science as interface vs science as implemenation

overview

there are two ways of viewing science: the way most “scientifically minded” people view it – as a description of reality – and a much less popular way of viewing it ( i doubt i’m the only one who sees it this way but i haven’t heard anyone else express this) – as an interface to reality. in this post i will explain the difference between these mindsets and then show that a similar dichotomy applies to money, religion, and language. i will then conclude that my view – the interface view – is far superior.

the modern scientific rationalist mindset says: “science is the implementation of reality.” the laws of physics, are immutable rules that govern the transition of physical matter from state to state. these rules have always existed, and will always exist. they cannot be broken. they cannot be changed. we can learn these rules, as well as the higher-level rules such as chemistry, biology,  ecology,  &c &c by careful observation, hypothesis, experimentation and measurement.   people who believe things which are not testable by the scientific method are scorned by adherents of this mindset; they are believing something which cannot be part of the implementation. people who believe things which are directly contrary  to the body of knowledge are seen as heretics; bad people who must be stopped.

consider now, a different mindset: science is an interface to reality, one of many ways we can interact with reality. the scientific interface is the method of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, and measurement.  our scientific knowledge accumulated thus far is an API; a programmatic interface which allows us to make requests of reality and get predictable responses.

both mindsets make a distinction between the scientific method and the body of knowledge of we have developed using this method. the “science as implementation” mindset values the body of knowledge more than the method. knowledge is truth; the method is just a way of getting it. once we know the truth, the thinking goes, the method is largely irrelevant; it’s only good for what it gives us.  the “science as interface” mindset works the opposite way. the  interface is defined in terms of itself; a scientific interface to reality requires us to continually test things we believe to be true, and to discard previously held truths that conflict with our observations.

the “science as implementation” viewpoint can lead us to discard theories that we haven’t yet found evidence for.  anyone searching for evidence of “ghosts” or “extrasensory perception” will be dismissed as a crank – not because their methods are unsound, but because the existence of these phenomenon runs contrary to our the body of scientific body of knowledge.

this interface/implementation dichotomy can also be applied to the systems of  language, money, and religion. i will walk through each of these systems and show how a similar dichotomy applies.  i will show that each of these systems has a “social mechanism”  – although science’s “social mechanism” works very differently than the others. i will then argue that the “interface” view for each of the above systems leads to less fighting. the “implementation” viewpoints all reinforce existing power structures; the status quo is seen as “correct”. this “correctness” is used to justify punishment of those who would change it. given that our status quo involves such horrible things as child slavery, i’d prefer the more flexible “interface” mindset to all of these systems. if slavery disappears, everyone has enough to eat, and “tortured to death” isn’t something that routinely happens to people, i’ll consider switching to the “implementation” mindset. until then, i’ll fight for the interface mindset as being better.

language

the “language as interface” view says that words are a way of getting something you want – whether that desired outcome is a modification of physical state, information, or a word of encouragement.  this  view says that the truth of a statement is subjective – it changes depending upon where you are and what language the people around you speak. the “correct” way to speak, in this mindset, is “whatever the people around you are speaking.” this view is held by most people; they will acknowledge that different words have different meanings.  this is usually a fine thing to say – unless  people are talking about things that are very important to them.  someone who shouts “capitalism is theft” probably means something very different than someone who says “capitalism is the most moral way of allocating scarce resources.” the difference in their meaning certainly stems from different definitions of capitalism. two otherwise reasonable people who would accept that words have different meanings to everyone will then get into a heated argument about what capitalism “means” instead of doing something about bailouts for huge banks and subsidies for big companies – something which bothers both of them.

the “language as implementation” view says that words are real things that have real meaning.  the notion of a “platonic form” fits pretty well here; if a chair is a real thing, then “chair” must have a “true” or “correct” meaning.  this mindset insists that people speak in the “correct” way; grammatical offenses are punished and seen in the same light as people who believe in unicorns or ghosts or alternative medicine.

the  system of language has a “social hook” which drives it towards the “implementation” mindset.  “ain’t ain’t a word” is something you’ll rarely hear a poor person say to a wealthy person.  this feedback loop can be used to great effect; a lot of political battles are fought with phrasing.  the more people insist that a word has concrete meaning, the more they punish those who don’t use it that way.  from an interface perspective, the word now does have a concrete meaning – because people who use words like “god” or “truth” or “right” incorrectly are killed in societies dominated by the “language as implementation” mindset.

the legal system is thoroughly enmeshed in this mindset. a court is a method of resolving conflict which boils down to wealthy people arguing with each other over the correct meaning of words. a small group of people is used to determine such inconsequential things as the facts of what happened; the majority of the effort in a court battle is spent  fighting over the “correct definition” of the words in the laws at play.

a “language as implementation” view of this blog post itself would say that the post is “wrong” – the words and symbols used are not arranged in the proper way. “he doesn’t even use capital letters!” they would say. “how could he be right about the interactions of such complex phenomena if he doesn’t follow the arbitrary conventions we know to be correct!”

the “language as implementation” view leads to lots of stupid arguments: two people may agree vehemently that child slavery should be stopped, but they’re far more likely to argue about why this is  (“which statement that explains why child slavery is wrong is true”) than they are do something about it. it also leads us to do all kinds of stupid things. our legally system is wildly complex because (the lawyers argue) “otherwise the laws would be ambiguous” – except they are still ambiguous, and people pretend they aren’t.  the “language as implementation” mindset insists that we minimize unpredictability by letting words only have one meaning.  power structures need the “language as implementation” viewpoint, because there’s nothing less predictable than people doing what they want.

this isn’t meant to demean lawyers; we need them to defend us from other lawyers. until the “language as interface” view becomes dominant, or until reality including people doing horrible things to each other, we need good lawyers to keep us safe from bad ones. it also isn’t meant to demean the trial by jury system. i’d argue that the best aspect of our court system is the trial by jury mechanism, and that this should be expanded. a single law ‘don’t be a huge asshole’ – and rare trials with very large juries – would be a much better way of doing things. that will only be possible when the ‘interface’ view of all of these systems becomes more dominant.

