 

Or as my new Machine Learning book suggests:

  • If Situation = Social|Drink
  • If Situation = Kitchen|Don’t

The simple question is Alcohol or Algorithm? 

If there’s no good reason to be drinking, I’ll be trying not to – so I can have more time for thinking and learning and doing new stuff.

Brain Cocktail

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Shaken but not stirred, I spotted this fascinating diagram yesterday. It describes moods, mental states and conditions in test tube form.

So which comes first – the chemical state or the state of mind? Are we in love or just hydrogen bonded. Are we low or just low on the right hormones.

It’s complex chemistry – but it is chemistry. The brain is a wet sugary computer – but that I think is why it’s so different from silicon chips and solid state physics. Hormones diffuse and dissipate they don’t switch on and off.

Computers are yes/no. Brains are a constantly changing cocktail of ‘maybe’.

I am a Scientist

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Like most people I guess, I get irritated by folk who are wrong. But unlike most people, I actually don’t mind so much when I am.

Perhaps that’s because I believe in a ‘Bayesian brain’. Mash up all the facts, data and experience you have (however little) and come up with a probabilistic answer. That’s certainly how my mind works.

Of course we all live trapped in our own heads. So what seems common sense to me, absolutely may not to other people. Different experiences, different world views, different data.

As a recently deceased US Senator said:

“Sir, you are entitled your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

But what are facts anyway? Just a combination of data, theory and interpretation.

If someone says something I disagree with, generally speaking, I’ll have a quick go at saying so – and what I think. If pushed, I’ll point out the flaws in their position, if they are obvious.

But except in the most extreme or important situations, I’ll generally leave it after one or two tries. Experience tells; people don’t change their minds easily.

One of the weaknesses in a Bayesian approach is similar to the ‘ethical’ problem I used to have as a Utilitarian. The balance of probabilities, like the balance of morality, isn’t easy to explain or justify to people of principle and belief.

Most of the calls we make are analogue not digital. They are ‘probably’ not ‘binary’. So I’ve learnt, in the main, to simplify what I’m thinking when it comes to persuading. In the art of human persuasion, a single strong argument trumps several reasons.

And this cuts us to the chase. Why is it so hard to reason with people? Because most of human existence was in the pre-scientific era. Belief, superstition and commandment drove most people’s thoughts and deeds.

And a quote I read from the late great populariser of science, Carl Sagan, sums up the difference:

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken.” And then they would actually change their minds and you would never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

I am a scientist.

Crystal Ball

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What if the purpose of memory is not to remember things?

We generally judge our memory on accuracy and completeness – and we are generally disappointed. Memory is jumbled, retouched and unreliable as a definitive record of the past. But a recent New Scientist suggests perhaps that’s because remembering is not what it’s for.

Thinking in evolutionary terms, what use is a perfect record of your entire past on the Serengeti plains? Not much. There would have been precious little time for introspection with four-legged food to chase and four-legged death to avoid. Not to mention increasingly cunning two-legged competition alongside.

Memory must have conferred a survival advantage – so it seems reasonable to think it developed from what other mammals probably have: recall of close shaves, sources of food and – if elephants are anything to go by – key life events: births, deaths and marriages.

And this is why dates get jumbled, memories get intertwined and autobiographical narratives develop in our heads – to guide us on what to do next, not produce a perfect historical record. Memory exists to better predict and guide our future.

Memory tells us who to trust, how to act and what might happen. Yes it’s flawed by inductive logic. Past performance is stricto sensu no guide to the future. But we remember what we need to remember – what’s useful for our future.

This difference in purpose is the big difference between computer memory and ours. Ours is constantly shuffled, refined and selected for its Bayesian predictive power, not its precision.

No wonder it’s sometimes cloudy; human memory isn’t a time capsule, it’s our crystal ball.

Sugar Solution

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In a workshop this week I learnt a bit of the brain science behind ‘fast thinking’ and how it leads to ‘unconscious bias’. I suspect it’s just a different way of framing what I think of as my ‘Bayesian brain’: rapid-fire probabilistic assessments of people and situations based on a lifetime’s experiences and situations.

We were informed that ‘fast thinking’ leads us very often to bad judgements. ‘Slow thinking’ – when we deliberate – is the alternative. And indeed there are things we can do with slow thinking which we simply can’t with fast – complex arithmetic for example.

But slow thinking also suffers from ‘confirmation bias’ – where we look for evidence to confirm our decision or prejudice and screen out data which doesn’t fit. So ‘slow’ ain’t necessarily so, if it just seeks to confirm ‘fast’.

I think where our trainer went wrong was to leave the impression we should all think harder. I think the answer to unhelpful bias is to stop thinking and absorb more data.

