Saturday, December 12, 2009

Climate Change 'skeptics'

My favorite point made here is that of course, all true scientists are skeptics.

I remember hearing in a BBC news report that "the science behind global warming is beyond doubt".

But of course, no science is beyond doubt.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Paris Freedom Fest talk

Here is a transcript of the talk I gave at the Paris Freedom Fest on september 11th. In honor of the date, I ad-libbed at the beginning, requesting that since the subject of my talk was the American Revolution, I'd like everyone to hold a moment of silence in honor of those who died in 9/11.

And then the talk - please note that this is the actual script I used, so there may be shorthand and formatting inconsistencies in places.

Enlightened England, Optimistic America

The title of this talk is Enlightened England, Optimistic America, and although it encompasses the most important aspects of what I want to talk about, there is one significant part that it does not encompass, in favor of alliteration. The gist of my talk is essentially that during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18thC, there were certain ideas that were invented only in England and Scotland that were in fact some of the most important moral ideas that we know of to date. And that as a direct result of those ideas, the United States of America was created; in fact, that the whole of the US is founded specifically on those ideas. That what America /is/, is those moral ideas made into something real, something tangible. That is roughly covered by the title of my talk, but what is not covered is another set of moral and epistemological ideas, which I consider best exemplified by the work of the 20thC philosopher Karl Popper. So, I will begin with a brief introduction to the parts of Popper's philosophy that are relevant to what I want to talk about today.

Firstly: Popper proposed that the question of "who should rule" is the wrong one to ask. This was the question that most people asked; who should be making decisions? Whose ideas have the most justification? Who has the most justified claim to authority? This question has been asked constantly throughout history and people have offered up various answers to it, like God, or society, or the dictator. Popper, however, said that what we should be asking is, "how do we get rid of errors"? If you follow "who should rule" to its logical conclusion, you must conclude that ideally what we want is one group or one person-- the one that should rule-- whose decisions cannot be opposed. In other words, this question, taken seriously, leads inevitably to facism.

The reason for this, however, is another idea that Popper endorsed, namely that man is a fallible animal. Were it possible for humans to know things infallibly-- with no possibility of error-- then "who should rule" would be a valid question, because having found the answer, there would be no need to oppose their decisions, because their decisions would be objectively right. But human knowledge is uncertain; we can never be perfectly sure that we have not made a mistake. The idea that man is fallible is not a new one by any means;
the pre-socratic philosopher Xenophanes made this observation when he said that
The gods did not reveal, form the beginning,
All things to us; but in the course of time,
Through seeking we may learn, and know things better...
These things are, we conjecture, like the truth.

But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor will he know it; neither of the gods,
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
And even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would not himself know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses.

What is significant about Popper's ideas about fallibilism is not so much that he accepted that man was fallible, but that he, like Xenophanes, proposed that there was also a "final truth", or, an objective standard of morality. Philosophers of the 20th century-- and most philosophers before them-- seemed to be able to accept one or the other of those ideas, but not both. Those who proposed an objective standard of morality were also infallibilists, justificationists and the like, or else there were those who proposed that man was fallible but concluded that morality was subjective, relative to the individual or the culture or the epoch. There is only a tiny handful of philosophers who proposed that man may be mistaken, but that there is something for him to be mistaken about. So, the other central idea of Popper's that I wish to draw your attention to is this: there is an objective standard of morality, which man, although he cannot ever be certain of the truth of his ideas, may discover piecemeal through making conjectures and then criticizing them in order to get closer to this truth. Popper advocates the value of traditions, which contain a massive amount of knowledge both explicit and inexplicit, and only to change them when one has criticized them and found, tentatively, what seems to be a better way, a more true way, if you like, of living. He also says, and this is crucial, that the way to truth is through criticism, through disagreement.

Popper was writing in the late Twentieth Century; of course by that time many extremely dubious things had occurred with dubious philosophies to go with them. The 1900s are not renowned for their creation of solid moral philosophical thought. But two hundred years previously, an extremely significant event took place in Western Europe; the Age of Enlightenment. The main characteristic of the Enlightenment is said to be the triumph of reason over authority, namely the authority of the church and of the aristocracy. However, I propose that this is a serious misrepresentation; this Enlightenment took place only in England and Scotland, while the rest of Europe underwent what might be termed the Anti-Enlightenment. Whereas in England and Scotland, a more Xenophanian-- even Popperian-- approach was adopted, on the continent a utopian, infallibilist, and therefore, irrational approach was adopted. There was an atmosphere of casting out the chains and cobwebs of tradition, and only using reason-- failing to take into account that one may be mistaken over what is rational and what is not. It is, incidentally, essentially this combination of utopianism and infallibilism that led to the mass murders of the French Revolution. A philosopher so often cited as one of the representatives of the Age of Enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau, proposed in his Social Contract that a government can only be legitimate if it has been sanctioned by the people in the role of the sovereign. However, he then says more explicitly what he means by this:

The heart of the idea of the social contract may be stated simply: Each of us places his person and authority under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole...

In other words, Rousseau has answered the question of "who should rule" with "the people", and consequently proposes Communism.

In stark contrast, I would like to introduce a little-known English philosopher, and a contemporary of Rousseau, named William Godwin. He wrote, amongst other things, "An Enquiry concerning Political Justice", and "The Enquirer". Evidently he was of a very inquisitive spirit. He is particularly notable to me for applying his ideas not only to governments and adults, but to education and to children; he opposed coercion not as and when it suited him, but as a moral tenet. He demonstrates this when he says,

"Let us consider the effect that coercion produces upon the mind of him against whom it is employed. It cannot begin with convincing; it is no argument. It begins with producing the sensation of pain, and the sentiment of distaste. It begins with violently alienating the mind from the truth with which we wish it to be impressed. It includes in it a tacit confession of imbecility. If he who employs coercion against me could mould me to his purposes by argument, no doubt he would. He pretends to punish me because his argument is strong; but he really punishes me because his argument is weak."

