How to Intelligently Ignore Almost Everything: The Finitary Predicament for Academics

The following is adapted from a talk I gave on May 1st 2016 at the Looking at Junk conference, put on by the graduate students of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, as well as the York Science and Technology Studies program.



I’d like to draw your attention to a situation that we are all completely familiar with, but which rarely gets talked about. So in a sense, you all already know everything I’m going to say. Nevertheless I think it bears calling attention to a few things about the situation we all find ourselves in.

That situation is the finitary predicament. This is that awkward situation where you’re a finite being in a seemingly infinite universe. At the very least, we’re really really tiny compared to the universe. That’s a literal, physical version of the finitary predicament. So the main topic of this post is how hilariously tiny we all are compared to the world we inhabit. We are physically small, but we’re also cognitively limited. To a very close approximation, we’ve observed 0% of the universe. We know that just from the bits we can already observe.


And even for the stuff that we have observed, and thought about, and written about already, we individuals can only deal with a tiny fraction of that. If you studied every moment of your life you wouldn’t even make a dent in the sum of human knowledge as it exists today. And every day, it expands by way more than a day’s worth of study. So far this week PhilPapers, one of the main online repositories for new papers in philosophy, added 994 new papers. This week. That means not only can I not keep up with academia at large, I can’t even keep up with my chosen field!

So not only are we hilariously tiny in our bodies, we’re mentally tiny as well compared to the complexity of the world, and none of us has any hope of taking it all in.

That’s the finitary predicament. We’re all in it, and I actually think it’s getting worse every day. That’s because the world keeps getting more complicated. That’s not a law of nature as far as I know, but it definitely seems to have been the trend around here for a while now. There’s more and more to know, and the same number of hours in a day to learn it all.

I take it that’s all completely obvious to everyone who would be reading this. This shouldn’t be news to any of you. But with that in mind, how is it that we treat ourselves and others as though it wasn’t true? We feel stupid, and sometimes maybe try to make other people feel stupid, just for not knowing things. Oh, you haven’t read Sartre’s masterpiece Being and Nothingness? What do you mean you don’t know what a p-value is? You haven’t read Homer? Are you unfamiliar with even the basic tenants of Marxist historiography? But surely you must have read some Chaucer? Don’t you know the term ‘finitary predicament’?

Academics do this to ourselves, and to each other, way too often. It’s usually not as gross and obvious as the caricature I just did. The most standard way of acting out this attitude is just to use words or references without explaining them. You drop names and move on, leaving behind anyone who doesn’t happen to be on the exact same tiny square of the humongous knowledge pie as you.

So mostly, the point of this talk is just to plead with you, don’t let this illusion, that not knowing things makes you dumb, seep into your treatment of yourselves and others. Not knowing almost everything is the only possible state for a rational agent to be in, when the world so vastly outstrips our ability to understand it.

The smart thing to do, in fact, is to intelligently ignore almost everything. That’s the other half of the title of this post, of course. And it’s the connection between this post and the theme of the conference it was originally presented at, junk. We cognitive agents have to toss almost all of the information available to us on the junk pile, without even looking at it! Looking at something to decide it is irrelevant takes time, and there is simply too much to look at it all. So we have to throw almost everything on the junk heap (which is to say, we ignore it completely) without even consciously thinking about it.

I wish I could tell you how we manage to do this strange trick. I have no idea.


But it’s obvious that we manage to do this, pretty much all day every day. We intelligently ignore almost everything, and home in on just those facts that are relevant. Exactly how we manage to do this is called the Frame Problem in cognitive science, and solving it is one of the biggest hurdles towards building truly intelligent machines. Computers are now incredibly good at solving problems once you’ve told them exactly what is relevant and what isn’t, and what operations are available to it. We humans, so far, are still the only ones able to decide what is relevant, and come up with new operations to perform.

Ok, but that is the general state of affairs for all sentient beings. We’re academics, and so let’s talk a bit about how to manage this Frame Problem from the perspective of academic work. I have a few suggestions, none of which are any good. They’re not as bad as they sound, but I’m still pretty unsatisfied with them. So I hope you can come up with something better. But here they are anyway.

How to deal with the fact that you have to intelligently ignore almost everything, in a world where not knowing things is considered a kind of minor sin:

1) Say bad words

2) Forget it

3) Give up

Let’s take them one at a time.

