Posts Tagged ‘indecision’

Again into the Breach

Monday, 15 January 2018

As occasionally noted in publicly accessible entries to this 'blog, I have been working on a paper on qualitative probability. A day or so before Christmas, I had a draft that I was willing to promote beyond a circle of friends.

I sent links to a few researchers, some of them quite prominent in the field. One of them responded very quickly in a way that I found very encouraging; and his remarks motivated me to make some improvements in the verbal exposition.

I hoped and still hope to receive responses from others, but as of to-day have not. I'd set to-day as my dead-line to begin the process of submitting the paper to academic journals, and therefore have done so.

The process of submission is emotionally difficult for many authors, and my past experiences have been especially bad, including having a journal fail to reach a decision for more than a year-and-a-half, so that I ultimate withdrew the paper from their consideration. I even abandoned one short paper because the psychological cost of trying to get it accepted in some journal was significantly impeding my development of other work. While there is some possibility that finding acceptance for this latest paper will be less painful, I am likely to be in for a very trying time.

It is to be hoped that, none-the-less, I will be able to make some progress on the next paper in the programme of which my paper on indecision and now this paper on probability are the first two installments. In the presumably forth-coming paper, I will integrate incomplete preferences with incompletely ordered probabilities to arrive at a theory of rational decision-making more generalized and more reälistic than that of expected-utility maximization. A fourth and fifth installment are to follow that.

But the probability paper may be the most important thing that I will ever have written.

Decision-Time for the Donkey

Monday, 6 May 2013

Yester-day, I finished reading the 1969 version of Choice without Preference: A Study of the History and of the Logic of the Problem of Buridan's Ass by Nicholas Rescher, which version appears in his Essays in Philosophical Analysis. An earlier version appeared in Kantstudien volume 51 (1959/60), and some version has or versions have appeared in later collections. I have only read the 1969 version, and some of the objections that I raise here may have been addressed by a revision.

The problem of Buridan's ass may not be familiar by name to all of my readers, but I imagine that all of them have encountered some form of it. A creature is given a choice between two options neither of which seems more desirable than the other. The question then is of how, if at all, the creature can make a choice. In the classical presentation, the creature is a donkey or some other member of the sub-genus Asinus of Equus, the choice is between food sources, and a failure to make a choice will result in death by starvation. The problem was not first presented by the Fourteenth-Century cleric and philosopher Jean Buridan, but it has come to be associated with his name. (Unsurprisingly, my paper on indifference and indecision makes mention of Buridan's ass.)

Rescher explores the history of the problem, in terms of the forms that it took, the ultimate purposes for which a principle were sought from its consideration, and the principles that were claimed to be found. Then he presents his own ostensible resolution, and examines how that might be applied to those ultimate purposes.

One of the immediate problems that I have with the essay is that nowhere does Rescher actually define what he means by preference. I feel this absence most keenly when Rescher objects that there is no preference where some author and I think there to be a preference.

As it happens, in my paper on indifference and indecision, I actually gave a definition of strict preference: (X1 pref X2) = ~[{X2} subset C({X1,X2})] which is to say that X1 is strictly preferred to X2 if X2 is not in the choice made from the two of them.[1] So, in that paper, strict preference really just refers to a pattern of choice. I didn't in fact define choice, and I'll return to that issue later.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary essentially identifies preference as a gerund of prefer, and offers two potentially relevant definitions of prefer:

  1. to promote or advance to a rank or position
  2. to like better or best
The first seems to be a description of selection as such. The second might be taken to mean something more. But when I look at the definition of like, I'm still wondering what sense I might make of it other than an inclination to choose.

I'm not claiming that Rescher is necessarily caught-up in an illusion. Rather, I'm claiming, first, that he hasn't explained something that is both essential to his position and far from evident; and, second, that his criticism of some authors is based upon confusing their definitions with his own.

When I used the notion of a choice function C( ) in my paper, my conception of choice was no more than one of selection, and that's what I was unconsciously taking Rescher to mean until, towards the end of his essay, speaking of decisions made by flips of coins (and the like), he writes

In either event, we can be said to have "made a choice" purely by courtesty. It would be more rigorously correct to say that we have effected a selection.

Well, no. This isn't a matter of rigor, whatever it might be. The word choice can rigorously refer to selection of any sort. It can also refer to selection with some sort of care, which seems to be what he had in mind.

Some of the authors whom Rescher cites, and Rescher himself, assert that when a choice is to be made in the face of indifference, it may be done by random means. Indeed, Rescher argues that it must be done by such means. But he waits rather a long time before he provides any explicit definition of what he means by random, and he involves two notions without explaining why one must invoke the other, and indeed seemingly without seeing that he would involve two distinct notions. When he finally gives an explicit notion, it to characterize a choice to be made as random when there is equal weight of evidence in favor of each option. However, when earlier writing of the device by which the selection is to be made, he insists

The randomness of any selection process is a matter which in cases of importance, shall be checked by empirical means.