He also said of Rousseau on reading Emile, that one wished at one moment to fall at the author's feet and worship him, and at the next paragraph to get up again and strangle him.

Godwin's approach to coercion seems entirely compatible with Popper's criticism of the "who should rule" question. It also ought to be pointed out that Godwin is another of that small handful of philosophers that propose objective morality and fallibilism simultaneously.

It was, broadly speaking, this atmosphere of fallibilism and piecemeal improvement that dominated the philosophical climate in England and Scotland, uniquely amongst the countries of the Enlightenment, during this time. And it is precisely because of this that America, an English-speaking, English-colonized country, underwent the incredibly transformation that it did. There were lots of factors that I imagine helped; it was a young country, populated largely by those who wanted a new start, so it was easier for entrenched ideas to be shaken loose. It was also very far away from England, and as a result, from the King who at that time ruled it, so there was already less direct involvement with the ruler himself, and less of a sense of belonging under his jurisdiction, than there would have been in England itself.

Whatever the precise reasons that helped to make it possible, the fact of the matter is that the American Revolution was an ideological one, and the ideology on which it was predicated arose from the tolerant, fallibilist English/Scottish Enlightenment. As a demonstration of this, and in light of all the ideas I've introduced so far, I'd like to turn to James Madison, and Federalist No. 51, entitled: "The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments"

The first paragraph contains the line, "Without presuming to undertake a full development of this important idea, I will hazard a few general observations, which may perhaps place it in a clearer light, and enable us to form a more correct judgment of the principles and structure of the government planned by the convention." Considering that Madison is inventing the US government, this is fallibilism and modesty of Popperian proportions. Later on, he continues: "But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." He explicitly states that man is fallible, and essentially that either utopian view of civilization with no government at all, or of truly infallible rulers, are false.

It is interesting to note that a little earlier on, he also says "But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place." This is particularly reminiscent of Buchanan and choice theory, although I do not wish to focus on that. It is also another recognition of the undesirability of coercion; rather than proposing rules which can be forced upon the government, he advocates creating a system where the checks and balances are performed voluntarily and without coercion.

He continues, "This policy of supplying, by opposite and rival interests, the defect of better motives, might be traced through the whole system of human affairs, private as well as public. [...]that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights." This part, I think, is reminiscent of Ayn Rand; private interest ought not to be subordinated to public rights, but in fact is the very thing which creates them. And he directly opposes Rousseau's Social Contract and favors instead the rule of Law when he says that "In Republican government, the legislative authority necessarily predominates", and then again a little later on when he says that "Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure," and criticizes the rule of Man.

As he goes on, he is always mindful of the possibility that his own knowledge is mistaken; he takes care to say "If the principles on which these observations are founded be just, as I persuade myself they are,[...]" He does not even assume his principles to be right for the purposes of the paper; he evidently values fallibilism that much.

And again in contrast to Rousseau, he goes on to say that although the only legitimate rule is that which is sanctioned by the people, that this does not preclude the rule of Law, and that quite the opposite of the Rousseauian belief that what that means is for each individual to subjugate himself to the whole, that the way America will best avoid majority rule is by each individual acting in his own self-interest; that "Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority."

In the last part of the paper, he says: "Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit. In a society under the forms of which the stronger faction can readily unite and oppress the weaker, anarchy may as truly be said to reign as in a state of nature, where the weaker individual is not secured against the violence of the stronger; and as, in the latter state, even the stronger individuals are prompted, by the uncertainty of their condition, to submit to a government which may protect the weak as well as themselves; so, in the former state, will the more powerful factions or parties be gradnally induced, by a like motive, to wish for a government which will protect all parties, the weaker as well as the more powerful." This observation of the value of individualism-- the value of disagreement-- to me is absolutely representative of the ideals upon which the nation of America was set in motion. These Enlightened ideals permeate the creation of America. In his book "Empire, Liberty and Reform", the philosopher Edmund Burke said "All I recommend is, that whenever the sacrifice of any subordinate point of morality, or of honour, or even of common liberal sentiment and feeling is called for, one ought to be tolerably sure that the object is worth it. Nothing is good, but in proportion and with reference." We see this throughout the development of America; no sacrifice for the sake of practicality is made without the moral principles being appealed to and born in mind. Americans were not utopianists, but they were not pragmatists either.

I have called England Enlightened; the reason for this is obvious, as I have demonstrated to the best of my current understanding that England, including Scotland, was the only enlightened country of the Age of Enlightenment. But I have not said explicitly why America is optimistic.

The Americans believed that problems could be solved; evidently so, as they were solving many of them. They had fought for their freedom on the basis of moral principle and ideology, and having won it, they set to using it to the best of their ability and understanding. To take this attitude is inherently optimistic; the opposite, pragmatism, is inherently pessimistic. It proposes that since there is no moral standard, and all courses of action must be the result of compromise and bipartisanship, that in fact man cannot solve any problems. But this is not the case; man solves problems constantly, as can be seen if no other way, by our steadily improving quality of life over the centuries. So to truly demonstrate why America can be characterized as optimistic, I will close with a quote of Popper's, from the introduction to his book "The Myth of the Framework", which I believe every one of the Founding Fathers would have agreed with, and the spirit of which prompted them to take the course of action they did, and to create the magnificent nation they did:

"But at least we need not accept that there is here - or elsewhere - a historical tendency for things to become worse. The future depends upon ourselves. It is we who bear the responsibility. For this reason, an important principle holds: It is our duty to remain optimists. The future is open. It is not pre-determined and thus cannot be predicted—except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say "It is our duty to remain optimists", this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Negative interpretations and justificationism

I suggest that negative interpretations often occur as a result of justificationism. That is, when a justificationist has an argument, they want to win it, so that their idea has more justification than the other person's (and is therefore truer). This gives them an incentive not only to justify their arguments, but to discredit their 'opponent's'. A discredited idea is less justified and therefore more false.

