OK. Then I have a confession and three complaints. The confession is that when I wrote what I did above, I hadn't noticed that you offered that link as further explanation of the term "physical cognition". The complaints are (1) that having now followed the link, I think it leaves the meaning of "physical cognition" still less than perfectly clear; and, in so far as it does explain what the term means, (2a) it actually seems not so far from "real-world achievement" and (2b) I think it probably doesn't include music and art. (Whereas in your usage it seems like it must.)
I'll elaborate a bit. Here is what that essay says about physical and social cognition. (The only actual instance of those terms is at the end of the second quoted paragraph, but I think the preceding stuff is necessary to make sense of that.)
So. We start with Maslow's hierarchy. Vassar (the author of the essay) puts a division between the two "lowest" levels, which he calls "physical" (meaning that they are concerned with our physical needs and wants) and the next two, which he calls "social" (meaning that they are concerned with our interactions with others). The topmost level ("self-actualization") I think Vassar classifies as "social", which I think mostly indicates that his terminology isn't great.
And he says that attempts to address needs and wants higher up in the Maslow hierarchy tend to involve vague fuzzy socailly-mediated things, which may "be fairly easily hacked" and "constitute a poor foundation for universal cognition" by comparison with activity directed at the lower levels, which tend to involve precise specific details and "constitute a good substrate for digital, and thus potentially abstract, cognition". And, finally, he says that the lower-level ones seem to be endorsed over the higher-level by the likes of Newton and Feynman.
All fair enough (though I'm not at all convinced). But now you want to say that artistic endeavour belongs in the category of "physical cognition"? Really? Perhaps the purely mechanical aspects of playing an instrument do, but what distinguishes music from finger exercises is vague fuzzy socially-mediated things like "beauty" and "taste" which seem to me much more like "weirdness, gravitas and sexiness" than like "solidity and shape", and which I think land squarely in the category of "social cognition" according to Vassar's distinction.
My point (2a) is less important than (2b) which is why I've focused on the latter, but now a word or two about (2a). If I am understanding Vassar right, what distinguishes "physical cognition" is that its goals are located in the physical world and can be evaluated without reference to social context (moral norms, fashions, the approval of the elite, ...). And if I am understanding bogus right, this is pretty close to what he means by "real-world". Not quite the same, but closer (as it seems to me) than anything that would put artistic endeavours in the "physical" category.
comment by komponisto
· score: -2 (1 votes) · LW
Like others, you seem to be interpreting my comments as if they were stating conclusions intended to be only one or two inferential steps away (from your current epistemic state). This is not at all necessarily the case!
In particular, when I state a proposition X, I expect readers not only to ask themselves whether they already think X is true (i.e. conditioned on all their knowledge before my statement), but also to ask themselves why I might believe X. To engage, in other words, in at least a cursory search for inferential chains leading to X -- resulting in either the discovery of an inferential chain that they themselves agree with (in which case communication has been approximately successful), or a hypothesis about what my error is (which can then be discussed, and confirmed or disconfirmed).
This mental motion seems to be missing from your (and, even more severely, others') reactions to my comments. It's as if I were expected to be modeling your epistemic state, without any corresponding expectation that you be modeling mine. Yet, insofar as I've stated a specific belief, you have some specific information about mine, whereas I have only background information about yours. This will of course change once you reply -- I will get more specific information about yours -- but the dialogue will be more efficient if your reply attempts to integrate and respond to the information you have about my epistemic state, rather than merely providing information about yours (as is the case when your reply takes the form "you have made one or more assumptions that I don't share", as here, for example).
Now, to get back to the object level:
Vassar (the author of the essay) puts a division between the two "lowest" levels, which he calls "physical" (meaning that they are concerned with our physical needs and wants) and the next two, which he calls "social" (meaning that they are concerned with our interactions with others). The topmost level ("self-actualization") I think Vassar classifies as "social", which I think mostly indicates that his terminology isn't great.
