Monday, February 27, 2012

Chess in a dress

I’m bad at chess. One of the advantages of this is that when I play it against strangers on the internet I don’t get accused of cheating, but I’d still like to be better. It tends to surprise people how bad I am because I’ve always been pretty good at mathsy things. It surprises me too, but I think what’s killing my game is that I don’t take enough interest in what the other player’s thinking. As anyone who doesn’t suck at chess knows, that’s pretty important. If you’re too self-absorbed, they’ll have a plan and then catch you unawares with it, and you’ll lose. But now I may have hit upon a solution.

Regular readers will know that a while ago I read and enjoyed a book about psychological research into differences between men and women. If I remember rightly, she said (among other things) that when people imagine themselves as being of a particular gender they adopt the psychological traits they think people of that gender tend to have. One of the traits people in my country tend to associate with women is seeing things from other people’s point of view. Empathy, sympathy, emotional intelligence: whatever you call it,  the chances are that on some level a 21st century Briton like me will think women are better at it. This is meant to work even if you've read and been broadly persuaded by a book suggesting the stereotypes may be largely unfounded. So if I want to be better at chess, I just need to write a first-person story from a woman’s point of view, and then use my magical mindreading skills to rumble my opponents' plans. Those strangers on the internet won’t know what hit them.

Now, I can imagine someone pointing out that the best chess players in the world are mostly men, and at the very highest level they’re all men. Presumably there’s something men are good at which outweighs the women’s ability to read minds. Well, one thing is that the technique makes you assume the traits you think women have, not the traits they actually have. Men may be actually just as good at mindreading as women are, but as long as I think women are better, if I think myself feminine I should become better. Another thing is that even if male dominance in chess is caused at least in part by psychological differences between men and women, these differences might benefit the men in obsessively learning openings and practising, rather than making them better players practice-hour for practice-hour. So I don’t think my hypothesis should be dismissed out of hand.

I did think I might be able to get in touch with my telepathic side by wearing a dress when I play, but it was suggested to me that this might actually draw attention to my maleness, since I’d be thinking ‘I’m a man in a dress’. I don’t know which way this effect would go, so I should probably test the hypothesis using the story method, which I understand is more standard. I’ll test the dress method too though, because if it works then it might catch on and top players would need to turn out in drag to stay competitive. That’s a turn of events for which I wouldn’t mind being responsible.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Probably not important

Consider this sentence:

            PN       PN is probably not true.

Sentences can be true even if they’re probably not, at least on some readings of ‘probably’. I’m intending ‘probably’ in one of those ways. It sounds Moore-paradoxical to say ‘P but probably not-P’, but Moore-paradoxicality isn’t inconsistency. So the instance of the sloppy T-schema for PN...

            T-PN   PN is true iff PN is probably not true.

...doesn’t entail a contradiction. Maybe it’s true but probably not true. Contrast the instance of the sloppy T-schema for L:

            L          L is not true.

            T-L      L is true iff L is not true.

T-L does entail a contradiction, so L is paradoxical. T-PN doesn’t, but that’s not the end of it. First, note that there’s another way PN could go: it could be untrue though not probably. This might be because it was probably true, or because its truth and untruth were equiprobable. So it might be true, and it might be untrue. Which is it?

A fairly reasonable-sounding principle of indifference might say its truth and untruth were equiprobable. In that case it isn’t probably untrue, which means it isn’t true. But if the equiprobability was itself probable, then its consequence that PN isn’t true would seem to be probable, which means PN is true, which is a contradiction. So the equiprobability isn’t probable. What are the other credible options?

Maybe PN is probably not true. But this means it’s true. So if PN is probably probably not true, then it’s probably true. That doesn’t sound a very delicious combination.

The other possibility is that PN is probably true. In that case it’s not true. So if it’s probably probably true then it’s probably not true. Yuk again.

Can this lot even be made consistent? Here are the entailments:

            Probably true untrue
            Probably not true true
            Equiprobable untrue

If the disjunction of probably and equiprobable is probable, then PN is probably untrue, but this contradicts the disjunction being probable, since the options are exclusive. So the disjunction is not probable, so probably not must be at least 50% probable. But if it’s exactly 50% probable, then given the entailments, PN is equiprobably true and not true. But this makes equiprobable true, which we’ve established is not probable. So suppose probably not is probable. This means PN is probably true, which is a contradiction. So the improbable equiprobable must be true. But if something must be true, then it’s probable. So the disjunction is probable after all, and that led to a contradiction. So dialetheism must be true. But if dialetheism must be true, we can reject some of the above reductio reasoning. So some contradictions are true, but possibly not this one.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Keeping up with the robots

Like all sensible people, I spend fair amount of time worrying about the robots taking over. Futurologists disagree about exactly when this problem is going to become pressing, but when it does, we’ll need a plan. So I’ve come up with a plan.

First I’ll outline the problem. It’s well within the capabilities of computers to program other computers, and robots can do things like build computers. The machines of the future may be able to build more and better machines without us getting involved at all. And if, as Descartes and even Dawkins sometimes seem to, you think that a designer could not design something more powerful than itself, you are wrong.

Now, there might come a point when the machines are better at designing machines than humans are. After that point, not only will each generation of designers have more to build on than their predecessors, but they’ll also be better designers. This will have two effects. First, technology will advance much faster. Second, the robots’ designs will be better than anything we can come up with, since they are better designers than us. Our puny weapons will be no match for their superior intellect, and the robocalypse will be upon us.

Here’s the solution. The problem was robots becoming better at designing new robots. To keep up with them, we need to become better at designing new humans. We need to use our knowledge of biology to produce better humans who will in turn be better at designing the subsequent generation, and so on. The robots’ powers will increase exponentially, but so will ours. This will give us a fighting chance in the Robagnarok.

Of course, this plan of mine evokes the twin spectres of eugenics and designer babies, and the subsequent generations of bioengineering geniuses will presumably evoke brave new spectres of their own. The reasons for not going down those roads are as strong as ever, and I don’t like the sound of growing old in that world at all. But unless we can think of something else, it may be our only chance. And since the sooner we start, the more likely we are to beat them, I think we'd better come up with another idea pretty quickly.