Thursday, April 30, 2015

Scott McConnell, FTW!

"The state, which cannot protect crowds of dating couples and parents with children outside of Camden Yards, is not going to make eastern Ukraine safe for neoliberalism."

Here.

I Take It All Back

My post on Python and data abstraction was mistaken: every example I had seen of using the '@property' feature showed how to control access to a variable with the same name as the property. But last week, and found an example showing that you don't need a variable with the property name at all, so it can, indeed, be used to screen moving a variable into a different class. I stand corrected!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Jesus Was Considering Opening a Bread and Fish Business, But...

I offer again Mises' characterization of choice:

"All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference." -- Human Action

Mises is explicitly stressing the notion that there is one kind of choice, and that all choices pick out an item from a "unique scale" of preferences. Collingwood say, "No, moral choices are of a distinct type from economic choices, although they are both purposeful."

If we adopt Mises' view, we have to picture Jesus surveying an array of possibilities, engaged in considerations like:

"Well, I certainly have a great absolute advantage at producing loaves and fishes. And I do think that Galilee offers tremendous opportunities for opening a chain of loaf and fish stores. On the other hand, just how much utility will I really gain from that whole 'dying on the cross' business?"

I think Collingwood wins.

Our Own Personal Hypnotoad


I attended a philosophy conference a week ago. I walked in late to the keynote speech, and circled the back of the lecture hall to join my friend on the other side. Thus, I got to see what almost everyone "listening" to the lecture was doing. At least a third of the people in the hall were... fiddling around with their smart phones!

So, let us wrap our minds around this: every person in that hall was there voluntarily. Presenting at the conference may look good on their CV, but no one is going to check and see if they attended the keynote address or not. They could've gone out, on this beautiful Saturday at St. John's University, sat on the grass, and texted their friends for the duration of the keynote lecture, and no one would've been the wiser. On one level, they must have thought, "I don't want to miss this lecture."

But this was a philosophy lecture, one which took one's full attention to follow. And these people were not following it. They were unable to keep their attention on the lecture for more than a few minutes without pulling out the little personal hypnotoad we all keep in our pockets these days, and staring into its mesmerizing eye.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Collingwood Was Right, and Mises Wrong

Mises famously treated moral choices as just another species of economic choice:

"All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference." -- Human Action

Collingwood saw the important difference between merely economic action and moral action that Mises missed:

"It is thus possible to distinguish three types or forms of action. First, the doing something because it is what we want to do; secondly, the doing it because it is expedient; thirdly, the doing it because it is right. The first is the sphere of impulsive action; the second, of economic; the third, of moral. These three are not mutually exclusive species of a genus. There is no action in which impulse or desire does not play a part, and there is, therefore, a sense in which all action is impulsive. So far, the hedonist, who argues that everybody does precisely what he wants to do, is in the right. But though impulse is, as it were, the foundation of all action, the hedonist is wrong in arguing-- as in effect he must argue--that economic and moral acts differ in nothing essential from acts of pure impulse. The mere fact that he has to twist these types of action into conformity with his standard shows that hedonism is a dialectical tour de force rather than an unbiased statement of the facts. We applaud his ingenuity in showing that the sweated labourer and the religious martyr are simply enjoying themselves, but even he is not really convinced by it. In economic action impulse is, though present, subordinated to utility, much as in moral action utility is subordinated to duty. Hence the hedonist's effort to drag economic action into line with impulsive action is parallel to, and cannot succeed better than, the utilitarian's effort to drag moral action into line with economic..."

"In moral action; on the other hand, the distinction is present, but it is merged in a fresh unity; thus it is actually a definition of moral action to say that a moral act is an end in itself, that the good will is the will which wills itself, and the like. The end which the moral man sets before himself is to be good; and the only means to being good is--being good." -- "Economics as a Philosophical Science," (emphasis mine)

This is a very important distinction. What it means, among other things, is that when making a genuinely moral choice, one should not be engaged in utility calculations as to the likely outcomes: you should be trying to do the right thing. So, when faced with the question of whether to have a market in human babies, you don't weigh up the hypothetical benefits available from committing the evil act of buying and selling human beings. When asked to mass murder a hundred thousand people, you do not start wondering whether "under the circumstances" it might be OK: you say 'no.'

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Renaissance Began in 1000

Of course, "ages" are constructs of historians, and no one at the time ever woke up and said, "Honey, guess what: the Middle Ages began this morning!"

But if we want to point to a time when the revival of Europe after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire really began, we could do a lot worse than say, "1000 A. D."

As of the year 1000, the population of France was around 6 million, and Germany about 4 million. By 1300, both those numbers had roughly tripled, with France at around 19 million and Germany 12 million. And at the same time, there were great migrations from these areas into Iberia, Poland, and the Baltic region. The period saw improved farming techniques, the creation of the modern university, the foundations laid for modern science, the building of many great cathedrals, the rediscovery of much lost Greek thought, and the beginning of Europe's re-urbanization.

