10 September, 2013

Existential, Logical and Epistemological thinking

It is quite well known that cognition or "thinking" happens in several layers. One of the most popular theories today is by the works of Kahnemann and Tversky about Systems 1 and 2.

System 1 is our intuitive brain. It performs fast, subconscious computations and jumps to conclusions. It also embodies our emotional state, intentions, desires and dispositions in its computations. It can compare across dimensions and is innately "rational" -- that is, it is driven by self-interest and biased by who we are.

For most of our lives, we live by System 1. However, System 1 occasionally requires the services of "System 2" -- which is our conscious and deliberate reasoning process.

System 1 includes all activities of a perceptive nature. This includes, for example, reading a word written in a language we understand. System 2 on the other hand, is semantic in nature. It tries to understand the meaning of what is being asked for and does justice to it.

Consider the following example that shows dissonance within System 1 requiring the services of System 2. In the following set of words, say out loud whether they are written in upper case or lower case:


We see that our System 1, first tries to just "read" what is written, rather than answer the question. System 2 then kicks in to make deliberate judgements based on what the question requires us to do. Answering this question requires a degree of "self-control" on ourselves to refrain from just reading out what we see, and to address what is being asked of us.

System 2 requires much more energy to run and is far more slower and inefficient than System 1. Also, System 2 is "lazy" (I'd like to use the term "rational") in the sense that, if System 1 already has computed an answer, System 2 would rather ratify the answer with an explanation, instead of invest resources in recomputing the solution.

The post-facto rationalizations we make to justify an impulse buying of say, a car or a camera, is an example of System 2 in action, ratifying the decisions taken by System 1, rather than computing the merits of the decision on its own.

Basically, System 2 is an "imperative engine" -- it performs logical inferences and derives conclusions from premises.

But -- and this is important -- it does its work within the confines of a mental model. The mental model comprises of the underlying premises on which inferences are made. System 1 often implicitly provides the "box" or the mental model within which System 2 performs. The post-facto ratification is an example.

This brings me to the point of this post, where I would like to propose the existence of a third layer of cognition. Rather than just calling it System 3, let me give specific names to each of these layers.

System 1 is the "existential" layer of cognition. It is an embodiment of our Person. Its thinking is driven by who we are, what we like, what we are afraid of, and such. It is oriented towards making quick, intuitive "blink"-type decisions.

System 2 is the "logical" layer. It can perform deliberate, systematic logical entailments from premises. It innately knows the rules of logic and can build an argument towards a conclusion. However, System 2 works within the confines of a mental model -- the axiomatic framework within which inferences are made. The mental model within which System 2 performs its computation, is often influenced by System 1. In that sense, System 2 is more of a "rationalizer" of the decisions of System 1 and System 1 can often "manipulate" System 2 to rationalize its leaps of intuition.

Sometimes however, we need to think beyond the confines of a mental model, and question the premises within which our System 2 is doing its thinking. This is where System 3, or the "epistemological" layer kicks in.

Consider the following question: What is 423 x 7? Answer this without using any pen or paper.

This is a typical problem that involves the operations of System 2, where we mentally calculate how to add 423 to itself 7 times.

But then, System 2 does not ask what is meant by 423, 7 and what is meant by 'x' in the question? We just assumed that their interpretations are known. Suppose I were to say that "423" and "7" are strings and 'x' is the concatenation operator, and the answer is 4237.. this constitutes a re-interpretation of the problem in a different model.

Consider the following problem:

Let's say, it is your birthday today and your friends have planned a surprise party for you. You come home in the evening after work, and your friends are all in there and yell, "Surprise!" And, you show surprise on your face. 

But suppose, you come to know of the surprise party that your friends have planned for you. When you come home and they yell "Surprise!" can you still show surprise?

The answer is yes! Because, your friends don't know that you know about their surprise.

Suppose your friends know that you know about their surprise? Can you still show surprise? 

The answer is still yes! Because, you don't know that your friends know that you know about their surprise!

