Towards Cognitive Epistemology

Intellect: By convention there is sweetness, by convention bitterness, by convention color; in reality only atoms and the void.

Senses: Foolish intellect! Do you seek to overthrow us, while it is from us that you take your evidence?

This two-line dialogue, coined in 400 BCE by Democritus, haunts our species to this day. How might we build an inference trail from our subjective experiences to objective physics? can we build an account of how to move from pure phenomenology to scientific realism? And once we arrive at scientific realism, can that say anything substantial about phenomenology, without casting doubt on its own veracity?

Crude Epistemological Loop

How might we cast the above (crude) intuition of an epistemological loop into mathematics? Could we then learn to generalize the loop in non-trivial ways? How might we defend our construction of physics against vicious circularity, against constraint poverty?

Such questions are the nightmare of epistemology, the reason why no one has yet fully answered solipsism. And yet, in my view, analytic philosophy has stalled far beyond current state of the art. How often do epistemologists discuss the merits of psychophysics? Don’t you think they should? The cognitive redemption of epistemology is happening in our lifetimes.

Most of my attention in mental architecture involves sewing together different levels of analysis (vertical integrative theorizing). But it is important to note the domain of such intertheoretic reductions. While my vertical work in mental architecture will address the concerns of the agent, environmental analyses are just as important. Only with a more universal physics, a physics not bound to the limited concerns of Earth’s biota, that we can hope to achieve a more productive degree of abstraction.

Agent-World Analysis Levels


[Sequence] Decision Making In Chess


Designed for people who know little more than how the chess pieces move, this series introduces the game, and scans its results for lessons we can apply to how we understand life more generally.

  1. An Introduction To Chess.  Surveys chess culture and illustrates chess evaluation, bringing attention to the often-subconscious nature of the latter.
  2. Decision Trees In Chess. Explores how the decision trees and the minimax algorithm can capture the entirety of chess gameplay.
  3. The Chess SuperTree. Having exploring single-move decisions, this post zooms out to consider the game of chess as a whole – its complete game tree.
  4. The Psychology Of Chess. Compares these computer science & game theoretic approaches to chess with hints on how the brain uses somatic markers & heuristics to decide more efficiently.

[Sequence] C.S. Peirce & Pragmatism

Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914) has been called “the father of pragmatism”, “America’s greatest logician”, and “the most original thinker of his time”. He founded the field of semiotics (the study of signs, which I touch on here), invented abduction (inference to the best explanation), and anticipated the work of geniuses like Georg Cantor (mathematics of infinity), Claude Shannon (information theory), and Ernst Zermelo (set theory) by decades.

Peirce met with a fate not unusual for thinkers of caliber: much of his work only came to be fully appreciated posthumously. His writings were never consolidated in book form, and remained largely disorganized until collated into various anthologies.

An autobiographical snippet from a paper entitled Concerning The Author:

My book will have no instruction to impart to anybody. Like a mathematical treatise, it will suggest certain ideas and certain reasons for holding them true; but then, if you accept them, it must be because you like my reasons, and the responsibility lies with you. Man is essentially a social animal: but to be social is one thing, to be gregarious is another: I decline to serve as shepherd. My book is meant for people who want to find out; people who want philosophy ladled out to them can go elsewhere. There are philosophy soup shops at every corner, thank God!

The development of my ideas has been the industry of thirty years. I did not know as I ever should get to publish them, their ripening seemed so slow. But the harvest time has come, at last, and to me that harvest seems a wild one, but of course it is not I who have to pass judgment. It is not quite you, either, individual reader; it is experience and history.

For years in the course of this ripening process, I used to collect my ideas under the designation fallibilism; and indeed the first step toward finding out is to acknowledge you do not satisfactorily know already; so that no blight can so surely arrest all intellectual growth as the blight of cocksureness; and ninety-nine out of every hundred good heads are reduced to impotence by that malady – of whose inroads they are most strangely unaware!

Indeed, out of a contrite fallibilism, combined with a high faith in the reality of knowledge, and an intense desire to find things out, all my philosophy has always seemed to me to grow ….

In many ways, Peirce and I march to the beat of the same drum…

Reviewed essays:

[Sequence] Evans-Pritchard: Witchcraft, Oracles & Magic Among The Azande


I read this classic text several years ago, and it left a lasting effect on me.

The Zande people are primarily a small-scale farming population located in central Africa. Their demographics are split between Democratic Republic of the Congo, in South Sudan, and the Central African Republic:


Evans-Pritchard briefly sketches Azande life in general, before zooming in on their complex religious system. At time of writing, 1937, these traditions had already begun to erode in the wake of European cultural imperialism. Racing against the clock, as it were, Evans-Pritchard managed to document the essence of these practices before they faded in the memories of the community.

Evans-Pritchard is a consummate professional, and this shows in his ethnographies. Azande culture and mysticism is explored in detail, and their customs – foreign to our ears – are treated largely without distracting judgment. Azande seeks spiritual answers from three kinds of oracles, each with increasing power: rubbing board, termite, and poison oracles. This practice was enmeshed in their legal system, their social structure, and their metaphysical beliefs. Azande culture further complemented these oracles by means of complex, interlocking theories of magic, and the social and medicinal contributions of a witch-doctor population:

Link: Summary

For me, the most interesting part of the book had to do with the relationship between mysticism and attention. Most of the following quotes relate to this.

Link: Quotes

To understand why it is that Azande do not draw from their observations the conclusions we would draw from the same evidence, we must realize that their attention is fixed on the mystical properties of the poison oracle and that its natural properties are of so little interest to them that they simply do not bother to consider them.

Observations such as the above suggest that disinterest in certain question-categories is not some random phenomenon that can be taken at face value. Azande individuals systematically experience disinterest in doubt-provoking challenges to their mystical ideology, and this “attention funnel” is anything but pre-meditated. Thus, attentional habits are not solely artifacts of personality: they also can be subpersonal, they are also influenced by culture: they do not necessarily serve the interests of their owners.

Finally, it would seem myopic to suppose that this quirk of human psychology is contained to this one culture. Perhaps this is enough to drive home my takeaway: treat disinterest with suspicion.

[Sequence] Stanovich: The Robot’s Rebellion




Other Reviews

Other Resources

[Sequence] Neuroeconomics

Neighboring Fields

Neurobiological Mechanisms

Classical Reinforcement Learning

Pulling It All Together

Philosophy of Decision Making