A fallibilist is interested in positive interpretations. They want to find the mistakes in their existing ideas. When criticism is offered in the form of a differing opinion, they want to apply that criticism and see if they can learn anything from it. The best way to do this is to interpret the criticisms as positively as possible, rather than trying to discredit and dismiss them before you've tried to learn anything from them.

In a justificationist conversation, learning is turned into a conflict. You have to pit your creativity against theirs, and one of you is the winner. In a fallibilist conversation, you add your creativity to theirs when you interpret their ideas positively and attempt to find applications of the new ideas. Conflict is not a rational state of life.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sod's Law

I propose that Sod's Law is a very pessimistic idea. It implies that there are situations that reality just imposes on us, that we aren't responsible for and can't do anything about. But as Popper says, "The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted - except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite." I don't think that Sod's Law is compatible with Popper's view of reality.

If you imagine a situation in which something happens that you would prefer did not happen—let's say, your interesting friend phones you at precisely the same time that your favorite TV show starts. That is Sod's Law.

Now, let's imagine potential solutions. You could ask your friend to hang on a moment, record your TV show (perhaps you have TiVo, which would be convenient), and continue the phone call. You could ask your friend quickly if you can call them back later, and then watch your TV show. You could revise your opinion of the TV show and decide that you didn't really care about it anyway. You could watch the TV show again on Youtube. You could ask your friend to talk to you on AIM instead, and then continue the conversation via IM whilst watching the TV show. You could ask your friend to email to you whatever it was they wanted to say, and then respond to the email when the TV show is finished.

There are more solutions that one could come up with. But there's quite a lot up there that take less than sixty seconds to implement, so let's imagine that one of them is suitable for you. You have solved the problem, and Sod's Law is no longer in effect, because you are no longer being inconvenienced.

Complaining about Sod's Law is irrational. You can just think about the problem and solve it and then it doesn't exist any more. That is a rational way to behave. Throwing yourself at the mercy of situations and refusing to apply any creativity to them, and then complaining that reality is in some way inherently harmful or unpleasant in some percentage of situations (which is what Sod's Law means) isn't a very good policy.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Assumptions about Morality

During a conversation I was having today about social healthcare, this was levelled as a criticism at America:

some high up guy has admitted that this.. group.. for all the american healthcare insurance companies ran some sort of campaign to discredit michael moore's documentary because they were scared people would think universal healthcare is good
This struck me, because the person in question believed that social healthcare was good. Therefore, they assumed that the discrediting campaign was bad, because it was attempting to spread lies in a self-serving manner.

However, if we imagine a situation in which social healthcare is not good, I am not sure that the campaign would not be thought of as a bad thing. If somebody made a movie glorifying Nazism that had some populist appeal, and several Libertarian groups ran campaigns trying to discredit it, I doubt that most people would mind that very much. When voters turned out to rally against the British National Party in the recent EU elections, not only trying to discredit them but physically harrassing them too, by throwing eggs, the general consensus was that the violent rallyers were in the right, because consensus was also that the BNP was wrong.

I propose that insurance companies campaigning against a film promoting social healthcare should not be considered a bad thing. It might be said that insurance companies have an interest in people not liking social healthcare, but I would respond with the following two questions: is it not the case that Libertarians have an interest in Nazism being unpopular, and voters in the BNP having no power? And, precisely what interest do insurance companies have in people not liking social healthcare? There is no social-healthcare-company for people to switch to if they don't like medical insurance. Whether people like the idea of social healthcare or not, it won't actually lose the companies business if there is no social healthcare plan in place in that country.

In the interest of fallibilism, I suggest that even those who firmly believe that social heathcare is good should hold themselves open to the possibility that that they are wrong. Since I have provided several examples of cases in which groups may campaign against ideas that it is not in their interest to be popular, but in which those campaigns are good, I do not think that we ought to condemn insurance companies for their campaign.

Also, for interest's sake, note that the wording "some high up guy has admitted that [underhand plot]" has overtones of conspiracy theorism.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Hidden Justificationism

Justificationist thought pops up just everywhere. Take this quote from a conversation I had recently about Rand and quantum physics:

Philosophy branches out from metaphysics, through epistemology out to ethics and then politics. If Ayn Rand's epistemology is incorrect, her politics will be even worse. So why do you like her if her philosophy is wrong?

What the above actually means is: "If you have any mistakes in your theory of epistemology, you cannot make good moral decisions". And it's not just that that is nonsense; it's justificationist nonsense. It requires a Perfect Theory of epistemology. Presumably before you can have that, you have to have a Perfect Theory of metaphysics. All your beliefs must be true and justified. This may not look obvious at first, because the person I'm quoting is not structuring their assertion like an infinite regress, but rather as a kind of infinite progress. They require one to have perfect version of the theories with the most reach before you can have good theories with less reach.

Obviously the problem with this assertion is that it's illogical, but it is important to see that the nature of the illogicality is "knowledge is justified true belief". That way it's easy to ignore such a misconception; instead of having to wade through all the tangled strands of nonsense, you can simply understand that this hatred of mistakes is unwarranted, and that in your philosophy you are not searching for any Ultimate Truth, and that is sufficient.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Sticking to your guns

People will often interpret a difficult problem as being impossible to solve before they have considered all possible solutions, spent sufficient time on it, or thought about it in an efficient way. Often, the person will also be a pessimist, and will therefore be inclined to declare a problem inherently insoluble all but immediately.

