Friday, January 30, 2015

Searle getting Berkeley backwards

Here:
All of the great philosophers of the present era, beginning with Descartes, made the same mistake, and it colored their account of knowledge and indeed their account of pretty much everything. By ‘great philosophers’, I mean Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Descartes, Leibniz, Spinoza, and Kant. I am prepared to throw in Hegel and Mill if people think they are great philosophers too. I called this mistake the “Bad Argument”. Here it is: We never directly perceive objects and states of affairs in the world. All we ever perceive are the perceptual contents of our own mind.
This confusion rests on jumping from the fact that Berkeley says we perceive "ideas," to concluding Berkeley believes what we perceive is "all in our heads." But here is George Pappas on Berkeley:
I know of no reason to think that Berkeley is committed to holding that each idea is private in the sense described. After all, any idea immediately perceived by a finite perceiver is also immediately perceived by God. So, Berkeley is committed to the contrary line, viz., that ideas are publicly perceivable entities.
For Berkeley, the furniture of the world is objectively perceivable ideas, not ideas "in our heads."

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Liberalism: Patrick Deneen Begins

Again, I highly recommend following this course: Deneen is uniformly worth reading.

He opens with a very important point: "We are to liberalism as fish are to water: we swim in its currents without necessarily ever stopping to consider what water is."

Liberalism is so much a taken-for-granted assumption in our culture that we hardly notice it. So, the right and left in America don't even question the supreme value of "autonomy": they merely disagree on how to best realize it. And when someone who was at one point , say, a libertarian, rejects liberalism as a whole, people tend to be certain he must have just switched to some other form of liberalism. (E.g., "Callahan has become a progressive.")

And almost right away, Deneen gets at the heart of the matter:
Thus, Locke and Paine reject the idea that tradition, custom, inheritance, or generational ties are a constitutive part of our natures. Rather, we can only understand our true nature by stripping the human creature bare of all these conventional and unchosen accumulations, and at least conceptually putting us into an ahistorical situation of 'the state of nature.'

This is what I mean when I say liberalism is based upon a metaphysically flawed understanding of human beings. If Locke and Paine could really strip away tradition, custom, inheritance, or generational ties what was left would not be a free human being capable of making unencumbered choices, but a mental cripple who could not choose anything.

Matthew Bruenig Dismantles the "Taxation Is Theft" Slogan

Here.

Note the libertarian in the comments. He never addresses Bruenig's argument, because he can't: it would make nonsense of a view central to his self-image. So what he does do is keep changing the subject: "You haven't put forward a better theory," etc.

Can homeowners save money by moving to a place with lower property taxes?

I heard some people the other day saying they had moved to Pennsylvania from New Jersey because the property taxes we're so much lower in Pennsylvania. (And there reason was to "save money," not any ideological opposition to taxes.)

But you can't save money this way: all property taxes known of at the time of the sale are going to already be factored into the market price of the home. So the house in New Jersey with the higher taxes will sell at a reduction in price equivalent to the discounted future value of those higher taxes.

That analysis of course applies to a perfect market with full knowledge on the part of all participants. Real people don't have perfect knowledge and are not rational calculating machines. But, to the extent that many people think like the couple I heard at the hot dog stand, it will tend to make houses in the region with lower taxes over-priced compared to the ones in the high-tax area!

So, save money on your next home purchase, and buy in a high-tax state!

It's all about style

Microsoft Word (at least on my Mac) has three different lists of styles: one is a bunch of boxes above the document, one is a pull-down list in the upper left corner of the window, and one is available from the "Format" menu. Here is the thing: each of the three presents a different list of styles, with some overlap between them.

I have spent over twenty years using (and advocating the use of) MS-Word styles.(If you format your papers "by hand," for instance, by indenting each blockquote one-by-one, you really ought to stop.) And yet, I still have no clue as to why some styles appear on list A, some on list B, and some on list C, or why there should be three different lists at all. Note: I am not saying that there is no explanation: no, I am sure there is. But good software should "explain itself": after working with it for a time, the user should have an intuitive grasp of why the features work the way they do. Word does not do this.