I found myself, at times, in the workshop completely relaxed – open and with a conscious feeling of just soaking up what our trainer was saying; new data and new ways of looking at data.

Where I found myself far less at my best, was when asked to make spot judgements on what it all means and what we should do about it. Or indeed listening to other people disputing or challenging when I’d have rather just listened.

My feeling was, unless you’re a brain scientist or a trained psychologist don’t waste energy or thought arguing or critically appraising stuff you don’t know about. Just soak it up.

As our trainer explained our brain runs on glucose. It’s a big sugar soaked sponge, with its myriad connections made and laid down by filigree fibres powered by sugar solution. A bit like a wet candy floss. But too much thinking and the glucose runs down. And temper and thought deteriorate.

The answer to changing your mind, I reckon, is to soak up more info and leave the soggy sugar to work it out. Thinking hard just makes your glucose run out, your head sore and your mistakes worse. From soaking and sweetness comes good judgement.

In Praise of ‘Prudentia’

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The virtue of ‘Prudentia’
In Aquinas’s teaching,
Is ‘practical wisdom’ in
Choice and decision.

It’s a Bayesian thing,
Not just logical stages.
Which a life of experience
And virtue engages.

Grounded in reason
But felt in the boots,
You can’t teach Pudentia,
We must find our own routes

Each person’s is different,
Our wisdom’s our own.
When we try to describe it
The words struggle to form.

But don’t deconstruct it,
The details mislead.
If you try to explain it,
Confidence bleeds.

Invest in Prudentia.
Your gut’s not often wrong.
Thought, experience, emotion
In symphony belong.

I’ve spoken in praise of ‘Prudentia’ twice today. The first time was inviting someone to really use their ‘practical reason’ in designing something. That meant acknowledging complexity, personalities and what we’re trying to do – and really, based on their experience and judgement, coming up with something that has a fighting chance of working.

The second was in acknowledging and appreciating a way forward I’d not thought of. On the face of it I had ruled it out, but on reflection it had a good deal to commend it.

Not everything in life is rational, simple or binary. As someone said to me yesterday, probability is rarely 0 or 1. ‘Prudentia’ is our Bayesian gift for dealing with complexity – practical wisdom.

Bayesian Ethics

As I’ve written before, one of my past wrestles is with Utilitarianism: that the moral act is the one with the best consequences regardless of what rules it breaks. I’m now firmly Aristotelian – aka a ‘virtue ethicist’ – we are what we repeatedly do.

But Anthony Appiah the Princeton Philosopher has some challenging things to say about virtue ethics in a Philosophy Bites podcast – including some experiments. And I’m inclined to listen. I like a bit of scientific method.

I like Appiah’s ‘Cosmopolitanism’ too which has helped me articulate my ‘live and let live’ theory of internationalism at work. Humans value culture. Different cultures value different things. And Cosmopolitanism says, short of harm, we should let them. Which I think is about right.

Appiah challenges virtue with ‘experimental ethics’ – seeing what people actually do, rather than what we theorise, and looking inside people’s heads in brain scanners. He finds, for example, nearly everyone gets more generous to strangers if they find a suitably planted $10 note on the floor.

His conclusion is that the idea of a ‘moral’ person in the Aristotelian sense is not borne out by the experimental reality. For him, we make moral choices based on context, stimulus and ‘in the moment’ not based on ‘character’. I don’t entirely agree, but it’s interesting stuff.

Learning to use the head to override the instinctive ‘yuk’ response or being over-influenced by the situation is one of the things he advocates. But only sparingly. Here’s where rules, norms and culture – plus a moral education – might help. But he’s not for becoming too calculating.

He disagrees with Utilitarianism for example. First, because it doesn’t capture the experimental reality of how we respond to moral situations. Second, because were to implement calculating ‘consequentialism’ wide-scale it would dramatically impoverish human existence. Largely because promoting purely rational calculation would tend to demote difference and different views.

Cultural Cosmopolitanism makes life interesting and liveable. And if you’re going to accept difference in culture you have to accept it in worldview and ethics too. That people care about different things is what makes people interesting – and maddening.

I personally think virtue and ‘outlying’ single instances of behaviour are not incompatible. I don’t doubt that you can get very good and very bad moral choices and behaviours out of me if you significantly change my conditions and stimuli.

I also think that the prospects of me making better or worse choices are determined, yes, by the context and circumstances – but crucially, combined with who I am. And who I am is the product of a life lived, previous choices made, data, concepts and theories within and Bayesian probability mashing all that together in a nano-second every time I act.

I think there is ‘virtue’ and I have a ‘character’. It’s just that the complexity of the probabilistic calculations – all done subconsciously by that marvel of existence, a human brain – mean Utilitarianism is too crude and individual ethical experiments are too simple to anything like capture them. I return to my own dictum – if the human brain were simple enough to understand, we’d be too simple to understand it.