This would not be a significant problem on its own. It would be easy to find solutions, explain them, and solve the problem. It would also be easy to explain to the person, perhaps after solving a few problems for them as a demonstration, how to think better and solve problems more efficiently.

The real problem arises when they wish to maintain that the problem is insoluble despite proposed solutions. This seems generally to be a case of sticking to their argument and not wishing to be shown to be wrong. So even when you propose a solution, they will insist that it will not work (often for self-imposed emotional reasons), rather than being optimistic and trying to find ways to make it work.

Pessimism is very dangerous; it makes us self-sabotage.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Trust vs Risk

Trust is bad. It is against taking responsbility. If you trust someone with, or to do, something, and that fails, it is then their fault. You trusted them and they let you down.

They may not have been aware you were trusting them. You may not have informed them of this responsbility, or you may have felt it was obviously implicit, without checking if they felt that too. Nonetheless, when something goes wrong, it is their fault for being such an untrustworthy, unreliable person.

Risk is better. If you take a risk it means you gambled, and the failing or success of the endeavor is your own responsibility. If something goes wrong, it was your choice to take the risk and your responsbility to sort out any ensuing problems.

If in situations where we might trust people, we were to take a risk on them instead, it would be better.

As a general rule, it's better to take responsibility for problems rather than looking for someone else to blame them on. This encourages active problem solving, and prevents meta in the form of arguing over whose fault the problem is, when all that needs to happen is that the problem is solved regardless of who is to blame.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Music competitions

I have discovered that I dislike watching music competitions. I was trained as a classical violinist for thirteen years, spending five at the Guildhall in London, and have both watched and participated in many such competitions. It is very different when seen from the inside.

I value music as a skill I can perform for my own enjoyment. I select pieces for their structure, and their harmonic and melodic beauty. This is not how to select pieces in music competitions. You often must select from a list; and even when you do not, you must choose a piece that shows off your technical ability to the highest degree. So often you hear people playing pieces of music full of pointlessly complex little "fireworks" designed to demonstrate how proficient they are at martèle or up-bow spiccato or false harmonics. I have never found these pieces beautiful. Surprising, awesome, exciting, skillful, certainly; but musical beauty is rarely gained by the addition of physical exertion.

I do not believe that I am the only musician who was advised to choose these sorts of competition pieces. I believe the other musicians on TV shows that say they take this sort of music very seriously; but I think it is often their career they are taking seriously, or else they have had their ideas about musical beauty educated out of them in favor of 'modern' musical trends. I saw this happen a lot at the Guildhall.

This makes music competitions very unpleasant for me to watch. I can't bring myself to feel anything for it but boredom and distaste. They have the air of circus performances: feats of physical endurance and skill, but utterly meaningless.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Revenge is bad

Rihatsu: Revenge is bad.
Interlocutor: Why? Other than because it's acting on emotion rather than reason.
Rihatsu: Because when one seeks revenge, one is putting one's creativity into harming someone, and thus forcing them to put theirs into fending off that harm. So one ends up creating nothing, and using two people's creativity. You could both have spent that effort producing something valuable.
Interlocutor: If you have a policy of revenge, though, it should put people off harming you in future, which would mean as long as people know you have the policy and avoid harming you, you won't actually need to get revenge.
Rihatsu: That's bad firstly because it's coercion—so if someone does something they think is good but they're mistaken, or if you have bad ideas, then you will end up seeking revenge mistakenly. For example, if someone hated criticism, and sought revenge every time they were criticized. It is as bad as enacting any coercive force on people. Secondly, because if you had that policy and then met someone new, it might take a long time for them to realize that that was your policy, so a lot of hurting would occur before they submitted to your coercive attitude. Note that "submitting" ought not to be the aim of interaction for any civilized group of people.
Interlocutor: You could make it clear that that's your policy and only do it to people who actually do something harmful to you (so that even if it is a mistake, they still had a chance to work out how you'd react). For a big example of the former, we have the state, which punishes people who break it's laws to stop them harming it (and lots of other stuff).
Rihatsu: We are not discussing populations here, but interpersonal relations. One can use reason much more creatively, as the choice here is not between Rule of Man or Rule of Law. Additionally, you're presuming there to understand what "actually harmful" means; but that is not infallibly obvious, and two people may have different ideas of what constitutes harm depending on how mistaken they are. So I believe that proposition was meaningless. Surely it would be better to have a policy amongst your friends of not hurting each other, so if someone is hurt then it was almost certainly accidental and therefore easy to solve.
Interlocutor: That might not discourage strangers, who think they'll be unlikely to gain anything from participating in a not-hurting system, or very irrational people.
Rihatsu: Rational strangers would recognize the value of not hurting people. Why would you want to be friends with irrational people? Unless you had a specific reason that mitigated the irrationality, in which case... it would be worth it anyway, or else it wouldn't quite be worth it, so you wouldn't know them. Two wrongs don't make a right; one right makes a right.
Interlocutor: You might be forced into associating with them, like if they work or study at the same place as you or if you run a state and need to account for all your citizens.
Rihatsu: I don't see why it wouldn't be better to find ways of not being affected oneself by their irrationality, rather than finding ways of lowering yourself to their level.
Interlocutor: Their irrationality might be very hard to avoid, like if, say, a co-worker makes the whole workplace less efficient by being distracting and bad at the job.
Rihatsu: Then why would more people being irrational make things more efficient?
Interlocutor: if you do something for revenge (like not car-pool for them) they'd have incentive to be more productive.
Rihatsu: That never happens. People do not like to be humiliated, and would just seek more counter revenge. And besides, if the problem is that they are irrational, and as a result unproductive and inefficient, then that won't change properly until they are persuaded. And force does not contain knowledge.
Interlocutor: I see. I agree.
Rihatsu: Not to mention, hurting people is unpleasant. I dislike situations in which people get hurt. I wouldn't want to create one, or prolong one.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Hating Mathematics