Getting the logic of choice wrong

So here is a perhaps left-of-center economist getting this topic all wrong:

"If I can choose how much I work, and my wage stays the same, and I work more and my income rises, then I must be better off. Because if I was not better off, then I wouldn't have chosen to work more and earn more income."

Here is the correct version of this statement:

"If I can choose how much I work, and my wage stays the same, and I work more and my income rises, then I must have thought, at the time of choosing, that I would be be better off working more. Because if I had not thought I would be better off, then I wouldn't have chosen to work more and earn more income."

This distinction is not a matter of quibbling over words! The context in which our choices are made can be essential in determining what we choose. For instance, if the culture praises work over family life, many people might choose to work more even though they would be happier spending more time with their family. And I say this taking into account the disutility of social censure: akrasia is real!

People make mistakes. A lot of mistakes.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Common Good

“[t]he common good, and not the person and liberty, [is] the very principle of all law, of all rights, of all justice and of all liberty[.]” -- Charles De Koninck (quoted here)

The idea of the common good is really not that hard to grasp. Consider the Detroit Pistons, a group of fourteen basketball players, a few coaches, trainers, many office personnel, and so on. And let's imagine the Pistons are having an off-year, and, as a result, every single person in the organization decides to spend their time hunting for a new job instead of doing their current one. (So each of the players, for instance, just looks to pad their stats, and stops worrying about winning games.) As a result, the organization falls apart. Although every individual in the group attended to (what he thought of as) his own good, none of them paid heed to the common good of the organization.

Now, given the idea is so simple, why do so many people so strenuously deny any such thing exists? Well, if it exists, I might be properly compelled, either by my conscience or, failing that, the civil authorities, to restrain my will in its interests. So, like a stubborn teenager who yells at his parents, "You can't make me!", I may decide it is more convenient to ridicule anyone who even suggests that there might be a social good to which to pay heed.

This denial makes the proper end of government invisible to anyone who engages in it. And since it is blind to this telos, the entire liberal project is misguided, since it is mistaken about the most fundamental political issue of all: What is government for? This mistake is, for instance, why we find liberals taking destructive positions, such as asserting an absolute right to free speech, even if the speech in question is, say, about to launch a civil war.

And how the mistake arose is not hard to grasp, if we pay attention to history. The alternate, false end of government usually put in place of the true one, that "rights" exist prior to civil society and that "Governments are instituted among Men" "to secure these rights" was formulated by men who wanted to place their wills above the common good, and engage in a series of civil wars in which they repeatedly overthrew their legitimate government.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Ok, just consider how much the line on the curb...

looks like a typical chart of business cycles.

Just food for thought.

Against All Odds

Anyone who says something is "statistically impossible" because there are long odds against it has no clue what "odds" means!

That's Not English!

Last night, I was saying some sentence involving "Imma" for some reason. (E.g., "Imma have to hit you if you keep on doing that!") A woman sitting near me remarked "That's not English!"

I bit my tongue and smiled. But her remark is nonsense: English is what English speakers say. Languages are created and transformed by their users, not by a committee declaring what is and isn't "English." And varieties of English, like Black-American English (BAE), are "inferior" only in the sense that many people look down their nose at those who speak that variety of English.

I was making this point online once, and someone objected: no, the person claimed, a "simple" dialect like BAE cannot express "great thoughts" such as contained in Hamlet or the Declaration of Independence. But this is just piling rubbish on the garbage heap: modern English is a very, very simplified language! Here is John McWhorter describing what the ancestor of our language was like:

"Vikings, for example, invaded England starting in the eighth century and married into the society. Children in England, hearing their fathers’ 'broken' Old English in a time when schooling was limited to elites and there was no media, grew up speaking that kind of English, and the result was what I am writing now. Old English bristled with three genders, five cases and the same sort of complex grammar that makes modern German so difficult for us, but after the Vikings, it morphed into modern English, one of the few languages in Europe that doesn’t assign gender to inanimate objects."

 That's right: if this "complexity = ability to express profound thoughts" theory were true, the great works of English philosophy and literature ought to have been produced before 1000 A. D. Modern English should be way too simple to do anything but write grocery lists and corporate memos.