This kind of a problem is characteristically different from that of "What is 423 x 7?" It requires deliberate thinking -- but deliberate thinking of a totally different kind than that used in System 2.

Epistemological thinking requires us to question our premises and perform multiple interpretations as part of its thinking.

The epistemological layer is required in many strategic situations where we need to think across different mental models. We not only have to question the basis of our own premises, but also have an understanding of what other interpretations can exist for the question at hand.

Most questions requiring us to reason about ethics and morality have this characteristic. Consider the following question:

A 10-year old argues in court that he should be allowed to be adopted by the rich childless couple in the next neighbourhood as requested by them, as they can provide him with a better life, and they also want him as their son. Besides, he argues, he cannot be held responsible for his "accident of birth" -- he did not choose his parents while being born. How should the court rule? 

This problem is complex simply because there are several models within which it can be interpreted, each giving different answers about what is the "right" thing to do. We can keep adding several additional points to this problem, making the decision sway in different directions. Suppose, we added a dimension to this problem that the current parents of the boy were living in penury and had problems of abusive behaviour. Or, perhaps that the current parents of they boy were middle class, hard working couple, who just couldn't match the wealth that the rich couple could afford. Now what?

Most strategic thinking, requires us to invoke the services of System 3, while rational thinking requires the use of System 2.

System 1 coupled with System 2 is "rational" -- in that they can both work towards fulfilling self-interest (managed by System 1) in a way that results in utility maximization (managed by System 2).

However, the activities of System 3 are synergistic and is about "enlightened self-interest."  Its aim is not to maximize utility for oneself, but to find a harmonious interpretation across several mental models to result in overall net gains in utility.

In other words: strategizing for a win is System 2, while strategizing for a win-win is System 3.

18 March, 2013

Does language "shape" or "distort" thought?

The question whether language affects thought has been of immense interest since several decades. There are several variants to what is meant by language "affecting" thought and let me give my perspective on this. (The terms Language and Thought are used in capitalized form when referring to them as objects.)

There are two basic forms of hypotheses regarding Language and Thought [1].

The "mould" hypothesis thinks of Language as mouldable clay that can be cast into some "form" by means of Thought. What this means is that, while Thought is necessary to form a cognitive structure, without Language (the clay) there is no Thought. The only way we can see Thought is by its footprints in the clay.

The second hypothesis thinks of Language as a "cloak" or "dress" for Thought. Here, Thought is supposed to exist on its own and is packaged by Language whenever it needs to be communicated. In the cloak hypothesis, the stuff that Thought is made of, is universally innate in all of us and we just need to cloak it in Language in order to communicate.

One of the early forms of the mould hypothesis is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. A strong form of this hypothesis is called "linguistic determinism" which says that language determines what people think, essentially that thought has no place without language. A weaker form of this hypothesis is called "linguistic relativity" which basically asserts that language influences our thought and what we think is relative to what language we speak/think in.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is mostly equated with linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism has failed to gain traction because of lack of enough supporting evidence. It however caught the fancy of science fiction writers like George Orwell, who introduced the notion of "Thought Police" in the book Nineteen Eighty-Four. The Thought Police of Orwell's book held a powerful grip on the vocabulary used by the population. Terms representing personal freedom and liberties were completely removed from records and spoken language, so that no one really thinks them.

Such intense forms of linguistic influence theories were rejected by the scientific community as there is ample evidence to suggest that Thought does exist without Language. For instance, we often get into a state where we do not have the right words to express what we are thinking -- which basically shows that we are thinking without words.

Linguistic relativity though is an issue that cannot be easily settled. Linguistic relativity says that the language in which we speak influences the way we think. Let me return to linguistic relativity in a while, after we briefly visit the cloak hypothesis.

The cloak hypothesis contends that the stuff of Thought is something that is innate to all humans irrespective of the language they speak. In the cloak hypothesis, any notion from one language may be translated to any other notion in some other language, as Language is merely a packaging layer over Thought.

