Predictive Processing

In a sort of curious coincidence, a few days after I published my last few posts, Scott Alexander posted a book review of Andy Clark’s book Surfing Uncertainty. A major theme of my posts was that in a certain sense, a decision consists in the expectation of performing the action decided upon. In a similar way, Andy Clark claims that the human brain does something very similar from moment to moment. Thus he begins chapter 4 of his book:

To surf the waves of sensory stimulation, predicting the present is simply not enough. Instead, we are built to engage the world. We are built to act in ways that are sensitive to the contingencies of the past, and that actively bring forth the futures that we need and desire. How does a guessing engine (a hierarchical prediction machine) turn prediction into accomplishment? The answer that we shall explore is: by predicting the shape of its own motor trajectories. In accounting for action, we thus move from predicting the rolling present to predicting the near-future, in the form of the not-yet-actual trajectories of our own limbs and bodies. These trajectories, predictive processing suggests, are specified by their distinctive sensory (especially proprioceptive) consequences. In ways that we are about to explore, predicting these (non-actual) sensory states actually serves to bring them about.

Such predictions act as self-fulfilling prophecies. Expecting the flow of sensation that would result were you to move your body so as to keep the surfboard in that rolling sweet spot results (if you happen to be an expert surfer) in that very flow, locating the surfboard right where you want it. Expert prediction of the world (here, the dynamic ever-changing waves) combines with expert prediction of the sensory flow that would, in that context, characterize the desired action, so as to bring that action about.

There is a great deal that could be said about the book, and about this theory, but for the moment I will content myself with remarking on one of Scott Alexander’s complaints about the book, and making one additional point. In his review, Scott remarks:

In particular, he’s obsessed with showing how “embodied” everything is all the time. This gets kind of awkward, since the predictive processing model isn’t really a natural match for embodiment theory, and describes a brain which is pretty embodied in some ways but not-so-embodied in others. If you want a hundred pages of apologia along the lines of “this may not look embodied, but if you squint you’ll see how super-duper embodied it really is!”, this is your book.

I did not find Clark obsessed with this, and I think it would be hard to reasonably describe any hundred pages in the book as devoted to this particular topic. This inclines to me to suggest that Scott may be irritated by such discussion of the topic that comes up because it does not seem relevant to him. I will therefore explain the relevance, namely in relation to a different difficulty which Scott discusses in another post:

There’s something more interesting in Section 7.10 of Surfing Uncertainty [actually 8.10], “Escape From The Darkened Room”. It asks: if the brain works to minimize prediction error, isn’t its best strategy to sit in a dark room and do nothing forever? After all, then it can predict its sense-data pretty much perfectly – it’ll always just stay “darkened room”.

Section 7.10 [8.10] gives a kind of hand-wave-y answer here, saying that of course organisms have some drives, and probably it makes sense for them to desire novelty and explore new options, and so on. Overall this isn’t too different from PCT’s idea of “intrinsic error”, and as long as we remember that it’s not really predicting anything in particular it seems like a fair response.

Clark’s response may be somewhat “hand-wave-y,” but I think the response might seem slightly more problematic to Scott than it actually is, precisely because he does not understand the idea of embodiment, and how it applies to this situation.

If we think about predictions on a general intellectual level, there is a good reason not to predict that you will not eat something soon. If you do predict this, you will turn out to be wrong, as is often discovered by would-be adopters of extreme fasts or diets. You will in fact eat something soon, regardless of what you think about this; so if you want the truth, you should believe that you will eat something soon.

The “darkened room” problem, however, is not about this general level. The argument is that if the brain is predicting its actions from moment to moment on a subconscious level, then if its main concern is getting accurate predictions, it could just predict an absence of action, and carry this out, and its predictions would be accurate. So why does this not happen? Clark gives his “hand-wave-y” answer:

Prediction-error-based neural processing is, we have seen, part of a potent recipe for multi-scale self-organization. Such multiscale self-organization does not occur in a vacuum. Instead, it operates only against the backdrop of an evolved organismic (neural and gross-bodily) form, and (as we will see in chapter 9) an equally transformative backdrop of slowly accumulated material structure and cultural practices: the socio-technological legacy of generation upon generation of human learning and experience.

To start to bring this larger picture into focus, the first point to notice is that explicit, fast timescale processes of prediction error minimization must answer to the needs and projects of evolved, embodied, and environmentally embedded agents. The very existence of such agents (see Friston, 2011b, 2012c) thus already implies a huge range of structurally implicit creature-specific ‘expectations’. Such creatures are built to seek mates, to avoid hunger and thirst, and to engage (even when not hungry and thirsty) in the kinds of sporadic environmental exploration that will help prepare them for unexpected environmental shifts, resource scarcities, new competitors, and so on. On a moment-by-moment basis, then, prediction error is minimized only against the backdrop of this complex set of creature-defining ‘expectations’.”

In one way, the answer here is a historical one. If you simply ask the abstract question, “would it minimize prediction error to predict doing nothing, and then to do nothing,” perhaps it would. But evolution could not bring such a creature into existence, while it was able to produce a creature that would predict that it would engage the world in various ways, and then would proceed to engage the world in those ways.

The objection, of course, would not be that the creature of the “darkened room” is possible. The objection would be that since such a creature is not possible, it must be wrong to describe the brain as minimizing prediction error. But notice that if you predict that you will not eat, and then you do not eat, you are no more right or wrong than if you predict that you will eat, and then you do eat. Either one is possible from the standpoint of prediction, but only one is possible from the standpoint of history.

This is where being “embodied” is relevant. The brain is not an abstract algorithm which has no content except to minimize prediction error; it is a physical object which works together in physical ways with the rest of the human body to carry out specifically human actions and to live a human life.

