Saturday, 19 April 2014

Daniel Kahneman - Thinking, Fast and Slow

Faced with the glorious, not to say marvelous fact of a human being, Daniel Kahneman and the psychologists don a lab coat, pick up a clip board and conclude merely that humans are less than the computers they have given existence to. They achieve this by dressing up some subtle and, essentially, mathematical problems which computers can solve (eg the Linda problem, the sunk costs fallacy etc) in simple-seeming clothing and then being delighted when humans fail to solve them correctly. This, they say, is because of their dependence on heuristics and their lack of awareness of their cognitive biases.

These are terms in the new orthodoxy which it is heretical to quibble with (any attempt to do so will swiftly be ascribed to arrogance or madness). They are sacred texts which are a given. In fact they are terms invented by Kahneman et al deriving from the recently self-institutionalized discipline of Psychology. They are predicated on huge and casual assumptions about human beings which exclude 80% of what a human is and what distinguishes him or her from the animals. This discipline sprang out of animal behaviourist experiments by the likes of Pavlov which were then transferred to humans without noticing that one was not comparing like with like. By a sleight of hand the human being was dragged into the laboratory by the back door.

For example, there is the ‘I’ problem. We don’t know entirely what constitutes the human person or ‘I’ and yet we presume to put this person in a petri dish for examination by another human ’I’. We have ‘I’ study ‘I’ – and, thus, the subject is made an object. This, of course, entrains enormous problems concerning the value of the observations rather akin to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. For example – have we got the whole human ‘I’ in that petri dish? How can we be sure? Are we looking at the specimen down the wrong end of the telescope – focusing on a small patch on his arm (an irrelevant and insignificant observation perhaps) rather than seeing the whole being in context and deciding what it is and what is really important about it? etc etc

In fact, the reason why many humans get Kahneman’s problems wrong are manifold:
1) We are not mainframe computers with large computational competence for making simply mathematical calculations. We are much more than that. We invented the mainframes to avoid the tedious.
2) We are duped by the way in which the questions are framed by the psychologists. Some of their colleagues have actually pointed this out.
3) We are endowed, in a way which computers are not, with the amazing capacity for self-awareness. This gives us an understanding of context. When faced by one of Kahneman’s problems we make swift judgements that they can’t be worked out quickly or are too trite and pedestrian to waste our valuable computational resources on during the short time we are on this planet.

No doubt that Kahneman’s deliberations will spawn a whole training industry which will make him a very rich man. This will be driven by simple greed. The hugely venal market traders (who, incidentally, ruined the world’s economy quite recently, while putting their faith in mathematical models) have noticed Kahneman’s claims to be able to predict market behaviour better. It is for this that he won the Nobel prize in Economics, not Psychology. This is the true reason he is so feted and why his ‘revelations’ are considered to be so important. I’m glad I don’t work in a financial institution and, therefore, won’t be subjected to training days dedicated to underlining what a fallible computer I am and devising ‘strategies’ for circumventing my biases. I wouldn’t bet, though, on this spurious nonsense seeping into all walks of life, including mine. What is truly miraculous is that I’ve written all these sentences which, I flatter myself, communicate reasonably competently and represent levels of complexity far beyond mathematical calculations, in spite of the crippling load of cognitive biases under which I labour. Perhaps I’m some kind of anomaly.

To continue with my comments on the all important drivers of the economy, it is to be noted that they are already using computers to make millions of micro-trades, thus lining their pockets even more and beating the computational power of the merely human traders to the gravy bowl. This is deemed to show the superiority of computers over humans. It actually demonstrates nicely the complete victory of venality over morality at any price. Our reaction to this egregious behavior should be to make the computers serve the moral rather than the venal. After all, we are the ones who provide them with electricity.

To conclude, confronted by a human gazing in amazement at Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s ceiling in the W├╝rtzburg Residence one could respond in two ways:

1) Join him or her in gazing in amazement at the same ceiling.
2) Engage in conversation with him/her about the nature of their response.

Kahneman and the quantifying data-priests would do neither. They would busily and irritatingly be sellotaping electrodes onto the forearm of the art lover to measure how far the hairs on his arm erect themselves while he is appreciating art. They would miss the ceiling and miss his communicated response, thus making the spectacular philosophical mistake referred to by Leon Wiesenteiler. They are, in fact, missing human life.

They designate the Taj Mahal as inferior to a bungalow in Neasden because the bungalow has a superior damp course.

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