Humans Surprisingly Easy to Impress with Boring Recycled Arguments, if Arguments Come from a Magic Electronic Oracle

I liked Watson. The ability to discover patterns in huge amounts of raw data and report a highly-relevant response to a spoken query is a huge labor-saving advancement, especially for medical diagnostics. Natural language interaction with our data is going to make so many things easier for so many people.

But the expectations swirling around IBM Debater are completely asinine. If you watch the embedded video, they are clearly expecting the machine to make original contributions to debates, and the hope is that people will take arguments from the computer and give those more weight because they are ostensibly dispassionate, objective opinions untainted by ulterior motives or emotion.

This is hopelessly naïve. The machine is only aping a debater by synthesizing data and grammatical forms in order to spit out the data it’s been given in a natural-language format that looks like participation in a debate. It cannot originate an opinion because it has no ability to make its own value judgments. Those have been hardwired in by the designers of the software, and until we manage to build synthetic consciousness (if it is even possible) it can be no other way.

Let me explain by rewinding to Deep Blue. This was hailed at the time as the watershed moment when the computer surpassed the human at something seen as a unique human aptitude. But the computer did not defeat Kasparov. The software designers did. If you had in your hand the chess-playing-plan they wrote into Deep Blue, and had memorized the same encyclopedia of past games and probabilities, and had the ability to navigate that information at the speed of an electron across silicon, you would have beaten Garry Kasparov too.

Whether it is Deep Blue beating a chessmaster, Watson beating all comers at Jeopardy, or Project Debater defeating a debate champion, in no case are you seeing the machine becoming more insightful or intelligent than the human. What we do see are programmers isolating the variables and the winning conditions of a game, and systematizing a path to victory that can be executed on command. The computer isn’t playing. The programmers are.

As they admit in the article, judging a debate is pretty subjective. Staged formal debates like this are less truth-seeking endeavors and more like a persuasion contest. In the example debate in the article, the machine took on the task of defending a proposition that no doubt 98% of the audience already agreed with (space projects should be government subsidized). In the video it chooses to defend the idea of subsidizing music education. They got to hear their own opinions burped back at them by a real-life Deep Thought. Of course they were going to say it was persuasive!

Maybe it chooses its position by the volume of supporting data it has been given, or the past efficacy of arguments it plans to recycle. Either way, its system for choosing a position is itself a position. That choice came with some preconceived values smuggled in and they should not be painted as the dispassionate view of a rigorous, objective oracle. Based on the machine’s positions evident in the article and video, my guess would be that it sifted the source material for the most authoritative and frequently successful argument. “It would clearly benefit society” is an extremely weak argument, easily detonated by a broader understanding of economics. There’s a whole host of unintuitive, hard to detect costs. Whether there “should” be a subsidized space program boils down to whether you believe the short list of interesting benefits outweighs those downsides, and whether you believe any of those downsides are morally deal-breakers.

But the sources of authoritative opinion on a subject like that are overwhelmingly in one camp, having been reinforcing each other in their preconceptions for the past several decades. So the machine turned out to be an excellent reflector of the zeitgeist of the people who built it.

The conundrum that philosophical materialists keep running into and failing to resolve is that you can’t extract an ought from an is. Your life is full of oughts so where do they come from? Just the data around you? No. Purpose and obligation come from something else, and materialists have a hard time quantifying it without contradicting themselves.

You can find Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson chasing each other around in circles about this on YouTube somewhere. The celebrity atheists are constantly making “should” and “ought” statements but can never bring themselves to admit that they’re borrowing a heck of a lot from Christianity to make those statements possible. I bring this up to say: These computers are lightning-fast navigators of the “is.” Project Debater inherits its “oughts” from its makers or at least the patterns and sources they already trust. It will never be able to make creative deviations until it can have goals and values the way a human mind (soul?) does. In the mean time it might be able to say one day, “if you value X most highly, then Z is likely to be an efficient course of action.” But even then it’s going to run into a lot of politically incorrect conclusions.

