Thoughts about technology funding

Over the past three days, I attended a workshop on GPU programming and applications at IIT Bombay by NVIDIA. Here are a few comments by different speakers, that stayed with me. And prompted me to write about a topic I have got tired of writing about.

1) “If the government had not invested in super-computing in the 90s we would not have mobile phones today.”

2) “The prime minister recently announced an outlay of Rs 45,000 crores for developing supercomputers. This is what all of us are excited about”

3) “Gone are the days when hardware was designed to solve important algorithms. Today, we have to adapt our algorithms to suit available hardware.”

The last comment refers to the fact that GPUs were developed to satisfy the enormous demands of the gaming industry. They are now being used for solving scientific problems, and algorithms have to be adapted or designed to utilize the enormous capabilities that GPUs can provide.

It seems plausible that some of the complex problems being researched would remain unsolved if the government did not fund them. But, is it true?

The history of GPUs indicates otherwise. GPUs were funded by the desire of people to entertain themselves. By consumers who have no knowledge whatsoever of the problems researchers are trying to solve, no knowledge of the technical hurdles they face, and perhaps no ability to even comprehend these problems.

10 years back when I was doing a project that required some graphics programming, I was struck by the enormous amount of computing and programming effort involved in producing realistic rendering of scenes. And I wondered about the guys who toiled to build games that had not just realistic rendering but so much more (modelling collisions, deformations, haptic feedback, simulation of human behavior …). I wondered where they got the motivation to toil away just to satisfy some silly gamer who wanted to see blood spurting out of a bullet wound in a realistic manner in some 1st person shooter game. The computational and modelling was challenging and interesting. But to what end? I couldn’t have done that.

The point is that it doesn’t matter. The technology that is useful to model fake blood spurting out of a fake bullet wound is also useful to simulate the impact of waves generated by a storm surge or a tsunami. And the amazing thing about the free market is that the idiot gamer who spends much of his life shooting imagined enemies on the biggest and most expensive devices money can buy, is contributing to the research efforts of all the speakers who presented their work in the last three days. And the idiot gamer is spending his money voluntarily to enrich (or waste?!) his own life. It is not necessary to tax him or the luxury products he buys to fund research projects.

Proponents of government funding often make the argument that it is necessary to invest in activities that are not economically viable in the short term to get returns in the long term. And yet, ask any of the eminent speakers if they would have invested government money in GPU technology 20 years ago. The answer is probably obvious. The fact is that none of us is good at predicting what the future will hold, what direction technology will take, what will work, and what will not. And none of us has the right to take other people’s money for what we think are more worthy projects. I might choose to think of hard core gamers as idiots, but that judgement does not give me the right to take their money and spend it on earthquake modelling. Those of us who are passionate about scientific projects have as little conception of the joy that gamers derive from their games, as the gamer might have of the joy that we derive in formulating and solving differential equations. It is not for us to decide what activities other people should value. And we should stop making the case for robbing other people of their money to meet our goals – even if we do think our goals to be bigger and worthier that those of the people we propose to rob.

And if the moral argument is not sufficient, the history of GPUs should be a humbling reminder. The money we propose to spend on our pet projects could have been spent by others in other ways – on their pet projects. Are we confident that our pet projects will do more for the future of technology (whatever that means), than their pet projects? And if we are not, we should have the good sense to let the decision remain in the hands of the people who earned that money in the first place.

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On Peikoff’s condemnation of McCaskey

The good, therefore, is a species of the true; it is a form of recognizing reality. The evil is a species of the false; it is a form of contradicting reality.

The general principle here is: truth implies as its cause a virtuous mental process; falsehood, beyond a certain point, implies a process of vice.

— Leonard Peikoff in his essay Fact and Value

From the available evidence on the issue, it seems to me that Dr. Peikoff’s moral condemnation of Dr. McCaskey (which surprised many) is based on the above. McCaskey, given his credentials, is clearly in possession of the relevant historical facts. If he is wrong – and Peikoff believes he is – it is not surprising that Peikoff regards the falsehood of McCaskey’s ideas as implying a process of vice.

I am way out of my depth in the issue at stake here – a theory of induction and the history of science – and cannot decide who is right and who is wrong.

That aside, the crucial question that this issue raises is: How should the ARI handle disagreement between its members on philosophical issues that do not come under the scope of Objectivism? It would seem that such disagreements should be tolerated given that the mission of the ARI is to promote Objectivism. But, given the nature of objectivism – the fact that objectivism demands (and rightly so) moral judgement of ideas – it is not realistic to expect people to work with those whom they morally condemn. Over time, as Objectivist intellectuals work on issues that Rand did not address, such disagreements are bound to increase. In the long term, this means that there can be no single organization that lays claim to Rand’s ideas. This is not something to regret.