So I like Appiah’s ethical experiments – they deserve a well signposted place in my Bayesian brain’s data set – and I’ve shared then with others too to influence them. But virtue, character and Aristotle’s ‘I am what I repeatedly do’ still work best for me. Thanks to Appiah though, I’m also a Cosmopolitan. So I’m delighted to weigh a well-wrought difference of opinion in the Bayesian ethical balance. It all goes in the mix.

Incandescence

This week, I advanced my new theory – to a gently sceptical friend – that the brain works (at least partly) like the electronic ink screen of an Amazon Kindle. Blending in the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, my sweeping conclusion was he should get angry more. Here’s why.

Since buying a Kindle, I’ve been impressed that the screen, when you switch it off, maintains a complex picture – a person, a constellation, a painting etc – using no energy at all. It’s simple but impressive. Like a screensaver, but without power. Information and knowledge are thus available to be viewed, at any time, at no energy or processing cost. My theory is the brain has the same capacity.

A few years ago I read that neurones aren’t permanently ‘charged’ like little lightbulbs or LCD pixels but store information passively – more like a physical switch or dial. Energy is used to ‘charge’ them with information, but once they have been ‘set’ with information they store it passively until changed. Good job too, or, given the number of neurones we have, we’d need a nuclear generator to power our heads.

So my emerging thesis is we can ‘poll’ in computer lingo, or rapidly access a snapshot our entire accumulated summary of knowledge and experience in an instant. And in that instant we can act or react subconsciously informed by that summary.

My guess is that none of this requires much in the way of conscious cognitive processes. Like a finger recoiling from a nail or a smile drawing a return smile, we can immediately and effectively respond to people and situations against this dataset. I’m not saying it is innate or preloaded. We are constantly checking, updating and rearranging our vast neuronal data-set. But at any instant, my thesis is, it lies latently ‘there’ encrypted in neurones like the patterns which make a rich picture, or a page of words, out of electronic ink.

Of course we can intervene, ignore, debate or challenge our accumulated data. Any instant ‘gut’ reaction, or action, it may recommend can be overruled. In complex or nuanced circumstances the higher cognitive functions kick in – at least most of the time.

And this connects to my ongoing conversation with my friend on Aquinas’ support for ‘ira’, and the set of passions which include anger. Like Aristotle – in fact far more than him – Aquinas was pro anger in the right circumstances. Surprising for a theologian.

He thought the passions were intrinsic parts of who we are. He thought they were forms of reason, not lower ‘animal’ or ‘bodily’ sensations to be suppressed by our purer ‘mind’ or ‘soul’. Thus, our passions come from our instincts, blended with our default ‘Kindle screen’ summary of experiences, beliefs and our lifetime of accumulated and refined knowledge. They all inform each other.

I’m with Aristotle that we are what we repeatedly do. So we are constantly refining and tuning our passions, our experience dataset and our virtues through action – only some of that helped by conscious reflection. I’m increasingly with Aquinas too, that it all comes together in complex single holistic system – an ‘anima’, aka a person, not a dumb body and a smart, reasonable mind.

As Herbert McCabe points out: for Aquinas the good life is a passionate life; not achieved by the repression of passions, but by passions guided by virtues. Perhaps there’s more to be said for trusting our ‘gut’, allowing moments of ‘ira’ and the occasional incandescence of righteous anger. Once you’ve lived a few decades and developed a bit of virtue, it’s pretty well informed.

Poetry in Motion

I’ve just finished Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘Flow’. There are things to criticise. Some points – the time we waste in front of TV notably – are right but he makes them repetitively. His style occasionally grates. But, in my humble opinion, it is an outstanding book. My Bayesian brain infers he is likely a pretty outstanding man.

There are many themes to pull out, ideas to take forward, good advice and thought provoking evidence. My simple summary is – just read it. I’ve given ‘Flow’ its own link in the sidebar to the right.

Two personal things I’ll draw out. First Csikszentmihilyi’s advice to read a piece of poetry every day. I’ve never much cared for poetry. But, as he says, I’ve discovered a poem is a simple and rewarding pleasure. It doesn’t take much. Just five minutes and two or three poems at bedtime and mood and life are subtlety and magically enhanced. I told my partner. She’s taken with it too. And now we both have books of poetry on the go. My advice – just do it.

The second personal thing was my curious desire to get the book over with. Mainly, I think, so I could get on with all the things I now want to read as a result of reading the book. But also because I ever-so-slightly feared Csikszentmihalyi might barrel off the rails and disappoint me at the end.