It doesn't make sense to say that you don't like math. Math is simply a tool, an alphabet—if not a language*—which we use to convey our theories on the nature of the physical world in the most precise way we can. It isn't actually a thing that bears liking or disliking, except that one may like the skilful manipulation of the tool itself, or the beauty of the resulting theorems. One normally would not do the opposite, that is, dislike handling the tool badly, because if one is bad at wielding a tool one either learns quickly how to wield it well, or goes on to something one finds easier to do. Myself, I blame school for this irrational hatred of mathematics. It is one of those few environments where one may be forced to consistently do a job one is bad at, and therefore, one of the few places that one can learn to hate a means of communication.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sorites Paradox refutation

I was recently introduced to something called the Sorites Paradox. The person explaining it to me also referred to it as 'the vagueness paradox'. My response, before hearing its explanation, was that perhaps if one is more precise, the paradox ceases to exist. The Sorites paradox can be explained as follows:

Imagine a heap of sand. Take one grain away. Is it still a heap? Presumably so. Now remove another, and another, and another, and... at what point does it cease to be a heap?

However, a heap is an imprecise idea. It is an approximate, not a specific, measure. It makes no sense to talk of heaps in terms of the number of grains of sand; grains of sand are a very precise numerical measure. The paradox arises only when this precise measure is applied to this imprecise concept.

One ought to use only the degree of precision in one's language that is correct to the problem. This is because seeking appropriate degrees of precision helps to solve problems most efficiently. There will be some problems that do not require more than a certain degree of precision in the definition of their terms, and insisting on seeking further precision is unnecessary and, in fact, would just distract from solving the actual problem.

Indeed, it seems that this paradox does not take into account that a heap is an imprecise concept. It assumes that a precise definition of a heap must be necessary in order for it to be meaningful, and that a paradox arises when it is not. The value of having terms like 'heap' or 'pile' is in fact that they are vague. We need not measure them precisely and can use approximations. This is very useful in one's day-to-day existence and does not benefit from being defined more precisely.

This is apparently a paradox that confounds many an Oxford philosophy student, and presumably their professors as well since the solution has not been explained to them to resolve their confusion. I must say that I was very unimpressed.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Paris Freedom Fest

A heads-up: I've been invited to speak at the Paris Freedom Fest this September. I'm thinking of focusing the talk on something relating to the Enlightenment, possibly America. A little pro-Americanism wouldn't go amiss, I'm sure. However, if there are things other than that that people would like me to deliver a talk on, mention them! I'd like to have suggestions as there might have been something I didn't think of.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Common misconceptions, Rand, and reasonableness

A little while ago, I was asked by a person of the internet why I liked Rand. My response was as follows:

I like her insistence that we have to use reason to get anything done (even if she doesn't always stick to it herself [ie, romance]), and her stress on absolute individual sovereignty/liberty, and most of all I like how utterly joyful she is about human acheivement. Advocating taking joy in truly magnificent things is one of the best aspects of her worldview imo. :)

My interlocutor—in interests of privacy I won't say where this conversation took place, but I will say that the man was purporting to be a philosopher—responded thus:

Ok, celebrating our use of reason is definitely a cool thing. But a lot of the Rand stuff I read, if you are going to be intellectually serious, really didn't give a joyful picture of human achievement per se, it was much more a celebration of luck + ability + fuck everyone else. And that is much less cool. Taking joy in truly magnificent things is as well and good, of course, but doing that by ignoring all the shit in the world is simply the unjustified province of the privileged.

Hum, and he says he values being intellectually serious. Actually, that's a significant part of how bad that was as a response. The addition of that little phrase, "if you're going to be intellectually serious", is very telling. It's blatant argument by authority. Amongst philosophers (admittedly, in the conversation in question, I was half-purporting to be one too—though far more humbly than he!) one's intellectual integrity is basically one's currency. This man says he likes reason, but then in the very next sentence he threatens my claim to my own intellectual integrity if I don't go back on my previous post, and agree with him that Rand does not believe that human acheivement is joyful. Removing that sentence would not have changed the meaning of his argument; it is superfluous meta. Evidently he doesn't think enough of his arguments to believe that he can rely on them to persuade me, and adds in a bit of bullying just in case.

I didn't mention the above in my response, however, to avoid getting into a pointless meta-discussion with the man. Instead I wrote this:

Which Rand did you read? I think that's a wilfully negative interpretation of what she advocates. For example in Atlas Shrugged, she tells the reader that Dagny was determined since age 12 to run the railroad, to the degree that it didn't even occur to her that it might be socially unacceptable until age 15, whereupon she dismissed that as unimportant. If that's what you mean by "fuck everyone else", I think that's most unfair. Many, many novels have the theme of "following what you think is right contrary to social stricture".
However it is true that she does not actually tell us where Dagny's determination/enthusiasm comes from. I think that that part just wasn't relevant to the point of the novel, and in order to explain it properly the book would have had to have been about half as long again, rendering it completely unreadable. ;) But there are lots of ways we can easily figure out where it might come from. If you'd like to go into these, we can. :)

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by privileged? Do you mean rich? If so I would point out that the idea that "Rand hates the poor!" is quite misguided. In The Fountainhead, Roark spent most of the novel in dire poverty, and never actually became massively rich. Wealth wasn't his reward. Wynand, however, the billionaire that made the most money, was cast in a light less good than Roark's. He was one of the flawed characters, and his money had a lot to do with that (I'm thinking of the scene in which he says something like, 'the priest in the cloister gives up worldly possessions and retains his soul; I have given up my soul and my compensation is cars and yachts and money'. He says outright in this scene that the priest's position is preferable). Also there's Cherryl, in AS, who is only virtuous so long as she is poor-but-hardworking, and the moment James Taggart impresses her and marries her, and she sells out to his values—again taking money in exchange for the loss of personal integrity—she's doomed. So by privilege you can't possibly mean wealth, but I'm not sure what you do mean, exactly?

