Is History a Science?

People twist themselves into knots on the question of whether or not history is a science. I’m not prepared to defend the claim that history is *always* a science, but it certainly can be.

As we all know arguably the most important defining feature of a science is that it is ‘falsifiable’ — it makes predictions about future sensory states which could in principle turn out to be wrong.

One major source of confusion here is that history makes what we might call ‘retrodictions’, i.e. predictions about events that happened in the past. This seems vaguely screwy, somehow.

But the fact that arrowheads or artifacts are thousands of years old shouldn’t concern the historian-scientist anymore than the fact that the light hitting a telescope is millions of years old should concern an astronomer-scientist.

The predictions yielded by a historical theory constrain *future* sensory states in a falsifiable way. If you subscribe to the idea that humans crossed Beringia 20,000 years ago, you should never, in the future, find an arrowhead older than that. If you do, your theory is falsified.

So history passes as least one of the more significant tests by which we separate science from non-science

What To Do When You Feel Inadequate

There are times in life, usually when I’m struggling with a problem that I’m sure I’ll look back on as trivially easy, when I begin to feel a creeping sense of doubt in my own abilities.

I think to myself, “you are hoping to accomplish Big Dream X, and yet here you sit struggling to write a javascript program that prints out a chessboard”.

Concerns of this sort can be very difficult to brush aside, but when they happen to me, there are a couple of things I try to keep in mind:

1) Everything I’m good at I used to not be good at.

I don’t think it’s unfair or overblown to say that at the peak of my guitar playing abilities I was just a little shy of world class. Around the age of 21 or 22 I could easily handle Andy Mckee’s “Drifting”, and I even had a pretty convincing cover of Eric Johnson’s seminal “Cliffs of Dover” under my belt. But where I really dazzled was in my original compositions which, if you’ll permit me the indulgence of tooting my own horn a little, displayed a sensitivity and nuance that almost everyone who heard them found striking.

That’s not an assumption on my part. Back then it was a regular occurrence to perform at some college event and then be approached by a half-dozen people asking me questions and gushing about how they’d never heard anyone as skilled as me play in person.

Which is why it became easy, even for me, to forget how bad I was when I started and how hard I had to work to achieve what I did. I think I had been “playing” guitar for about two years before I even began to seriously practice. Even then, while my progress was fairly quick, it was far from spectacular.

The same guy who went on to excel musically spent many, many frustrating hours trying to get graceless fingers to coax something vaguely resembling music out of an uncooperative piece of wood. Perhaps the same guy who goes on to found a billion dollar company or helps reshape the foundations of AI theory will look back on those simple coding exercises and wonder why it ever seemed so hard.

This helps me put my struggles into context.

2) Constant failure is the price you pay for greatness.

A great way to avoid failure is to simply never try to do anything very hard. I could just start working at a Barnes and Noble, wait until I’m in middle management, and stay there for the next half century, and I bet I would experience very few embarrassing failures.

Since I’ve deliberately chosen not to take the easy way out, there’s no avoiding the fact that I’m going to bump up against my limits. I’m going to embark on a project that’ll wind up being too ambitious and at some point I’ll simply crash and burn.

But so what? Point me to anyone who has achieved great things, like solving a longstanding problem or remaking an industry, that also managed to avoid failure while they did so.

Can’t think of any? Me either.

The tricky part, of course, is remembering this when you’re actually in the middle of an ongoing crisis and you’re beset by self doubt.

3) Titans rarely feel like Titans

Sometime last year or so I was reading “Almost a Miracle”, a history of the Revolutionary War by John Ferling. It was fascinating overall, but one thing that stuck out was the insight it gave me into the personality of George Washington.

Washington is about the closest thing American history has to a mythical figure. And yet he spent his entire life feeling insecure because of his lack of formal education, and he repeatedly questioned his suitably for the role he was asked to play in the war.

This is the man that went up against one of the greatest empires in world history and won, all while unsure as to whether he had the personal resources, wit, and wherewithal to succeed.

Why should I expect my own accomplishments to come easily?


I’ll level with you: you’re going to fail. You’re going to feel inadequate. That’s what happens when you hold yourself to a high standard and reach for the best within you in an attempt to accomplish big things.

You have to know when to throw in the towel, of course; not every idea is worth pursuing. But the majority of people I’ve encountered err on the side of quitting far too soon. Finding someone with sub-optimally high levels of persistence and grit seems to be pretty rare.

There’s another thing I remind myself of, as a last resort, when I feel like giving up. It’s not something I say often or when I’m feeling depressed, but it’s nevertheless true, and sometimes you have to be the person who’ll say the tough things you need to hear.