Mises on The Free-Will Controversy

From Chapter 5 of Mises’ Theory and History,

Man chooses between modes of action incompatible with one another. Such decisions, says the free-will doctrine, are basically undetermined and uncaused; they are not the inevitable outcome of antecedent conditions. They are rather the display of man’s inmost disposition, the manifestation of his indelible moral freedom. This moral liberty is the essential characteristic of man, raising him to a unique position in the universe.

Determinists reject this doctrine as illusory. Man, they say, deceives himself in believing that he chooses. Something unknown to the individual directs his will. He thinks that he weighs in his mind the pros and cons of the alternatives left to his choice and then makes a decision. He fails to realize that the antecedent state of things enjoins on him a definite line of conduct and that there is no means to elude this pressure. Man does not act, he is acted upon.

Both doctrines neglect to pay due attention to the role of ideas. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas that he adopts.

This is quite close to my own position but with a very important qualification. The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas he adopts provided he chooses to think. Mises denies that choice.

What the sciences of human action must reject is not determinism but the positivistic and panphysicalistic distortion of determinism. They stress the fact that ideas determine human action and that at least in the present state of human science it is impossible to reduce the emergence and the transformation of ideas to physical, chemical, or biological factors. It is this impossibility that constitutes the autonomy of the sciences of human action. Perhaps natural science will one day be in a position to describe the physical, chemical, and biological events. which in the body of the man Newton necessarily and inevitably produced the theory of gravitation. In the meantime, we must be content with the study of the history of ideas as a part of the sciences of human action.

The sciences of human action by no means reject determinism. The objective of history is to bring out in full relief the factors that were operative in producing a definite event. History is entirely guided by the category of cause and effect. In retrospect, there is no question of contingency. The notion of contingency as employed in dealing with human action always refers to man’s uncertainty about the future and the limitations of the specific historical understanding of future events. It refers to a limitation of the human search for knowledge, not to a condition of the universe or of some of its parts.

Having denied the choice to think, Mises treats determinism and causality as equivalent and rejects the notion of contingency for past actions. It will be interesting to see where this takes him in later chapters. One consequence is already apparant though – on his view of morality. A determinist cannot logically be a moralist and indeed Mises is not. Like Taleb, he denies the possibility of a normative science. In earlier chapters, Mises writes that the only possible judgement of human action is whether a particular means leads to a particular end. Ends cannot be judged. Adopting utilitarianism, he goes on to write about justice: “The ultimate yardstick of justice is conduciveness to the preservation of social cooperation. Conduct suited to preserve social cooperation is just, conduct detrimental to the preservation of society is unjust.”

Just goes to show how important the foundational branches of philosophy are.

The scope of free will

I was debating the issue of anarchy and was directed to this article (pdf) by Prof. Moshe Kroy which highlights some fundamental differences between Rand’s philosophy and Rothbard’s including the scope of free will.

According to Rand’s theory of human freedom, man’s only fundamental freedom, the sole domain in which he is capable of being a “first cause”, the only realm where he can exercise absolutely unpre-determined choice, is his own consciousness. Man’s basic choice is between identifying the facts of reality through an act of consciousness, and evading the knowledge of these facts. This freedom does not extend to man’s decisions and actions: Your decisions and actions are the necessary product of your values and premises, Rand claims.

Rothbard’s theory of man, however, assumes another dimension of freedom in man: the freedom to make decisions, to originate action. For Rothbard values, and their hierarchy, are not the product of perception alone, though, clearly, his writing implies that awareness of the facts is highly relevant to your choice of values.

In Rand’s words (also look at the related concept of focus)

That which you call your soul or spirit is your consciousness, and that which you call “free will” is your mind’s freedom to think or not, the only will you have, your only freedom, the choice that controls all the choices you make and determines your life and your character.

In any hour and issue of his life, man is free to think or to evade that effort. Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one’s consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality—or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make.

Psychologically, the choice “to think or not” is the choice “to focus or not.”
(Emphasis mine)

I am not quoting Rothbard because I have not read his works. Aristotle The Geek has directed me to this article by Rothbard but the focus of that article is more on refuting determinism than the scope of free will.

How does one decide which theory is correct? The existence of a choice to focus or not (ranging from no focus to full focus) is immediately available to introspection. When I am solving a difficult problem, I am consciously choosing to be fully focused. When I try to go to sleep, I consciously suspend my focus. But does free will extend beyond that? Am I free to choose the object of my focus or the subject of my thoughts? Am I free to choose the outcome of my thoughts? I don’t think so.