News from the inferno of open-source installs


I am now in the fourth circle of installation hell. I went to install the program I wanted, and the installation failed. When I researched that, the problems seem to be that I need a newer version of another program, so I tried to install that, and that install failed. That led me to yet another program I needed to update.

In any case, it is now 90 minutes after I started trying to do my work, and I am four layers deep in installing things to fix bugs in installing things. Upon hearing of my troubles, Eamon told me, "Dad, it's bugs all the way down."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Why name a specific street when you're not actually going to film there?

I was watching White Collar. Neil says "I am on Tillary Street, by the park." (A location fairly near where I live in Brooklyn, one with which I am familiar.) I'm looking at the scenery, thinking "That is not Tillary Street." Then two street signs are visible over Neil's shoulder. He is in the financial district in Manhattan!

And there was no plot requirement that he name the street he was on at all. The plot would have worked just as well if he had said, "I'm just a couple of blocks away."

Now, this program films in Brooklyn all the time. The place they were actually shooting is just a quick ride across the Brooklyn Bridge from where they claimed to be. So why not either leave out the specific street name, or actually go shoot where the character claims to be? The very specific street name is only going to be meaningful to people who know the area: the very people who are going to be thrown by the mention of the name, since they can see that is not where the character is.

James Joyce set Ulysses in Dublin on June 16, 1904. At the time he was writing it, he was living in Paris. But he would write to his brother in Dublin with questions such as, "What ships entered Dublin harbor on June 16, 1904?" or "Would it be possible for a not particularly athletic man to climb down to the lower level window of 7 Eccles Street?" (The phrasing of the questions here is mine, but Joyce really asked both of these things.) So when a character sees a ship entering Dublin harbor, that ship really entered the harbor on the day of the events in question. When Leopold Bloom, who has forgotten his keys, breaks into his house through the lower-level window, Joyce made sure that was really possible at that particular address.

I think the producers of modern TV shows could learn a bit concerning caring about the product you put out from Joyce.

If you really want to understand our current political landscape...

I recommend "taking" this course with Patrick Deneen. He has a deep, historical understanding of the relationships between various strands of our political culture*, and is very balanced (in my readings of him) in giving each strand its "fair shake." I am hoping to follow along as best I can, but so much of my attention is devoted to Indra at present, I am not sure how much of it I will be able to keep up with.

* For instance, he correctly identifies Marx as a progressive liberal, and not an anti-liberal, as many people confusedly categorize him: Marx's aim was liberal through-and-through: the emancipation of the individual. It is just the means he recommended for achieving the aim that differentiate him from other liberals.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Inspired by Murphy

On Facebook, Bob Murphy confesses having trouble seeing anything through microscopes and telescopes. This reminded me of this post, and inspires me to quote Mary Morgan once again:

"In addition, of course, successfully seeing with a microscope depends on many technical elements that enhance the power and accuracy of the instrument and a fair amount of tacit knowledge and skill in the user... On the basis of this instrumental reliance, [Ian] Hacking stresses that we don't see through a microscope, we see with a microscope." -- The World in the Model, p. 322

Professional writers: sigh

One of them just published this:

"Cavaliers: G Iman Shumpert, who hasn't played since being acquired in a recent trade with New York, could make his Cleveland debut later this week from a dislocated left shoulder."

So, his debut will be from a dislocated shoulder?! I will be debuting this week on the Broadway stage from inside a chipped tooth.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Statistics about X are not causal factors determining X

Mistaking statistics, which are merely our summaries of goings-on in the world, with causal factors in the world, is a confusion that pops up too regularly. For instance, here is Gregory Clark suffering from it. Mary Morgan understands this point:

"such statistical or probabilistic laws can be said to govern the behaviour of our population. We individual people know better -- we know that the births, marriages, and debts are determined by a whole realm of social, economic, medical, physiological, and other laws, which determine whom we fall in love with, whether we have children, why we die, and when any of these happen to us." -- The World in the Model, pp. 336-337

In fact, I think Morgan hasn't gone far enough here: the "laws" she cites are just our names for the regularities produced by concrete causal factors, and don't themselves cause anything.