The cloak hypothesis is especially popular among philosophers of science. It is easy to see the universal nature of scientific theories -- the laws of physics for example, will be the same, no matter which language it is expressed in.

The cloak hypothesis also fits in well with Analytic Philosophy, that is widely seen as the underpinnings of philosophy of science. Prior to the 20th century, Western philosophical thought was dominated by the works of philosophers like Kant and Hegel, and was based on the notion of Absolute Idealism. It states that what we perceive as different objects in the material world and concepts in the mental world, are basically part of a unified whole containing everything. The only element that exists really (is "simpliciter") is the unified whole, so speaking about any concept in isolation is meaningless.

Analytic philosophy on the other hand departs from this position and claims instead that concepts do exist on their own (are "simpliciter") and there may be an infinite number of such concepts that exist on their own. It is just that the mind cannot readily "see" these concepts and their characteristics.

For instance, consider the concept of a prime number. Prime numbers have been shown to have several characteristics -- some proven, some unproven and several (potentially infinitely more) unknown. But then do prime numbers really exist or are they simply a fabrication of our minds? When there were no humans, and dinosaurs roamed the face of the earth, were there prime numbers? If we do not have the linguistic ability to express the concept of a prime number, will they then cease to exist, or will their properties change? Will prime numbers have different properties when expressed in English versus when expressed in Kannada?

Analytic philosophy argues that prime numbers do really exist and existed during the time of the dinosaurs too. It is just that the dinosaurial mind was not evolved enough to discover them. Even the human mind has not discovered their complete properties and every time we find something new about prime numbers, it makes news among mathematicians.

Accordingly -- it is Thought that influences Language, rather than the other way around. Because our minds could conceptualize the notion of a prime number, we invented linguistic constructs to express it.

The conceptual world is explained by what is called the "Plato's Cave" analogy. Imagine we are trapped in a cave and the conceptual world outside is casting some light and shadows inside the cave (our minds). Based on what we see inside our cave, we theorize and discover properties of the world outside.

Our ability to think something is determined by the ability of our minds to conceptualize it. The stuff of Thought is conceptual modeling, while the stuff of Language is grammar and vocabulary to express elements of conceptual models.

The cloak hypothesis is also supported by Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar and Pinker's theory of the Language Instinct. Both of these theories argue that humans have an innate capability for learning linguistic constructs. And this innate ability comes from our innate ability for abstract conceptual modeling.

But we are still left with some recent nagging questions concerning linguistic relativity..

Linguistic relativity states that while language does not determine how we think, it does influence how we think.

Among the most recent results in this is a recent paper by a cognitive scientist from Stanford named Lera Boroditsky, on how languages shape thought. Boroditsky details a number of very interesting experiments conducted in different parts of the world, showing how language used by the community influenced their thinking.

In some languages like in most Indian languages, the gender of a person is an integral part of any sentence involving that person. Hence, in these languages, we cannot say something like, "I went to a movie with a friend," without specifying the gender of the friend. Which in turn directly or indirectly influences our mind to think about the gender of the friend in addition to other pertinent thoughts about the sentence.

The paper also mentions about an Aboriginal community in Australia, where sentences in their language have cardinal directions as an integral element. Rather than using relative terms like "left" and "right" the language uses absolute cardinal directions like north, south, east and west. So rather than saying, "The one sitting to the left of me is my cousin," one would say "The one sitting north from me is my cousin.." This means that our mind needs to think of and about cardinal directions in just about every situation.

So the language in which we express a thought influences the kind of concepts that are brought into the working memory of our brains. Even though the central concepts representing the semantics of an uttered sentence would be the same across languages, the quirks of each language causes it to bring in other peripheral concepts like gender or cardinal directions, into our working memory, in addition to the central concepts.

So how does linguistic relativism reconcile with the cloak hypothesis and Analytic Philosophy?

To connect these two elements, we need to bring in another notion -- that of a mental model.

