Posts Tagged ‘Niels Bohr’

What Are the Three Hardest Words in the English Language?

July 26, 2016

According to the authors of “Think Like a Freak” they are “I don’t know.”  People have opinions about virtually everything.  There is a saying, cleaned up here, opinions are like anal sphinchters, everyone has one.   Experts have opinions, but they are frequently not correct (enter “Tetlock” into the search block to learn more).  What’s even worse, is that we are rarely reluctant to make predictions about the future, and the physicist Niels Bohr liked to say, “Prediction is very difficult, especially it its about he future.”

A good post to read or reread here is  “Understanding Beliefs.”  We do not know the world directly.  On the basis of our experience with the world, we develop models of the world.  As the result of experience and learning, we need to revise and refine these models.  All our beliefs should be probabilistic and should be revised as the result of new learning and experience.

This is the primary problem with ideologues and ideologies.  They bias information processing, hindering the development and refinement of our knowledge of the world.  This is problematic because our knowledge is always imperfect.

Strictly speaking, we should never say, “I know,” or “I believe” if what we know or believe can be changed.  It is better to say, “To the best of my knowledge,” or “my thinking leads me to believe.”

Most importantly, we should never be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”  We live in a complicated and dynamically changing world where we can be familiar with only a small part of it.  Even in HM’s field of cognitive psychology, there is simply too much to understand, and if he says, “I don’t know,”  it is a reasonable response, one
which he is not only entitled to say, but one which he is obligated to say.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Understanding Deeply

February 1, 2016

It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you do know that ain’t so.
Mark Twain, Will Rogers, or Someone Else

Understanding deeply is the first of the 5 Elements of Effective Thinking written by Drs Burger and Starbird..  Here is a tip offered  to provoke effective thinking.  Ask what do you know and test yourself by opening a blank document on a computer.  Then without referring to any sources, write a detailed understanding of the fundamentals of the subject.  Does your knowledge have gaps?  Do you struggle to think of core examples?  Do you fail to see the overall picture that puts the pieces together?  Then compare your effort to external sources.  When you discover weakness of your own understanding of the basics, take action.  Methodically understand the fundamentals.  Make these new insights part of your knowledge and connect them to parts already understood.  Revise and rewrite your first draft.   Periodically repeat this exercise and see how this document grows.  Keep a record of your previous documents.

If the challenge is too great, then don’t do it.  George Polya wrote, “If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve:  find it.  When faced with a difficult problem, do something else.  Focus entirely on a subproblem you know you can successfully resolve.  Be confident that the work you invest on the subproblem will later be the guide that allows you to navigate through the complexities  of the larger issue.  Just shoot for the moon, don’t yet try to walk on it.

Here are two steps to uncovering the essence:
Step One:  Identify and ignore all distracting features to isolate the essential core.
Step Two:  Analyze the central issue and apply those insights to the larger whole.

Review your writing , try to read what you have literally written—not what you intended to communicate.  Read your actual words and pretend you don’t know the argument you are making.  Try to identify what’s confusing and what’s missing.  If you think you know the idea but haven’t expressed it clearly, then this process has identified a gap or vagueness in your understanding.  After we admit and address these weaknesses, our exposition will be clearer and more directed to the actual audience.  When delivering an address or making a presentation, apply the same process of deliberately listening to the actual words we are speaking rather than what we are imagining we are saying.  This can be extremely difficult to do, so a review by external parties, particularly reviews by representative of the target audience can be especially valuable.

Becoming aware of the basis of our opinions and beliefs is an important step toward a better understanding of ourselves and our world.   It is a good idea to try out alternative ideas hypothetically and temporarily.  We can pretend our opinions are the opposite of what we actually believe, and then see where these opinions take us.

Niels Bohr used this technique while trying to lead a group of scientists to understand quantum mechanics.

What is reviewed here is just a sample.  Reading the original work is strongly recommended.

Understanding Beliefs

August 3, 2015

Understanding Beliefs is a book by Nils J. Nilsson in The MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.  Perhaps a better title for the book would be “How We Should Believe,”  the reason for this should become clear by the end of this post.  Nilsson is one of the founders of artificial intelligence, and putting the concept of belief into computer science is quite valuable.