On the largest scale of evolutionary history, there were surely organisms that were nourished and reproduced long before there was anything analagous to a mind at work in those organisms. So when mind began to be, and took over some of this process, this could only happen in such a way that it would continue the work that was already there. A “predictive engine” could only begin to be by predicting that nourishment and reproduction would continue, since any attempt to do otherwise would necessarily result either in false predictions or in death.

This response is necessarily “hand-wave-y” in the sense that I (and presumably Clark) do not understand the precise physical implementation. But it is easy to see that it was historically necessary for things to happen this way, and it is an expression of “embodiment” in the sense that “minimize prediction error” is an abstract algorithm which does not and cannot exhaust everything which is there. The objection would be, “then there must be some other algorithm instead.” But this does not follow: no abstract algorithm will exhaust a physical object. Thus for example, animals will fall because they are heavy. Asking whether falling will satisfy some abstract algorithm is not relevant. In a similar way, animals had to be physically arranged in such a way that they would usually eat and reproduce.

I said I would make one additional point, although it may well be related to the above concern. In section 4.8 Clark notes that his account does not need to consider costs and benefits, at least directly:

But the story does not stop there. For the very same strategy here applies to the notion of desired consequences and rewards at all levels. Thus we read that ‘crucially, active inference does not invoke any “desired consequences”. It rests only on experience-dependent learning and inference: experience induces prior expectations, which guide perceptual inference and action’ (Friston, Mattout, & Kilner, 2011, p. 157). Apart from a certain efflorescence of corollary discharge, in the form of downward-flowing predictions, we here seem to confront something of a desert landscape: a world in which value functions, costs, reward signals, and perhaps even desires have been replaced by complex interacting expectations that inform perception and entrain action. But we could equally say (and I think this is the better way to express the point) that the functions of rewards and cost functions are now simply absorbed into a more complex generative model. They are implicit in our sensory (especially proprioceptive) expectations and they constrain behavior by prescribing their distinctive sensory implications.

The idea of the “desert landscape” seems to be that this account appears to do away with the idea of the good, and the idea of desire. The brain predicts what it is going to do, and those predictions cause it to do those things. This all seems purely intellectual: it seems that there is no purpose or goal or good involved.

The correct response to this, I think, is connected to what I have said elsewhere about desire and good. I noted there that we recognize our desires as desires for particular things by noticing that when we have certain feelings, we tend to do certain things. If we did not do those things, we would never conclude that those feelings are desires for doing those things. Note that someone could raise a similar objection here: if this is true, then are not desire and good mere words? We feel certain feelings, and do certain things, and that is all there is to be said. Where is good or purpose here?

The truth here is that good and being are convertible. The objection (to my definition and to Clark’s account) is not a reasonable objection at all: it would be a reasonable objection only if we expected good to be something different from being, in which case it would of course be nothing at all.

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Knowing Knowing and Known

In his work On the Soul, Aristotle points out that knowledge of powers depends on the knowledge of activities, and knowledge of activities depends on knowledge of the objects of the activities:

It is necessary for the student of these forms of soul first to find a definition of each, expressive of what it is, and then to investigate its derivative properties, &c. But if we are to express what each is, viz. what the thinking power is, or the perceptive, or the nutritive, we must go farther back and first give an account of thinking or perceiving, for in the order of investigation the question of what an agent does precedes the question, what enables it to do what it does. If this is correct, we must on the same ground go yet another step farther back and have some clear view of the objects of each; thus we must start with these objects, e.g. with food, with what is perceptible, or with what is intelligible.

A little thought will establish that this is entirely necessary. In order to have a general knowledge of the power or the activity, however, it will be sufficient to have a general knowledge of the object. But given that human knowledge proceeds from the general to the specific, it would be reasonable to believe that a detailed knowledge of the power or activity might require a somewhat equally detailed knowledge of the object.

We can see how this would happen by thinking about the example of eating and food. A general idea of both eating and food might be this: eating is taking in other bodies and using them for growth and for energy for other living activities, and food is what can be taken in and used in this way.

Both the idea of eating and the idea of food here are fairly general, and due to their generality they leave open various questions. For example, why is not possible to live off air? Air is a body, and in physics it is in some sense convertible with energy, so it would not seem unreasonable if it could provide the matter and energy that we need in order to grow and to live in other ways.

The general account does not of course assert that this is a possibility, but neither does it deny the possibility. So if someone thinks that the general account tells them all that needs to be known about eating and food, they will not be unlikely to conclude that living off air should be a possibility. If someone drew this conclusion it would be an example of impatience with respect to truth. The example is not very realistic, of course, even if there are a few people who actually draw this conclusion, but this lack of realism is not because of some flaw in the idea of the knowledge of activities depending on the knowledge of objects, but just because most people already accept that air is not a kind of food, even if they do not know why it is not. So they already have a somewhat more detailed knowledge of the object, and therefore also of the activity.

Something similar will result with other powers of the soul, and with powers in general. In the case of knowledge in particular, a general knowledge of knowing will depend on a general knowledge of the known or knowable, and a detailed knowledge of knowing will depend on a detailed knowledge of the known or knowable. And just as in the example above, a general knowledge does not necessarily lead someone into error, but it can leave open questions, and one who is impatient for truth might draw detailed conclusions too soon. In this case, a likely result would be that someone confuses the mode of knowledge and the mode of the known, although this would not be the only way to fall into error.

