Posts Tagged ‘Richard Feynman’

Obstacles to Deep Thinking

October 17, 2019

This is the third post in a series of posts on book by Cal Newport titled “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracting World.” There is a curse called the culture of connectivity in both our work and so-called leisure worlds. This culture of connectivity is where one is expected to read and respond to e-mails (and related communications) quickly. One’s workplace plays a role in this expectation, but in one’s personal life, this expectation is self-imposed.

In the business setting the principle of least resistance is without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend to reward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

Unfortunately, this principle can also apply in our personal life. Rather than pursuing an activity that is self-enhancing, there is a strong temptation to do something easier, like answering emails or participating in social media.

It is also possible, in both our work and personal lives, to mistake busyness as a proxy for productivity.

This is how Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman explained what work habits a professor adopts or abandons: “To do real good physics work, you do need absolute solid lengths of time…it needs a lot of concentration…if you have a job administering anything, you don’t have the time. So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everyone I don’t do anything. If anyone asks me to be on a committee for admissions, “no,” I tell them. I’m irresponsible.

The author, Newport, writes, “many knowledge workers want to prove that they’re a productive member of the team and are earning their keep, but they’re not entirely clear what this goal constitutes….many seem to be turning back to the last time when productivity was more universally observable: the industrial age.”

Newport writes, “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity : doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.” In other words, they are using busyness as a proxy for productivity.

Newport writes about the warning provided by the late communications theorist at New York University Neil Postman. In the early 1990s, as the personal computer revolution first accelerated, Postman argued that our society was sliding into a troubling relationship with technology. He noted that we were no longer discussing the trade-offs surrounding new technologies, balancing the new efficiency against the new problems introduced. If it’s high tech, we begin to instead assume, then it’s good. Case closed.

Postman’s argument has appeared in prior HM posts. His argument is greatly amplified with the explosion in technology that has occurred. People want to get the latest smartphone because it is the latest, without considering whether the new functionality will be worthwhile. Social media is aggressively engaged without considering what the actual value in being liked is worth the time being invested. True friends require time and commitment. Are superficial “likes” worth the lost of true friends?

Evgeny Morozov in his book “To Save Everything, Click Here” writes, “It’s this propensity to view ‘the internet’ as a source of wisdom and policy advice that transforms it from a fairly uninteresting set of cables and network routers into a seductive and exciting ideology—perhaps today’s uber-ideology.” In his critique, we’ve made “the internet” synonymous with the revolutionary future of business and government. To make your company more like “the Internet” is to be with the times, and to ignore these trends is to be the proverbial buggy-whip maker in an automative age. We no longer see Internet tools as products released by for-profit companies, funded by investors hoping to make a return, and run by twenty somethings who are often making things up as they go along. Instead we’re quick to idolize these digital doodads as a signifier of progress and a harbinger of (dare I say it) a brave new world.

Understand that HM is not denigrating the new technology. Many of the posts under the category of Transactive Memory (go to healthymemory.wordpress.com to find it) express the tremendous potential the technology offers for cognitive growth and for collaboration among our fellow humans. Unfortunately, it appears that this potential has in large part been hijacked and used to nefarious ends.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2019. 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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 healthymemory.wordpress.com, 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 healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.