Now, one does not test the previously mentioned equal weight of the evidence by empirical means. An empirical test, instead, adds to the fund of evidence. We can judge the weight of the present evidence about the selection device by examining just that present evidence. The options are characterized by equal plausibility, yet Rescher has insisted that the selection device must instead be characterized by equal propensity. It isn't clear why the device can't simply also be characterized by equal plausibility.[2]

Rescher makes a somewhat naïve claim just before that insistence on empirical testing. For less critical choices, he declares

This randomizing instrument may, however, be the human mind, since men are capable of making arbitrary selections, with respect to which they can be adequately certain in their own mind that the choice was made haphazardly, and without any reasons whatsoever. This process is, it is true, open to possible intrusions of unrecognized biases, but then so are physical randomizers such as coins.

Actually, empirical testing of attempts by people to generate random numbers internally show very marked biases, such that it's fairly easy to find much less predictable physical selectors.

Rescher's confusion of notions of randomness is entangled with a confounding taxonomy of choice which is perhaps the biggest problem with Rescher's analysis. The options that he allows are

  1. decision paralysis
  2. selection favoring the first option
  3. selection favoring the second option
  4. random selection, in which random entails a lack of bias
And, proceeding thence, he seems to confuse utterly the notion that choice without some preference somewhere is impossible with the notion that choice without some preference somewhere is unreasonable. In any case, Rescher insists that only the last of these modes of selection is reasonable, and this insistence would tell Buridan's ass that it must starve unless it can find a perfectly unbiased coin![3] Reason would be a harsher mistress than I take her to be!

Another term that Rescher uses without definition is fair and its coördinates, as when he writes

Random selection, it is clear, constitutes the sole wholly satisfactory manner of resolving exclusive choice between equivalent claims in a wholly fair and unobjectionable manner.

I certainly don't see that random selection should be seen as wholly satisfactory (though I believe it to often be the least unsatisfying manner), and I don't know what Rescher imagines by fair. My experience is that when the word fair is used, it is typically for something more appealing than justice to those inclined to envy. In the case of allotments by coin-flip, there may be no motivation for envy ex ante, but things will be different ex post. People do a great deal of railing against the ostensible unfairness of their luck or of that of another.

I recall one final objection, which moves us quite out of the realm of economics, but which I have none-the-less. One of the applications of these questions of choice without preference (or, at least, without preference except stemming from meta-preference) has been to choices made by G_d. In looking at these problems, Rescher insists that G_d's knowledge must be timeless; I think that he ought to allow for the possibility that it were not.

[1] That might seem an awkward way of saying that X1 is strictly preferred to X2 if only X1 is in the choice from the two of them, but it actually made the proofs less awkward to define strict preference in this odd manner.

[2] Even if one insists that the selection device must be characterized by equal propensity, there is in fact little need for empirical testing, if one accepts the presumptions that a coin may be considered to have unchanging bias and that flips of a coin may be independent one from another. Implicitly making these assumptions, my father proposes a method for the construction of a coin where the chances of heads and of tails would be exactly equal. One starts with an ordinary coin; it comes-up heads sometimes, and tails others. Its bias is unknown; at best approximated. But, whatever the bias may be, says my father, in any pair of flips, the chances of heads-followed-by-tails are exactly equal to the chances of tails-followed-by-heads. So a pair of flips of the ordinary coin that comes-up heads-tails is heads for the constructed coin; a pair of flips of the ordinary coin that comes-up tails-heads is tails for the constructed coin; any other pair for the ordinary coin (heads-heads, tails-tails, or one or both flips on edge) is discarded.

[3] I don't know that my father could explain his solution to a donkey. I've had trouble explaining it to human beings.

Approaching a Finish

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The conditions for the acceptance of my paper on indecision were revealed to me in early April. Apparently the intention had been to provide them in mid-March, when I was informed of the conditional acceptance, but there'd been a bit of confusion.

Some of the conditions imposed were pretty strong. With the exception of one change,[1] I actively disliked every one of them. I thought that some of them sought reasonable objectives but would bring more cost than benefit; I thought that others were simply wrong-headed.

However, I made or attempted to make all of the changes except for three sorts. I figured that the editor would support me when it came to two of those remaining three sorts, as one would have formatted the references very differently from the journal's own standard (with which the reviewer was apparently unfamiliar) and the other would have dropped-in a proposition that would in fact have been perfectly superfluous in my paper (though an important axiom in most theories of probability).

I was, however, very concerned about the effect of my refusing to make one of the changes against which I dug-in. That change was suggested or demanded (it was not clear which) by the reviewer in order to simplify the presentation by simplifying the structure. Unfortunately, it would also have torn the work from part of its empirical foundations. I genuinely felt that it would be better not to have the paper published than to make the change, yet I was not sure that my intransigence would be properly understood. But I was afforded an opportunity to explain myself on this point (and on every other), and apparently my explanation was accepted.

Yester-day, I was told that the changes that I made had sufficiently addressed the reviewer's original concerns, and that the paper would be accepted conditional upon my modifying the acknowledgments (to be less specific as to what the acknowledged parties had done) and upon my removing the dedication (which the editor or reviewer suggested replacing with an acknowledgment of support). I have made those changes.

