Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Right Tools

(This is what happens when I dash-off some writing too early in the morning. I'm still almost in a dream-state.)

The Right Tools

Post-WWII physics-envy eventually led to the Skinnerian model of Radical Behaviorism for American academic research psychology. Over time the model (as models are wont to do) became increasingly plagued with diminishing marginal research accomplishments despite near total domination of the funding and talent landscapes. When desktop computers became widespread (again, in America) beginning around the early 1970s Cognitive Psychology quickly took over and began it's rise to become the new dominant model. (ooRaNoos, Kronos, Zeus, ...) But as before, all models are metaphors and all metaphors are just tools for better approximating partial truths. (Ergo the tasks of Science are never-ending.) Only twenty years later in the early 1990s Evolutionary Psychology met a great deal of resistance from mainstream psychology, in part I suspect because most of the professors clearly remembered, and many had participated, in the arguments against the dominance of Skinnerian Radical Behaviorism and saw Evolutionary Psychology as just the latest form of methodological imperialism ("biological imperialism") from a new direction. The critics of E.P. frequently defined it as being so narrow as to be useless, though the founders much more frequently talked and wrote about conceptual unification. (For an example see online "Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer". It's about 60 pages, all excellent.) (I wonder if during the intial rise of a metaphor/method within a science there is an emphasis on unification, and later the language becomes more imperialistic? Fortunately, I guess, Evolutionary Psychology is still a very young field, as the history of such fields go.)

(And, well, you just ~knew~ this was coming.. there's a metaphor for that.)

John Watson wrote Secrets of Modern Chess Strategy, published in 2003. In it he discusses the 150 year history of different schools of thought about chess. (..Soviet system, Ukrainian, Nimzovich's, Hyper-Modern, and so on. Though the categorization as schools didn't really became common until philosopher and friend-of-Einstein world chess champion Emmanual Lasker wrote his books.) I'd highly recommend the final chapter to just about everyone. (From what I recall from skimming a copy of his book from the library.. ) Watson argues that the decline of Schools of chess reflects the increasing realization that the adoption of any given system by a grandmaster in the over-the-board play by that grandmaster exposes them to the weaknesses of that system, and that all systems ultimately have weaknesses because they are ~just~ systems, approximate metaphors, tools developed for certain classes of problems that recurr in chess positions. Watson concludes that the different systems remain as useful teaching tools, but that at some point if students are to progress to the highest levels in chess they have to grow beyond the limitations of each -- conceptual unification. The sorts of rules that people put forth as "universal" tend to eventually result in diminishing usefulness. Rules mislead. There is only the specific position of the chessboard the grandmaster is analyzing. I am not entirely sure I agree with Watson in his final chapter, but for now it seems a useful way of thinking about things.

Richard J. Harper (a.k.a. harpersnotes)

Prescript: Nine hours earlier I tweeted the following in response to thinking about a comment Razib had made in his Discover Blog about some academic fields "more fundamental".
Are algorithmic or axiomatic approaches "more fundamental"? Can axioms be derived from algorithms? (Kurt Godel?) (Sci method --> physics?)

Personal note: The first chess book I ever studied, long long ago, was by Emmanual Lasker. Now it's out of print and almost impossible to find. I remember it as being vaguely similar to Euclid's Elements.

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