(The proposition in the title of this post admits of exceptions, such as when a statistic about housing starts is interpreted by builders and changes their inclination to build houses.)

Consider a Lego person


Here.

Lego people are the wrong size to be humans. They have no nose or ears. Their legs are columns, their hands often hooks. Their "skin" feels nothing like human skin, and they are room temperature... I'm sure you could keep going.

And yet they function as model people, so well that very young children (by 20 months?) are able to recognize them as such and play with them.

How does this work?

Simulating a simulation

Here is the Newly-Phillips machine, which was itself a simulation, simulated.

(Hat tip TheArthurian.)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Models and laboratory experiments

"But it is worth remembering that inferences from laboratory experiments also lack formal decision rules. Laboratory scientists, like modellers, depend upon both tacit and articulated knowledge in making sense of their experimental findings and judging their relevance within the laboratory. And. like model work, laboratory scientists face the same question of whether their experimental results can form the basis for inference beyond the laboratory..." -- Mary Morgan, The World in the Model, p. 34

Friday, January 16, 2015

Does it make sense to speak of artifacts in computer simulations?

"First, simulation is a kind of experiment, and as such brings with it problems of creating experimental artefacts, raising questions about how to distinguish genuine characteristics of behaviour from artefeactual ones created by the technology of manipulation." -- Mary Morgan, The World in the Model, p. 331

This distinction makes perfect sense when considering something like a telescope. So, there was nothing nutty about Galileo's doubters wondering whether those little blobs that appeared near Jupiter were really up in the sky, or were just productions of the telescope itself ("the technology of manipulation"). Galileo, in fact, in one of his observations, wound up drawing a moon that wasn't there: early telescopes were not easy to use! And I believe I recall reading that one of the recent "false positives" for creating cold fusion was due to just such an instrumental artifact.

But in a computer simulation, everything is a product of the technology of manipulation! There is nothing at all "really there" before the computer puts it there. I wonder if it is mistake to carry this distinction over from physical to computer experiments?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cultural relativism and moral objectivity are not at odds

I've noted this before, but since it came up recently in the comments, let me briefly explain my view on this again:

10,000 BC:
Gor: The enemy is coming! You must warn our village as fast as possible!
Sab: I will start running there right now!

400 BC:
Galestes: The enemy is coming! You must warn our polis as fast as possible!
Sabro: I will start riding there on my horse right now!

1820 AD:
Galeano: The enemy is coming! You must warn our city as fast as possible!
Santo: I will hop on the train going there right now!

1920 AD:
George: The enemy is coming! You must warn our city as fast as possible!
Sam: I will phone them right now!

2015 AD:
Gene: The enemy is coming! You must warn our city as fast as possible!
Samson: I will text them right now!

The answer to a question can be (and very often is!) both objectively correct (or not) and situationally relative.

More history of science nonsense

I saw this one on a poster discussing the "history" of science in a physics classroom: "[Marie Curie's discovery that elements undergo radioactive decay] shattered the belief inherited from the Greeks that the elements are immutable and their atoms indestructible."

The Greek atomists had said there are indivisible particles "at the bottom of things." They never said that what we moderns call atoms are indivisible! They had never discovered those things! What happened was that the originators of modern atomic theory misapplied the Greek word, because the first modern "atomists" thought they had found these indivisible substances. If one introduced a Greek atomist to modern sub-atomic theory, he would say something like, "Ah, the quark: that is what you should have named 'atom.'"  (See here: "I explained that our current theory makes the assumption, which has not been experimentally verified, that quarks are indivisible, point-like particles." The hypothesis of the Greek atomists would be disproved if it were discovered that there are no fundamental particles that can't be transformed into something else.)

And turning to the elements, for the Greeks, the "elements" were earth, air, water, and fire, and there were theories that held they were mutable. As far as the modern chemical elements are concerned, the Greeks had no comparable category which they could have held to be "immutable." So the quoted sentence is just a jumble of nonsense.

I note in poassing that the same poster also promotes the false, Whig history of the significance of the Michelson-Morley experiment.