I also fixed a broken cross-reference that I had spotted. And I replaced one symbol with another. In order to effect one sort of change that the reviewer had wanted, I had introduced an explicit symbol for binary paralysis. [Erratum (2013:04/25): (Well, actually, for the union of binary paralysis with identity.)] Specifically, I used U+224e () [expression using U+224e to represent binary paralysis] I had adopted this particular character because nothing better occurred to me quickly, and I didn't want to grind to a halt over a d_mn'd symbol. (How dreadful to be paralyzed in the choice of a symbol for paralysis!) But I wasn't comfortable with it. I felt that the reader would have trouble remembering what it meant as it occurred here-and-there, that it was too suggestive of an equality, and that it would be awkward to write by hand. I eventually decided that what I wanted was a π (for παράλυσις)[2] centrally superscripted over a dash. [expression using pi over a dash to represent binary paralysis]

Anyway, there is some small chance that my effecting this change of symbols will cause me difficulty with the editor, but I believe that the paper is effectively accepted now. I don't know how long it might be before the paper is actually published.

[1] I had inserted a foot-note specifically to preëmpt a repeat of an inappropriate criticism delivered by the reviewer at the previous journal. I was planning to request, upon acceptance of the paper, that the foot-note be removed. In the event, the latest reviewer insisted that the foot-note be removed.

[2] The Latin p is too readily associated with preference, and indeed P was once very common for the binary relation of strict preference or that of weak preference.

Conditional Acceptance

Monday, 19 March 2012

On 16 March, I queried the journal to which I most recently submitted my paper on operationalizing the difference between indifference and indecision. To-day, I received informal e.mail from the editor letting me know

The paper is accepted, pending some (substantial) revisions. You’ll be getting the formal material from the journal soon.
I dread the thought of subtantial revisions, but it's to be presumed that I can live with the changes demanded. The state of things appears to be excellent.

Paper Up-Date

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

As previously noted, I submitted my paper on indecision to yet another journal on 28 July. On 11 August, the reported status of the paper was changed to With Editor. Yester-day, 12 December, that was changed to Under Review, which indicates that the paper has been sent onward to one or more reviewers.

Editors generally have the authority to reject papers on their own authority. If they think that a paper might be appropriate to the journal, then they send the paper on to one or two reviewers, with ostensible expertise in the specific area of the paper. These reviewers judge the paper to be suitable as it stands, or suggest revisions that would make it suitable, or decide that it is unlikely to become suitable even after revision. At some journals, editors have the authority to over-rule reviewers, but such is rarely done.

Most submitted papers are rejected by editors before they reach reviewers. Most papers that reach reviewers are rejected by those reviewers. Most that are not rejected are required to be revised in some way, small or large.

I don't know why the paper was listed as With Editor for almost exactly four months. The editor may have been too busy to evaluate the paper at all, or may have spent a fair amount of time in his-or-her own evaluation of it, or may have had trouble finding a reviewer for it.

Movin' on down the Line

Sunday, 7 August 2011

After the fiasco with Theory and Decision (see my entry of 28 March and that of 18 April), I submitted my paper on indecision to yet another journal on 23 April.

To my surprise, that journal gave my paper for review to someone whom I regard as having a markèd conflict-of-interest. I know to whom they gave it because the rejecting review that I received on 16 Jun was, also to my surprise, attributed rather than anonymous.

Some of the criticism was legitimate, but would best have been handled by directing me to revise-and-resubmit. Some of the important criticism was absurd.

For example, the reviewer declared

this is not how one writes proofs in general (except may be in logic)
Considering that the propositions are almost exclusively formal logic (there not being much arithmetic to the structure), it's rather to be expected that the proofs will look as proofs (in or out of quotation marks) do in logic.

And, in defending the attempt to distinguish indecision from indifference found in Indifference or Indecision? by Eliaz and Ok, the reviewer wrote that Mrs Watson (a hypothetical agent presented in that paper)

is indecisive whenever she deems multiple choices as choosable
But she also deems multiple choices as choosable when she is indifferent, and in both cases (according to Eliaz and Ok) makes her decision by flipping a coin.

(In fact, Eliaz and Ok claim something more interesting about what distinguishes indecision from indifference, but an observable distinction does not result from it.)

I stared for a bit, and then sent to the reviewer a simple request for permission to cite the review in future versions of the paper. (I offered no argument or evaluation; I just requested permission to cite.) The review is plainly not itself a publication; it seems closer to being a personal communication. And one is supposed to secure permission before citing personal communications.

I waited for some days, and got no reply. I concluded that none would be forth-coming. I therefore effected what changes I felt should be made given that I could not cite the review, both to make straight-forward improvements, and to preëmptively meet repetition of what I regarded as illegitimate criticisms.

Then I went over my big spread-sheet o' econ journals, and selected the next journal to which to submit the paper. As with previous submissions, I read the author guidelines, and did some further rewriting and reformatting to tailor a version specific to that journal. I made the new submission on 28 July. Its reported status when I checked this morning was the same as that when I completed the submission process, so I presume that no editor has accepted assignment to it.