MONEY

the “money as interface” view says that the value of money is purely subjective. anything can function as money as long as people want it. there are no “correct” prices – just whatever people will pay for things.  this interface view says that prices of objects drop when they become more easily obtained, and prices for objects go up when they become harder to obtain – not because this is what “should” happen, but because this is what “does”. a market, in this mindset, is viewed as the best way of exchanging information about how much people value different things.  the ‘money as interface’ view is held by some economists, who are largely dismissed as  outdated cranks.

the “money as implementation” view says that the value of an object is a real construct. marx believed the value of an object was the labor that went into it, other economists have proposed different models. nevertheless, you will hear many financial institutions talking about the ‘correct’ price of wildly elaborate financial instruments.

my first full time job was at a company that was making markets in options during the financial crisis of 2008. i grew up believing quite strongly in markets as being a ‘good thing’, but  i had no idea how to explain the value of what we were doing. that experience – earning a bunch of money while lots of people around me seemed to be losing tons of it – is one of the things that lead me down the path of thoughts which brought me here. lots of people with lots of money are convinced that options do have a correct price, and that money is the implementation. when prices start tanking, they think this means the end of the world, and they start panicking.

if you are in a herd on the move, and this herd consists of elephants, horses, mules, women, men, cats, dogs, children, mice and crickets – you don’t want the elephants panicking. if you’re given a magic toothbrush you can wave around – something which the elephants are mesmerized by, because they think whoever holds the toothbrush is their god – are you really going to try to explain to everyone ‘look! this toothbrush is an artificial social construct and the power it has is only a result of a feedback loop in collective perception! no need to panic! the prices collapsing should be viewed as error in our interface to reality, not a sudden shift in reality itself! it would be silly to have a ‘housing crisis’ where the problem was ‘too many houses!’ just sit tight, keep working hard, and keep saving your money. things will be fine!’

or are you gonna wave that thing around, hum a deep tone, maintain a look of calm indifference imbued by powerful ancient knowledge, and tell everyone to stay calm while you sort this out by providing liquidity in index fund options over 5 exchanges on three continents?

RELIGION

the ‘religion as interface’ view says that god exists as a social construct. when we are kind to each other, when we look out for each other, when we practice empathy and live to love and serve others, we re-enter the garden of eden, the paradise some of us think once existed. when we become selfish, when we stop caring about others, when we dismiss the misery we see around us as being justified or necessary, we create a hell for ourselves. someone who believes god will protect him falls into a river, and is rescued from drowning by a woman of the same faith. she says “don’t thank me, i was doing god’s work!” which one of them was wrong? the guy who drowns because he knows he has the implementation right?

the ‘religion as implementation view’ says that god is an angry old man who made the world the way it is, and you’d better not piss him off, or he’ll take the time off from managing the interaction of trillions of elements to smite your ass for playing with your genitals. it sounds silly  until you realize that adherents of the “implementation” views of language, religion, and money often align with each other – and they’re usually busy smiting people who are poor, uneducated, and powerless.

there is a social hook in religion. if enough people think it’s wrong to be homosexual, they will shun you for being homosexual. in order to maintain your life, you’re forced into a world that only criminals and other people who violate the religious norms of the society inhabit – which gives religions implementationalists more evidence that homosexuality is, in fact, wrong.  you could do this with anything. if we went around saying people with red hair were easily angered and couldn’t be trusted, we’d be assholes to them, shun them from our society, forcing them to associate with people who don’ care about rules, laws, norms, or not killing people.

it’s almost as if those with power benefit from keeping the status quo just as it is – which is much more doable if people fight over why things are wrong than trying to fix them, and panic over things that aren’t a problem (i.e. too many houses) instead of changing things.

are the ‘science as implementation’ adherents joining in? well, some of them.

the cool thing about science, though, is that its social hook is different than the others. the ‘social hooks’ of language, money, and religion all serve to perpetuate the status quo – which benefits those in power. the weird thing about the ‘social hook’ in science is that both the implementation and the interface views of science are in a sense egalitarian. the king can be wrong if he’s got the wrong facts (implementation view) OR if we test his predictions and they fail (interface view).  the king can’t be wrong if he think something is very valuable – him wanting it means others will buy it, driving up the price and making his prediction true.  the king cant’ be wrong if he says something is evil – everyone will shun the people who do it, some will fight back, and we’ll have all the evidence we need. the king can’t be wrong if he says he is not naked, because anyone who disagrees is getting the old “head removed from body” procedure.

so science is different – even adherents of science as implementation want to be wrong – because it means they know more than they did before.

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