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Bayesian Thinking and the Fourth day in Vienna

July 6, 2011

Not being a fan of statistics (I was a math theory snob), it is ironic that I am returning to it almost a decade after having left it and to consider incorporating it to my dissertation, not so much as a proof to any final theory but as a roadmap/workflow for charting the movements of data and information. All this is happening because I am attending a summer school on scientific evidence (we can debate what that means) where the Bayesian method is heavily featured.

Having been exposed to statistical presentations of confidence level and expectations, I wonder how possible it might be to use he same methods to chart these quantitative presentation of data and then be able to explain more of them in qualitative ways.  This is a case of theory-choice (what you choose may be just as important as what you do not choose), ontological hierarchies (and epistemic uncertainties) and the demarcation of the qualitative from the quantitative. Since the collection, accumulation and aggregation of data is essential to understanding how new epistemologies are constructed, and how ontology is therefore built, it is necessary to find the most useful way to deal with all these numerical chunks.

Bayesian is also a normative framework though it gets me thinking as to whether I would necessarily want to ‘norm’ the information I am dealing with. I would like to think as to how I can deal with information that does not seem to fit anywhere or into any known categories, or with speculative information (thought experiments) that may not have empirical basis. One of the questions that haunt others would be how one can determine what are the  a priori and posteriori information. Apparently, we will get more hardcore stuff on this from tomorrow during our evening lecture session. In the meantime, we will continue looking at how evidence is used in fields ranging from law to science (though we may be none the wiser as to what evidence really constitutes) and how the Bayesian method can help us organize and arrange material traces and evidence. Of course, everyone has their own reservations and criticism about how far one can go with it so we will see what can happen in the next two weeks.

Today, besides the usual lunch and dinner trips to town, we had a philosophical tour conducted by two locals of Vienna, one being a friend of mine that I was glad to meet up with again after two years. We went to many of the old parts of Vienna and also to old flats and landmarks of Vienna ranging from the Renaissance up to the turn of the twentieth century. I also got to revisit the house that Wittgenstein built, about more than 2 years later. Speaking to the Austrians in our group, I got a better idea of how the physical aspect of society has evolved especially in terms of architectural design and built. With another group member of the tour, we talked about Baroque architecture, Baroque music and how Vienna has managed to make create kitschy version of its 18th century cultural capital.  I also visited the old part of the University of Vienna for the third time today, and hope that I would be able to go to the science section of the university (including its famous physics library) tomorrow morning or afternoon at the Boltzmanngasse street so that I can dig into their rich treasures, especially their extensive personal papers of the famous physicists who were so much a part of Vienna intellectual landscape before the Second World War. Discussions and conversations with members of the group got me interested in tracking down certain information, including a nugget on Boltzmann’s possible interest in phenomenology.  We also saw the exact steps where Moritz Schlick was assassinated, something I missed the last time I was in Vienna. On the very steps, myself (an agnostic) and a non-believing friend (who was brought up in a Muslim family and society) discussed the possibility/impossibility of ghosts/spirits/jins and higher beings.

The tour ended with us all landing in one of the oldest cafe in Vienna, drinking coffee and trying their deserts (I had fruits and ice-cream) and there was where much of the interesting conversations went on, including discussion about the history that was so much a rich part of Viennese culture, including finding out how our lecture hall was in the old hospital where doctors and medical students were trained all those ghostly years ago. One of my favorite lecturers for this summer seminar was part of the tour and we had some scintillating discussions with the other student participants of the tour, including his experience as a young student in meeting with  and corresponding with Thomas Kuhn. My Viennese friend is working on some collections of Kuhn’s papers and I look forward to seeing what he has collected . For now, I would like to read the biography of Schroedinger as I meander my way through the streets of Vienna.

I almost did not want to come, as I thought I should concentrate on working on my dissertation, but now I am beginning to see how fruitful my second foray here (the last one in 2009) can be. More later as I savor the richness the city has to offer.

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