Sean Collins discusses the history of science and its relationship with philosophy:

In my post of March 6, I noted that we must distinguish between what science has been and what it ought to be, or what it is naturally ordained to be. It is therefore a mistake to take any current or past state of science and construe that as universal without any argument. It is a mistake, for example, to suppose that the Galilean paradigm of physics as “written in mathematical terms” is a universal truth, merely on the ground that physics has been that way for some time, and indeed with some fair degree of success. Or, again, I shall argue, it is a mistake to infer that science consists essentially, and by its permanent universal nature, in reasoning from artificial “paradigms,” even if the recent history of science suggests that.

But from this one might be inclined to draw either of two diametrically opposite inferences. One would be to suppose that history and science have nothing to do with each other, otherwise than accidentally. We should therefore try to find out what science is really supposed to be, and let it be that. But the opposite conclusion seems perhaps equally justifiable: namely that science is essentially historical, so that stages in its progress are precisely stages, and therefore ought not to be confused with the universal character of science itself.

Which is the right conclusion? Should we think that science and history have any real connection? To make the question suitably concrete, we should first recognize that this is really a question about humanity. It is humanity we are wondering about when we ask whether our knowledge has any essential relation with history. It is about the being called “man” himself that we must finally ask whether there is something essentially historical.

But then we can see, perhaps, that this is no small question, and it would scarcely do it justice to propose an answer to it in a few short paragraphs. For now, I will let it suffice to have asked the question. But I would also like to take note of some significant historical facts which suggest a direction in which to seek an answer. And after that I will propose what I think is an absolutely fundamental and critical principle on the way to finding an answer.

The signs I have in mind are these. Some 2500 years ago, Aristotle wrote his Organon, which laid out the delineations of “science.” Aristotle argued that science, in the strictest sense, must be knowledge from universal causes, that these causes must be expressed in self-evident principles, and that the principles must derive from the essences of things as expressed in their definitions. Historically, that view seemed to hold a very firm sway for a very long time, until something strange happened: there was a revolt. Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes were primary agents of the revolt. The revolt was in large measure a backlash against entrenched stagnation, against which irrepressible spirits finally grew indignant. From that moment on, intellectual culture became bifurcated into “science” and “philosophy,” and that bifurcation remains to this day.

Those who remain in the camp of the “philosophers” often stake their claims on the basis of the original claims of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. They resist the intrusions of science on the alleged ground that only philosophy proceeds in a truly universal mode, seeking definitions by “genus and difference,” aiming at truly universal causes, and proposing its theses with complete certitude. Those, on the other hand, who decide to be “scientists” stake their claims on the basis of what they take to be reality itself. They notice the truly astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure, a structure which reaches down deeply into the materiality of things. They see, all too well, that the discovery and appreciation of that structure absolutely demands a mode of thought which is not that of conventional philosophy. And they cannot, moreover, help but notice that conventional philosophers have often tended to either be completely ignorant of that structure, or worse yet, to not care about it, or to deny that it matters, or to deny that it really exists at all.

To describe this by a succinct approximation, we might say that the philosophical mindset tries to reason from characteristics of the mind: from its yearning for what transcends the murkiness of matter. The scientific mindset, by contrast, seeks to reason from the characteristics of physical reality, even possibly at the expense of the aspirations of human reason towards what is immaterial.

While one might agree that it does not “do justice” to the question in the sense of discussing it adequately, we can see from what has been said that one cannot fully separate science from history. If we ask, “what is the nature of science,” we are asking about the nature of human knowing. In order to answer this, we require knowledge of knowing. But since knowing knowing in a detailed way depends on knowing the known in a detailed way, the question of whether history is essentially involved in knowing knowing depends on whether knowing the known in a detailed way is an essentially historical process.

Human beings and especially the life of an individual human being are very small parts of reality. One consequence is that the single lifetime of an individual is not enough to come to a detailed knowledge of the physical world without an essential dependence on the work of others, which dependence implies a historical process. The “astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure” is something that necessarily takes many human lifetimes to come to know, and is the collective work of the human race, not the work of an individual.

Speaking of Aristotle’s attitude towards matter in science, Collins says:

Aristotle, as I have noted, saw that materiality is a true principle of natural being. Henceforth, it was no longer necessary to shun matter, as the Platonists had, as if it were repugnant to philosophical endeavors. One could reason about the natural, physical world, and one could reason about it as physical.

Yet we are — no doubt inevitably — slow to grasp the implications of materiality. Even about this very historical fact, many of us tend to think in a quasi-Platonic way. And what I am about to assert will no doubt astonish some readers: even Aristotle himself continued to think in a somewhat Platonic way, despite his recognition of the principle of materiality. But anyone who is acquainted with the history of thought shouldn’t be entirely surprised at my assertion. It is common — ordinary, in fact — for great thinkers, who find themselves at the dawn of a new and fuller vision of the order of things, to have one foot remaining in the older vision, not entirely able to see the implications of their own new intuitions. If one assumes that thought ought to evolve, as opposed to merely changing in revolutionary fits, one should find this even perhaps a little reassuring.

So what do I mean when I say that Aristotle thinks in a semi-Platonic way? Briefly, I mean that, even despite himself in a way, he continues to seek the accounts, the logoi, of things in a way that would place them more in the order of the purely intellectual than the physical. For example, he seeks to understand what time is in a way that makes virtually no appeal to such physical evidence as we have nowadays through physical experimentation. (Of course! How could he make appeal to something that didn’t exist yet?) He supposes, rather inevitably, that simply thinking about time and motion from the relatively deficient point of view of something called  “common experience” will give him something like a sufficient account of what he is trying to understand. And in the end, his vision of an eternal first motion as the source of time, a motion perfectly circular and unchanging, deriving from the causality of a First Mover who could not directly be the source of any contingent effects — this is a vision which now, from the point of view of contemporary science as well as Christian theology, rightly strikes us as not yet a mature vision in its understanding of the role of matter in the order of the cosmos.