Many potentially great books have been marred by a lame ending. I worried about this one. Tantalisingly the penultimate chapter was pretty good – synthesis, some emergent structure and integration of themes. So, as I said to to a particular friend, I was anxious that the last chapter would be a major disappointment. He said ‘Don’t read it, write your own final chapter’. Good advice, but a somewhat daunting challenge, so I read it instead, and I’m glad I did.

No easy answers therein, but a validation of my own thesis, that the good life requires both thought and action – Aristotle and Achilles. Csikszentmihilyi also recommends the thinkers and writers of history and antiquity as invaluable guides. I increasingly agree. But his final challenge is a tough one: to learn to master oneself and then get beyond the self to find an overarching meaning for our lives and tune into and live vividly in the full ‘flow’ of the real world. Easy then.

Discussing this on Monday with another friend, we concluded life takes the balance of a Nureyev: to balance internal with external, self with others, the world within with the world without, skill with challenge, what we achieve in life with what we would want to be remembered for.

Stoic, Sceptic, Epicurean, Existentialist, pick your school of philosophy, they are all scratching the same basic itch: how much to stick your neck out and risk your mental and physical health in the hurly burly of the real world.

Finding ‘meaning’ for Csikszentmihalyi or a ‘telos’ for Aristotle is the tough one. For Aristotle’s harp player it’s playing the harp well. For me the meaning of life is getting clearer, but it’s reassuring to know there are philosophers and poets to help me on my way.

The Good Life

I used to be a strict Act Utilitarian – the moral act is the one that produces the most overall happiness or least harm. The undergraduate philosophy case studies all seemed clear cut to me.

Knowing what we know now, would I have assassinated Hitler in 1934? Sure would. If a sadistic Generalissimo passed me a gun to kill an innocent in exchange for the lives of several others, would I pull the trigger? Under duress and with no alternatives, reluctantly, yes.

To my untrained late-teen moral mind, rational calculations seemed to provide a better framework than the rules of religions and imperfect man-made moral codes. Undergraduate philosophy taught me how to ‘reductio ad absurdam’ any nuance or shade of grey. Life was black and white. Add it up, make the call, don’t expect to be understood, live with the consequences.

But the pointer on my my moral compass started twitching in my mid-thirties. Act Utilitarianism can feel calculating, look immoral and set bad precedents. A good outcome is a bad justification for a rotten process. Some things shouldn’t go under the wheels as we drive hard to a destination. We have to stand for some things, or we stand for nothing. Sometimes what the head can justify sickens the heart.

Enter Aristotle in my Forties. Eudaimonia, arete and telos – flourishing, excellence and fulfilling our innate potential – they feel like the ingredients of a good life to me. There are some rules and a handful of prohibitions in Aristotle’s Ethics. But ‘moderation in all things’ is the basic gist. Thinking and talking about Aristotle this week, I have a clearer idea why I prefer the life’s work of ‘eudaimonia’, to the instant gratification of ‘happiness’, as a moral end.

Happiness is a mental ‘state’. In eras where life was nasty, brutish and short it must have been pretty rare. Perhaps no surprise then that ‘happiness’ bubbled to the surface with Bentham and Mill as the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ were robbing people of eudaimonia and the ‘telos’ of crafts and village life. William Blake, whose poems I’m reading at the moment, gives a flavour of this in ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’.

But in the affluent, materialist, 21st century Western world, I fear happiness is a false god. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll put transitory hedonistic pleasure on an altar. Thinking about this, I was reminded of another undergraduate philosophy ‘thought experiment’ – the brain in a vat. What if all my sensations are fed me by a mad scientist thorough electrodes plugged into my brain?

Here in the ‘real’ world we are closer and closer to being able to live purely for audio-visual, digital and chemical pleasures without needing a mad scientist. People need to participate in their lives not plug in, switch off and get high. This is substantially Csikszentmihalyi’s case for embroidering our lives with varied challenges, new skills and personal growth.

Aristotle gives life an achievable and worthwhile end – to be the best of who we are. It is an optimistic, forgiving, perfectible, self-improving and thoroughly ‘open system’ – in his nutshell: ‘we are what we repeatedly do’.

Virtues and excellence grow with our actions, a little reflection and lots of practice. There’s plenty of room in Aristotle for happiness – especially through friends. There’s an explicit acknowledgement of ‘flow’ – the work of the harp player is to play the harp, and of the good harp player to play the harp well. But above all the good life is the one we lead every day by growing, improving, refining, learning, reflecting and acting.

I think Aristotle trains core moral strength better than the rational calculation of Utilitarianism. Better to act, learn, feel and constantly improve than use intellectual brute force to calculate the answers. Life is more Bayesian than arithmetic, more non-linear than deterministic. It’s a life’s work to work on the answers for myself – and to enjoy the journey.