Our judgments have evolved… and?

I have seen a number of people who espouse what they call "evolutionary ethics" argue as follows: "Our ethical standards are a product of our evolutionary history, meaning there are no objective standards of right and wrong, only what one group or another has happened to evolve."

Imagine applying this to, say, mathematics: "Our mathematical standards are a product of our evolutionary history, meaning there are no objective standards of true and false in math, only what one group or another has happened to evolve. If some other culture happens to think that there are integers n greater than two for which an + bn = cn, well, that is just their standard! And when you say that I solved that differential equation wrongly, well, that is only a prediction that the particular mathematicians in our culture with our mathematical standards will disapprove of what you did."

But even worse for these folks: our thought about evolution has evolved as well. And so there can't be any objective right or wrong there either! So if some other group happens to believe that the morals we happened to have evolved are the exact opposite of what would really promote our survival: well, that's just what the belief they happened to have evolved.

This is such obvious nonsense that we must note what motivates it: some people desperately want there to be no objective standards of right and wrong!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Narratives and modeling

"It is a nice paradox of the way models are used that a humanistic notion -- narrative or storytelling -- is critical to the way that models are used as a mode of inquiry in economic science whether the model narrative is a story about the world portrayed in the model or a correspondence story about the real world, past, present, or future." -- Mary Morgan, The World in the Model, p. 251

There is no "commitment to freedom of speech" in France

Here:

'Charlie Hebdo was free to plaster on newsstands all over Paris vivid cartoon depictions of Mohammed as an eager homosexual bottom, but five years ago when one of its cartoonists wrote an item suggesting that a son of the president was making a good career move by converting to Judaism he was summarily fired and put on trial for “inciting racial hatred.” Literally, put on trial. The country of Voltaire, yup.'

Contemplating the Newlyn-Phillips Machine


As mentioned earlier, the Newlyn-Phillips machine is an analogue computer for calculating some macroeconomic variables based on others. (Mary Morgan makes a good case that the dropping of Newlyn from the machine's name was an injustice, so I will use her term for the gadget.) You can get a sense of how it works by watching the video above.

Imagine that someone had created this machine as a work of art, or a student exercise in a hydromechanics class. (I don't see any reason that this could not have happened.) Then along come Phillips (the same Phillips of "Phillips Curve" fame, by the way) and Newlyn, who simply notice that they can use it as a macroeconomic computer.

If you believe that computers think, then at what point would that one have started thinking? Was it already contemplating the macro-economy when it was an art project, or did it suddenly begin thinking about it when Newlyn and Phillips noticed it could be used in that fashion?

Monday, January 12, 2015

Another iPython Notebook

This one attempts to illustrate the basic capabilities of the framework I am creating.

More mysteries of the Python world

Logging suddenly stopped working in my ABM system. But it took a week for me to notice this, because I had had no reason to check my log files. I had moved the code to initialize logging to a central place. I ought to have checked carefully then if it still worked, but... I hadn't changed the code, just moved it, and no errors messages appeared. I checked a log file and it looked fine! (What I hadn't checked was the date of the log file: it was actually from before the change.)

What had happened was that I had moved the initialization code to a spot where initialization happened after the first attempt to log a message. In almost any language I have worked in, what I would expect in this case is one of two things:

1) The initial logging attempt would blow up with a message like "No logging initialization performed!"

OR

2) The initialization itself would blow up with a message like "Logging already started: too late for initialization!"

Instead, Python let me start logging with no initialization, sending my messages God knows where (not to the log file, anyway), and then let me uselessly run the logging initialization code to no effect.

That is a very weird way too handle this situation!

Keshav's reading assignment

Here you go. Pay very careful attention to the "lump under the rug" section.

The most shocking thing about the Python world I have encountered

Python 3.0 came out in 2008. And yet there are still very significant Python packages that do not yet support it completely!

Six years and you haven't been able to tweak a few lines of code to bring them up to the new standard?! I have never seen a transition to a new language standard proceed so slowly.