I believe this project will be most useful to people who want to rapidly generate a best-attempt at multiple arguments from multiple angles, to use as a jumping-off point for further thought. Those who just take the machine at its word will not be guided by a benevolent Asimovian robot shepherd, but by the biases of the programmers who built it. Worse, those biases would only become more extreme because the machine has made them invisible under a covering of the mystical authority people are always vesting technology with.

Spock and the Needs of the Many

Is there a more famous scene in all of Star Trek than the death of Spock? In an entertainment franchise that has more than its share of emotionally sterile moments, this one is an unforgettable gut-punch, especially if you’d already spent years enjoying those characters.

Kirk and Spock are one of the great fictional duos. Kirk is creative, resourceful, and passionate, and above all, he never accepts defeat. Spock is the stoic, rigorously logical empiricist who occasionally checks his friend’s impulses before harsh reality does. Their fundamentally different attitudes allow them to complement each other, which is why the loss of one of them felt so tragic.

One thing always bugged me about the scene though. While saying his goodbyes to Kirk, Spock repeats, “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” It sounds almost like a mantra. I think it sucks the honor out of his choice if he did it because a rigid, utilitarian Vulcan dogma drove him unthinkingly in that direction. It can’t be that. If it were, it wouldn’t be remembered as the most heroic event in all of Star Trek.

But I think I’ve got a good answer now. His self-sacrifice was poignant not because it was logical, but because you know deep down that the rights of the many do not outweigh those of the few or the one. The most coldly utilitarian move would have been to order some anonymous redshirt in there to die saving the ship, but Spock went in there himself. He submitted his own right to live to the reasoned virtues his people taught him. The chain of command might have allowed it, but morally he had no right to sacrifice anyone else.

There’s a giant clue in the dialogue that this is really what it’s about.

SPOCK: I never took the Kobayashi Maru test …until now. What do you think of my solution?

Spock links this moment with the “Kobayashi Maru” test. Cheating on this test is treated throughout the movies as the single most important fact about Kirk. When faced with an intractable problem, Kirk bends or breaks every rule in sight until he circumvents it. Breaking free of boundaries and limitations in order to excel is one heroic trait which Kirk has in spades.

This scene is telling you that there is a virtue higher than that. In a crippled starship, in the blast zone of an exotic bomb, there was no more room for scheming. Nothing left to cheat. Resourcefulness, talent and grit weren’t going to solve the problem. The only escape from this no-win scenario would be for someone to accept it voluntarily, on behalf of everyone else. And that’s what Spock did.

Spock’s calculation didn’t involve just weighing needs of two quantities of people against each other and deciding the bigger number won. He weighed the virtue of self-sacrifice against the good of survival, and he was heroic for choosing the former voluntarily. Where his captain twists every which way to avoid paying any pipers, Spock willingly accepted the price of the Enterprise‘s survival.

Virtue doesn’t come naturally. Like the Vulcan, you have to train yourself into it. One day you’ll be tested. You’ll be presented with a choice to do what benefits you (or avoid what hurts you) at other people’s expense, or to voluntarily accept some unnecessary suffering so that others won’t have to. What will you do?

Have scientists lost their philosophical foundations?

I often compare the work of my favorite non-fiction authors to more concrete experiences to describe what it’s like to read them. Reading G.K. Chesterton is like biting into a perfectly cooked steak. C.S. Lewis like being brought to the top of a high mountain to get a clear view of things that used to be too close and confusing. Jordan Peterson sometimes feels like being on a psychedelic-induced spirit journey. Ludwig von Mises is a bit like watching a chessmaster carefully surprise you with a sudden checkmate.

Reading Adam Becker’s article on Aeon felt like slogging hip-deep through a swamp at night.

His thesis is something like this: in science, people “fetishize” the scientific method’s imperatives of falsifiability and observability, insisting on them when the path to new ideas is actually less rigid. He uses the historical examples of Mercury and neutrinos to make the case that science doesn’t actually follow those principles to the letter, nor should it. Newtonian laws couldn’t explain the motion of Mercury. Mercury falsified Newton, but scientists stuck with the theory for a long time anyway. They hypothesized a planet Vulcan that was at the time unobservable. Finally, though, when Einstein published his theory, an explanation was available that explained Mercury without any invisible extra planets. Wolfgang Pauli, in order to deal with observations that apparently falsified the conservation of energy, hypothesized that there was an extra particle, a neutrino, that was unobservable for decades until totally unprecedented technology was brought to bear on the subject.