1) Say bad words

I have in mind a specific genre of bad words that I recommend to all of you. They’ve got a kind of liberating quality for the person saying them, and sometimes for other people listening. I think they’re the appropriate response to the aspect of academic culture I mentioned before, which is to pretend to ourselves and others that it’s standard to just know everything. You should say things like: “I’ve never heard of that” and “I don’t know what you’re talking about”.

When I want to really show off how confident and secure I’m feeling in an academic setting, and someone is doing the standard name-dropping routine, I like to stick up my hand and admit that I’ve never heard of that person before, and have no idea what they’re talking about, and ask them to explain it to me. I notice that nervous, insecure people never do this. It’s a lot easier to just stay quiet and pretend you know exactly what’s going on. But that just feeds into this problematic culture of excluding people through jargon and name-dropping. When no one says anything, it’s standard for us insecure primates to assume that everyone else must know what’s going on, when it’s quite possible that the person speaking is the only one who does. So no information is being communicated, and we’re all just pretending like it is. That seems like a rather disastrous situation for people who claim to be committed to communicating knowledge.

Of course, it’s not always appropriate to do this. I wouldn’t try it in a job interview, for example. You should have at least some degree of real security before you start professing your ignorance. For people who are already marginalized, this strategy could make things even worse. So I propose that the responsibility falls on people who are secure, and who aren’t as marginalized: speak up, and let people know when something which is not common knowledge is being treated as though it is.

And of course, try not to name-drop and use unnecessary jargon in your own speech, as much as possible. But this is much harder than it sounds, since it’s so easy to forget that not everyone has read what you’ve read. And of course, we should all try to receive that sort of feedback as best we can. It’s not easy to adjust your background assumptions about what your audience knows, but we should all be training that skill. People need constant feedback, to keep them tuned up in this regard. So please, say bad words like “who is that person you’re referring to?” or “I don’t know that concept, can you explain?”. And of course, please treat people who are brave enough to say that kind of thing both nicely, and seriously.

2) Forget it

Another thing that we need to be better at as academics is forgetting stuff. I don’t know if you all have a similar impression, but I feel like I’m constantly meeting incredibly smart people who are unfortunately drowning in their own knowledge. They’ve read so much, and understood so much, and they think they can’t ever forget about any of it. And that’s exactly how they end up writing papers of the form, “Jones reply to Brown’s critique of Smith’s argument fails to account for the complexities raised by Lewis’ critique of the Davidsonian tradition”. Philosophy is especially prone to this sort of thing, I suspect. It is perilously easy to get completely swamped by knowledge, to the point where it becomes impossible to have an original thought.

Nietzsche put this point nicely:

Forgetting is essential to action of any kind, just as not only light but darkness too is essential for the life of everything organic. (Untimely meditations, p. 62, Breazeale trans.)

He goes on to compare someone who never forgets to someone who is forcibly deprived of sleep, and I think that may be the literal truth about our cognitive lives. The old theory about sleep and memory was that sleep protects us from ‘interfering stimuli’, so that we can better remember our day. But in the last few years, opinion has shifted to the idea that sleep is actually where we optimize the long-term storage of memory. That is, sleep is where your brain works out what bits of your day it can forget, cutting it down to only that stuff that is likely to be relevant. This, I suspect, is why it helps to get some sleep while working on essays and papers. You can learn stuff during the day, but it’s only in sleep that you do the equally important task of forgetting the stuff that’s irrelevant. And without that, you’ll drown in knowledge. So get some sleep and forget it.

3) Give up

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, give up. Obviously you don’t want to give up on everything. If the most important part of our cognitive lives is deciding what’s relevant, treating everything as irrelevant won’t get you very far. The trick is to give up on exactly the right things.

For example, consider Newton. In his day, there was a very clear picture of what counted as a scientific explanation. It should be mechanical, in the sense of only referring to bits of matter in motion, and the only power matter can have is pushing on other bits of matter, physically excluding it. The whole aim of science, according to this picture, was to reduce things to stories about local pushing and pulling of bits of matter on each other.

And then Newton came up with his theory of gravity, which violated this picture entirely. Instead of stories about matter pushing on other bits of matter, Newton claimed that there were invisible forces connecting all things, holding the solar system together over vast distances. When asked about how this could possibly translate into a mechanical picture, he famously said ‘hypothesis non fingo’, which I believe literally translates as ‘who cares?’.