A mental model is an abstract, incomplete, but consistent view of the world around us, representing the axiomatic basis of our thought processes. We always think within the framework of a mental model and our brains may store several mental models.

Mental models are built from our experiences and our interpretations of our observations. Every time we parse something, it is done within the framework of a mental model, and the semantics extracted goes to augment the mental model.

Linguistic constructs that a culture develops is indicative of the shared mental model that characterizes the culture, rather than the other way around. For instance, the gendered nature of our languages shows how important gender is in our shared worldview. Rather than the language forcing us to think about gender, it is our propensity to think about gender that has developed such linguistic constructs.

In this way, yes, Language does influence the way we think. But I would argue that it is more accurate to say, Language "distorts" our thinking, rather than Language "shapes" our thinking. Thinking shapes our language, but linguistic quirks distorts our thinking.

The primary building blocks of our linguistic constructs are directly shaped by conceptual modeling abilities, while the way language influences thought is by bringing in extraneous concepts into our working memory, which are only peripheral to the issue of concern.

  1. Bruner, J. S., J. S. Goodnow & G. A. Austin ([1956] 1962): A Study of Thinking. New York: Wiley

22 February, 2013

Understanding Saturation and Stagnation

Adversity is one of the primary factors that molds the culture of a population. Just about any aspect of a society's culture -- be it the way they dress, the food they eat, the social protocols they follow -- have some roots in past adversity that the society has had to face.

Some kinds of adversity are of an instantaneous nature -- the cause and effect of the adversity are clearly visible. For instance, adversity due to cold weather or hot deserts or volcanic action or earthquakes, are clearly visible. Cause and effect are both apparent from the adversity.

However, there are some classes of adversity that are of a more insidious nature. This article talks about two such kinds.

The first is the kind of adversity that arises due to saturation of resources in a population. Resources at first, appear to be plenty and not much thought is given to what happens when the resources deplete. Most of the thought would have gone into utilizing the resources.

Saturation is a process that builds up slowly and has no one root cause. There is no one place that saturation starts -- it is everywhere. From an individual's perspective, saturation starts as a mild irritation. This irritation persists and slowly grows till an extent that it is no longer possible to ignore it or live with it. And this process typically takes such a long time, perhaps even over generations, that the physical cause of saturation is lost. Most of our response in turn, would be directed against the irritation than the source of the saturation itself.

The dangers posed by saturation is best illustrated by the parable of the boiled frog. Whether literally true or not, the idea is basically the same -- we do not equip ourselves sufficiently to deal with slow moving dangers and when the extent of the danger is apparent, it is too late to do anything.

Be it fuel crisis, depleting forest cover, increasing pollution, depleting water table, terror threats or climate change, slow moving dangers are everywhere. Because their threat is not immediately apparent, they tend to get trivialized or rationalized away by citing more immediate, pressing crises. Unfortunately, there will always be immediate, pressing reasons at any time to rationalize away slow moving dangers. And neglecting the slow moving threats can undermine all that we do to keep ourselves safe in the immediate and present state.

The second kind of insidious danger is that of stagnation. Stagnation is a state where our mental models of the world around us, have ceased to evolve. Stagnation ironically, usually sets in when we experience long periods of relative stability in our society. When a society does not face large crises for an extended period of time, our worldview does not have much motivation to change. And when the society does indeed face a real crisis, its response to the crisis is often woefully inadequate or incompatible with what is required to address the problem.

As an example, consider the earthquake that struck Latur in 1993. It was a magnitude 6.4 quake, which resulted in a loss of more than 9000 lives. However, a much stronger earthquake of magnitude 6.8 struck Seattle in 2001, resulting in just 1 casualty.

But, as the saying goes: earthquakes don't kill people, buildings falling on people, kill them..

Seattle had bigger and more multi-storeyed buildings than Latur and in the face of such a strong quake, it should have resulted in a much higher casualty. But then, building technology in Latur had not evolved to face up to the threat of earthquakes, while technology in Seattle had evolved. This stagnation in building technology and practices is perhaps because Latur was not as prone to earthquakes as is Seattle. But the stagnation resulted in a greater tragedy when the crisis did occur.