This, to be sure, is not a criticism of Aristotle, as if to suggest that he should have thought something else; rather, it is merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to  develop. Nor do I mean to suggest that what Aristotle saw was of negligible account. It belongs precisely to what I am calling the order of concretion to begin with the relatively abstract in our understanding of material things, and this is because matter is ordered to form more than vice versa. This can be illustrated in the design of artifacts, for in them also there is always a material and a formal element. Thus, for example, barring special circumstances, one does not ordinarily design a building by first looking at what materials to use; rather one considers what form and function they are to serve, and then one chooses materials accordingly. Though there are circumstantial exceptions to this principle, it remains a principle; and it is clear enough that a systematic disregard of it would make our thought chaotic.

Thus one can see that there is a philosophical justification for doing what Aristotle did. We might describe this justification in another way as well: it derives from the fact that the human mind must bear some proportion to the reality it is to know. For having understood something of the difference between the order of intellect and the order of physical being, we still suppose, rightly, that there must be a proportion between them. Yet this rather abstract statement leaves much in doubt. How is the human mind to fulfill its destiny to know physical reality? I shall trust my readers to be able to understand that the answer to that question could not look the same in the 4th century BC as it looks now….

It is possible that Collins is too generous to Aristotle here, perhaps for the sake of his readers and for the sake of his own intellectual tradition, in the sense that to some extent, it seems likely that some of Aristotle’s conclusions are “impatient” in the way we have discussed earlier. Nonetheless his basic assertion is correct. Knowing the nature of knowledge in detail requires more knowledge of the knowable thing than Aristotle could have had at the time. As Collins says, this is “merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to develop.” And even if there is some intellectual impatience there, there is perhaps no more such impatience than is generally found in those who seek to understand reality.

 

Irreversible Change

Many plans for human society may be possible in the way that bringing back last Friday is impossible, and yet not be real human possibilities. It is easy for us to see this in the case of plans that correspond to things that have never existed, as for example the sort of plan proposed by people with socialist tendencies. For example, the Tradinista manifesto states:

8. Livelihood should not depend on the market.

Markets are not unjust in themselves, but they become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive. So, while citizens should be free to engage in market exchange, the polity should ensure that no basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc. – go unmet, guaranteeing a livelihood independent of the market.

Consider this as it stands. According to this, markets are “vehicles of exploitation” if I have no way to survive without selling my labor-power, that is, without getting a job. “The polity should ensure” that this does not happen. It must guarantee that if I prefer not to get a job, I do not need to get one, and that there remains a way for me to survive without one.

Let’s suppose we live in such a polity, and I declare that I don’t like jobs, and I have decided that I will not get one. What happens now? How does the polity ensure that I can survive, and that I do not need to get a job?

The tradinista response becomes somewhat confused when confronted directly with this question. They do not clearly state that they favor a Basic Income guarantee, but in fact this would be the only reasonable way to implement their requirement without making people who choose not to work into slaves, which would thereby nullify the idea that people are not obliged to work, as one can see after a little thought. We will look at this more closely below.

The problem with the manifesto is not that it favors a basic income. It might well turn out that the idea is reasonable, and that someday it can be implemented in some society. But there is indeed a problem with the claim that this belongs to the very essence of a just society. There is simply no proof, nor good reasons to believe, that this is workable or conducive to human welfare in the real world and in presently existing societies. Suppose the USA were to adopt the above statement from the tradinista manifesto as a constitutional amendment. If they are right that this belongs to the nature of a just society, such an amendment would be commendable.

First, some people may decide to stop working. I might do so myself, given my preference for the useless. “The polity” would be obliged to support these people. Whether given as money or in other forms, that support would be taken from taxes, which would mean that taxes would rise. This might make working for a living more uncomfortable for some others, and some of these might decide to stop working themselves. And so the process might well repeat until the whole of society is at the level of bare subsistence, and many would die, as a result of their borderline subsistence condition.

Now there is no guarantee that we would get this result. But there is no guarantee that we would not, so the tradinista proposal does not make sense as a condition for a just society, unless they view this consequence as acceptable.

All of this is in fact why St. Paul says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

The tradinista site responds to this use of St. Paul:

“He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” In using this line against the Manifesto Milco puts himself in the tradition of those many who have imagined an apodictic Apostolic anathematization of Left politics; he also demonstrates how little he understands the philosophy embedded in the Manifesto.

Neither the Tradinista Collective nor any other Leftist thinkers imagine that human welfare might be decoupled from human labor. Indeed, in their relentless emphasis on the importance of the common worker, Leftists tend to emphasize just how essential work is to the maintenance and flourishing of society. Leftists do not differ from apologists of capital by devaluing labor – they differ in their view of how labor should be politically governed.

One of the basic insights of the Left, to which the Manifesto is much indebted, is that the absence or near-invisibility of explicit physical coercion does not therefore make the market an arena of authentic human freedom. The Manifesto’s authors take for granted that in labor relations, in debts, and in interactions with the agents of state power, a liberal illusion of free and equal treatment under the law often hides instances of oppression and corruption – instances which liberals can endorse only because their worldview allows them to be overlooked. Once however they are not overlooked, the formal or legal distinction of free and unfree labor becomes only one important distinction among many. To rely solely on that distinction, to “outsource” decisions about the relations of workers to the market, seems to the authors of the Manifesto to be a kind of ethical abdication – a fine illustration of the weakness of moral philosophy in our times.

This is virtually incoherent. Consider again the statement from the manifesto, that markets “become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive.” What is the alternative? In the response above, they say in a roundabout way, although with much confusion, “yes, people will still have to work, or they won’t be able to survive.” But then either they are being paid for their work, and thus they are selling their labor, or they are not being paid. The implication of these alternatives is obvious: either you sell your labor for money, or you sell yourself into slavery. Your choice.