Then a small problem, the Black Death, struck, wiping out about half of Europe's population. The population peaks of the early 1300s were not reached again until about 1500. If not for the Black Death, we would no doubt view European history as an "ascent" from 1000 on.

The Internet of Plants

Research on plants continually reveals them as more active than anyone had thought:

"The more we learn about these underground networks, the more our ideas about plants have to change. They aren't just sitting there quietly growing. By linking to the fungal network they can help out their neighbours by sharing nutrients and information – or sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals through the network."

Do You Remember That Teacher Whose Handwriting on the Blackboard Was Hard to Decipher?

The Khan Academy shows how the teacher can now use a computer to give you that same experience of, "What the hell did he just write?"

Do Pythonistas Understand Data Abstraction?

I was just reading this page on why not to use getter and setter functions in Python, and realized the author doesn't seem to have any idea what data abstraction is:

"In Java, you have to use getters and setters because using public fields gives you no opportunity to go back and change your mind later to using getters and setters."

This was never the reason I used a getter or setter method in Java! You use getters and setters to achieve data abstraction:

"The representation details are confined to only a small set of procedures that create and manipulate data, and all other access is indirectly via only these procedures."

I had a class GridAgent where the agent held its position on a grid, among other things. But then I wanted to re-do this, so that the position was held in a cell, which held the agent. I had (sometimes) done things the "Pythonic" way, but just accessing the position variable, and of course I had to find every instance of that usage and change it. Where I had done things the "evil" Java (really OOP) way, the code just worked right away.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Is success within a profession a criterion of truth?!

Earl and Littleboy, the authors of G. L. S. Shackle are rather critical of Shackle's unwillingness to compromise his ideas so that they would gain more mainstream acceptance. For instance, they write: "Shackle rebelled, and he lost. His tactics and timing were not quite right; he overreached. The reward even from partial victory could well have been a Noble Prize" (p. 81).

They seem to be putting forward, rather than a correspondence theory of truth, or a coherence theory of truth, what we might call the "professional advancement theory of truth": your ideas are true to the extent they gain you accolades and prizes!

But if Shackle was correct in his most radical proposals, wasn't he right to stick to his guns, even if it cost him recognition? And if those ideas were wrong, isn't that the reason he should have changed them, and not the fact he might have won a Nobel Prize had he done so?

Consider the case of Copernicus. My lecturer in the history of science noted that, while the Catholic Church had actually paid Copernicus little heed, professional astronomers had taken note of his theory, and almost uniformly rejected it. As John Milton (my lecturer, not the poet) put it, "As far as I have been able to determine, five or so decades after Copernicus's death, there were about four Copernicans in the world. And two of them were named Galileo and Kepler."

Would Earl and Littleboy want to chastise Copernicus, contending that, if only he had come up with a compromise system, like, say, Brahe's, he could have gained more professional acceptance?

Evasion Does Not Equal Dishonesty!

My friend's wife has been cheating on him for years. But if you asked him about this, he would say she was faithful. And he is not lying, merely deceived, and not just by her, but by himself as well.

His "prior," if we want to speak like Bayesians, is that she is a faithful woman: after all, he married her. For me and the rest of his friends, not having this strong prior, the evidence of her cheating is obvious. But he explains away each instance: "Oh, he is her old high school friend, and they had a lot to talk about." "That fellow: no, she assures me he is gay." And so on.

He is not being deliberately dishonest.  It is just that, given his large emotional investment in believing she is faithful, he winds up evading the evidence that she is not. It is a very human thing to do, and one I myself have done all too frequently!

So when I note that people misconstrue analogies to evade their force, I am not claiming they are being deliberately dishonest! In the specific case cited in that post, I was engaged with people with a strong prior that libertarianism is correct. So, when faced with an analogy that points towards a flaw in libertarian reasoning, they naturally look for a flaw in the analogy, and hit upon the first difference they detect between the cases in the analogy, without carefully analyzing exactly what the analogy is claiming is similar between the analogous cases.

Again, not dishonest, simply human, and no doubt something I too have done! It is nevertheless a "slippery" maneuver: it protects us form having to re-examine our priors.

Oh, and let me apologize: I realize my initial post was not clear enough on this point. I did not mean to defame anyone by accusing them of deliberate dishonesty, but I can see how people could have read my post that way.

Logical, psychological, and normative theories of choice under uncertainty

When looking at a formal theory of choice under uncertainty, there are (at least) three questions one might ask about it:

1) Is it mathematically sound?
2) Should people be applying it in some or all situations? If some, which ones?
3) Do people actually reason that way?

The authors of G. L. S. Shackle sometimes seem to be mixing these three questions together, to the detriment of their analysis. For instance, they contend, "Whether probability is relevant [to single cases, rather than to a sequence of repeated trials,] is testable even by simple thought experiments" (p. 71). Well, first of all, what the authors next describe are not thought experiments à la Einstein, but experiments they have thought about someone performing. (The difference being they are asking "Think about this: how will people really respond in this situation?" rather than claiming the thought experiment itself proves anything.)

