Friday, June 26, 2009

Controlling oneself

Fascinating post over at Less Wrong about the influence of control systems on human behavior, and the role they seem to play in the brain. A control system here basically means a feedback device that catalyzes or inhibits some variable in order to maintain it within an accepted range. (Thermostat, homeostasis, etc.)

Here's a lengthy quote that seems most pertinent to me:
In a primitive, tribal culture, being seen as useless to the tribe could easily be a death sentence, so we [likely] evolved mechanisms to avoid giving the impression of being useless. A good way to avoid showing your incompetence is to simply not do the things you're incompetent at, or things which you suspect you might be incompetent at and that have a great associated cost for failure. If it's important for your image within the tribe that you do not fail at something, then you attempt to avoid doing that.

You might already be seeing where this is leading. The things many of us procrastinate on are exactly the kinds of things that are important to us. We're deathly afraid of the consequences of what might happen if we fail at them, so there are powerful forces in play trying to make us not work on them at all. Unfortunately, for beings living in modern society, this behavior is maladaptive and buggy. It leads to us having control circuits which try to keep us unproductive, and when they pick up on things that might make us more productive, they start suppressing our use of those techniques.

Furthermore, the control circuits are stupid. They are occasionally capable of being somewhat predictive, but they are fundamentally just doing some simple pattern-matching, oblivious to deeper subtleties. They may end up reacting to wholly wrong inputs. Consider the example of developing a phobia for a particular place, or a particular kind of environment. Something very bad happens to you in that place once, and as a result, a circuit is formed in your brain that's designed to keep you out of such situations in the future. Whenever it detects that you are in a place resembling the one where the incident happened, it starts sending error signals to get you away from there. Only that this is a very crude and unoptimal way of keeping you out of trouble - if a car hit you while you were crossing the road, you might develop a phobia for crossing the road. Needless to say, this is more trouble than it's worth.
(P.S., I should note that the author of the quoted blog post, Kaj_Sotala, draws this conceptual material largely from a self-help article by PJ Eby).

Fascinating stuff. Maybe not without its problems though, as commenter Silas Barta notes:
The explanations here for behavioral phenomena look like commonsense reasoning that is being shoehorned into controls terminology by clever relabeling. (ETA: Why do you need the concept of a "feedback control system" to think of the idea of running through the reasons you're afraid of something, for example?)
The thought concerns me a bit too. Are we really getting any benefit from describing these aspects of behavior as control mechanisms? Are we getting a more accurate model of behavior? At an individual, practical level, does it help us to conceive of our thought processes in this way?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Following From" Addendum

Ah, this is a perfect example of why I should actually read philosophical work that has already been done on subjects that I wonder about.

My last post, Following From, concerned itself (loosely, and among other things) with the nature of metaphysical laws. However, I uncritically assumed a view analogous to the regularity theory of laws of nature--as opposed to the necessitarian theory. That is, I took it for granted that laws (though of course I have in mind metaphysical laws, not just those in the physical world) are simply descriptions of behavior rather than forces which "govern" or "command" objects to act in particular ways.

Yet, while I took the regularity view for granted, I speculated about what it is that "causes" or "makes" things behave the way they do, while at the same time rejecting the necessitarian view which would--we hope--give just that kind of explanation. Now, this isn't really a solution to whatever problem I had in mind, because I would still be inclined to ask of necessitarians, "But what, in turn, makes necessitarian laws hold the sway they do?", thus leading us obnoxiously into a typical infinite regress. But my point is that if I'd already been aware of these existing philosophical positions, and read at least a modicum about them, I would have had a basis from which to work when asking my own questions--it may not have furnished me with answers right off the bat, but I believe that marking this distinction has helped to clarify the matter in my mind.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Following From

[I wish that I had the interest/dedication to actually pursue these thoughts more rigorously by studying existent philosophical work on the topic, but alas.]

Consider a state governed by absolutely no physical or metaphysical laws. Does this mean anything can happen? Or for "something to happen", does that require that there be something to guide or direct "happenings"?

Natural laws, of course, probably don't "guide" action by any means. They're simply descriptions of how phenomena behave. But... how do phenomena "know" how to behave? What makes them behave in a particular way versus some other way?

I suppose I'm inquiring about how causation works in general--what exactly goes on when some observed or postulated event (which we call the antecedent) is supposed to cause, or in some way be responsible for, another event (the consequent). (As a side note, "event" is too loose of a term. Really, I suppose I mean "states of affairs" or "sets of circumstances" that obtain at a certain point in time. But event is a bit quicker to write, and most of the discussion examples that I can think of are events in the more standard sense too.)

If nothing else, we can at least say that human minds (and thus what we call rational thought) work best thinking under the following paradigm: to understand how/why a circumstance came to be, the circumstance must have followed from, or been enabled by, a pre-existing framework. {{And it is this necessity of thought unchecked that Kant rebukes in his Critique. The search for the unconditioned condition--a final explanation--the prime mover--God--is an attempt to step outside of the infinite regress that otherwise results, and thus to give us a circumstance which needs no further explanation. Kant (perhaps rightfully) claims that reason oversteps its justifiable boundaries when it tries to make this move.}} This paradigm seems to have served us fairly faithfully so far, but we cannot nonetheless discount the possibility that this fundamental "strategy" of thought might be flawed. {{As you will notice, the current topic is regrettably plagued by difficulty (impossibility?) of discussion. Like many other areas of philosophy, we are trying to grapple with notions that extend into the core of our most basic assumptions, and even trying to think about them will be difficult, much less to question their "accuracy".}}

What, however, does any of this mean? The ideas I suggest now may be completely nonsensical, possibly incoherent as well. And surely there is nothing to be gained by indulging nonsense.

I believe the question ties into (is enrooted in?) regress and the problem of finding first causes. Which in its own way mirrors the confusing interrelationship between objectivity and subjectivity.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Systemic Therapy

Holy cripes, there's a form of psychotherapy based off of cybernetics / systems theory?

Crazy. I doubt it's as cool as it sounds to me, and really I don't even know that much about the aforementioned subjects, but I really like the idea of understanding a psychosocial situation in terms of interacting systems.