Course Review | The Philosopher’s Toolkit, by Prof. Patrick Grim


Think (Photo credit: aftab.)

I’ve recently finished viewing and taking notes from this course, taught by Professor Patrick Grim of State University of New York(SUNY) at Stony Brook, who does a good job of conveying the lessons in this 24 lecture series from the Teaching Company.

The course is about both how we do think, and how we can do it better, more clearly, smarter, not harder, though there will be work involved in getting there. It involves both the descriptive and the normative dimensions of human thought.

The toolkit is a set of techniques for using logical thinking, quick rules of thumb for thinking that can work well and reliably in the right context, and methods for easier problem-solving that are remarkably effective when put into practice.

The lessons of cognitive psychology, philosophy, and the methods of the great thinkers throughout history, those who made thinking their very life’s business, are reviewed, described, explained, and put to use in a series of entertaining and enlightening presentations.

This course uses scientific data to ground the lessons, and takes a largely philosophical approach to rigorous thinking, hardly an inconsistency, as the instructor does a good job of blending the two together.

The first lecture, ‘How We Think and How To Think Better,’ lays the groundwork for the course, “to develop a set of conceptual skills that is useful in all kinds of thinking.”

‘Cool Rationality and Hot Thought,’ discusses the balance that is needed in thinking, not pure logic and not blind emotion, but a mix of the two working together, with logic working best for long-term decisions, and emotions acting as a quick method for immediate, short-term decisions when logic would be too slow to be of use.

Lecture 3, ‘The Strategy of Visualization,’ is just what it says, a series of techniques for better harnessing something that many of us are already good at, imagination, as a tool for solving puzzles, paradoxes, and problems. A completely non-mathematical proof of the Pythagorean theorem is demonstrated.

English: Animated geometric proof of the Pytha...

English: Animated geometric proof of the Pythagoras theorem, for reference to proof see Pythagorean Theorem at Cut the Knot Deutsch: Ein animierter, geometrische Beweis für den Satz des Pythagoras Esperanto: Movbilda pruvo de la teoremo de Pitagoro Français : Animation présentant une démonstration géométrique du théorème de Pythagore Português: Prova geométrica animada do Teorema de Pitágoras (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

‘Visualizing Concepts and Propositions,’ deals with the atoms of thought — concepts we have of things — and the propositions, the joining together of concepts into statements. The uses and dangers of categorizing concepts of things are discussed, as is the use of diagrams as a tool to make easier use of logical statements.

‘The Power of Thought Experiments,’ illustrates the use of the ideas in the previous two lectures for using the imagination as a tool for effective, real-world problem solving.

Lecture 6, ‘Thinking Like Aristotle,’ discusses the brilliant idea of seeing patterns in human thought, and the concept of making the whole messy process better, more accurate, quicker, even easier. Aristotle’s classical Square of Opposition is explained, making conceptualizing his logic even easier in this graphic layout.

‘Ironclad, Airtight Validity,’ is about just that, the notion that the conclusion of a set of statements must be true if the logic is valid in the strongest sense and the premises are true. Diagrams are used to explain the workings of syllogisms, arguments with two premises and a conclusion, as well as the limits of deductive arguments.

Particularly useful is lecture no.8, ‘Thinking Outside the Box,’ which is less a of lecture and more of a hands-on workshop for creative thinking, and one is loads of fun as well.

Next, ‘The Flow of Argument,’ makes use of a more complex, less rigorously certain form of argument using everyday reasoning, but which is nonetheless useful for telling us things we can be confident in knowing even without airtight validity. The flow diagram is introduced, and how the argument moves from statement to statement can be followed and understood.

‘Simple Heuristics that Make Us Smart,’ deals with quick rules of thumb for thinking, limited, not infallible, but useful and in a pinch better than complete calculations in many situations. Caveats are given for these occasions when the heuristics may not reliably apply. The pros and cons of rational calculation and ‘going with your gut’ are discussed in detail.

The humorously titled lecture,‘Why We Make Misteaks’ deals with systematic error in human thinking and perception, bias and and better means of dealing with the different sorts of bias by making ourselves more aware of and looking out for them.

‘Rational Discussion in a Polarized Context,’ lecture 12, discusses the process of polarization and the phenomenon of Kripkean dogmatism on issues even the most otherwise rational individuals may feel strongly on, as well as suggestions for dealing with it.

Note that the effectiveness of those suggestions is not guaranteed — unfortunately, this is a philosophy course dealing with rationality in the real world, not wizardry lessons at Hogwarts!