After a while spent futilely groping toward a solution to a problem, when I want to just let go and sink into mediocrity, I’ll think to myself:

If this is all it takes to break you, you would never have been worthy of greatness anyway.

Peripatesis: Controlling A God, Hannibal Leaves Italy.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N., Superintelligence, p. 127-144

In the sprawling chapter 9 Bostrom discusses and finds problems with several proposed means of controlling a Superintelligence. These include boxing it, setting up tripwires, and building our preferences into its motivational system.

I plan on touching on these topics substantially in the future, so that’s all I’ll say about them for now.

Goldsworthy, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 234- 244

Though Hannibal only received reinforcements on one occasion in 215, but his brother Hadsdrubal crossed the alps via the same path he did in 207 and his brother Mago landed in Genoa in 205.

Unfortunately for Hannibal, neither brother managed to accomplish much before being killed (or in Mago’s dying en route to Carthage of a wound sustained during combat). In 203 Hannibal received orders to evacuate and come to the defense of Carthage, which was being menaced by Roman invaders in North Africa.

Peripatesis: Superintelligent Motivation, Hannibal Captures Tarentum.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N., Superintelligence, p. 105-126

In chapters 7 and 8 Bostrom covers the relationship between intelligence and motivation and what the default outcome of the intelligence explosion would be, respectively.

The point of chapter 7 is to establish the Orthogonality Thesis, so called because the idea is that nearly any goal can be attached to nearly any level of intelligence. Intelligent humans might not want to spend all day making paperclips, but assuming that a superintelligent AI wouldn’t want to is anthropomorphism.

Chapter 8 gives a panoply of reasons for expecting a non-carefully-controlled intelligence explosion to be catastrophic. The basic idea is that when one human tells another human “make me smile” both humans come pre-equipped with a vast, shared cognitive machinery which means that neither party will interpret this command as ‘staple the corners of my mouth up so I’m always grinning’.

Assuming an AI would rule that option out is also anthropomorphism, and of a kind that’s very deadly if we’re dealing with a superintelligence.

Goldsworthy, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 222-233

This week I made it party through the section which covers the years 216 B.C.-203 B.C. The Romans and Carthaginians spent this period vying for control of major cities in southern Italy, such as Capua.

Hannibal finally managed to capture a port at Tarentum in 212 B.C., a goal he had been particularly interested in achieving for a while. This didn’t actually amount to much, as the Romans recaptured Tarentum in 209 B.C.

Peripatesis: Superintelligent Strategic Advantages, The Aftermath of Cannae, ‘Utility’ In Game Theory.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N., Superintelligence, p. 78-104

I made it through two chapters this week, in which Bostrom addressed the questions of what sort of strategic advantage superintelligence-development projects could expect to have and how this would impact the future.

The question of strategic advantage is closely related to the question of take-off speed, because if we can expect a fast takeoff then it’s likely that the first project which creates an AI capable of recursive self-improvement will also give rise to the first superintelligence. If, on the other hand, the takeoff is slow then there might be many different AIs improving themselves on the path to superintelligence.

As Bostrom believes that a takeoff will probably be fast, he also believes that first superintelligence will probably be the only superintelligence. Any such agent will be capable of utilizing various superpowers, or abilities far beyond those possessed by competing agents, to disproportionately affect the future.

Using conservative estimates for the computational ability required to simulate human minds and how much of the available matter in the universe can be converted to computational substrate, Bostrom makes the case that the future is a truly vast place inhabited by a near-uncountable number of minds.

Given this, a strong argument can be made that the development of the first superintelligence is the most important project a group of humans will ever undertake.

Goldsworthy, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 214-221

Following his astonishing victory in the battle of Cannae, Hannibal faced the question of whether to march on Rome or to spend some time resting his troops and planning his next move.

Hannibal chose the latter, giving rise to one of the great ‘what-if’s’ of world history. It is far from clear that Rome would’ve been able to repel a full assault on the city itself, and equally unclear that Hannibal could’ve taken Rome.

In any case Rome ignored the delegation Hannibal sent to negotiate, choosing instead to begin the process of rebuilding their army.

For his part, Hannibal gained many new allies in Southern Italy, and with them a means of drawing supplies to feed his army, meaning he no longer needed to constantly be on the move.

From this point on it was to be a markedly different war between these two titanic enemies.

Luce, R., Raiffa, H., Games and Decisions, p. 12-38

As the concept of utility is essential in gaining an understanding of game theory, the entirety of Chapter 2 is devoted to it.

The following conceptual distinctions are made: an individual can be thought of as any entity or entities with a unitary goal, and a group is one comprised of members with competing goals. Decisions can be made under conditions of certainty, risk, or uncertainty.