Chesterton’s argument is that the above sort of argument should only apply to things that have never existed, such as socialism. It should not apply to arrangements that have actually existed in the real world. Times are all alike, so if something has existed in the past, it can exist again.

The response to this is found in the last post. In many cases, neither the original arrangements nor the new arrangements came about by human planning. So we should not find it surprising if human planning cannot revert things to the original arrangement. In this sense, many changes in human society are in fact humanly irreversible.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
    by those who come after them.

This view is one that maintains neither progress nor regress. While there is change, the change is cyclical, and thus overall things remain the same. This is much like Aristotle’s view of the eternity of the world, although Qoheleth presumably accepts the account of Genesis 1.

Since change implies becoming better or becoming worse, and not all changes are normally undone, it is very hard in practice to maintain such a view. Thus we saw in the post linked above that Aristotle in practice believed not only in the progress of the sciences, but that they had basically reached their perfection.

As a similar example, consider this post by P. Edmund Waldstein:

In his letter to Pliny the Younger on the proper procedure in the persecution of Christians the Emperor Trajan agrees with Pliny that no note is to be taken of libelli containing anonymous denunciations, for, “Nam et pessimi exempli nec nostri saeculi est.” (“They set a bad precedent and are not in the spirit of our age.”) Not of our age! How disappointing that a Roman emperor would sink to the level of that puppet of the contemporary self-congratulatory liberal establishment, the Prime Minister of Canada, who famously justified his cabinet selection with the moronic pseudo-reason “because it’s 2015.” I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.

If “because it’s 2015” is a “moronic pseudo-reason,” the reason for this would be that time is an accidental feature: 2015 is just one year in history, just like the year 1015, and the year 3015. This suggests a view like that of Qoheleth: times are all alike, not ordered according to better and worse. But like Aristotle, P. Edmund betrays the fact that he does not really accept such a view: “I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.” If times are all alike, all species of idiocy should exist at all times. The instinct to assume that this is not the case results from the implicit belief that things do indeed change, and indeed become better and worse: it is just that P. Edmund implicitly believes that they become worse, not better, and in this case his implicit belief was not borne out by experience.

Qoheleth in fact knows that many people assume that things are becoming worse, and he rejects this view, precisely because of his position that things are circular.  Thus he says,

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

It is not from wisdom to ask this, because the former days were just like these ones. There is nothing new under the sun.

But if this question is not according to wisdom, then just as St. Paul says, “I have been a fool! You forced me to it,” so the present discussion forces us to ask in what way former days were better than these, and why, and in what way worse, and why.

David Allen vs. Mark Forster

Mark Forster remarks on time management systems:

There’s a well-known quote about the evolution of fishing boats:

Every boat is copied from another boat… Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied… One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Alain (Emile Chartier), 1908

It occurred to me that exactly the same could be said about time management systems or methods. The best will naturally rise to the top because the people promoting them will have better time management than those who don’t use them.

“One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is time herself who fashions the methods, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

If you want to know what the best time management system is then look at the most successful ones for the authors themselves. Using that criterion I think Getting Things Done (GTD) would still win the prize.

There may be a problem with this criterion, since people have different personalities and different systems may work better for them. In particular, my guess, based on Mark Forster’s blogging, is that he has much more of a problem with procrastination than David Allen (the author of Getting Things Done). And consequently Mark devotes a lot of attention to developing a system that might address procrastination in his personal situation. But procrastination is essentially a problem quite different from the problem of time management. We can see that by considering the comparison between budgeting time and budgeting money. If you earn $50,000 in spendable income per year, you can devise a reasonable budget that tells you how much you can spend in each category. Likewise, since you absolutely must live on 24 hours a day, you can devise a plan on how much time you can spend on various things during a day. That kind of planning, in each case, is budgeting. But nothing prevents you from creating a budget and then going and spending your money or your time on other things instead. Time management is therefore creating a reasonable budget with your 24 hours. Procrastination is simply what you do when you spend your time on something else instead.

This does not mean that it is impossible to devise a system for avoiding procrastination, but this is different from budgeting your time, and even if you do devise such a system, there will be no guarantee that you will in fact follow the system rather than doing something else, and thus no guarantee that you will actually avoid procrastination.

In terms of budgeting time as such, Forster’s system is objectively better than Allen’s system, because Forster’s system forces you to watch yourself and to decide how much you can really get done in a day. David Allen refuses to budget time in this way. Thus he says:

Reminders of actions you need to take fall into two categories: those about things that have to happen on a specific day or time, and those about things that just need to get done as soon as possible. Your calendar handles the first type of reminder. Three things go on your calendar: time-specific actions; day-specific actions; and day-specific information.

No More “Daily To-Do” Lists Those three things are what go on the calendar, and nothing else! I know this is heresy to traditional time-management training, which has almost universally taught that the “daily to-do list” is key. But such lists don’t work, for two reasons. First, constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment. Trying to keep a list in writing on the calendar, which must then be rewritten on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. The “Next Actions” lists I advocate will hold all of those action reminders, even the most time-sensitive ones. And they won’t have to be rewritten daily.

Second, if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do. If I have to call Mioko on Friday because that’s the only day I can reach her, but then I add five other, less important or less time-sensitive calls to my to-do list, when the day gets crazy I may never call Mioko. My brain will have to take back the reminder that that’s the one phone call I won’t get another chance at. That’s not utilizing the system appropriately. The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all. The only rewriting should be for changed appointments.

The idea in Forster’s system is that the day is almost entirely planned out from the beginning, in that almost everything you are going to do is already on a list that already exists at the beginning of the day, the list having been created the previous day. Allen clearly wants nothing to do with such a system. You might have a list with two or three things on it, the things that “absolutely have” to get done that day, but not anything like a list of nearly everything that you are going to do.