Firstly, there are occasions when I get distracted. This is an indication – though not a proof – that I lack control over the object of my focus. There are occasions when I want to stop thinking about something but cannot. This is an indication – again not a proof – that I lack control over the subject of my thoughts. There exist such things as mental habits and character. These concepts would surely be meaningless if I were free to choose the outcome of my thoughts.

Secondly (and less importantly), one can apply Occam’s razor. The freedom of choice to focus is necessary to explain human behavior. It is also sufficient. Why assume a greater freedom without evidence – especially when free will sits uncomfortably with known physical theories? And until we discover physical theories that can explain free will, I don’t think this issue can be proved either way.

On these grounds, I agree with Rand’s position.

How is this relevant to anarchy? I will deal with that in a separate post.

Science and philosophy – 2

I just finished reading “dreams of a final theory” by Steven Weinberg. The book is somewhat less technical than I had expected. Despite having a chapter titled “Against Philosophy”, Weinberg deals with several issues that have more to do with the methodology of science than with its content, such as reductionism, “aesthetics” in science, positivism, belief in God etc. Overall, the book is quite enjoyable. I am interested in developing a better understanding of several of the issues Weinberg discusses, so this book has given me a lot of starting material.

To me, the most interesting arguement that Weinberg makes is that “aesthetics” has played a significant role in the formulation as well as the acceptance of several of the theories that have been developed in the last century. I had encountered similar claims before but had not taken them very seriously. But Weinberg makes his case quite convincingly. He argues that validating a theory by means of experiment is not as simple as it may seem. There can be any number of reasons for an anomaly in experimenal results. In judging whether a theory may be valid, whether it is worth trying to validate, physicists necessarily rely on “aesthetic” judgements. As an example, he argues that physicists were more or less certain of Einstein’s theory of general relativity before it was conclusively validated by experiment. As another example, he argues that physicists were sceptical of the theory of quantum electro-dynamics although it was in agreement with experimental results because some calculations based on it involved “ugly” infinities in intermediate steps. He writes that part of this “beauty” lies in simplicity – not the simplicity of the equations but of ideas. Another part of this beauty lies in what he calls logical isolation or rigidity. For example, he writes that no one has yet found a way to make a small modification in the principles of quantum mechanics without destroying the theory altogether. It would make little difference in Newton’s inverse square law of gravitational force if the exponent were changed to 2.01 instead of 2, but even the introduction of a small non-linear term in the linear equations of quantum mechanics produces nonsensical results. Such a theory does not explains why it should be correct but it explains why it cannot be just a little wrong. Concluding a chapter titled “Beautiful Theories” Weinberg writes

We believe that, if we ask why the world is the way it is and then ask why that answer is the way it is, at the end of this chain of explanations we shall find a few simple principles of compelling beauty… the beauty of present theories is an anticipation, a premonition, of the beauty of the final theory. And in any case, we would not accept any theory as final unless it were beautiful. (emphasis mine)

The last sentence in that excerpt sums up most of what Weinberg is saying about beauty. If one keeps asking why as Weinberg does, there will come a point where one will have to stop. How does one decide what that point is? For Weinberg that point will have been reached when we have a simple and logically isolated theory that “explains” everything including the values of what we call universal constants.

In my next post in this series, I will try to present my own thoughts on what it means for a theory to explain something and on beauty.

Science and philosophy – 1

A couple of days back, in a comment on this video, I wrote

Unfortunately because of the philosophy of logical positivism, most scientists today are afraid or unwilling to accept the necessity of metaphysics at all.

Today, I started reading a book “dreams of a final theory” by Steven Weinberg. Early on in the book, he writes

Speaking of a final theory, a thousand questions and clarifications crowd into the mind. What do we mean by one scientific principle ‘explaining’ another? How do we know that there is a common starting point for all such explanations? Will we ever discover that point? How close are we now? What will the final theory be like? What will it say about life and consciousness? And, when we have our final theory, what will happen to science and to the human spirit?

A few pages later, explaining what the pursuit of a final theory means, he starts with “Chalk is white. Why?” Some answers (light, wavelengths etc.) and then another “why”. Some more answers (atomic structure, energy levels etc.) and then another “why” and so on until he comes to a point where he does not know the answers. Finally, he writes,

Even so, it is a tricky business to say exactly what one is doing when one answers such a question. Fortunately, it is not really necessary.

and then, a few paragraphs later,

Ludwig Wittgenstein, denying even the possibility of explaining any fact on the basis of any other fact, warned that ‘at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.’ Such warnings leave me cold. To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is like telling a tiger stalking prey that all flesh is grass. The fact that we scientists do not know how to state in a way that philosophers would approve what it is that we are doing in searching for scientific explanations does not mean that we are not doing something worthwhile. We could use help from professional philosophers in understanding what it is that we are doing, but with or without their help we shall keep at it.

