Category Archives: book

Pick a Number

Economist Rob Hanson quoted Tyler Cowen from George Mason University:

We often like to ask lunch visitors what is their most absurd view (in the eyes of others). Alas I have so many choices. On BloggingHeads, Tyler Cowen answers this for Will Wilkinson:

Tyler: My most absurd belief, perhaps, is the extent to which I think people should be truly uncertain about almost all of their beliefs. And it doesn’t sound absurd when you say it but I don’t on the other hand know anyone who agrees with it. … Take whatever your political beliefs happen to be. Obviously the view you hold you think is most likely to be true, but I think you should give that something like 60-40, whereas in reality most people will give it 95 to 5 or 99 to 1 in terms of probability that it is correct. Or if you ask people what is the chance this view of yours is wrong, very few people are willing to assign it any number at all. Or if you ask people who believe in God or are atheists, what’s the chance you’re wrong – I’ve asked atheists what’s the chance you’re wrong and they’ll say something like a trillion to one, and that to me is absurd, that even if you think all of the strongest arguments for atheism are correct, your estimate that atheism is in fact the correct point of view shouldn’t be that high, maybe you know 90-10 or 95 to 5, at most. So that maybe is my most absurd view. Most things are much more up for grabs than we like to say they are.

Will: I agree with you that things are more up for grabs than people think they are, but I have real problems with the idea that it’s either possible or desirable that people assign probabilities to all of their beliefs. I think it’s a weird violation of the actual computational constraints of the human mind, that we just don’t.

Tyler: Here, you are more of a philosopher than I am, and I’m more a Bayesian. I’m sure it’s possible. Now I’m not saying it’s desirable, I’m just saying I want people to do it in a lot of instances, maybe just for my aesthetic pleasure. I want to pin people down and get a sense for how sure they are, and interpret these probabilities as betting odds, if you want. Let’s say there’s a lot of dying starving children in India or sub-Saharan Africa, and you are offered to bet, and you know that the money won on these bets will go to feed these children and save their lives, and you have to name what odds you are going to bet at. And you can name a number. You want to name the best number you can because you want to save the lives of these children, so I’m not going to allow any evasion here. I don’t see why there is not always some pick of a number that’s better than a lot of other picks. You are not going to get it right so computationally of course it’s hopeless. But look, you’ve got to give it your best guess. (emphasis added)

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Da Matrix


In The Design Matrix, I explore the four criteria used to assess any putative design inference in an open-ended manner.  One such criterion is Foresight.  Let me share a couple of excerpts from the book that outline one way to recognize foresight has been in play:

The second phenomenon that speaks to foresight involves a shift in the way we look at history. Normally, to understand the present, we explore what happened in the past, trying to uncover all the relevant past events that led to the present state. Th is is the standard historical approach. For example, if a historian wants to understand how America became involved in World War II, he will explore the history prior to America’s entry into war and consider all the relevant events associated with America’s relationships with Asia and Europe. But if we are, in fact, dealing with foresight in action, we can reverse this approach and attempt to use the present to understand the past. I will call this new perspective PREPA (the present explains the past). How does PREPA work? Consider a mundane example. Your friend becomes concerned because his wife has been acting strangely lately. On Monday, she stayed away from home for an uncharacteristically long time. “She said she was shopping, but she rarely shops on Monday,” he explains. On Tuesday, he says he entered the bedroom and she quickly hung up the phone. He asked her who she was talking to, and she fumbled about with words and eventually said it was one of her friends. On Wednesday, she gave the house a good cleaning, “Which is odd,” he says, “because she normally does that on Saturday.” On Thursday evening, she tells him that he should go bowling with his friends Friday evening. “Now, she normally complains when I go bowling,” he explains. So you take your friend bowling. After one game, you take him home early to check on his wife. He enters the door and it is dark. He then flips on the light and people everywhere jump out and shout, “Surprise!” At that moment on Friday evening, suddenly the present explains the past (his wife’s behavior Monday through Thursday). She was acting according to foresight, as she planned for the surprise party. What did not make sense in the past now all comes together.

I then offer a biological candidate for PREPA:

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On Vacation

If you have any pics of your DM, feel free to email it to me and I’ll post it here.

A Design Strategy

From The Design Matrix:

A core element of the non-teleological perspective of evolution is that mutations are random with regard to fitness. This means that mutations are not inherently forward- or outward-looking. Instead, a mutation simply occurs in a random fashion (a genuine mistake) and whether or not it benefits the organism depends on contingency, for as far as we know, evolution does not create targeted mutations to solve specific problems.

What you have instead are a large number of cells each mutating their genomes at random. The population of cells is effectively playing the lottery. The one genome that happens to mutate the “right” spot wins the prize, as this genome is at a selective advantage in comparison and will then spread its progeny throughout the population. The problem is that the lottery winners, over time, cannot be predicted and such winners may explore trajectories that not only were not intended by a designer, but may actually hinder the ability to design across time using reproduction. All of this unintended evolution can thus be considered noise.If a designer is trying to use reproduction to perpetuate a design far into the future, how does one control for all the noise that Darwinian evolution will produce along the way? What would prevent this noise from drowning out the signal of design? How can a designer solve these problems?

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Design Matrix reflections

Since it has now been two years since the publication of The Design Matrix, I thought I would take a brief moment to reflect before Turkey Day.

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