Digifesto

Tag: epistemology

Horkheimer, pragmatism, and cognitive ecology

In Eclipse of Reason, Horkheimer rips into the American pragmatists Peirce, James, and Dewey like nobody I’ve ever read. Normally seen as reasonable and benign, Horkheimer paints these figures as ignorant and undermining of the whole social order.

The reason is that he believes that they reduce epistemology to a kind a instrumentalism. But that’s selling their position a bit short. Dewey’s moral epistemology is pragmatist in that it is driven by particular, situated interests and concerns, but these are ingredients to moral inquiry and not conclusions in themselves.

So to the extent that Horkheimer is looking to dialectic reason as the grounds to uncovering objective truths, Dewey’s emphasis on the establishing institutions that allow for meaningful moral inquiry seems consistent with Horkheimer’s view. The difference is in whether the dialectics are transcendental (as for Kant) or immanent (as for Hegel?).

The tension around objectivity in epistemology that comes up in the present academic environment is that all claims to objectivity are necessarily situated and this situatedness is raised as a challenge to their objective status. If the claims or their justification depend on conditions that exclude some subjects (as they no doubt do; whether or not dialectical reason is transcendental or immanent is requires opportunities for reflection that are rare–privileged), can these conclusions be said to be true for all subjects?

The Friendly AI research program more or less assumes that yes, this is the case. Yudkowsky’s notion of Coherent Extrapolated Volition–the position arrived at by simulated, idealized reasoners, is a 21st century remake of Peirce’s limiting consensus of the rational. And yet the cry from standpoint theorists and certain anthropologically inspired disciplines is a recognition of the validity of partial perspectives. Haraway, for example, calls for an alliance of partial perspectives. Critical and adversarial design folks appear to have picked up this baton. Their vision is of a future of constantly vying (“agonistic”) partiality, with no perspective presuming to be settled, objective or complete.

If we make cognitivist assumptions about the computationality of all epistemic agents, then we are forced to acknowledge the finiteness of all actually existing reasoning. Finite capacity and situatedness become two sides of the same coin. Partiality, then, becomes a function of both ones place in the network (eccentricity vs. centrality) as well as capacity to integrate information from the periphery. Those locations in the network most able to valuably integrate information, whether they be Google’s data centers or the conversational hubs of research universities, are more impartial, more objective. But they can never be the complete system. Because of their finite capacity, their representations can at best be lossy compressions of the whole.

A Hegelian might dream of an objective truth obtainable by a single subject through transcendental dialectic. Perhaps this is unattainable. But if there’s any hope at all in this direction, it seems to me it must come from one of two possibilities:

  • The fortuitously fractal structure of the sociotechnical world such that an adequate representation of it can be maintained in its epistemic hubs through quining, or
  • A generative grammar or modeling language of cognitive ecology such that we can get insights into the larger interactive system from toy models, and apply these simplified models pragmatically in specific cases. For this to work and not suffer the same failures as theoretical economics, these models need to have empirical content. Something like Wolpert, Lee, and Bono’s Predictive Game Theory (for which I just discovered they’ve released a Python package…cool!) may be critical here.

objectivity is powerful

Like “neoliberal”, “objectivity” in contemporary academic discourse is only used as a term of disparagement. It has fallen out of fashion to speak about “objectivity” in scientific language. It remains in fashion to be critical of objectivity in those disciplines that have been criticizing objectivity since at least the 70’s.

This is too bad because objectivity is great.

The criticism goes like this: scientists and journalists both used to say that they were being objective. There was a lot to this term. It could mean ‘disinterested’ or it could mean so rigorous as to be perfectly inter-subjective. It sounded good. But actually, all the scientists and journalists who claimed to be objective were sexist, racist, and lapdogs of the bourgeoisie. They used ‘objectivity’ as a way to exclude those who were interested in promoting social justice. Hence, anyone who claims to be objective is suspicious.

There are some more sophisticated arguments than this but their sophistication only weakens the main emotional thrust of the original criticism. The only reason for this sophistication is to be academically impressive, which is fundamentally useless, or to respond in good faith to criticisms, which is politically unnecessary and probably unwise.