‘Rhetoric versus Rationality,’ deals with the history of rhetoric, its dark side, the ethics of argument, rhetoric’s positive aspects, and an opportunity to graph the flow of argument with an example of a discussion between two people using techniques from lesson 9.

‘Bogus Arguments and How to Defuse Them,’ defines and describes the use of logical fallacies — errors in reasoning which undermine arguments — and how to immunize oneself against them by noting them in use and calling them out when they are.

Lecture 15, ‘The Great Debate’ is an opportunity to use the two previous lessons to graph the arguments in a live mock debate on democracy between a Mr. McFirst and a Ms. O’Second, to determine what is being argued, how, how effectively, and what logical fallacies and rhetorical tricks are in play.

The 16th lecture, ‘Outwitting the Advertiser,’ discusses deceptive advertising, and the psychological tricks advertisers use to sell their stuff, the ways they push our buttons and exploit our thinking to their advantage, and how to recognize when this is happening.

No. 17 & 18 ‘Putting a Spin on Statistics’ and ‘Poker, Probability, and Everyday Life,’ deals with the various tricks often used to mislead with statistics, the latter a good primer for the beginner on statistical math — very easy to understand.

No. 19 is about Decision Theory, the study of how we as individuals make rational choices and how we may make them better and more reliably. Interestingly, the origin of decision theory in the formulation of Pascal’s wager is discussed, and both the pros and a few of the cons of the argument are noted.

The next, ‘Thinking Scientifically,’ deals with the process of scientific thinking, the nature of science and its relation to pseudo-science, the need for falsification when testing ideas against the real world as general claims. Methods are given for distinguishing good science from bad, and merely bad science from pseudo-science.

‘Put It to the Test — Beautiful Experiments,’ is a talk about backing our own factual claims and evaluating those of others though experimentation. It deals with the structure of the processes we use in testing claims, such things as blinding, double-blinding, randomization of samples in controlled experiments, and the limits of experimentation.

‘Game Theory and Beyond’ is about the study of social rationality as a mathematical model, it’s advantages, benefits, and limits on it, on what both is and what should be rational behavior of groups. Dating from the beginning of the Cold War, and developed by John von Neumann, this field was uses simulated games to assess different strategies for personal, and national, interactions.

Lecture 23, ‘Thinking with Models’ is about the combination of visualization, simplifying, and thought experiments using rules to determine an outcome from a beginning input, and how especially with computers this is a powerful method for predicting, explaining, and simulating the past — retrodiction.

In no. 24 ‘Lessons from the Great Thinkers,’ the series concludes with those who used, conceived, or added to the techniques described and explained in earlier lectures, sort of a wrap-up of what has come before, and hints of what may come in future to clever thinkers yet unknown.

I almost felt regret at reaching the final lecture, but as in any good course, it spurs looking and learning still further. Then again, that’s why I take these courses.

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Fractal of the Week | Egads! Phractal Phearsomosity

G’day. I present another wallpaper from my ongoing project of adapting new parameter files to see better use in their continued evolution, the selective pressures mostly involving a negative correlation between the continued viability of a preset and the time it takes to outlive its productive fitness in producing novel images that I dislike less than those before.

With a few false starts this week, as I must restart the image originally planned for this installment from scratch, I’ve generated the one below. That setback is actually a huge benny in disguise, as I can now not only create it almost from scratch, but I’ll use the Monte Carlo option (from here on, MC) to make said image, now projected as next week’s piece, even clearer and crisper-looking than the original version. Use of MB3D’s MC option takes a long time to render a piece, but the result is in my prior experience with it much better.

This piece is 1600 x 1200 pixels large, and it is my least-disliked of the successful images produced this week. Click to macronormify.


All JPEG, PNG & GIF images in this post are original works by the author, created via a variety of apps and unless otherwise stated are copyright 2015 by Troy Loy. I hereby permit the free, noncommercial use of these images, as long as proper credit is given for them.

Lost in Translation | Tamil Consonant Mnemonics I

I came up with this while on study break, a silly but idiosyncratically memorable story that contains recall and recognition cues for two groups of Tamil consonants, the stop consonants, the nasal consonants, and thirdly, the velar fricative akkēnā lying somewhere between vowel and consonant.

As with this series’ previous post, no disrespect toward the Tamil language or its speakers is intended. The silliness of the story is an aid to memorization, not an attempt at satire.

I’ll also explain my rationales for choosing the cues I did for each part of the mnemonic narrative, to lay out how easy it is to come up with a set of memory cues that work perfectly well at least for oneself. We tend to individually give our mnemonics meaning to make them effective, and that meaning may not translate to the preferences and quirks for others, as we all have different brains and different information in those brains.

