Posts Tagged ‘Richard Webb’

Inside Knowledge: Why We’ll Never Know Everything

April 8, 2017

The title of this post identical to the title of an article by Richard Webb in the Features Section of the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist.   There are many limitations, but let us just consider computational power.  One can argue that computational power is only a temporary limitation.  Webb notes, however powerful we make them, computers rely on human input to program them.

Webb goes on to comment “…human thought is a glorious, uproarious, complex mess. Statements like “this statement is false, hating someone yet loving them and yes, that small-yet-large jumbo shrimp, both compute and do not compute.”  Panofsky, an information scientist at the City University of New York says, “language is an expression of the mind, and my mind is full of contradictions.”

This flexibility allows us to think creatively, while remaining firmly grounded.  Webb says that “because we are predicated on contradiction, we see contradiction everywhere. But “the defining feature of reality is that it admits no contradiction.   Quantum objects apparently act as waves or as particles depending how we choose to measure them.”  Physicist Richard Feynman called this confusing duality “the only mystery” of the quantum world.  Webb conjectures, “In all probability, the basic building blocks of reality are neither wave nor particle, but something else entirely.  It’s just something that we lack the experience or cognitive ability to express.”

When HM was a naive undergraduate he did not want to waste time on philosophy courses where questions were raised, solutions were presented and argued about, but resolution or general agreement, was never achieved.  So he took courses in symbolic logic where, he thought, definitive conclusions could be reached.  Logic and mathematics is supposedly a cleaner, neutral language for a trained brain to describe in abstract terms what it cannot visualize.  What HM learned in symbolic logic was that there were logical limitations on both logic and mathematics.

For example, there is the well-known injunction that you should never divide a number by zero.  If you do, you can begin to do things like prove 1 = 2.  This can’t be allowed if mathematics are the language of a flawless universe.   Panofsky says, “if you want mathematics to continue without contradiction than you have to restrict yourself.”

Kurt Godel showed in the 1930s that any system of logic containing the rules of arithmetic is bound to contain statements that can be neither proved nor disproved.  It will remain “incomplete” , trapped in the same inconsistency as we are.  Model incompleteness is a mathematical expression of the logical-illogical statement “this statement is false.”  So there is no way for anything, be it a simple sentence, system of logic, or a human being to express the full truth about itself.

Webb continues “This problem of self-reference is endemic.  Godel’s contemporary Alan Turing showed that you cannot ask a computer program in advance whether it will run successfully.  Quantum mechanics sprouts paradoxes because we are part of the universe we are trying to measure.”

And Webb concludes, “So the sobering truth is that we can build the most powerful telescopes, microscopes and computers we want, we we will never overcome the limitations of our minds.  Our perspective on reality will always be skewed because we—and the jumbo shrimp—are part of it.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. 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.


Inside Knowledge: What Separates Fact from Belief

April 3, 2017

The title of this post is identical to an article by Richard Webb in the Features Section of the 1 Apr 2017 New Scientist.  HM answers this question by saying that it is the degree of belief.  Research has indicated that absent any indications to the contrary when we hear or see a fact, the default is to believe it.  When supposed facts are heard or read that do not correspond to the individual’s belief system, a noticeable signal is recorded in the brain.  This indicates that System 2 thinking has been invoked and this fact will either be rejected or postponed until further information and thinking can be performed.  Kahneman terms System 1 intuition and System 2 reasoning.  System 1 is fast, that’s why it’s the default processing system.  System 2 is slow and requires further thinking.  System 2 is supposed to protect us from false beliefs.  At the turn of he 20th century there were many physical scientists who believed that practically everything that needed to be known about the physical sciences was known.  All that was needed was to add some more decimal places of precisions.  Just five years later Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity.  Beliefs should always be subject to change and should never reach certainty.

Technology has developed at such an alarming rate that there are an enormous number of facts to evaluate.  All of science, both physical and social, is producing facts that lay people do not have the knowledge to evaluate. Moreover, there is a business of deliberately publishing false facts (See the healthy memory blog post, “Lies, Incorporated.”)

The remainder of this post is motivated by the box titled “Where Knowledge Comes From”  at the bottom of the article.  One way of classifying knowledge is by how we acquire it.

Perceptual knowledge comes from our senses but involves significant processing by our brains.  Basically the brain builds models of the world using this information, but it must be appreciated that we do not have direct knowledge of the world.  The truth is that we infer it, and this knowledge changes as information grows.  Everyone should be familiar with perceptual illusions, in which the psychological interpretation does not agree with the physical representation.

Testimonial knowledge comes from other people and media.  Here belief should largely hinge on the source of the information.  Different sources have different biases, as these biases must be taken into consideration.  The credentials of the sources are of primary importance.  Whether there is scientific evidence for the facts is especially important.  Sources that contradict scientific data must be evaluated with skepticism.

Our inner sense, the awareness of our own feelings and states, such as pain and hunger would appear to be highly credible, but some times we are out of touch with our senses.  Beliefs can actually greatly deaden pain in many cases.  Enter “placebos”  into the search block of the healthy memory blog.  (Enter “placebos” into the search block of the healthy memory blog to learn more about their effectiveness)

Inferential knowledge goes beyond actual facts in assessing the credibility of facts, and in making inferences about facts.  Critical thinking is key here.