Newton decided to give up on the picture of scientific explanation which everyone subscribed to at the time, and by giving up he changed the world. This is what we need: courageous, even heroic acts of giving up. By giving up on just the right things, you can transform everything.

Did you know that ‘thesis’ once described part of the beat in Greek poetry? During poetry readings, the beat would be stamped out with the foot. The part of the beat where you put your foot down was called the ‘thesis’. That works, right? The thesis is where you put your foot down. But there was a complement to the thesis, the other part of the beat, where you raise your foot up. That’s called the ‘arsis’. And the analogy works really well I think, because you can only put your foot down as many times as you pick it up. There is necessarily a balance of thesis and arsis, setting views and retracting them. But we have no concept of arsis, no notion in modern academia that giving up on ideas could be as important as asserting them. That seems deeply unbalanced to me. So if I may, I suggest that you see giving up on bad ideas, or ideas which are past their prime, as just as important as developing the new ones.

So that’s it, those are my suggestions. Say bad words, forget it, and give up. I hope to have brought your attention to the fact that we need to manage the cognitive junk in our lives, to pay attention to it so that we don’t get buried in it.


We should genetically engineer cats to have smooth penises

I think we have a moral responsibility to work out how to cause male cats to have smooth rather than barbed penises. The tip of a cat penis looks like this:


Horrifying, right? Nature loves pulling tricks like this. Most of the time, I’m sure, we should leave things alone and let the natural course of things unfold in its own awful way. But we have a special relationship with domestic animals, in that we are the main force which has shaped their evolution over the last 10,000 or so years. We’ve been actively shaping their bodies for a long time now, mostly for our own amusement.

I propose that intimate relationship gives us an extra level of moral responsibility in this case. We’re the ones who tamed cats, selected them for being gentle and sensitive animals. We stuffed them with our values and perspectives. But we’re letting this part of their lives be as indifferently brutal as it has ever been. That was beyond our power to control for a really long time, but the time is very near where we’ll have choices to make.

In most cases, I think the case against genetically modifying the germline of a species is very good. But with cats and dogs especially, we can’t pretend that we’re not already making decisions:



This is not, I strongly suspect, how this cat’s ancestors looked 10,000 years ago. So we’ve already made decisions on their behalf. I think even cat breeders would agree, we have an ethical responsibility to not let their germ line get too weird, or too dysfunctional. But why should that responsibility stop when it comes to things that pre-date our influence? Assuming we develop a safe and reliable way to do so, I think we’re actually obliged to help cats reproduce in kinder and gentler way.

Two and a Half Chapter 1’s

Since August, I’ve written two and one half versions of chapter 1 of my thesis. I loved version one, and it came straight from the heart. But as it turns out, writing that way will get you an unpublishable screed rather than some reasonable contribution to the literature.

Version two was significantly toned down, and had a more definite target. I was critiquing the account of ‘generality’ given by Michael Strevens in his 2004 paper (pdf) and 2008 book*. I thought he simply said that the generality of a statement is the number of actual or possible states of a given system that it applies to. I prepared a cutting argument about how ‘number’ of states is a wrong-headed way of thinking about things, because in real-valued systems there are an uncountably infinite number of possible states! And so I hoped to motivate my own view of generality. But as it turned out, I hadn’t read the paper hard enough, and had missed the following:

On the new definition, the degree of abstractness of a model [its degree of generality] is proportional to the number of possible physical systems satisfying the model. More exactly, since a typical model satisfies ranges for one or more real-valued systems, abstractness is proportional to the standard measure (in the mathematical sense) of the set of possible physical systems satisfying the model. (2004, p.170)

Curses! Defining it in terms of measure solved the problem I wanted to raise entirely. It did so in a simple and sexy way. My own solution to this non-existent problem looked clunky and awkward in comparison. It was couched in an ugly and ad-hoc formalism that would probably only ever really make sense to me.

And that’s when it happened. I had a moment of insight into the very heart of academic mediocrity. Having already set aside my work of love, and facing the collapse of my compromise version, I thought to myself:

…maybe if I make the formalism dense enough, no one will notice it’s wrong.

When it sunk in that I had actually thought that, that I had actually felt it, I was struck with equal parts horror and a feeling of liberation. I had, for at least a moment, become the thing I hate most about the academy. But I also knew for a certainty that I would rather walk away from the whole project than accept that state. I quit the academic life for ever that day, for about 20 minutes.