He says, “So invoking the invisible to save a theory from falsification is sometimes the right scientific move. Yet Pauli certainly didn’t believe that his particle could never be observed. He hoped that it could be seen eventually, and he was right. Similarly, Einstein’s general relativity was vindicated through observation. Falsification just can’t be the answer, or at least not the whole answer, to the question of what makes a good theory. What about observability?

“It’s certainly true that observation plays a crucial role in science. But this doesn’t mean that scientific theories have to deal exclusively in observable things. For one, the line between the observable and unobservable is blurry – what was once ‘unobservable’ can become ‘observable’, as the neutrino shows. Sometimes, a theory that postulates the imperceptible has proven to be the right theory, and is accepted as correct long before anyone devises a way to see those things.”

He then cites Ernst Mach’s (now considered incorrect) insistence that atoms weren’t real as an example of hewing too close to “observability.”

He concludes, “Some of the most interesting scientific work gets done when scientists develop bizarre theories in the face of something new or unexplained. Madcap ideas must find a way of relating to the world – but demanding falsifiability or observability, without any sort of subtlety, will hold science back. It’s impossible to develop successful new theories under such rigid restrictions. As Pauli said when he first came up with the neutrino, despite his own misgivings: ‘Only those who wager can win.’”

All of this looks to me like harping on those two ideas at the expense of the scientific method — of which these are only two pieces. I think Becker wouldn’t see a conflict in these historical examples if he thought of the scientific method as a way of gradually whittling away errors and using the best-available model with the knowledge available. I think the reason scientists of the past clung to Newton, imagined neutrinos, and argued over atoms is because falsifiability and observability are only rubrics in service of science’s main goal: the refinement of conceptual models of the world that accurately predict future observations. He even says in the article that Newtonian physics were only abandoned when a viable alternative emerged with Einstein. There is a principle of subsidiarity at work here. When you get an observation your model doesn’t predict, are you dealing with merely a strange exception with variables you didn’t know about, or do you need to throw out the whole theory? If Newtonian physics accurately predicted Neptune and seems to handle everything else just fine, how likely is it that Mercury is a red flag that the whole model is off? You don’t start by undermining the entire framework. You start by trying to explain the anomaly in terms of the framework. Disagreements over neutrinos and atoms were merely disagreements about what level of analysis the problem has risen to. Falsifiability properly applied to Newtonian laws didn’t, and shouldn’t have, thrown the theory out the first time Mercury was a few arcseconds off in the sky. What would they have replaced it with? It did signal something was amiss, and that’s why some went on the hunt for the planet Vulcan and why Relativity was celebrated as the glorious eureka moment that it was.

I am not really involved in the science community so maybe there are falsifiability fetishists who pan perfectly reasonable speculations on the basis that they aren’t perfect. Maybe there are some who insist on only entertaining new models that are definitely observable right now instead of observable/falsifiable in principle. But it might also be that post-modernism has penetrated even the sciences, and now even scientists are in the dark as to why they ever followed the scientific method in the first place. A post-modern view has a hard time choosing a level of analysis, or even seeing that there are levels of analysis, or ranking the usefulness of various analyses, since all analyses are potentially equally valid. The fact that Neil deGrasse Tyson rolls his eyes at the very mention of philosophy makes me wonder.

There actually is a right way to attack a knowledge gap like a failed experiment or anomalous observation, and the scientific method describes it.

Addendum: Someone made the point that Einsteinian physics never falsified or refuted Newton. Rather Einstein shows the Newtonian method to still be perfectly correct, but only at those scales above the quantum and below the relativistic. All the forces are always present, but depending on the scale of your analysis, some can be safely ignored. This point strengthens the argument that in the Newton-Einstein case, falsification and observability were always tools in service of progressively eliminating errors. Nothing was overturned; a great deal was preserved while adding a new dimension of understanding.