A situation is certain when each action leads invariably to a known outcome, risky when each action leads to a set of possible outcomes which have known probabilities, and uncertain when it isn’t clear what the outcome of an action will be.

The authors then turn to analyzing decision making under certainty and under risk before laying out a number of axioms central to game theory.

Peripatesis: Intelligence Explosion Dynamics, The Battle Of Cannae.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N., Superintelligence, p. 62-78

In Chapter 5 Bostrom examines several different shapes an ‘intelligence explosion’ or ‘takeoff’ could have. The two most important factors governing this shape are the optimization power of the system and its recalcitrance, or resistance to improvement; in conjunction, optimization power and recalcitrance can give rise to slow, moderate, or fast takeoffs.

Different sorts of potentially superintelligent systems have different recalcitrance profiles. For example, the recalcitrance of developing nootropics would initially be low as little in the way of nootropic research has been done, but would likely to start to rise rapidly after most of the low-hanging fruit had been picked. An emulated mind on the other hand might have low-to-moderate recalcitrance for quite a while if it were able to absorb increasing amounts of hardware to run copies of itself on.

AI could play a role in the development of several different kinds of superintelligent systems, for example a network of knowledge workers whose output is vastly improved in terms of quality and quantity by the aid of an AI research assistant. As such, it makes sense to analyze the dynamics of an AI takeoff in some depth.

The recalcitrance of AI systems is hard to judge, because it may turn out that the key to making an AI smart enough to begin self-improving may be many little insights, each of which requires more and more effort to uncover, or it may be a single insight that eludes everyone for a long time. In the latter case, there may not be much improvement in the system at all until the last piece of the puzzle drops into place, and then change may start happening very quickly.

Bostrom believes that AI recalcitrance will not prove to be very high. Earth spends a lot of time developing new and more powerful computers, so once a human-level AI system is developed it will probably be able to make use of extra computing power laying around to run itself more quickly. It could also avail itself of the truly vast quantities of information available via the internet to fashion an knowledge base far in excess of anything possessed by a human being.

With respect to the other part of the equation, optimization power, it seems most likely that it will increase during the takeoff because people will begin investing huge amounts of effort in any AI system that shows promise. At a certain point the system will become capable enough that most optimization pressure is coming from the system itself. This might result in an improvement cascade, wherein each improvement makes further improvements easier, and the takeoff could be very fast indeed.


Goldsworthy, A., The Fall of Carthage, p. 198-214

In this section of Goldsworthy’s history of the Punic wars I learned about one of the most epic defeats ever dealt to the Roman empire: the battle of Cannae.

After a string of humiliating defeats the Roman senate had decided to put the two incoming consuls, Caius Tarentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus in charge of the largest army Rome had ever fielded. Each consul was to have four larger-than-normal legions, instead of the usual two, and the consuls were to face Hannibal together.

Hannibal waited until crops had ripened before heading south, eventually setting camp in the former stronghold Cannae. The Romans followed, taking great care to avoid spots where they could be ambushed.

The roman plan was to punch through the center of Hannibal’s army, scattering his infantry. Roman cavalry, notably inferior to their Punic counterparts, were only supposed to prevent flanking maneuvers for long enough to allow victory in the center.

Hannibal anticipated this and strengthened his center, bulging it outward towards his enemy.

After hours of intense fighting the Romans had managed to push the Carthaginian center backwards, eventually routing them. In the process their originally neat formations began to lose shape until the Roman soldiers were in one great mass hacking away at retreating Gauls. At this point the Libyan infantry on either side turned inward to face the Romans, and the real butchery started.

Disorganized and surrounded, the Romans were unable to make much use of their superior numbers. Though they inflicted ghastly casualties on the Carthaginians, Hannibal emerged victorious over the greatest fighting force Rome could muster.

For centuries thereafter the defeat at Cannae would be a Roman yardstick for measuring other losses.

Peripatesis: Narrow And General AI, Maximus ‘The Delayer’ Avoids Battle With Hannibal.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Bostrom, N. Superintelligence, p 1-22

The book’s far-ranging introduction spends most of its time taking a high-altitude look at the history and state-of-the-art of AI. After its founding the field was beset by boom periods of high investment and optimism followed by ‘winters’ during which funding disappeared and AI research fell out of favor. Behind the scenes, however, the actual nitty-gritty of AI development continued, resulting in more sophisticated expert systems, better neural nets, and numerous problems of the ‘computers will never do X’ variety being solved.

While surveying some of the astonishing successes of modern AI Bostrom introduces the distinction between a ‘narrow AI’, one with extremely high performance in a single domain like chess playing, and ‘general AI’, software able to reason across a wide variety of domains like humans can. No matter how impressive Watson or Deep Blue might be, they are only able to outperform humans in very limited ways; the real interest lies in machines that are as good or better than humans in lots of different ways.

