Archive for ethics

atheism: a very [very] short introduction [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 3, 2017 by xi'an

After the rather disappointing Edge of Reason, I gave a try at Baggini’s very brief introduction to atheism, which is very short. And equally very disappointing. Rather than approaching the topic from a (academic) philosophical perspective, ex nihilo,  and while defending himself from doing so, the author indeed adopts a rather militant tone in trying to justify the arguments and ethics of atheism, setting the approach solely in a defensive opposition to religions. That is, in reverse, as an answer to faiths and creeds. Even when his arguments make complete sense, e.g., in the lack of support for agnosticism against atheism, the link with inductive reasoning (and Hume), and the logical [and obvious] disconnection between morality and religious attitudes.

“…once we accept the inductive method, we should, to be consistent, also accept that it points toward a naturalism that supports atheism…” (p.27)

While he mentions “militant atheism” as a fundamentalist position to be as avoided as the numerous religious versions, I find the whole exercise in this book missing the point of both an intellectual criticism of atheism [in the sense of Kant’s best seller!] and of the VSI series. Again, to define atheism as an answer to religions and to their irrationality is reducing the scope of this philosophical branch to a contrarian posture, rather than independently advancing a rationalist and scientific position on the entropic nature of life and the universe, one that does not require for a purpose or a higher cause. And to try to show it provides better answers to the same questions as those addressed by religions stoops down to their level.

“So it is not the case that atheism follows merely from some shallow commitment to the primacy of scientific inquiry.” (p.77)

The link therein with a philosophical analysis seems so weak that I deem the essay rather belongs to journalosophy. The very short history of atheism and its embarrassed debate on the attributed connections between atheism and some modern era totalitarianisms [found in the last chapter] are an illustration of this divergence from scholarly work. That the author felt the need to include pictures to illustrate his points says it all!

both sides [no comment]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 28, 2017 by xi'an

“I think there is blame on both sides and I have no doubt about it.” Donald Trump, Aug 15, 2017

“What I condemn is the violence that’s been done by any side, by all sides, in all this.” Jeremy Corbyn, Aug 7, 2017

superintelligence [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 28, 2015 by xi'an

“The first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.” I.J. Good

I saw the nice cover of Superintelligence: paths, dangers, strategies by Nick Bostrom [owling at me!] at the OUP booth at JSM this summer—nice owl cover that comes will a little philosophical fable at the beginning about sparrows—and, after reading an in-depth review [in English] by Olle Häggström, on Häggström hävdar, asked OUP for a review copy. Which they sent immediately. The reason why I got (so) interested in the book is that I am quite surprised at the level of alertness about the dangers of artificial intelligence (or computer intelligence) taking over. As reported in an earlier blog, and with no expertise whatsoever in the field, I was not and am not convinced that the uncontrolled and exponential rise of non-human or non-completely human intelligences is the number One entry in Doom Day scenarios. (As made clear by Radford Neal and Corey Yanovsky in their comments, I know nothing worth reporting about those issues, but remain presumably irrationally more concerned about climate change and/or a return to barbarity than by the incoming reign of the machines.) Thus, having no competence in the least in either intelligence (!), artificial or human, or in philosophy and ethics, the following comments on the book only reflect my neophyte’s reactions. Which means the following rant should be mostly ignored! Except maybe on a rainy day like today…

“The ideal is that of the perfect Bayesian agent, one that makes probabilistically optimal use of available information.  This idea is unattainable (…) Accordingly, one can view artificial intelligence as a quest to find shortcuts…” (p.9)

Overall, the book stands much more at a philosophical and exploratory level than at attempting any engineering or technical assessment. The graphs found within are sketches rather than outputs of carefully estimated physical processes. There is thus hardly any indication how those super AIs could be coded towards super abilities to produce paper clips (but why on Earth would we need paper clips in a world dominated by AIs?!) or to involve all resources from an entire galaxy to explore even farther. The author envisions (mostly catastrophic) scenarios that require some suspension of belief and after a while I decided to read the book mostly as a higher form of science fiction, from which a series of lower form science fiction books could easily be constructed! Some passages reminded me quite forcibly of Philip K. Dick, less of electric sheep &tc. than of Ubik, where a superpowerful AI(s) turn humans into jar brains satisfied (or ensnared) with simulated virtual realities. Much less of Asimov’s novels as robots are hardly mentioned. And the third laws of robotics dismissed as ridiculously too simplistic (and too human). Continue reading

An ethical issue

Posted in Statistics, University life with tags , , , on November 19, 2011 by xi'an

A few weeks ago, I was asked to act as an external referee for a PhD thesis. This thesis involved some improvement upon standard statistical methodology and applications to another field. When I eventually got the PhD document, I discovered that it started with a preface (written by the PhD student) containing claims that the student’s work has been used by co-workers, incl. the PhD supervisor, and published in a refereed journal without the student’s name nor agreement, but also with some fabricated data… This was quite a shock as I had not been made aware of this super-delicate issue a priori. And I had not information on the published piece of work,  which seemed to be in the other field (I have not been able to find it since then). When I complained to the university, I got transferred to the dean of graduate studies, who almost immediately withdrew the demand for a PhD evaluation [by me]…

I find the whole affair quite bizarre. and somewhat perturbating. Indeed, when I recontacted the university to mention my concerns, I got the following [edited and possibly translated] email

As I’m sure you can appreciate, this is an unusual case. [We were] not able to alert you to this when nominating you as  examiners, as it is important that we follow our University process and allow examiners to reach independent conclusions as to the value of the work before them.  [We are] bound by our PhD Statute and would be prejudicing the examination  process if [we] provided additional information to examiners. [We] would also be providing a route for the candidate to appeal the outcome of the examination process.

This does not make any sense to me given that any referee of this thesis is going to hit the same case when reading the first pages of the thesis… Either the PhD student should remove this complaint from the PhD document (but this does not seem right, given that there is a published paper containing some of the results claimed in the thesis, even though referees from Statistics are very unlikely to be aware of it, as, again, I could not find the corresponding paper), or the whole information should be provided to the referees of the thesis so that they can judge the matter in full light… I do not see how I could pursue the matter any further, but the whole story left me feeling quite uncomfortable.