Note, by the way, that as an advocate of laissez-faire, Rand couldn't possibly advocate 'fuck everyone else' seriously. You have to cooperate with people in order to participate in free trade, otherwise you won't make a trade agreement. Perhaps you confuse the idea of staying true to your own personal integrity and not compromising what you think is right, with the idea of giving everyone else the finger? If so, I'd point out that through finding mutual preferences, it is not hard to separate cooperation and sacrifice. In other words, when interacting and trading with others (I mean trade in the less vernacular sense of, 'swapping ideas'—since this is what all trade technically constitutes, though I'm aware that's a disingenuous usage—so this would include things like having conversations as well as standard trade), you don't have to lose out or compromise your morality.

What do you include under truly magnificent things, and why doesn't the invention/realization of the skyscraper or the construction of the railroad fall under this category?

It was afterwards pointed out to me that of course, as false is the "privileged" claim is of The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, it is even more false of Anthem and We The Living. The main characters of those books aren't even privileged enough to live in free societies.

It's interesting to note that a lot of the very best ideas seem to be subject to the most misconceptions. I hear people getting Rand wrong much more often than I hear them getting Marx wrong. Same goes for, say, Popper vis a vis Nietzche. Thinking about it briefly, I imagine this might have something to do with the fact that there are reasons for the bad ideas being bad. A common one is that they are indistinct or imprecise. This would contribute to people saying things indistinguishable from what the originator said, although each may be subtly different even if only in the speaker's head. On the other hand, the better (and more precise) ideas take more work to understand, so less people understand them and there are more misconceptions.

I'm not sure about this theory though. Antirational memes seem to have a lot to do with it too, especially with regards to Rand. Hum.

Another thought; reasonableness. When people say "please be reasonable" or "I'm not being unreasonable", I think this seems to have definite connotations of compromise. Insistently pursuing your own principles in an argument might prompt one's interlocutor to say, "Rihatsu, please be reasonable!" Qualifying one's argument with the words, "now I'm not being unreasonable here," has implications of, "I'm not unwilling to slightly compromise with you on this matter". It's not the direct meaning of the phrase, but I think there are some definite connotations. This may be worth either pursuing, or at least bearing in mind.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Dear Diary...

I stumbled across this on the internet just now.

I hate school. I really think that it's a form of slavery. The teachers are making me write essays, stories, assignments... when in the hell am I going to need to know how to write a formal descriptive essay if I'm just going to be a mom??? It makes no god-damned sense... but here I am, needing to do it. *sigh* I just hope they're right and that school is really important for the rest of my life.

That was written on September 30th, 2001. There's an interesting juxtaposition to note here, of the most primary kind when it comes to TCS: "I hate school. It's a form of slavery. I don't understand why I need to do it, but, I'll trust in authority for now and assume I'm doing the right thing and that it will all become clear to me later." "I'm going to be a mom."

Then, five days later on October 4th:

I just found out that the last six years osf my life have been a complete waste of precious time!
I've been busting ass this year to keep my grades up, keep my attendance up and to finally graduate high school, only to find out that there is no point.

She couldn't take the courses she wanted to take in college. How much do we all bet that when she does become a mom, she will definitely send her children to school?

Also, a note on second-handing:

It may sound lame, but I see what it's done to everyone else around me, and I really don't want that for myself. Angelo is the only one of my friends who has made something of himself. Everyone else is still trying, or still in school trying to try.
How unfair is it that just because my parents don't support me or make millions of dollars a year that I have to suffer with a course I don't really want to take?
It's not.

She admires Angelo because he made something of himself. She sees that her other friends and herself are all failing in some way or another, and it's largely school related. Then she says, in essence, that she doesn't want to make anything of herself; or rather, that she doesn't see "making something of yourself" as an action that you do (and therefore, without realizing, renders the act of admiring Angelo for succeeding at it senseless). Instead she sees it as something that only happens if your parents have already made something of themselves and just confer the benefits on her. "But I was never given a chance!" Well, rather; isn't the point of making something of yourself that you, well, make it yourself? In other words, her whole appraisal of her situation is littered with contradictions and un-thought-out (and false) assumptions.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Gibbon on the unequal distribution of property

I'm reading Vol. I of Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and whilst discussing Roman taste in terms of the expanse of their empire, he says this:

"But in the present imperfect condition of our society, luxury, though it may proceed from vice or folly, seems to be the only means that can correct the unequal distribution of property. The diligent mechanic, and the skilful artist, who have obtained no share in the division of the earth, receive a volutary tax from the posessors of land; and the latter are prompted, by a sense of interest, to improve those estates, with whose produce they may purchase additional pleasures."

Wow! Although his comment on the "present imperfect condition of our society" may imply that he's a bit of a socialist utopianist (like Godwin or Popper), he does recognise that free trade and self-interest are what solve problems like poverty.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Liberty for kids

On Saturday 28th February, I attended the Convention on Modern Liberty, the basic premise of which seemed to be, By what means shall we attain more and greater liberty? I was one of the youngest attendees; most seemed to be over 30. And despite the fact that all of us were there to discuss and uphold the inalienable human right of individual autonomy, one implicit point of view seemed to prevail absolutely: children were not included.

Wherever children were mentioned, it was in the context of schooling. "Schools ought to instil in our children a respect for our traditions of Liberty in Britain". "Schools ought universally to send children to the Taking Liberties exhibition currently on at the British Library". "If schools would engage children on the subject of their own rights and liberties, I think children would be more interested and attendance would go right up".

I argued and fought against these wicked views at every turn. "Consider the irony", I recall saying, "of the child that does not wish to be at the Taking Liberties exhibition that day, being coerced around this exhibition telling him how free he is!" A roar of self-deprecating laughter; little to no self-criticism as a result.