After gathering my wits for a few weeks, and surviving the holiday season, I’m now in the process of writing v.3 of chapter 1. It’s somewhere between v.1 and v.2 in terms of ambition, and it’s going fairly well.


Strevens, M. (2008), Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Strevens, M. (2004), ‘The causal and Unification Approaches to Explanation Unified – Causally’, Noûs 38(1), 154-176.

Astrobiology and the End of the World

Consider three very different scenarios:

A) We are totally unique in the universe, the only intelligent life anywhere.

B) The universe teems with intelligence. Galaxies often form connected communities of different intelligent species.

C) Simple life is common, but intelligent life is typically very short lived. Intelligence is common enough, but doesn’t persist long enough for intelligent species to meet in outer space.

All of these are live possibilities, as far as we know. Nothing we know about the shape of the universe rules out any of them. But it’s curious what a different light each scenario casts on our struggle to not destroy ourselves.

A) If we’re the only intelligent species that has ever been, our survival is of paramount importance. Burning through a planet or two is immaterial in comparison. I find this scenario to be the least likely.

B) If we’re just a few generations away from being inducted into the Galactic Federation, destroying ourselves wouldn’t, in the grand scheme, be as tragic. It would be more tragicomic – still sad, but in an hilarious bumbling way. It would also be immoral for us to prioritize the survival of humans over other species. Stripped of our status as unique in space and time, it seems to me our importance relative to the rest of the biome would be diminished. Conservation efforts make the most sense on this scenario.

C) This is the most interesting scenario to me, and it strikes me as just as likely as the other two. Imagine that the universe is positively sodden with simple life; algaes, bacteria, fungi, etc. Our own planet spent a couple of billion years covered in not much more, as far as anyone can tell, than stromatolites.

Stromatolites, little heaps of minerals produced by microbes

Maybe that level of life is simply everywhere. More complex things like plants and animals could be much rarer, but still reasonably well dotted around the universe, appearing where conditions are favourable.

And now imagine that intelligent life shows up regularly enough, but inevitably is snuffed out shortly after it appears. Intelligence is simply too volatile to survive on geological time-scales. Sometimes it lasts a few few thousands of years, sometime nearly a hundred thousand. But inevitably, intelligence tears itself apart. Like a supernova, it expends itself in a magnificent flash. Or, dumb luck crushes it in its flower, blasted by a meteor or some other random event. Either way, intelligent itself is mortal.

With this scenario, our conservation efforts look noble enough, but ultimately misguided. It’s like a 95 year old trying to quit smoking. What we should be doing instead is really enjoying the view, savouring the little time we have left. It’s a rare and precious thing that we should have happened to wake up in the world, and the really tragic thing would be to waste that wakefulness on panicked clinging. A graceful exit would be preferable, without too much fuss. We should make reasonable efforts to keep ourselves going, but no extreme measures. And the stylish thing to do would be to avoid doing too much damage to the rest of the biosphere in the process of our extinction.

The amazing part, the really awesome, terrifying bit, is that there really is a real answer to the question of how much life there is in the universe, and how much of it is smart. And it’s a good bet that we’ll never know what it is. We have to figure out what to do with ourselves in this profound ignorance.

Of Downward Causation and Hipsterism

I doubted that I would ever tell this little story in a serious academic context, until a version of it came tumbling out of me in my recent specialist exam. Now that I’ve already suffered the embarrassment of having my committee hear it, I may as well share it with the wider world.

As a bit of background, consider the question of downward causation. Some philosophers (Evan Thompson, R.C. Bishop, Alicia Juarrero) have been arguing that complex systems exhibit downward causation, where the system as a whole constrains or explains the behaviour of its parts. We can’t just look to the intrinsic properties of the parts to understand the overall dynamics, we have to also include their organization as a whole system.

The example I like best is Raleigh-Benard convection, this thing:

So imagine this is water (or some other fluid) and the bottom plate is heated. Above a certain temperature, the water will make these lovely little rolls that form hexagonal cells. That’s Raleigh-Benard convection.

And the argument is that before convection starts, the individual water molecules are just bopping around, doing their own thing. The relevant causes are just the low-level microphysics of the system. But once a convective regime takes hold, the story goes, we need to consider another kind of cause – the constraint put on elements of the system by the organization of the system as a whole. So because the whole system is spiralling, individual molecules can’t just bounce around in any old direction, their set of possibilities is constrained to just rolling action. And that’s downward causation – a kind of systemic constrain on the possibilities of the parts.