Obviously we are talking here about detailed practical matters where there can be substantial differences in different cases, but I think that to a first approximation, Allen is simply giving bad advice here, basically like saying, “There’s no need for a budget. You never know what you might have to buy next. Just spend the money you have, and maybe set aside a small amount for some absolute essentials.” And indeed that can work to some extent, but it will often mean you don’t have money for things that you feel you need, because you already spent it on something else. The same kind of thing will happen if you refuse to budget your time.

Let us look for the source of the problem. Consider Allen’s statement that “constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time.” Again, this may be more or less true depending on the particular work a person is doing, but a large part of this is simply a necessary result of the way Allen deals with incoming work.

When you have some incoming item that requires action, Allen proposes this decision process:

Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It Once you’ve decided on the next action, you have three options:

1. Do it. If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined.

2. Delegate it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, ask yourself, Am I the right person to do this? If the answer is no, delegate it to the appropriate entity.

3. Defer it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, and you are the right person to do it, you will have to defer acting on it until later and track it on one or more “Next Actions” lists.

The reason that things taking longer than two minutes are not done immediately is that this is a process for dealing with immediately incoming things. It would be extremely disruptive to try to take care of everything the instant it comes to your attention.

But I suggest that Allen’s first rule, that you should do anything that takes less than two minutes immediately, is the basic reason that he feels that his day is constantly being reconfigured. We do many more such things than we realize; working an eight hour office job, you might well be spending two hours every day on tasks that take less than two minutes each. Additionally, you might suppose a quick phone call will take less than two minutes, but it might end up taking 10 instead. In such a case, if the need for the call came up suddenly, and you did it immediately on account of Allen’s rule, you will begin to feel that your day is being disrupted. And it is, but it is the rule that is disrupting it.

Consider Forster’s response to whether you should respond immediately to an email that requires a one-word response:

Remember the degree of urgency of the response depends on the urgency of the request, not on how easy it is to respond. I would be fooling you if I said that I would never reply to an email like this the same day. But if I do I usually end up regretting it, because once I start responding to one email I tend to go on and respond to others. Also I find that a too rapid reply to an email can lead to emails batting back and forth all day. My advice is not to answer it today unless your colleague says it’s urgent.

Answering it immediately is like an impulse purchase. Sure, it won’t affect your budget in any significant way to spend $2 or $3 that you didn’t plan to spend. But unless you have some budgeted spending money, you are already starting down the wrong path, in terms of budgeting, as soon as you do it once. And if you find yourself doing it repeatedly, soon you will no longer be following your budget. In the same way, a one-word response is not going to ruin anyone’s plan for the day. But the feel that you need to deal with it right away, just because dealing with it doesn’t take that long, is already going down the wrong path, in terms of budgeting time.

Allen’s system would be improved by removing this rule completely, and not having anything done at the time it is processed as incoming, or it could be improved somewhat less by reducing the time: e.g. it could be processed immediately if it would take less than 30 seconds. But complete removal is better.

Nonetheless, Allen does have a point about trying to make a list that will include everything you are going to do that day, both because at least a few things might come up that really do need doing the same day, and because if you are already committed to a full day’s worth of work every day, it is very difficult to ever fit in anything new. These factors make it easy to overfill a day, and make it difficult to reduce your commitments once this has happened.

Forster summarizes the system himself, and remarks on advantages and disadvantages:

Brief Summary

The book’s basic premise is that we get behind on our work because we don’t pay attention to the basic formula “One day’s outgoing work much on average equal one day’s incoming work”. The idea is that one day’s worth of incoming work is collected for action the following day in a dated “Task Diary”. A line is drawn at the bottom of the day’s list so that each day there is a finite amount of work to do. Tasks which arise during the day and have to be done that day may be added to the list “below the line” but the default is to add tasks to the next day’s list. If one falls more than a few day’s behind, then it is important to audit the outstanding work in order to cut it back so that one can keep up. There is also the concept of the “Current Initiative”, by which one project is focused on first thing every day. This is particularly suitable for backlogs, work on improving systems, and getting major projects up and running.

Advantages

By providing a finite amount of work to be done each day, the system enables you to know when your work for the day is finished. It makes it easy to diagnose what the matter is if you fall behind. It also introduces several important concepts which are made further use of in the subsequent Autofocus systems, such as little and often, recurring tasks, and so on.

Disadvantages

The two main disadvantages are that people are often reluctant to carry out a proper diagnosis when they fall behind. This considerably reduces the effectiveness of the system if it is constantly running behind. There is also a considerable effort needed to push through to completing a day’s work, which can lead to resistance building against the system.

Why are people “reluctant to carry out a proper diagnosis when they fall behind?” This may be partly because they feel tired because of feeling overworked, and so not wanting to put the effort into the diagnosis. Likewise, they do not want to admit that they are over-committed, and do not want to take anything away from their plans.

The “considerable effort” that is needed to do a day’s work of course should just be exactly the amount of effort that is in fact needed for a day’s work. But since as I said in the comment here, our commitments tend to increase to fill all available time, this tends to imply that “a day’s work” will tend to grow as much as it can, until you can barely fit it into a day, even if you are following the system correctly.

I am personally using a sort of hybrid system, adopting elements from both systems. The basic idea is to apply Do It Tomorrow, but to first restrict “a day’s work” to quite a bit less than I can actually do in a day, but not restricted to the degree that Allen is doing by saying that you should only schedule things which are absolutely essential for that day. In other words, rather than “diagnosing” the problem when I cannot finish, I run such a diagnosis even when I can finish, if the list is actually using all of my time. This is a lot like setting aside $500 from your salary and budgeting the rest of your money.

