Thoughts on differentiation

by Suspended Reason

Epistemic status: May be conflating some related but distinct phenomena. Relationships not quite straightened out. But there’s something here and I’ll hunt it down… sooner or later.

If you think you’ve struck gold, and you’re wondering if it’s pyrite, there’s a very simple test to tell: drag the nuggest across porcelain and see what color streak it leaves behind. If the streak’s yellow, it’s the real deal. Pyrite streaks greenish black.

Distinguishing cases

When there’s only two possibile realities which need distinguishing between, it’s very simple to design a test that reliably distinguishes them. Let’s say we have two types of sets, X and Y. X only contains odd numbers, Y only contains even numbers. So to tell whether a given set (e.g. [7, 5, 13, 15]) is type X or Y, we just check the first number and, lo and behold, in the example, we know instantly and reliably the set is an instance of X.

Now let’s introduce a third set, Z. Z only contains prime numbers. If we go back to that original set [7, 5, 13, 15], we have to check members until we reach either a non-prime odd, a non-prime even, or the end of the set. To write a generic test function that distinguishes between these examples gets more complicated, cet par, the more possible states it must distinguish between.

Drug mules

This is a theory of identification. If limitless time and resources are available for the customs agent to inspect the bags of each individual who crosses the Mexican-American border, then drug smuggling becomes an impossibility. When every particle gets a chemical analysis run on it, the only way to seem clean (drug-free) is in fact to be clean. (This is a theory of opticratics.) But our assessments don’t have limitless time and resources. Instead, they attempt to assess one or two attributes, just like the streak test on pyrite and gold. Instead of scratching luggage across porcelain, they use an X-ray or sniff dog. They get access to one, maybe two dimensions of the thing itself, in all its many-sidedness. Knowing this, mules will take steps that throw off these specific tests, as if coating pyrite with a yellow waxy substance to leave the correct color of streak.

Again: the only way to pass the battery of all possible interrogations is to in fact be the thing itself that passes. There is no passing off a nugget of pyrite as gold, to an individual willing to go to extreme lengths and analyze each particle to the atomic level. But it is relatively simple to beat a heuristic.

To appear and behave like a thing X, in every conceivable way, is to be X, and not merely appear.1 More importantly: when there are no differences which make a difference, the objects are pragmatically, functionally identical.

Pass the salt

This is also a theory of reference. In yesterday’s post, I wrote:

I’ve been reading and getting a lot out of David Chapman’s In The Cells of the Eggplant, particularly this ethnomethodological idea that reference is established, by humans, through a kludge” of ad-hoc and makeshift maneuvers designed to intervene on (1) the environmental context (2) the recipient’s cognition. (Rather than correspondence relationships happening automatically, or just being the case, or getting handwaved away as mental computation.”) I can say pass the salt” because we are dealing with a local context at-hand, and you are modeling my mind and my desires, and can make an assumption as to what I want, the relevance of my request, seize the appropriate object (there is typically just one salt; if there are two, I’ll distinguish, or assume that you’ll pass the one nearest you, rather than reach for one across the table).

There will never, ever be a perfect reference, that is, a strategy or ritual of referring which correctly picks out the desired object in every single envisionable scenario. Generic words and categories are attempts to stay empowered. But there will always be cases in which the way they carve the world is inappropriate to the task at hand. The ad hoc kludge of work we do is optimizing these generic terms within a context.

My love for John C. Reilly

Another way of saying this is: heuristics are, necessarily, scoped to, and effective over, a specific distribution of probable options. You can infer low openness from picky eating, up until you meet someone with a medical condition that forces them to eat spaghetti three times a day. You can write off the cinematic taste of anyone who admits to loving Step Brothers, up until you meet a guy who loves it because it reminds him of his younger brother who died tragically young and loved John C. Reilly. You can proxy class from clothing up until you meet a method actor playing a trainspotter. Our inferences are built up on assumption models of what else is likely to be the case. When those assumptions are wrong, the inferences risk being wrong as well.

Similarly, sexual reproduction in mammals worked for hundreds of millions of years, precisely because it made assumptions about environmental variables. One such assumption was that PIV sex and impregnation were, functionally, the same activity. Humans came along, changed the space of possibles with birth control, and suddenly the heuristic no longer worked.

Future directions

All this is deeply information theoretic. Information is that which distinguishes between possibilities, that which disambiguates. Compression, encoding, and hashing all work on this principle. So does communication, by extension. This ability to distinguish, pragmatically, the entailments of different categories or types (“if –> then” as meaning) is fundamental to reading our world. And because it is fundamental to reading, it is fundamental to writing—to the production of information, with reading in mind.

It is also likely related to the structuralist concept of difference. Difference is the basis of identity, for many structuralist and post-structuralist thinkers (contextualizing Bourdieu’s distinction” theory of human behavior).

Pragmatism, at its core, is an attempt to re-center emphasis on difference-that-makes-a-difference, that is, to break outside the normal heuristics that are categories-as-words, and emphasizing instead those attributes which matter to a task at hand. In rationalist-speak: If you’re sorting bleggs (blue eggs) and rubes (red cubes), and you come across a weird mix that is neither blegg or rube, don’t waste energy deciding whether it’s really” at its essence” a blegg or rube. Instead, figure out which attribute/s matter pragmatically, for the end goal the sorting is a means toward, and use that as the basis for sorting.

  1. That is: to say something appears to be X, rather than is X, is to say that on certain but not all dimensions, it is like X. Similarly, all acts of categorization are acts of metaphor—X being like Y, instead of being Y—because no two things are ever exactly the same, differing at the very least in their positions in time and space, and because any two things are always in some way similar.↩︎