Here goes:

 “While I baked a 91 kilogram cake¹, I was chased by a school of flying sea jellies² who smote a fruit-bat by dropping logs³ on it. Elsewhere, a tadpole drank tii with much adu⁴. But he never stopped the remaining poor bats in a box⁵ from angering 15 kings⁶ who for the 16th time outmaneuvered⁷ a 600 tonne giant⁸. It, the giant, then thought to send⁹ regards to 60 of the newbies¹⁰whose mega-large diamonds¹¹ where not a hoax and therefore not fake¹².”

Here’s the breakdown:

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 23.14.03

1. I used the words bake and cake to show the k sound the letter represents, the number 91 to indicate the general shape of the letter, minus its central stem, if it were to be rotated to the left by ninety degrees, the k and g of kilogram as a reminder of the letter’s sound in general usage.

2. I used the ch in chase to indicate the general sound of the letter, with the f and j in flying sea jellies to reflect my perception of the letter’s shape. The s in sea is used as a reminder of the occasional pronunciation when the letter is in the word initial position.

3. The words smote and fruit-bat indicate the retroflex t sound at the end of each at play, the word logs used as a cue for the shape of the letter, a lengthened  Roman letter L with the pulli or dot just above it in the Tamil consonant’s pure form.

4. The use of tadpole here is a cue to the letter’s resembling in outline a newly hatched tadpole, while tii and adu are both romanized transcriptions of the Tamil words for tea and it, but double-mnemonics in reminding of the sounds of the letter they help cue for.

5. Poor and bats are both used as cues for letter sounds p and b, less aspirated in Tamil than in English, while box is a cue to the letter’s shape minus its pulli.

Screen Shot 2015-08-23 at 19.22.05

6. The 2nd and 3rd ng in angering and kings are both used as cues to the sound of the letter, while 15 is given as a cue to its resemblance to that very number written in digits.

7. 16th is also a cue to letter shape while outmaneuvered is a cue to the sound of the letter.

8. 600 tonne is a cue to both letter shape, resembling the number 600 + letter T, and tonne also indicates the way the n sound is pronounced. The giant part was just a little extra to help memorization by fitting things together.

9. The first words, It, and then are cues to letter shape, while the nd in send is a reminder of the presence of this letter solely in consonant clusters.

10. This letter slightly resembles a number 60 + letter T, and newbies is used as a cue to pronunciation of the n sound.

11. Mega here indicates the m sound, while the phrase large diamonds are cues to the letter’s resemblance to a Roman capital L and D.

12. The h in hoax and f in fake are used to cue for pronunciation in different uses as indicated above, while therefore is used to indicate the letter’s resemblance to a common notation in symbolic logic () for the words Therefore or Thus.

In coming up with these, one must use what one knows, and often the easiest memory cues will be things that no one else has thought of. These are just a few of the consonants of this rich and ancient language. In future installments, I’ll explore mnemonics for other consonants and full syllables as well. See you then!

The Call’s Gnuz & Lynx Roundup | 2015.08.23

The symbol Om in the Tamil script

The symbol Om in the Tamil script (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

G’day, and happy Sunday! I’ve only a week left for Tamil study, but that’s cool, as I’m making some progress learning more of the sounds and script. I’ve got a few more left to go, and to get a bit more practice with the dependent vowel signs that join with consonants to make syllables, quite different from those used in Bengali or Hindi scripts.

I’ve completed a draft for the mnemonic story to be used for two classes of consonants, the stop and nasal sounds, and there shall be much proofing and editing before it is ready this next Monday morning, but ready it shall be. I’ll be updating the last installment of Lost in Translation on Tamil vowel mnemonics to offer some rationale for why the narrative was written and as oddly put as it was.

I’ve been listening to Tamil online radio, and so getting a feel for the spoken form in speech and song. Revising from previous study of Hindi and Bengali has turned out well, and it seems the learning of both scripts and their characteristic sounds is fairly solid. Save for some consonant conjuncts, I can read a fair amount of either language, and to the extent of my still-limited vocabulary, understand what’s written. I must be careful though, as I’m still a rank novice, and overconfidence is a very, very Bad Thing™.

I’ve good things planned for this week, including a new piece on the mythical Super Earth planet Bruticus, for an installment of Future Fluff, the Mighty Planet and its Unhallowed Moons as they figure in Kai’Siri legend and in the Gods of Terra setting’s “fact.” I’ve also started work on the draft for a filk-song tribute to Enya‘s “Trains and Winter Rains,” which will involve such wholesomely fun things as brains in vats, intelligent fungi, and the planet Yuggoth (Pluto), as described in the H.P. Lovecraft story “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

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