So what do I do with the $500, or in other words, with the additional time that this system appears to create? This is the part that which is assigned to a more GTD-like system. In addition to my lists for “today” and “tomorrow,” I also have a vague and indefinite list which is much like all of Allen’s lists. Whenever there is time left over — which should be, and in fact is, almost every day — I do some work from this list.

Forster notes that if you try to do everything you would like to do in theory, you will run into problems:

In yesterday’s article Overcommitment and what you can do to prevent it I drew attention to the formula given in Do It Tomorrow:

Backlog = (Average work coming in each day) – (average work going out each day)

In spite of all our efforts to ignore this rule there really is no way round it. However we can continue to fool ourselves by acting in much the same way as a chronic debtor continues to get further and further into debt. In other words we put things off into the future. In the same way that the debtor always believes that “something will come up”, so we believe in a magic fairytale day in which we have nothing else to do other than catch up with our work. Of course this day never arrives, and if by some amazing chance it actually did the sudden relaxation of tension probably would mean that we spent the whole day goofing off rather than working.

It’s interesting to see how this truth about workload plays out in various situations. How does it work with a “catch-all” list? Now the great advantage of a catch-all list is its completeness. You get everything on your mind down on paper so you no longer have the worry of trying to remember it all. There is however a problem with this. The work does not stop arriving just because you have written it all down. In fact writing it all down may make it less likely that you will get everything done, rather than more. This is because there is a certain natural selection going on with tasks, which means the stronger ones survive while the weaker ones go to the wall. The problem with writing everything down is that this natural selection is inhibited because the weaker tasks can’t take the natural path of dropping out of your memory and your life.

Anyway, as I said in yesterday’s article overcommitment is a systems failure, and the first step with any systems failure is to look at what is happening in our present system. How does this apply to a catch-all list?

Potential candidates to be tasks on our catch-all list come from a multitude of sources, e.g. our own “brilliant ideas”, our bosses, our clients, our colleagues, our families, our reading, social media, the tv, etc, etc, etc. On top of these existing tasks which need further work get re-entered on the list rather than deleted.

Let’s first of all look at the input procedure:

A potential task arrives on the scene from one of the above sources

A catch-all system is designed to catch everything. So the task is put on the list without further ado.

Another task arrives on the scene and is put on the list

and so on

No problem so far. The input procedure is doing exactly what it is designed to do.

What about the output procedure? That’s even simpler:

We do one task after another (according to the criteria of whatever system we are using to process the list)

But it’s here that we run into a problem: the time it takes to do a task is usually longer than it takes to write a task down. Since that means that tasks come in faster than it’s possible to do them, more and more tasks get pushed into the future.

So our problem with the existing system can be summed up as:

Potential work coming in each day is basically infinite

Work going out each day is finite

Therefore the list is potentially liable to expand infinitely

Fortunately in reality this doesn’t happen to quite that extent, but it’s easy to see what the present system is inevitably going to produce. Overcommitment.

My way of preventing this is to make the additional, non-daily list, into what Forster calls a “closed list.” Nothing can be added to it; things can however be subtracted from it, if they turn out to be unimportant or unnecessary by the time I get to them. Nothing ever goes on this in the first place if it is time sensitive in any way, or at least if it is really necessary that it be done within the next month or two; in any such situation I arrange things with Forster’s original system.

The fact that the list is closed means that I have still another list, an open list, to which the “potentially infinite” things are added. This open list becomes the new closed list when the original closed list is completed.

This might naturally lead to the problem that Forster is remarking upon: you can think of things to do faster than you can do them. And since it is currently taking me about two months to work through the closed list, there is no proof that this will not happen in the future. However, judging by the number of items on the open list, I seem to have reached a relatively stable equilibrium, for reasons much like the reasons that people do not in fact go infinitely into debt: there might be an infinite number of things you would like to buy in theory, but you do not even think of most of them, let alone buy them, since it would be immediately obvious that you will not be able to actually buy them. In a similar way I could potentially think of an infinite number of things to do, but there is no reason for me to bother, since there is already enough on those lists. And on the other hand, since I keep my “absolute” and time sensitive commitments below a true day’s worth, there is no difficulty in handling new things of this kind when they come up.

Some of the details here of course are related to facts about my personal circumstances, and thus the details might need to be modified to apply to other individuals. Nonetheless, overall I am finding that it has most of the advantages of both Do It Tomorrow and of Getting Things Done, while avoiding most of the disadvantages.

 

24 Hours

Arnold Bennett, in an essay called “How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day,” speaks of the use of time as though it were a kind of money:

You have to live on this twenty-four hours of daily time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect, and the evolution of your immortal soul. Its right use, its most effective use, is a matter of the highest urgency and of the most thrilling actuality. All depends on that. Your happiness—the elusive prize that you are all clutching for, my friends!—depends on that. Strange that the newspapers, so enterprising and up-to-date as they are, are not full of “How to live on a given income of time,” instead of “How to live on a given income of money”! Money is far commoner than time. When one reflects, one perceives that money is just about the commonest thing there is. It encumbers the earth in gross heaps.

If one can’t contrive to live on a certain income of money, one earns a little more—or steals it, or advertises for it. One doesn’t necessarily muddle one’s life because one can’t quite manage on a thousand pounds a year; one braces the muscles and makes it guineas, and balances the budget. But if one cannot arrange that an income of twenty-four hours a day shall exactly cover all proper items of expenditure, one does muddle one’s life definitely. The supply of time, though gloriously regular, is cruelly restricted.