Platinga on "naturalistic" ethics

Here:

"His aim in this chapter, then, is to give a naturalistic vindication of values; an account of ethics that fits with secularism but doesn't reduce the ethical life to the expression of subjective attitudes. As he notes (p. 28) it is common to think of moral or ethical standards as independent of human desires and aspirations, having a sort of objectivity that fits well with their being divinely commanded. On Kitcher's account, of course, these standards don't originate in anything like a divine command, and Kitcher's account of ethics and morality doesn't give it that sort of objectivity. What status do ethical standards have, according to him? It's not easy to tell. As far as I could make out, Kitcher believes that ethical rules have simply evolved over the centuries as a means to the reduction of 'functional conflict' (p. 53) and the promotion of harmony in a society. It's a good idea for us (as members of a society) to follow these rules, and to coerce the unwilling also to follow them, in order to introduce and maintain functional harmony in our society. On this prudential account, of course, there isn't any such thing as objective moral obligation, and there would be nothing wrong, morally speaking, in my flouting current ethical precepts (provided I could escape detection)."

Platinga is spot on here. "It evolved" is a completely morally neutral claim. Lions have evolved to kill the offspring of a male they have displaced to bring their mother back into heat. If some human does this, does anyone want to claim that it is moral, since the same impulse probably has evolutionary roots in humans as well?

Every bit as much as moral precepts emerged in an evolutionary process, so too did law-breaking, and thievery, and rape, and lying... And so what? This does not help settle any moral issue whatsoever in any way, shape or form.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Telling tales

"It seems that some models are considered better than others because they can be used to tell better stories, so that the judgment of models relies on judging their narratives." -- Mary Morgan, The World in the Model, 246

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Semiotics of Building Repair

When the average person viewing a building (who was me until all too recently) sees a problem, that's that: there is a problem. Let's fix it. The door is crooked? Straighten the door. The seals on the windows are broken? Re-seal them. There is a crack in the fireplace? Mortar it! A sloped porch? Level it!

Successfully repairing a building, however, requires seeing problems not as (merely) problems, but as symptoms, or signs. (The earliest semioticians were often physicians, and the theory of the sign developed in the context of medical symptoms.) They are, as medieval semioticians would say, aliquid stat pro aliquo: something present standing for something not present.

So a crooked door, a cracked fireplace, a broken window seal, a sloped porch? They a problems, true. But they may also be read as symptoms, perhaps as symptoms that, say, the floor underneath the fireplace was not supported when the fireplace was added, and is now collapsing.

Not that any bloggers we know have recently been taking expensive lessons in construction semiotics.

Shibboleth Watch

I thought I smelt a shibboleth the other day, and lo and behold, a couple of days later, I find "Mr. Shibboleth" himself, Noah Smith, signalling his membership in the ingroup:

"Just as an ecologist would assume that an ecosystem is working fine unless there were something obviously going wrong, economists tend to assume that markets are working OK unless there is obviously something the matter. The basic results in economic theory that say that "markets are good," although expressed in terms of voluntary exchange, utility maximization, etc., are really just formalizations of this naturalistic assumption." (Emphasis mine.)

Humans have been around for 100,000 years, give or take, depending on who you count as human, etc. Out of a very long time, markets have only dominated human life in a small part of the globe for a very small stretch of that time, and their "goodness" has been questioned as far back as we can discern. So how is this assumption "naturalistic"?

Well, because "naturalistic" is a very "in" word to use, and should be introduced in as many contexts as possible!


Friday, January 09, 2015

Do computers think?

I don't know. Do thermostats think about the temperature they regulate in a home? Perhaps they do. I do not think that panpsychism is a ridiculous philosophical position at all. Perhaps rocks think thoughts like: "It is so nice just to lie here. I really hope I can just lie here for… Oh crap! Some kid just picked me up and is throwing me."

The point I have been trying to make is that the fact that a machine does the things we built it to do is no evidence that it is thinking. And the fact that we can build a machine the behavior of which sometimes surprises us does not alter the fundamental situation in any way: One could build a thermostat that changes the temperature based on some complex relationship of its setting, the present temperature, air pressure, noise in the house, and humidity level, and we often might be surprised that shouting causes our house to become very cold. It can be very difficult to guess in advance how some combination of these factors might interact to raise or lower the temperature. I recently programmed a predator-prey model with over a dozen parameters I can set: I am often very surprised at how tiny changes in one parameter can produce wildly different behavior in the system. But I think this is simply because I do not fully understand the machine I have built, and not because the system has got into its head some new idea on how to behave.