Or else, "I think that if I were a schoolchild, and I were told to take pride in my own inalienable autonomy, my attendance would drop to nothing all but immdiately." This didn't even earn self-conscious laughter, but merely snorts of bitter amusement, at how obviously true my statement was, and how obviously unallowable to them.

As for the suggestion that children ought to be taught to take pride in our tradition of British Liberty: "If Liberty is, as you said earlier, the absence of an arbitrary and dictatorial power - do schools and parents not impose the most arbitrary and tyrannical of rule? How can you sincerely expect children to take any pride at all in liberty, when they alone of all British citizens are denied the meanest and least of its fruit?"

No satisfactory answer. A repetition that all that was suggested was that schools ought to teach British history more properly; a sentiment with which I concur, if schools are still inevitable, but my point was never met.

Other than myself, the only other person of the eight hundred or so to attend the conference to ever once speak out in favor of human liberty, rather than merely adult liberty, was the blogger Cory Doctorow. During the evening plenary, he announced (I paraphrase):

"If you want to keep your children safe from paedophiles, teach them not to submit to authority. If you want them to keep all their information safe, teach them how to use encryption tools. Don't restrict them, because that won't help them learn anything."

Thank you, Cory.

Friday, February 13, 2009

A hundred years of arrant nonsense

I received an email the other day from a friend, telling me about this book, by James Hillman and Michael Ventura, entitled "We've had 100 years of psychotherapy—and the world's getting worse!"
To paraphrase the email, Hillman is a psychotherapist and Ventura is a journalist who has reported often on psychotherapy. These people believe that there is a link between psychotherapy and the worsening state of the world—and Hillman believes that psychotherapy makes people focus inwards on themselves, whereas in order to achieve any change, one ought to look outward on the world. He believes that one must do this in order to affect any change in the world.

I thought about this, and it occurred to me after a while that from this description of the book, every part of it is evil. Let's start at the bottom and work up.

Evil number one: Don't consider yourself, consider the world.
Hillman apparently believes that what is best for oneself is not the same thing as is best for the world. But, why would this be the case? Let us consider it in reverse: what's best for everyone isn't what's best for me personally. It should be easy to see that this is a complete contradiction; if it isn't best for me it can't possibly be best for everybody. It isn't best for everybody. It can only be best for everybody if it's best for me, too.
Therefore it follows that if all of us figure out what is best for ourselves, and then apply this knowledge in our everyday life, we will have what is best for everybody. Does this work? Invariably, people will end up having arguments. What one person wants will conflict with what another person wants.
Many people think that this is proof that humans cannot live together without conflict, and conflict is bad and mean and therefore human life is bad and mean. Another way of looking at it, however, and in my opinion the correct way, is that it is proof that humans are fallible. The interests of rational people—moral people—do not conflict. Rational people find mutual preferences. This happens more often than not in real life: I want to write a blog post, and my friend wants to play DDR. We do so. I am hungry, my friend is peckish. We cook dinner and I eat more than her. All mutual preferences, best for all those involved.
What happens when there are disputes? Well, rational people talk about them and solve the problem. And if you don't believe that the problem is mistakenness—ie, a lack of knowledge—consider this: there are small disputes, like, i want chicken and she wants pork. In such a situation, there are lots of very obvious solutions; maybe we will cook our own dinners. Or, I don't care so much about eating chicken so I eat pork instead, or vice versa. Or we both decide we like beef better than either chicken or pork. So on. Then there are larger disputes; I think it is wicked to hit children, and she thinks one cannot be a good parent without hitting them. Such disputes are the cause of considerable debate. They are difficult to solve. This is because it requires a lot more knowledge to solve a big and complex problem like that than chicken vs pork. The difference between a mutual preference and dispute is knowledge creation. And therefore, as people become more rational and create more knowledge, the less disputes and the more mutual preferences they will have.
Therefore if we go back to considering the situation in which everyone does what is best for themselves, there is no logical reason why this cannot work. Sometimes people will be mistaken, and they will solve the problem, ie, they will find a mutual preference. The end result is everyone getting what is best for them. The end result is a situation best for everyone.
So I conclude that it cannot possibly be true that focusing on oneself results in a situation that is not best for everybody, and that Hillman is wrong, and what's more he is deeply, viciously anti-human.

(Note: there are lots of other ways of showing this statement to be bad—I'm thinking along the lines of "Man cannot use his brain to think for his fellow man"—but I will keep those for another time.)

Evil number two: Psychotherapy is potentially meritous
This isn't nearly as bad as one or three, in part because it isn't quite as anti-human and in part because part of the point of the book is "psychotherapy doesn't work", but it's worth pointing out. Psychotherapy is utter nonsense. It helps people feel better about themselves, but so can joining a cult or snorting cocaine. Feeling better doesn't correspond directly to objectively good. Psychotherapy has no grounding in science and no grounding in logic. Any attempt at explaining that it works is at best inductivist—"We see that many people feel better after psychotherapy, therefore psychotherapy works" (See chapter 7 of the Fabric of Reality for why Induction does not work)—and at worst subjective—"What is best for me is what I feel is best for me." This denies the value of logic and reason. To take seriously any theory founded on such spurious grounds is to imagine that it is possible for induction and subjectivism, or rather, for mysticism, to work. The evil isn't that Hillman and Venture propose that psychotherapy is good—apparently they don't—but simply that they don't just dismiss it as the made-up whimsy that it is. They even go so far as to charge it with the source of the world's problems, again, a piece of completely made-up information. There are better explanations, one of which I will propose below.