He does not work entirely  in the domain of artificial intelligence as he notes contributions from psychologists and neuroscientists.  He invokes Kahneman’s concepts of System One and System Two processes that have been discussed previously in the healthy memory blog.  System One processes run off more or less automatically.  System Two processes are more in the vein of what is regarded as thinking and require mental effort.  Our beliefs are processed automatically through System One and there is little evidence of additional brain activity..  When information contradicts our beliefs, the brain becomes active and if not immediately revoked, System 2 and effortful processing is engaged to deal with the conflicting belief.

Nilsson discusses his own beliefs.  He does not believe that we ever have contact with an external world.  Rather we form concepts or beliefs based on the sensory inputs from an external world and the subsequent cognitive activity.  Moreover, these beliefs are weighted in terms of probabilities.  Nothing is certain.  That is, there are no beliefs with values of 0.0 or 1.0, regardless of how strongly the belief or disbelief is felt.   My views are identical.  These views are common among scientists and philosophers.  Here are some exemplary quotes:

“Objects” do not exist independently of conceptual schemes  We cut up the world into objects when we introduce one of another scheme of description.”  Hilary Putnam, philosopher.

“There was no way to hook up ideas with things…because ideas—mental representations—do not refer to things; they refer to other mental representations.”  Louis Menand, author, referring to thoughts of the philosopher C.S. Pierce.

“There is no quantum world.  There is only an abstract physical  description.  It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to found out how nature is.  Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”  Niels Bohr, physicist.

“The physicist constructs what he terms the physical world, a concept which arises from a peculiar combination of certain observed facts and the reasoning provoked by their perception.”  Robert Lindsay and Henry Margenau, physicists.

Nilsson advocates the scientific method as being the gold standard for confirming or rejecting beliefs.   When beliefs are modified, probabilities are adjusted, but beliefs are no entirely confirmed or discounted.  Near the beginning of the eleventh century, al_Haytham, an Islamic scholar who lived in Basra and Cairo, wrote the Book of Optics,which included a theory of vision and a theory of sight.  According to one authority, “Ibn al-Haytham was the pioneer of the modern scientific method.  His book changed the meaning of the term “optics” and established experiments as the norm of proof in the field.  His investigations were not based on abstract theories, but on experimental evidence, and his experiments were systematic and repeatable.  Unlike the Greeks, in his theory of vision rays of light came from the objects seen rather than from the eyes that see them.

Some of the European contributors to the development of the scientific method are Robert Grosseteste (c. 1125-1253), Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294), Galileo (1564-1642), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Rene Descartes (1596-1650), and, of course, Isaac Newton(1643-1727).

Problems arise when the problem is how to change erroneous beliefs.  The default for people is what they already believe, and much effort is involved in changing beliefs.  Moreover, we tend to seek out information that confirms rather than disconfirm our beliefs.  The internet has exacerbated this problem.  Different sites cater to different beliefs and we tend to search for information that confirms our beliefs.

The psychologist Daniel T. Gilbert describes two separate mental activities for processing a new piece of information, comprehension and assessment.  Assessment involves comparing  what is comprehended with other information.  It is much easier to reject than to accept information that does not correspond with existing beliefs.  Moreover, people do not like to suspend judgment.  Closure is preferred.  However, doubt us a valuable defense against belief traps.

Great minds can embrace doubt  The physicist Richard Feynman said, “I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing—I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing that to have answers that might be wrong.  I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about.”

I fear that if we contrasted what  Feynman said with the typical individual on the street, we would find that most people have definite opinions about many things the know nothing about.  And many of these beliefs fly in the face of accepted scientific opinion—evolution for example.

Nilsson believes that the scientific method offers the best way discovered so far to invent  and evaluation beliefs.  And he believes that the best antidote to belief traps is to express our belies to the reasoned criticisms of others.  But as you should remember from the previous healthy memory blog post on belief, that beliefs are extremely difficult to change.  The viability of Nilsson’s  remedies will be discussed in the next healthy memory blog post.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.