Which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say “lives,” I do not mean exists, nor “muddles through.” Which of us is free from that uneasy feeling that the “great spending departments” of his daily life are not managed as they ought to be? Which of us is quite sure that his fine suit is not surmounted by a shameful hat, or that in attending to the crockery he has forgotten the quality of the food? Which of us is not saying to himself—which of us has not been saying to himself all his life: “I shall alter that when I have a little more time”?

We never shall have any more time. We have, and we have always had, all the time there is. It is the realization of this profound and neglected truth (which, by the way, I have not discovered) that has led me to the minute practical examination of daily time-expenditure.

“We shall never have any more time,” Bennett says, in the sense that we have 24 hours each day, never more and never less. The time is always the same; it is just a question of how that time is used. In principle, “balancing the budget” with respect to time should be just as easy as balancing the budget with respect to one’s income. Bennett illustrates this with an imaginary example:

“But,” someone may remark, with the English disregard of everything except the point, “what is he driving at with his twenty-four hours a day? I have no difficulty in living on twenty-four hours a day. I do all that I want to do, and still find time to go in for newspaper competitions. Surely it is a simple affair, knowing that one has only twenty-four hours a day, to content one’s self with twenty-four hours a day!”

To you, my dear sir, I present my excuses and apologies. You are precisely the man that I have been wishing to meet for about forty years. Will you kindly send me your name and address, and state your charge for telling me how you do it? Instead of me talking to you, you ought to be talking to me. Please come forward. That you exist, I am convinced, and that I have not yet encountered you is my loss. Meanwhile, until you appear, I will continue to chat with my companions in distress—that innumerable band of souls who are haunted, more or less painfully, by the feeling that the years slip by, and slip by, and slip by, and that they have not yet been able to get their lives into proper working order.

When someone says, “I cannot afford that,” typically this does not mean that it is literally impossible to buy it. He may have enough money in his wallet, or in his bank account. If he does not, he might easily save enough; or if even if this would be difficult, it might be possible to get a loan to manage the purchase. In the end, in most cases the person who says this really means that such actions would not be prudent, and that he would prefer to do other things with his money. The real issue is not the amount of money, but the person’s preferences, whether these be reasonable or unreasonable.

The same thing applies to time, but even more so, since everyone has the same amount of time. If we say, “I do not have time for that,” the real meaning is this: we prefer to do other things. And that preference must be rather strong, in fact, since the implication is that we prefer to do other things, not only sometimes, but all day, every day.

This does not necessarily imply anything blameworthy. A person can be quite reasonable in saying that he prefers to use his money for one thing rather than another, and he can be quite reasonable in saying that he prefers to use his time for one thing rather than another.

But what is not reasonable is to assert that we have a strong desire to do the thing that we say we do not have time for. If “we do not have time for that,” then our desire to do it must be relatively weak, in fact, since we let our desires to do other things take precedence over that desire, not only sometimes, but all day, every day.

 

The Actual Infinite

There are good reasons to think that actual infinities are possible in the real world. In the first place, while the size and shape of the universe are not settled issues, the generally accepted theory fits better with the idea that the universe is physically infinite than with the idea that it is finite.

Likewise, the universe is certainly larger than the size of the observable universe, namely about 93 billion light years in diameter. Supposing you have a probability distribution which assigns a finite probability to the claim that the universe is physically infinite, there is no consistent probability distribution which will not cause the probability of an infinite universe to go to 100% at the limit, as you exclude smaller finite sizes. But if someone had assigned a reasonable probability distribution before modern physical science existed, it would very likely have been one that make the probability of an infinite universe go very high by the time the universe was confirmed to be its present size. Therefore we too should think that the universe is very probably infinite. In principle, this argument is capable of refuting even purported demonstrations of the impossibility of an actual infinite, since there is at least some small chance that these purported demonstrations are all wrong.

Likewise, almost everyone accepts the possibility of an infinite future. Even the heat death of the universe would not prevent the passage of infinite time, and a religious view of the future also generally implies the passage of infinite future time. Even if heaven is supposed to be outside time in principle, in practice there would still be an infinite number of future human acts. If eternalism or something similar is true, then an infinite future in itself implies an actual infinite. And even if such a theory is not true, it is likely that a potentially infinite future implies the possibility of an actual infinite, because any problematic or paradoxical results from an actual infinite can likely be imitated in some way in the case of an infinite future.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that actual infinities are not possible in the real world. Positing infinities results in paradoxical or contradictory results in very many cases, and the simplest and therefore most likely way to explain this is to admit that infinities are simply impossible in general, even in the cases where we have not yet verified this fact.

An actual infinite also seems to imply an infinite regress in causality, and such a regress is impossible. We can see this by considering the material cause. Suppose the universe is physically infinite, and contains an infinite number of stars and planets. Then the universe is composed of the solar system together with the rest of the universe. But the rest of the universe will be composed of another stellar system together with the remainder, and so on. So there will be an infinite regress of material causality, which is just as impossible with material causality as with any other kind of causality.

Something similar is implied by St. Thomas’s argument against an infinite multitude:

This, however, is impossible; since every kind of multitude must belong to a species of multitude. Now the species of multitude are to be reckoned by the species of numbers. But no species of number is infinite; for every number is multitude measured by one. Hence it is impossible for there to be an actually infinite multitude, either absolute or accidental.

We can look at this in terms of our explanation of defining numbers. This explanation works only for finite numbers, and an infinite number could not be defined in such a way, precisely because it would result in an infinite regress. This leads us back to the first argument above against infinities: an infinity is intrinsically undefined and unintelligible, and for that reason leads to paradoxes. Someone might say that something unintelligible cannot be understood but is not impossible; but this is no different from Bertrand Russell saying that there is no reason for things not to come into being from nothing, without a cause. Such a position is unreasonable and untrue.