Beliefs can blind us to facts.  A good example of this is the problem of health care in the United States.  Health care in the United States is the most expensive in the world, yet health statistics in the United States approach those in the third world.  Every advanced country in the world has a national system of health care except the United States.  The reason for this is that the Republican party sees government as the problem and not the solution to health care.  But all other advanced countries have successful health care systems in which the governments play a central part.  The affordable health care act, frequently referred to as Obamacare, used the government to increase access to health care.  It was a small effort that fell far short of Obama’s goals.  Trump promised that Trumpcare would be much better than Obamacare.  Had he formulated an improvement over the affordable care act, it would have been welcome.  However, the plan that was formulated was woefully short of the Affordable Care Act, and was defeated.

Republicans trumpet the value of market forces in health care.  But back in 1963 Nobel Prize winning economist Kenneth Arrow offered an explanation as to why markets do not work well in health care.  There is a huge mismatch of power information between the buyer and seller.  For example, if a salesman tells us to buy a particular television, we can easily choose another or just walk away.  However, if a doctor insists we need a medication or procedure, we are far less likely to reject the advice.  Arrow also noted that people don’t think they don’t need health care until they get sick, and then they need lots of it.

Beliefs are frequently compartmentalized and this has adverse effects on inferential knowledge.  Here again the Republican Party and healthcare provide a good example.  It should be understood that both parties have religious beliefs, but Republicans are especially strong in their beliefs which center on loving our neighbors, and caring for the needy and sick.  Yet compartmentalization of the Republican beliefs about the role of government blocked addressing religious beliefs about caring for the sick  with the result of increased unnecessary suffering among their fellow human beings

Beliefs are necessary, but they should never be absolute.  They are dangerous in that they can foreclose meaningful solutions to critical problems.  And they can hinder effective inferential knowledge.  A useful exercise is occasionally to try to ignore one’s beliefs and explore the ramifications of ignoring those beliefs.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. 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.

Regarding that New Year’s Eve Hangover

December 30, 2016

This post is based largely on an article by Richard Webb titled “Hung over:  What science says about why you feel so rough in the 7 December 2016 issue of the New Scientist.

First of all, alcohol is not the reason you feel so bad.  The onset of a hangover means that the blood’s concentration of ethanol is zero.  Moreover, there probably isn’t just one cause for all the hangover symptoms.  It could be the impact on sleep quality of forcing your body to break down a large amount of fluid substance.

Dehydration is a side effect.  The pounding head and mouth probably result from alcohol’s suppression of the antidiuretic hormone vasopressin.  This increases the desire to urinate.  During the hangover vasopressin  snaps back to a higher level than normal, but there does not appear to be a correlation between that or any other drink-induced hormonal imbalance and the severity of the hangover.

The delayed onset of a hangover means that the metabolic products of ethanol are prime suspects.  A study in Japan found that people with inactive genes for making enzymes that break down acetaldehyde, a highly reactive by-product of ethanol, experienced a hangover after fewer drinks.  However, an earlier Scandinavian study showed that acetaldehyde concentration were generally low when a hangover was most severe suggesting that its effects are indirect or delayed.  Perhaps it is acetate, which occurs further down the line as a product of acetaldehyde breakdown.

A recent study of the urine of a group of hung-over Dutch students found that ethanol concentration  was correlated with severity of symptoms that include sleepiness, sweating, concentration problems, nausea, thirst, and to a lesser extent, confusion headache, weakness and regret.  However, the same correlations were not present in a self-described hangover-immune group that had drunk a similar amount.  These people also had less alcohol in their urine.

So it seems the the ability to rapidly metabolize alcohol is more important than the amount consumed in determining hangover severity.   But this does not explain why we can have a severe hangover when we hardly drank anything, and at other times when we have drunk heavily experience only a mild hangover.

Some think that congeners, chemicals produced during fermentation, other than ethanol, that give each drink a distinctive aroma and taste, play a role.  According to a study that compared hangover severity in bourbon and vodka, dark spirits are worse than clear ones in inducing severe hangovers.  On the other hand, research in Japan found that higher levels of congeners of whiskies might inhibit the breakdown of ethanol and at least delay the onset of hangovers.

It should be clear that in all these studies there are uncontrolled confounding variables.

The advice offered by HM is to not drink so much.  There is no cure and there is unlikely that one will be developed.  Excessive alcohol consumption does not foster a healthy memory.

Read the below list of a 2011 survey of 1410 hung-over Dutch students. This is the order of frequency of hangover symptoms that should serve as a reminder to be cautious:  Fatigue, thirst, drowsiness, sleepiness, headache, dry mouth, nausea, weakness, reduced alertness, concentration problems, apathy, increase reaction time, reduced, appetite, clumsiness, agitation, vertigo, memory problems, gastrointestinal complaints, dizziness, stomach pain, tremor, problems with balance, restlessness, shivering, sweating, disorientation, auto sensitivity, photosensitivity, blunted emotions, muscle pain, loss of taste, regret, confusion, guilt, gastritis, impulsivity, hot/cold flashes, vomiting, pounding heart, depression, palpitations, tinnitus, nystagmus (uncontrolled eye movement), anger, respiratory problems, anxiety, suicidal thoughts.

And whatever you do, do not drink and drive.

© 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.