Chapter 1 ends with a discussion of three different surveys taken of the opinions of AI experts. One survey was on when the experts thought human-level AI would be developed, one was on how long it would take human-level machines to become superintelligent, and another was on the overall impact of superintelligent AIs. It is notoriously difficult to predict when and what progress will be made in AI and so expert opinions were, predictably, all over the place. But the results do hint that the problem of AI safety is worth thinking seriously about.

Goldsworthy, A. The Fall of Carthage, p. 190-196

In the face of several crushing defeats the Roman government elected a dictator, Quintus Fabius Maximus, who would spend his six-month term carefully avoiding engagements with Hannibal, a passivity for which he received the nickname ‘the delayer’. This strategy, while causing much consternation among war-hungry Roman aristocrats, later came to be seen as Rome’s salvation, giving her time to recover from the defeats at Trebia and Trasimene.

Hannibal spent this period criss-crossing the Appennines, pillaging and looting freely. During one particularly crafty maneuver, he managed to move through a pass blocked by Fabius’ army by first tying wooden branches to the horns of oxen and then lighting the branches on fire, sending them into the pass first. The Roman troops occupying the pass believed the Carthaginian army was on the move and so descended to engage. In the resulting confusion Hannibal managed to slip the main column of his army through to the other side, carrying with them the spoils of war gathered over the previous weeks.

Peripatesis: Spiritual Authority, Slaughter At Lake Trasimene.

‘Peripatesis’ is a made-up word related to the word ‘peripatetic’, which is an adjective that means ‘roaming’ or ‘meandering’. I’ve always liked to think of knowledge as a huge structure through which a person could walk, sprint, dive, climb, or fly in as straightforward or peripatetic a fashion as they like.

Here’s are my recent wanderings and wonderings:

Harris, S. Waking Up, p. 119-206

Harris begins the chapter on meditation with a whirlwind tour through evidence for its effectiveness that will by now be familiar to anyone who has been paying attention — smaller amygdalae, more cortical thickness, changes in the structure of the corpus callosum and hippocampus, more empathy, less anxiety over pain, an increased ability to self-regulate attention and emotion, etc. Even though there is a subset of meditators who’s life gets worse as a result of their practice, this is not the case for most of us.

He then discusses two possible approaches to spiritual inquiry: gradual and immediate. Some schools of thought are predicated on the idea that one must slowly come to realize that consciousness is intrinsically free of the self, and others claim that this can be done directly. Harris reveals his preference for immediacy by repeatedly stating that egoless awareness is right on the surface and that many practices are simply a means of overlooking this insight, but acknowledges that most people are so profoundly lost in thought that they must be taught to see this truth one breath at a time.

Chapter 5 goes into some depth discussing the problem of spiritual authority. It simply isn’t possible to fake being an expert martial artist or physicist in the same way one can fake being a contemplative adept, which creates vast possibilities for anyone charismatic and psycopathic enough to attempt to do so.  What’s more, it is also possible for gurus of various stripes to simultaneously be in possession of genuine spiritual insights and enormous character flaws. It would seem that there is little anyone can do with respect to spiritual authorities but to tread lightly, and to listen if that little inner voice says this isn’t right.

In the conclusion Harris reiterates that one of the great challenges of secularism is to erect a framework for understanding, cultivating, and interpreting spiritual experiences. There is a depth, he goes on to say, in the simple act of noticing what it’s like to be you, because you are one of the most subtle and complex features of reality yet to be discovered.

Goldsworthy, A. The Fall of Carthage, p 181-190. 

After an uneventful winter Hannibal knew something had to be done to keep the pressure on Rome and procure additional food supplies for his army.  Pushing deeper into Roman territory would satisfy both and Italian geography afforded him but two options: advance to the East of the Appenine mountains, or advance to the West of them.

Hannibal elected to cross the Appenines and proceed down the Western half of Italy. He deliberately bypassed the Roman army, under the leadership of the newly-elected consul Caius Flaminius, and ravaged the countryside to provoke them. The Carthaginian army camped at lake Trasimene, in an area where the road passed between the lake on one side and some hills on the other. The Romans made camp nearby, and under the cover of darkness on June 20th Hannibal silently moved his army into the foothills, setting an ambush. When the Roman army, possibly in one long column because of the terrain, advanced towards the enemy camp the Carthaginians sprang their trap and won a decisive victory. Consul Flaminius was killed in the battle.

To make matters worse, 4000 cavalry had been sent ahead of the army commanded by the other newly-elected consul, Cnaeus Servilius Geminus; Hannibal managed to find out about their approach before they found out about his victory, and one of his subordinates was able to conduct a surprise attack that devastated that force as well.