You have overlooked a distinction that, while not explicitly stated in the essay itself, is nevertheless crucial to understanding the point Vassar is making: the distinction between people's needs, themselves, and the programs that they use to satisfy them. The pathology that Vassar is complaining about is the fact that as one ascends the hierarchy of needs, the programs that people tend to use for satisfying them become less physical and more social in nature: society in effect reserves its highest rewards for those most practiced in social, rather than physical, cognition. The essay implies that he regards this as being, in at least some sense, contingent: in principle, society could be set up so that physical cognition played a greater role in the satisfaction of higher Maslow-needs (belonging, esteem, self-actualization).
This is the background for my assertions about art -- which I made first not here, but on Sarah Constantin's blog Otium, in a comment thread that, again, I linked in my original comment here (and is thus assumed to be fully loaded into the context of this discussion):
[T]here’s a widespread misunderstanding to the effect that the “finer things in life” (art etc., particularly as contrasted with STEM) fall exclusively into the realm of social cognition; and this is just so, so, so, false. I feel like a whole array of cultural pathologies can be traced to this misunderstanding...
This could even have existential implications of a sort...the problem is — and this is what Michael was talking about in his essay — that society doesn’t reward physical cognition with Maslow-advancement. As a result, by the time people get up to Level 5, their focus has basically shifted to social cognition, and they “enjoy the finer things in life” in predominantly if not exclusively that way. As a result, they are cognitively unequipped to do the very things that people on Level 5 are supposed to be doing (“figuring out where the monkey tribe should go next”, i.e. solving x-risk etc.), or at least unpracticed...
I basically feel that if we, as a society, understood better that art (at least certain forms, most notably music) was just as much about physical cognition as social (and basically as much about physical as STEM is), that would at least reflect (and could even cause) a stronger presence of physical cognition along the gradient of social advancement.
So: from this it should be evident that not only do I think that certain arts are heavily physical-cognition-loaded, but, furthermore, the very failure to understand this is, in my view, itself a manifestation of the pathology that Vassar's essay was (in large part) about.
(Just as an aside: in case there is any doubt about my interpretation of Vassar, here is an e-mail I wrote to him in March 2013:
I'm wondering if you think the following is a fair paraphrase of your Edge essay from January:
To effectively create value requires skill in analytical/"near-mode" thinking. Unfortunately, society does not do a good job of Maslow-rewarding people for developing such skill, with the result that too few people at the higher Maslow-levels are analytically skilled, and too few analytically skilled people are at the higher Maslow-levels.
This seems like precisely the problem that the rationalist community exists in order to address. [...]
To which he replied, in full:
That's the main point of the essay.
Thus, I think it was somewhat logically rude of you to ask, in a tone of incredulity,
But now you want to say that artistic endeavour belongs in the category of "physical cognition"? Really?
and to follow that by an un-self-conscious affirmation of the conventional assumption that I had, very knowingly, denied.
"Really?" Yes, really. Not only am I aware that conventional wisdom assumes the contrary, but I specifically cited the conventionality of that assumption as an example of the Maslow-pathology described by Vassar. Yes, I know people think that
what distinguishes music from finger exercises is vague fuzzy socially-mediated things like "beauty" and "taste" which seem to me much more like "weirdness, gravitas and sexiness" than like "solidity and shape"
-- this (I claim) is a problem!