As an engineer, I can certainly sympathize with what Weinberg is saying. Philosophers such as Wittgenstein have betrayed science (and philosophy). But that is not a good enough reason for scientists to abandon philosophy. Proper science needs a solid base in philosophy. I dare say that without an explicit (philosophical) understanding of what “searching for scienific explanations” means, scientists will not discover a final theory. I think science has reached a level (based on some reading of quantum mechanics) from where it cannot proceed without answering some fundamental questions that are not just scientific.

Anyhow this is a fascinating subject, and I will return to it often. I have been fascinated by this subject for about an year now, and have been reading some books off and on when I find time. So far I have not written on this subject, because I do not like to write unless I have a clear idea of what I am writing. But it seems unlikely that I will find answers to questions like this without a lot of thinking. So I intend to think by putting my thoughts on this blog instead of doing it before going to sleep.

The scope of morality

In my last post I wrote:

Only political ideals can be judged morally. The construction of a political system is a matter of science (political, legal etc…), not of morality. For example, whether to have a presidential system, or a parliamentary system; whether the tenure of elected representatives should be 4 years or 10 years; whether copyrights should be granted for 20 years or 50 years; whether the minimum voting age should be 18 years or 21 years; etc.. are not moral questions.

Is such a distinction – moral vs “scientific” (for lack of a better word to describe judgement that is not moral) – valid? What is it that makes a particular question, a moral question? What is the use of making such a distinction?

Consider some examples of what I would regard as moral questions:

  1. Should I have definite goals (short term and/or long term) or just live life as it comes?
  2. Should I choose my own happiness or other people’s happiness as the purpose of my life?
  3. I do not approve of something my friend did. Should I voice my disapproval?
  4. A guest forgot something at my house. Should I return it?

Consider some examples of what I would regard as “scientific” questions:

  1. Should I buy a new computer next week or next year?
  2. Should I use Windows or Linux?
  3. Should I rent an apartment or buy one?
  4. Should I buy a newspaper or use the internet?

There is nothing about the questions themselves to justify a distinction. Both kinds of questions are about choice, both can be answered objectively – with reference to facts as one sees them, both can be easy or difficult to answer, both require the same method to reach an answer – analyze the relevant facts and make a value judgement. And yet it is quite clear to me that there is a distinction. What is it?

The distinction is in my understanding. As I integrate facts, I form certain principles to help me form my value judgements. As I observe newer facts, I validate these principles and identify contexts within which they apply. If a particular question can be answered by the direct application of a principle I have already validated, I regard that question as a moral question. This means that when I classify a particular question as a moral question, I already have an answer to it and I am certain of my answer. However, if the context implied in a particular question is extremely narrow, I will not have any single principle which I can use to answer the question directly (because I only form or retain principles which apply to broad contexts as a matter of economy). I would regard such a question to be a “scientific” question. By analyzing the relevant facts, I might eventually reach an answer to such a question. I might also be certain of my answer. But that certainty is not relevant to the distinction. The question remains a “scientific” question until I formulate the answer directly in the form of a principle.

This distinction applies even if the principles I have accepted are not based on a complete rational understanding, but are accepted unquestioningly from the culture or from faith. As long as I accept a principle, I will regard any question that is directly answered by it as a moral question. As my understanding improves, it is possible that a question that was once a “scientific” question (for me) will become a moral question. Also, should I discover that some principle that I had previously accepted is incorrect, a question that was once a moral question will become a “scientific” question. A moralist (someone who has firm principles about several issues) will regard a lot of questions as moral questions. A pragmatist (who shies away from all principles) will regard most of these questions as “scientific” – to be resolved by trial and error, by an approach of whatever works.

Why is the distinction useful? By considering the questions a particular person regards as moral or scientific, I can understand what principles he accepts or does not accept. If there is a particular question that I regard as moral but he does not, it means that there is some principle which I accept but he doesn’t. If we are to have a constructive debate, the subject of the debate should be the relevant principle and not the particular question. As a case in point, I believe that government bailouts are morally wrong. Someone (and there is no dearth of such people) believes that bailouts are necessary to “save the economy”. Instead of arguing about how a particular bailout will affect the economy, the argument should be about how a bailout is unjust and why injustice can never be practical, with the bailout as a mere example.

This distinction is useful even when I deal with people with whom I share basic principles. When I deal with such a person, I can safely assume that we will agree on moral questions. But we may well disagree on “scientific” questions. The disinction helps me predict where we can expect to agree.

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