Does a toilet "know" that when we push the handle, we want our excrement to go away? Obviously a computer is a much more complicated machine then a toilet: but how is the fact that we built a very complex machine suddenly evidence that the machine is thinking?

UPDATE: And note that thermostats do something it used to take thought to do: in earlier times, when it was too cold, someone had to think, "Hmm, guess I'd better go put more wood on the fire."

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Naturally, It Is Naturalistic!

Mary Morgan's The World in the Model obviously is giving me a lot of food for thought, as you know if you have been reading here recently. It attempts to understand the role of modeling in economics by looking at the history of modeling in economics. One thing it reinforces for me is something I learned from Collingwood, which is that to fully understand some subject, one must understand its history: you can know all about the state-of-the-art for some field, but until you grasp why it became the state-of-the-art, and what the competing alternatives were, you only know half the story.

But I do have a couple of minor gripes. One is about her use of the word "naturalize." (Or "naturalise": a related, even more minor annoyance is that the book switches back-and-forth between the American and the British spelling, probably a fault of the publisher, and not of Morgan.) Let me offer some examples of her usage, along with my comments:

* "Yet, its ambition is to offer both a history of the naturalization of modelling in economics and a naturalized philosophy of science in economics." -- xv

More on the first usage after the next quote. The second one seems to mean (Morgan does not explicitly explain further) that she is going to approach the subject through studying its history. This is, in fact, what she does, which supports that reeading. But why in the world should that procedure be termed a "naturalized" study?

* "The Naturalization of Modelling in Economics" -- 6

This is the heading for a section on the history of modelling entering economics, and how economists came to embrace it. So here, it is being used like a plant "naturalizing" in one's garden: it is becoming at home there. But while this term seems apt for a flower or a bird, it is kind of weird to use it for a skill: "Driving naturalized in Gene between the ages of 17 and 25"?!!

* "When a model becomes fully naturalised in a field, the creativity and imaginative leap that were required to overcome the cognitive difficulties in its construction are usually lost." -- 175

Here, Morgan seems to mean nothing fancier than, "When you get too used to something, you often begin to take it for granted." Why is the unnatural word "naturalised" introduced when the more homely version appears to capture her meaning just fine?

* "The [London] Tube map, long regarded as a classic piece of graphic design, naturalises the way we see the relationship of places to each other." -- 406

Now the meaning of the word appears to be getting stretched like taffy: here, it seems it is being applied to learning a very unnatural way of understanding spatial relationships. Before the Tube map, I doubt anyone ever thought of London as looking like this:


Are we in the presence of a shibboleth? Is Morgan using this word simply because "naturalism" is currently trendy in philosophy, so it is "a good thing" if one's philosophy of science is "naturalized"?

PS -- I am reminded of a friend once telling me that he tried to take a "naturalistic" approach towards sex. By this he meant he would sleep with whatever women he wanted to and who were game, and not feel guilty about dumping them afterwords. That sounds a lot better when you call it "naturalistic," doesn't it?

The Steps of Employing a Model

"Step 1: Create or Construct a model relevant for a topic of interest.
"Step 2: Question that model world: the 'external dynamic'.
"Step 3: Demonstrate the answer to the questions using the model's resources: the 'internal dynamic'.
"Step 4: Narrative accompanies the demonstration to link the answers back to the questions and to their domains: both to the world in the model and the world that the model represents."
-- Mary Morgan, The World in the Model, p. 225

Deceived by invisibility


The Newlyn-Phillips machine is an analogue computer for calculating the value of certain macroeconomic variables when other such variables are changed. It is a hydraulic machine that circulates colored water through a series of pipes and valves:







If you showed a bunch of people this machine in operation, and then asked them, "So, this machine sure knows a lot about the macro-economy, doesn't it?" I'd bet most would reply, "What? It's just a bunch of water running around in pipes. It's only humans who interpret the levels as economic aggregates." In fact, it is entirely possible (albeit unlikely) that someone built a machine that functions identically, but is actually used to flush clean some manufacturing equipment or run a fancy bathroom. In those cases, no one would even imagine that there was anything to do with macroeconomics going on.