Now, it's understandable that you might be curious about why I believe what I believe in this realm. And, to a large extent, I'm perfectly happy to discuss it. (After all, on my beliefs, it's in my interest to do so!) But the inferential chains may be long, and my communication style is a high-context one. Even if I have made a mistake in my reasoning, it is not likely to be identified efficiently by means of a discussion that takes it as plausible that I might have arrived at my conclusions randomly.
comment by bogus
· score: 0 (0 votes) · LW
the programs that people tend to use for satisfying them become less physical and more social in nature: society in effect reserves its highest rewards for those most practiced in social, rather than physical, cognition. The essay implies that he regards this as being, in at least some sense, contingent: in principle, society could be set up so that physical cognition played a greater role in the satisfaction of higher Maslow-needs
It seems hard to envision a society wherein belonging and esteem could be satisfied via physical cognition, at least until we can make building an AIBO pet dog robot in one's garage a common enough pasttime. So, the only realistic possibility for a meaningful change is in how self-actualization is pursued. But is it actually true that "social" paths to self-actualization are less collectively desirable than "physical" paths to the same?
Well, for a start, there are certainly "fine things in life" that are best understood in social terms; for a handy example that fits squarely in the realm of art, consider so-called "literary" fiction. Now I obviously cannot claim that writing literary fiction could ever be considered an "achievement" of the purest sort (in my preferred sense), since its value is not something that can be generally assessed in any widely-agreed upon way. And yet, it is certainly the case that, to the extent that works of literary fiction are widely considered to be valuable accomplishments, this is due to what they imply about the social universe, as opposed to the physical one!
The belief that I am implicitly denying here seems to be, as quoted directly from the parent comment: "To effectively create value requires skill in analytical/"near-mode" thinking" (emphasis added). And that's certainly true in many cases (it's also true, as you rightly point out, that many of the "finer things in life" are far from entirely social!) but not in general. This matters here, because it seems to lead you to incorrect conclusions about what exactly makes "self-actualization" value-creating and collectively desirable. It's not the absence of "social cognition" in its entirety but rather, of a few undesirable aspects of social interaction that are rather more pervasive at the level of "esteem" and "belonging". Vassar's essay is even quite clear that these aspects exist, and are important to his point!
comment by komponisto
· score: -2 (1 votes) · LW
It seems hard to envision a society wherein belonging and esteem could be satisfied via physical cognition
Not hard to envision at all; only hard, perhaps, to implement. It shouldn't take all that much imagination to summon the thought of a society in which people were better rewarded with status (and all its trappings) for things like solving mathematical problems, or composing complexly-structured music, as opposed to all the various generalized forms of pure politics that determine the lion's share of status in the world we know, than they actually are in the world we know.
In fact, we can look around and find historical examples of societies where that was the case. In my Otium comment I pointed to one: Imperial Germany (pre-WWI). That was a place where a figure like Max Reger could achieve high status in general culture -- without even needing to be a Nietzschean superman to do so. All he had to do was follow the rules of society, which happened to permit someone with those kinds of compositional aspirations to become a celebrity.
My radical belief is that the fact that this is the same culture that also produced leading figures in every other field of creative intellection (and a place where shops in university towns sold pictures of professors in postcard form), and indeed is credited by Tyler Cowen with "deliver[ing] the goods in terms of innovation", is not a coincidence.
This is an extreme example -- in fact the best I know of, at least at the level of entire nations -- but the phenomenon is a matter of degree.
Well, for a start, there are certainly "fine things in life" that are best understood in social terms; for a handy example that fits squarely in the realm of art, consider so-called "literary" fiction.
Yes. Narrative fiction is the least physically-oriented of the arts. Its existence is most of the reason for the qualifier "at least certain forms [of art]" in my comment on Sarah's blog.
Note that it is also the only art-form that is widely appreciated at anything like a sophisticated level by the "rationalist community" as a whole. This is a problem. (Basically, it reflects an implicit belief that only STEM is about physical cognition; since all art is assumed to be almost wholly social, LWers opt for the "least pretentious" variant, i.e. the most socioculturally "accessible" form to them, namely fiction, specifically fanfiction.)
It's not the absence of "social cognition" in its entirety
I never said it was. What made you think otherwise?
Above, I specifically said that arts synthesized physical and social cognition, and implied that that was important to their value.
The problem I'm talking about is the absence of physical cognition, not the presence of social cognition.