Why is it unwise to respond in good faith to criticisms of a critique of objectivity? Because to concede that good faith response to criticism is epistemically virtuous would be to concede something to the defender of objectivity. Once you start negotiating with the enemy in terms of reasons, you become accountable to some kind of shared logic which transcends your personal subjectivity, or the collective subjectivity of those whose perspectives are channeled in your discourse.

In a world in which power is enacted and exerted through discourse, and in which cultural logics are just rules in a language game provisionally accepted by players, this rejection of objectivity is true resistance. The act of will that resists logical engagement with those in power will stymie that power. It’s what sticks it to the Man.

The problem is that however well-intentioned this strategy may be, it is dumb.

It is dumb because as everybody knows, power isn’t exerted mainly through discourse. Power is exerted through violence. And while it may be fun to talk about “cultural logics” if you are a particular kind of academic, and even fun to talk about how cultural logics can be violent, that is vague metaphorical poetry compared to something else that they could be talking about. Words don’t kill people. Guns kill people.

Put yourself in the position of somebody designing and manufacturing guns. What do you talk about with your friends and collaborators? If you think that power is about discourse, then you might think that these people talk about their racist political agenda, wherein they reproduce the power dynamics that they will wield to continue their military dominance.

They don’t though.

Instead what they talk about is the mechanics of how guns work and the technicalities of supply chain management. Where are they importing their gunpowder from and how much does it cost? How much will it go boom?

These conversations aren’t governed by “cultural logics.” They are governed by logic. Because logic is what preserves the intersubjective validity of their claims. That’s important because to successful build and market guns, the gun has to go boom the same amount whether or not the person being aimed at shares your cultural logic.

This is all quite grim. “Of course, that’s the point: objectivity is the language of violence and power! Boo objectivity!”

But that misses the point. The point is that it’s not that objectivity is what powerful people dupe people into believing in order to stay powerful. The point is that objectivity is what powerful people strive for in order to stay powerful. Objectivity is powerful in ways that more subjectively justified forms of knowledge are not.

This is not a popular perspective. There a number of reasons for this. One is that attain objective understanding is a lot of hard work and most people are just not up for it. Another is that there are a lot of people who have made their careers arguing for a much more popular perspective, which is that “objectivity” is associated with evil people and therefor we should reject it as an epistemic principal. There will always be an audience for this view, who will be rendered powerless by it and become the self-fulfilling prophecy of the demagogues who encourage their ignorance.

Defining information with Dretske

I prepared these slides to present Fred Dretske’s paper “The Epistemology of Belief” to a class I’m taking this semester, ‘Concepts of Information’, taught by Paul Duguid and Geoff Nunberg.

Somewhere along the line I realised that if I was put on earth for one reason and one reason only, it was to make slide decks about epistemology.

I’ve had a serious interest in philosophy as a student and as a…hobbyist? can you say that?…for my entire thinking life. I considered going to graduate school for it before tossing the idea for more practical pursuits. So it comes as a delightful surprise that I’ve found an opportunity to read and work with philosophy at a graduate level through my program.

A difficult issue for a “School of Information” is defining what information is. I’ve gathered from conversations with faculty that there is an acknowledged intellectual tussle over the identity of iSchools which hinges in part on the meaning of the word. There seems to me to be roughly two ideologies at play: the cyberneticist ideology that sought to unify Shannon’s information theory, computer science, management science, economics, AI, and psychology under a coherent definition of information on the one hand, and the softer social science view that ‘information’ is a polysemous term which refers variously to newspapers and the stuff mediated by “information technology” in a loose sense but primarily as a social phenomenon.

As I’ve been steeped in the cyberneticist tradition but still consider myself literate in English and capable of recognizing social phenomena, it bothers me that people don’t see all this as just talking about the same thing in different ways.

I figured coming into the program that this was an obvious point that was widely accepted. It’s in a way nice to see that this is controversial and the arguments for this view are either unknown, unarticulated, or obscure, because that means I have some interesting work ahead of me.

This slide deck was a first stab at the problem: tying Dretske’s persuasive account of a qualitative definition of ‘information about’ to the relevant concept of Shannon’s information theory. I hope to see how far I can push this in later work. (At the point where is proves impossible, as opposed to merely difficult or non-obvious, then we’ll have discovered something new!)