But once the parts of a machine of essentially the same type are hidden in tiny microchips, and the machine circulates electrons instead of water, many people act like a cargo cult, willing to attribute to the machine powers like "knowing" how to play chess.



UPDATE: This post is not meant to prove that computers don't think. Perhaps they do, for all I know! It just shows we have no more reason to believe they do than we have to believe the Newlyn-Phillips machine thinks about macroeconomics.


Wednesday, January 07, 2015

A speedometer versus a digital speed read-out

It is tempting to see a speedometer as something that merely measures the speed of one's car. In that case, why not just replace it with a digital readout? I believe some cars have, but I think that is a mistake: The speedometer is not only giving a measure of your car's speed, it is a simple model of the car's movement, abstracting out a single aspect of it and showing a visual analogue of that aspect. The driver gains a feel for his speed while watching his speedometer climb that he simply does not get from watching a number change.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

The accomplishments of our forebears

Since the Enlightenment, it is been a common tendency to regard almost everyone who lived before 1600 as an unobservant ignoramus mired in superstition. But as I have been watching Jupiter and the moon approach each other in the night sky the last few days, I have been thinking about what a great achievement the recognition of the Zodiac was. How many of our contemporaries do you think you can state the significance of the Zodiac, other than as a topic of horoscope columns in the newspaper? How many could point to it in the night sky?

Of course, recognizing that the Zodiac is the plane of the solar system was a great scientific achievement. But that achievement was built on the previous recognition that there is a band in the sky through which all the "wanderers" move.

A related point: If IQ tests were designed by hunter-gatherers, the questions would be about carefully distinguishing an edible plant from its poisonous look-alike, and skillfully noting the signs that a prey animal had passed by, or a dangerous predator was in the area. I suspect most of us educated Westerners would score very poorly on these IQ tests.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Very Humorous, H&R Block!

H&R Block ad today:

"You may wonder how the Affordable Care Act will effect your taxes. You'll have lots of questions. And that's OK!"

In fact, I'd say it's way more than "OK" with H&R that you will have lots of questions! You know, given they have spent millions making sure you have lots of tax questions.

Stupid statistics

The existence of extensive computer databases has led sports analysts to continually offer up the most absurd facts as though they are relevant to a current situation. Today's example: "Since 1970, the Cowboys have won more road games (179) than any NFL team. San Francisco (178) and Miami (176) come the closest."

OK, is there a single person involved with the Dallas Cowboys in 1970 who is still involved with them today? (There might be, but if there are, they are scarce on the ground.) So how is how the 1971 or 1974 Cowboys performed on the road relevant to their upcoming game?

Well, because "statistics" are "scientific"!

Friday, January 02, 2015

Wabulon Bleg

Wabulon, oh Wabulon
Your phone number has gone missing
Wabulon, oh Wabulon
Since on the edge of time you were wissing

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Why the Cartesians Rejected Newton's Work on Gravity

In the comments, Greg speculated that the Cartesians rejected Newton because his theory was unfamiliar and, they thought, incorrect. But the actual situation is almost the exact opposite: Newton's theory seemed all too familiar to them: they thought it was a throwback to Scholasticism. Moliere famously lampooned scholastic philosophers in a scene where they "explain" opium's sleep-producing properties as due to its "dormitive principle." Well, that was the way Newton's theory looked to the Cartesians: he was "explaining" gravity by an "attractive principle" contained in matter. It was not that they thought Newton's theory was wrong: they didn't think it had any explanatory power. There were Cartesian theories that contained inverse square laws, but which, to them, provided explanations of gravity, in line with their mechanical philosophy.

Zeno for the computer age

If you wish to better understand Zeno's worry about the continuum, you could do worse than to consider loops in software. Case 1: You...