Evil number three: the world is getting worse

This is probably the worst one, and it is bad. It's a part of the unnervingly common belief that we're regressing, not progressing. I hold that despite even the prevalence of wicked ideas like this, we are still improving. We live longer, we are freer, we have better technology and more of our wants fulfilled than at any other time in history. The worst thing about Hillman's theory is that it presumes the world is getting worse—the world is not getting worse. Humanity has no cause to hate itself.

(Again, this topic is a gallon-sized can of worms, and this is all I'll say on the subject in this post.)

To conclude, nothing about the premise of this book seems in any way good. I propose instead that the reason there are problems with the world is due to a lack of knowledge creation, nothing more, nothing less. It certainly has nothing directly to do with too much or too little psychotherapy. It's not a major cause. It's hardly a minor cause, except insofar as it is one of a multitude of mystical ideas that isn't helping us solve problems. A better title for a book might have been something like, "A hundred years of arrant nonsense—and we're only slightly more rational!"

Monday, February 9, 2009

One Law For All

I just signed this: . I'm number 7727, if you want to see me there. You should sign it, too; Sharia has no place in any free and civilised country.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Morality and knowledge creation

Is morality defined as "the action that creates the most knowledge"? Let us imagine a situation, for example, in which a man who will die tomorrow may have performed on him an experiment which may provide scientists with a cure that will save thousands, but the procedure is very painful, and the man—even though he will die tomorrow—does not consent to having the experiment performed on him. Clearly the moral course of action is not to perform the experiment upon the subject, but this is not the course of action which creates the most knowledge.

I propose, however, that it is only the propensity of humans to be mistaken that makes this action immoral.

Conjecture 1: morality is theories on how to live best, how to make good decisions

Conjecture 2: morality is objective

Conjecture 3: that morality is objective means that in any given situation, with all current best theories that are available, there is one best decision to make, and that same decision is best to make from any perspective.

So in the situation described above, if we could persuade the dying man that it is best to undergo the painful experiment, and he were to consent, then it would be the moral course of action to perform the experiment. It would be moral because it creates the most knowledge. However, since the man has not been persuaded, the fact that we would have to coerce him makes performing the experiment immoral. Why is it immoral? Because we already know that coercion prevents knowledge creation. We are fallible. If we cannot persuade another person that we are right, it is infallibilist and inhibiting of knowledge creation to force our will on them anyway.

In both hypothetical situations—the one in which the man is persuaded and the one in which he is not—morality can be derived from whatever creates most knowledge.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Jihad on Civilisation

In light of today's announcement by Osama Bin Laden, I thought of a lot of things to say. An attack on the terrorists; a speech on Israel's merits; a declaration of my support for the Jews.

Considering my heinous lack of posting here lately, this may seem a bit of a cop-out. However, I don't think that my confidence in Israel is best served by a plea of defence, nor do Islam's disgusting faults deserve restating, as they are self-evident. For now, I have only one thing to say, and rest assured I take today's announcement as merely an excuse to say it:

Am Yisrael Chai! ♡

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Israel, the Czechs, Fawstin and Dexter

I'm more than aware that most of the world hates Israel. This is because most of the world is anti-semitic, true, but there it is. And yet every so often you hear a few wonderful remarks from those people with the backbone to speak truth and take the consequences. Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Geert Wilders. Ayn Rand. The Jyllands-Posten caricaturists. And if you're wondering what the Jyllands-Posten cartoons have to do with Israel, I'll remind you: Israel is fighting the terrorists and defending civilisation.
I remember last year noticing and being surprised and happy that Canada swore to defend Israel. This year, it's come from a most unlikely source: the Czech Republic.

"[Czech Foreign Minister] Schwarzenberg, a staunch ally of Washington, said Hamas had excluded itself from serious political debate due to its rocket attacks on Israel. He also indirectly blamed the group for the growing death toll, saying it put its bases and gun warehouses in densely populated areas.

"Why am I one of the few that have expressed understanding for Israel? ... I am enjoying the luxury of telling the truth,“ Schwarzenberg told the daily."[1]

Damn, it's nice to hear that. At least not everyone is insane. Speaking of insane, Pigman and Dexter. Those of utter moral cowardice often seem to express some measure of horror at cartoonist Bosch Fawstin's violent anti-Islam art. Our government would probably classify slogans such as 'Give Us Liberty, Give Them Death' as hate speech and send an angry letter or two to Mr Fawstin. In response, and since I particularly like that poster, I invite those who dislike Fawstin's art and his character, Pigman, to consider Dexter.

Dexter is a serial killer. He's smart. He's also a forensic detective, specialising in blood-spatter analysis. He has a compulsion to murder—but instead of becoming a rampaging psychopath, he sets himself moral guidelines on who he is allowed to kill. He won't kill children. He will kill those who are murderers themselves and who in his judgement will beyond reasonable doubt kill again; those who pose a danger to innocent people. If I recall correctly, Dexter's first kill of the show was a man who had murdered some little boys.

I liked Dexter. He's like a superhero. He's like how Rorschach might have been if I had written Watchmen instead of Moore. He's not perfect, he is psychotic and compulsive. But he's also clever, and he's also moral. He forces his actions to be guided by his principles, and what results is a very human, believable character who in committing his murders does essentially nothing more than protect the innocent. It's probably good that he enjoys it; if he didn't, he might stop.

What Dexter's moral guidelines presuppose is that there are some people who deserve to die. Some people whose existence will do only one thing: harm innocent people. In the show, Dexter kills murderers. In real life, there are other threats to civilisation, too. Murderers not content with killing one man and instead working out the best ways to kill as many as possible in one go; and not for their watch or wallet, but because of their place of birth and the country in which they live. Rapists not content with picking off the most attractive girls, but choosing them on the basis of the colour of their skin and the western style of their clothing.

Give us Liberty, give them Death, indeed. Bosch, never stop drawing. Israel, America, never stop fighting. Let's make the best of 2009. Let's defend the West.