I’d like to propose that we look at that same story from a different perspective. Suppose we ask what it would be like to be one of those water molecules. I think that if you look at it from the water molecule’s point of view, it’s pretty clear that whatever these systemic constraints that convection introduces are, they aren’t ‘downward’. They may tell us something about the system as a whole, but they don’t really tell us anything about the parts of the system, and don’t constitute a real constraint on the behaviour of those parts.

To that end, I’m pleased to introduce to Walter the Water Molecule:

The life of a water molecule is a simple but satisfying one. The really nice thing is that, unlike people, water molecules always act perfectly authentically, according to their own Innate Physics. When bounced by something from the left, Walter zooms right..

When something bounces him from the right, Walter always reacts in exactly the way he pleases, bouncing away to the left.

And no matter what his circumstances, Walter would always remain true to his own Innate Physics.

But one particularly hot day, Walter noticed something funny. Despite his doing nothing different than what he always had, it seemed more and more that everyone else was doing exactly what he was doing. He had decided, on account of his Innate Physics, to do vertical loops that day, but for some reason everyone else was doing it as well!

Since he was doing what he had always done, and now everyone else was doing the same, there was only one conclusion that poor Walter could come to: they were all copying him! Walter therefore became an insufferable hipster.

The moral of the story is, don’t be like Walter. His confusion was to think that just because everyone is doing the same thing, they must be following the crowd somehow. He assumed that if the overall behaviour is orderly, that must mean that the individuals involved must somehow be constrained from following their own Innate Physics. But that’s just not true. Water molecules do their own thing, no more and no less, both before and after the onset of convection.

Of course, something does change when the system changes from being disorderly to the orderliness of convection. What I’m rhetorically gesturing at here is that what changes isn’t anything about the parts of the system – they keep on keeping on in exactly the same way no matter what. What changes is at the system level. So there isn’t any good sense in which this self-organized behaviour counts as ‘downward’ causation.

The most interesting thing about the story of the Buddha’s life is, I think, that he started off as a prince. He first experienced the finest pleasure that life had to offer in his time and place, before he let go of the world. If you imagine the milieux he entered into when he left the palace behind, it seems like it would be very difficult to convince anyone that you had discovered something deep and important. It seems likely that there would have been any number of wild-eyed ascetics who were claiming that they had seen all there was to see. There certainly are these days, and our culture doesn’t respond in the way it did to Shakyamuni.

I would find that compelling, as a poor and suffering old man gone to the forest to look for a freedom that the grind of life had not afforded me. Here was a fresh faced young person who had experienced every joy that the world had denied me, but who had found no real happiness in it. And here he was saying that he had found something that didn’t require material comforts to be totally satisfied. I think that would be quite compelling.

I also think it’s interesting that, as the story goes, he hesitated for a week after attaining complete enlightenment before deciding to hang around and teach. As the logic of the story goes, he was already as wise as a being can get – and yet it wasn’t immediately obvious that he should spend his time trying to help others. He was so ok with everything that not helping was apparently almost (but not quite) as ok as spending a few decades showing thousands of others how to be completely happy.

If that indicates anything, it’s that the key thing is to find an interesting path to liberation. What made the buddha worth listening to amongst the quite serious seekers that surrounded him was the route he had taken. The straight and standard path will only make you free – but a life that stands as a parable can resonate across millennia.

Life: There’s just so much of it

There will be more to see here soon. I’m currently pretty thoroughly occupied with meat-space activities. The main thing right now is a talk for the upcoming meeting of the Consortium for the History and Philosophy of Biology (see their comically outdated website here, featuring the program for their annual conference from two years ago).

Also ongoing is the planning for the upcoming HAPSAT conference. If you’re seeing this, you almost certainly have also already seen me advertising for it, but feel free to click on the website again. I get an almost unseemly satisfaction from watching the stat counters that tell me how many people looked at it. I love collecting internet points.

Also ongoing is my preparation for my specialist exam, the qualifying oral exam which puts me one thesis proposal away from being done All But Dissertation.

And of course, crammed in between the spaces left by those things is the preparations for my wedding. All four of those things will be over, one way or the other, in the next month. After that, I can get back to leisure activities like making blog.