The same is true of a lot of practices related to safety. I remember once when we went on a sailboat over the sea, we asked the guide whether we will be given life jackets to wear. To which, he laughed and gave this all too familiar reply -- that he has been sailing from the past 22 years and nothing has happened, so just trust him.

A lot of safety practices look unnecessary and even amusing; and most of the time, they are redundant and do not matter. If we stagnate ourselves and neglect the importance of safety, in the rare cases when they do matter, they make a difference between life and death.

Stagnation, like saturation is not immediately apparent. It is hard to tell when our mental models have stagnated and are not keeping up with the time to face potential challenges.

However, there is a telltale sign of a stagnated population. This is when a population looks for "social" solutions to just about every problem, almost impervious to the more fundamental physical reality underneath.

As an example, I was reading a news article recently where the parents of a sailor who was drowned in the choppy seas in a storm last October when their ship ran aground, were asking for the "guilty to be punished."  It is almost as if the storm had nothing to do with his death -- it has to have someone guilty to be the cause of his death.

If our worldview provides only social explanations and looks only for social solutions to all problems, it probably means that we have not been jolted enough to think deeper about the physical reality and its underlying challenges. And that should be an ominous warning sign..

24 January, 2013

Understanding joint ownership of conserved and non-conserved entities

Here is a sharp distinction in definitions that I've found in my professional world. This pertains to the concept of "joint ownership" of something.

I have collaborated with several companies and usually when it comes to this issue of joint ownership of the fruits of collaboration, things get messy.

By one definition of joint ownership, which I have predominantly seen coming from MNC companies is that, if two parties jointly own some entity, then neither of them can use the entity without the permission of the other. And for this reason the companies are keen to buy off full ownership of the entity from collaborators.

On the other hand, I have seen this alternate definition of joint ownership, predominantly coming from local companies -- especially startups. This says that, if two parties jointly own some entity, they are both empowered to use it in whatever way they want and does not need the other's permission for anything.

This disparity in definitions was intriguing and I tried to understand the source of this disparity. And here is what I've realized.

The former definition of joint ownership (that were in use primarily in the MNCs that I've interacted with) was developed by lawyers in the brick-and-mortar era where the object of ownership was predominantly a material entity. For instance, companies jointly owned an airplane or a warehouse or an estate, and such things. The property of material entities is that their usage is a conserved operation -- or a "zero sum" game. That is, if I jointly own a car with my friend, my usage of the car will hamper his usage of the car at the same time. So, we need to co-ordinate our activities and inform one another of our plans to use the jointly owned entity. Not doing so, is clearly crude and impolite.

But the second definition of joint ownership has been conceived in a completely different environment. All of the local startups that I have interacted with, are software companies. The thing with software is that it is not a material entity -- it is an information entity. And the property of information is that it is a non-conserved entity. If I give a piece of material to someone, I won't have the material with me anymore; but if I give a piece of information to someone, both of us will have the information. Same is the case with software. If two of us jointly develop a piece of software, we can both own it completely. Its usage by one of the parties will not hamper its usage by the other parties. So, there is no point asking for permission from the other parties, to use something that is wholly owned by you.

Established legal practices are seldom changed because each change brings with it enormous unknown implications which need to be understood. So it is quite rational for an established MNC to just use existing practices without having to go through reinventing legal modalities for information entities. But for a startup that is primarily working in the information space, the most natural thing to do is to adopt the newer definition of joint ownership.

There is another angle why companies insist on explicit permission. They are worried that one of the collaborators may use the entity in a way that adversely affects the businesses of the other collaborators. But this can be addressed by a non-compete usage agreement for software entities. It is not necessary to pose a hurdle in the form of explicit permission for every usage.

This is one clear case of change in rules between the erstwhile brick-and-mortar businesses and the information era businesses. Who knows how many more such paradigms are being fundamentally altered?