David Chalmers and Andy Clark Interview

This from the New Philosopher.

Andy’s colleagues at Edinburgh in the epistemology department proposed the extended knowledge project, where you start thinking of knowledge as this extended process that involves interaction with the environment.

I’ve been calling it stigmergic epistemology.



Daniel Kahneman

Here are some high profile thinkers assessing the impact of DK especially in light of his accessible Thinking, Fast and Slow. Below is a encyclopedia entry I did on DK.


Daniel Kahneman (b. 1934) is a social psychologist who, along with experimental economist Vernon Smith, shared the Nobel prize in economics for 2002. Though the prize was conferred upon Kahneman, it was in in effect recognition of the seminal work dubbed “prospect theory” that Kahneman formulated in collaboration with the late Amos Tvesky. Independently and jointly they were interested in studying the cognitive biases (and cognitive illusions) of intuitive thinking; of how minds actually operate in a social world shot through with limitations, complexity and contingency. Their research can be understood as a finer-grained and more technical explication of Simon’s “bounded rationality” pursuing three different, though not unrelated, lines of inquiry – heuristics, prospect theory and framing effects – that all came to be distilled in Kahneman (2011).

The “framing effect” connotes the idea that options are described in terms of gains (positive frame) rather than losses (negative frame) and under study, elicits systematically different choices. Prospect theory concerns the psychophysics of wealth utility: that is, the perceived tradeoffs between potential outcomes and the probability of some outcome occurring. Kahneman and Tversky reworked Bernoulli’s long established orthodoxy of wealth utility that supposedly explained loss aversion through quantifiable states of wealth. Instead, they took the view that by asking subjective questions rather than propositional (or abstract) questions regarding terms of loss and gain, they presented a richer explanation for loss aversion. They found that that though agents like winning and dislike losing, they in effect are orientated to dislike losing more.

Kahneman and Tversky (1979) initially articulated decisions under risk (as opposed to decisions under uncertainty) involving at most two non-zero outcomes. Later as cumulative prospect theory (1992) they accommodated decisions under uncertainty and risky conditions that employs cumulative, rather than separable decision weights with any number of outcomes.

Out of prospect theory grew Kahneman’s “two minds” thesis, summarized for a popular audience in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. The title of the book connotes two fictional systemic ideal types or characters: fast thinking connotes the “on the fly” or “online” or automatic intuitive operation of the human perceptual and memory apparatus; slow thinking by contrast is “conscious,” deliberate, effortful, conceptual, analytical and propositional in character. Four things should be noted. The positing of these two systems should not lead one to any of the following inferences:

(a) that there is indeed a sharp duality and that ne’er the twain shall meet;
(b) that these two “systems” have definitive brain structure instantiations;
(c) that fast thinking is intrinsically irrational;
(d) that slow thinking is intrinsically rational.

In support of his thesis Kahneman’s presents a raft of empirically based puzzles, illusions and paradoxes illustrating our innate capacity for deluding ourselves and perhaps more importantly just about how little we know. Kahneman illustrates how heuristics or rules of thumb deployed to solve statistical problems can quite easily result in biased estimates and predictions. Respondents, when confronted with a problem to which they are unlikely to know the correct answer to, tend to allow their ruminations to be influenced by objectively irrelevant frames. Other heuristic tests showed that even if respondents receive all the information needed, it is not used correctly.

This said, it should be understood that Kahneman is not suggesting that agents are necessarily and irredeemably irrational – what he’s proposing is merely that one is alert to the supposedly infallible deliverances of intuition. Kahneman’s and Tversky’s work illustrated that neither the lay individual nor indeed even the expert in any knowledge community, are immune from systematic error. Given the vast scope of the “expertise industry” be within an academic or in a public life setting, Kahneman is viewed as highly controversial, not least in his own field of psychology where he has called for a more rigorous validation of priming effect studies.

See also: Anchoring; bounded rationality; ecological rationality; errors and biases; heuristics

Further Reading:

Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. 1973. On the psychology of prediction. Psychological Review, 80, 237-25l.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. 1974. Judgment Under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. Science, New Series, Vol. 185, No. 4157: 1124-1131.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. 1979. Prospect theory: An analysis of decisions under risk. Econometrica, Vol. 47, No. 2: 263-291.
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. 1992. Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty 5 (4): 297–323.
Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Toronto: Random House.

Debunking “The mathematics of happiness”

Alan Sokal weighs in again thanks to Nick Brown who was troubled by the conclusion that 

The mysteries of love, happiness, fulfilment, success, disappointment, heartache, failure, experience, random luck, environment, culture, gender, genes, and all the other myriad ingredients that make up a human life could be reduced to the figure of 2.9013.

It’s quite astonishing that Walker Percy, whom I’m currently reading, caught this in 1983, predating the Sokal Hoax by some 13 years.

By the 1970s and 1980s, self-help had mushroomed into a vast literary genre that encompassed everything from the secrets of material achievement to the new age promises of chakras, reiki and self-realisation.

In Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book Percy writes:

Carl Sagan is right in ridiculing the absurd pseudosciences now so popular. He is admirable in his defense of science as a reliable and self-correcting method of attaining truth.

Yet the fact is that nowadays there is no piece of nonsense that will not be believed by some and no guru or radio preacher, however corrupt, who will not attract a following (p. 172).


The Avuncular David Hume

Hume is on my mind especially in regard to my current work on Adam Smith. To this end, I’ve been re-watching Bryan Magee’s series The Great Philosophers from ’87. I’ve especially enjoyed the Hume discussion with John Passmore. Magee is an expositor second to none despite the fact that his expert guests are more intimate with- and have produced more distinguished work on- any of the target thinkers. In this Passmore interview (see below) one has the distinct sense that Magee is getting a great deal of pleasure by letting Passmore rattle on and then with utmost clarity and brevity restating the issue. This is not to put Passmore down – it is more to highlight Magee’s very special talent. I think Tony Quinton had that expository talent in writing but even he got flustered in his chat with Magee on Spinoza and Leibniz. Hume has a special place amongst my intellectual furniture. He speaks to me as the first modern: his discussion of personal identity, political philosophy, epistemology and ethics seem so germane to me as a so-called situated theorist. In any event, anyone who considers themselves a well-read person and who has not read Hume, is really quite impoverished, stylistically and substantively.

Moreover, what I particularly like about Hume is his even temperament and good nature along with his cutting wit. I’d have him by my side at my imaginary dinner party which wouldn’t be comprised by self-ascribed “intellectuals”: only people who love food, wine, conversation and laughter would be there.

He built a house in Edinburgh’s New Town, and spent his autumnal years quietly and comfortably, dining and conversing with friends, not all of whom were “studious and literary,” for Hume also found that his “company was not unacceptable to the young and careless.” One young person who found his company particularly “acceptable” was an attractive, vivacious, and highly intelligent woman in her twenties — Nancy Orde, the daughter of Chief Baron Orde of the Scottish Exchequer. One of Hume’s friends described her as “one of the most agreeable and accomplished women I ever knew.” Also noted for her impish sense of humor, she chalked “St. David’s Street” on the side of Hume’s house one night; the street still bears that name today. The two were close enough that she advised Hume in choosing wallpaper for his new home, and rumors that they were engaged even reached the ears of the salonnières in Paris. Just before his death, Hume added a codicil to his will, which included a gift to her of “ten Guineas to buy a Ring, as a Memorial of my Friendship and Attachment to so amiable and accomplished a Person.”

He also become the rage of the Parisian salons, enjoying the conversation and company of Diderot, D’Alembert, and d’Holbach, as well as the attentions and affections of the salonnières, especially the Comtesse de Boufflers. (“As I took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, I had no reason to be displeased with the reception I met with from them.”)

From The Hume Society

Hume himself:

With regard to politics and the character of princes and great men, I think I am very moderate. My views of things are more conformable to Whig principles; my representation of persons to Tory prejudices. Nothing can so much prove that men commonly regard more persons than things, as to find that I am commonly numbered among the Tories.

Cited in Ernest Mossner classic biography The Life of David Hume (Clarendon Press, 2001), p. 311.

Let’s give the final word to his dear friend:

Upon the whole, I have always considered him, both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit.

Adam Smith


Understanding the Tacit

My chum Steve Turner has a new book out. It has much Oakeshott interest and as many will know Steve has been a longstanding Oakeshott commentator. For me, one of his key articles is “Tradition and Cognitive Science: Oakeshott’s Undoing of the Kantian Mind”, a piece that I reference quite regularly. OK, so the book is ridiculously expensive – just put in a request to your library. Here is an excerpt: Tacitness in Practice Theory Practices Then and Now.