And what they claim (I think correctly) is that, in the situations they describe, many people would indeed apply probabilistic reasoning. But this hardly addresses Shackle's point: he was arguing against applying probabilistic reasoning to single cases precisely because he knew people do so. So showing that people do so merely shows he was not tilting at windmills, and not that he was wrong.

A little later, they write: "Specialists indeed later found serious faults in Bayesian reasoning (e.g. the Ellsberg paradox)" (p. 81). Let me admit that when I first read that sentence, I chuckled to myself and thought, "Named after Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame, no doubt, ha ha!" Well, I looked it up, and it is named after Daniel Ellsberg!

In any case, having now studied the paradox, I cannot see that it shows any fault in Bayesian reasoning at all. Instead, it shows that people often don't use Bayesian reasoning. But this is something most Bayesians readily acknowledge, as I often see them criticizing people's reasoning by saying something like, "Well, if they had been good Bayesian reasoners, they would have reached conclusion X."


Reports from the Ent Wald

"I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me." -- Treebeard

"Who can stop what must arise now?
Something new is waiting to be born" -- Robert Hunter

Dreher writes:
It would be absurd to claim that Christian civilization ever achieved a golden age of social harmony and sexual bliss. It is easy to find eras in Christian history when church authorities were obsessed with sexual purity. But as Rieff recognizes, Christianity did establish a way to harness the sexual instinct, embed it within a community, and direct it in positive ways.

What makes our own era different from the past, says Rieff, is that we have ceased to believe in the Christian cultural framework, yet we have made it impossible to believe in any other that does what culture must do: restrain individual passions and channel them creatively toward communal purposes.

Rather, in the modern era, we have inverted the role of culture. Instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a society that tells us we find meaning and purpose in releasing ourselves from the old prohibitions.
Rieff, a secularist, understood the point I have been making here. In my estimate, the old order is not coming back, because old orders never do come back. And there are reasons they fade: what was once living faith turns into dogma, what was once a natural unity turns into persecution of those who question it, and so on.

But the Enlightenment is only a reaction, an attack on the old order. It is the analogue of the skeptical philosophies that arose as the pagan world order ceased to attract belief. It has no new order to put in the place of the order it is tearing down. That new order is waiting to be born.

Siri Loves a Naughty Word

If you see an "f-bomb" or somesuch show up in my text at this blog, well:

I was writing my bio for my summer at Duke in 2013. I spoke "His latest book was..." Siri wrote, "His latest f*ck was..."

At Duke, a friend, John, asked me out for Ethiopian food. I wanted to suggest something else. I said, "I really love it, but..."

Siri wrote, "I really love d*ck, but..."

Luckily I caught each of those. John, especially, would have been a bit nonplussed to get that response to a simple dinner invitation: "Gene, it was just for dinner, really..."

Online Poker Stars

Is a major source of hits for this blog this week.

Does the merest whiff of probability theory on a web site bring the poker players streaming in?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Shackle on case probaility

It is interesting how Shackle and Mises are partners in this matter. The authors of G. L. S. Shackle discuss Shackle's rejection of the notion that a singular event can meaningfully be said to have probability X.

Shackle puts forward an example where England and Australia are to have a cricket match. But instead of the usual coin toss deciding who bats first, England has managed to get the matter on the toss of a die, where a one will mean Australia bats first, and any other number, England will do so. He asks, "Can we now give any meaningful answer whatever to the question 'Who will bat first?' except 'We do not know'?" (p. 63)

The authors reject Shackle's agnosticism here, claiming: "Of course, the right answer is 'England will, most probably'" (p. 64).

But this simply begs the question that Shackle was raising: In the case of a single event, what exactly do we mean when we assert its probability is X? Of course everyone agrees that if a long series of matches takes place with this method of determining who bats first, England will in the majority of cases. In defense of their view, the authors note that a bettor will want to place his bet on England. But that truth appears to rely on the fact that, over the long run, a repeated series of such bets will pay off, i.e., it seems to rely on the frequency-based interpretation of probability, an interpretation that Shackle endorses!

I don't assert that Shackle was right here, but only that his argument against case probability cannot be dismissed with a mere "Of course!"

Liberal Argumentation

Discussing political issues with liberals is fascinating, and can bring home the reality of certain historical/theoretical points. For example, let us say that an Orthodox Jewish rabbi wants to explain to a liberal why circumcision is not only justified but important. The liberal is likely to reject everything the rabbi puts forward (the Torah, the Talmud, and his traditions) by claiming that the rabbi is engaged in "sheer assertion."

Or consider an "average Joe," who, when asked why we should not buy and sell children, will probably respond something like, "Well, that's awful!" The liberal will reject his answer as well, calling it an "argument from personal repugnance." The liberal will insist that only by (liberal) argumentation can we arrive at rational moral conclusions. This answer might suffice if only:

1) Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics) and later Michael Oakeshott (Rationalism in Politics) demonstrated that morality is not a matter of theoria but of phronesis, and thus is rightly guided by practical and not theoretical reason. Argumentation may influence action, but the proper sort of argument for influencing practical action is not a theoretical one, but a practical one, along the lines of "Your mother will be really hurt if you do that."

This would mean that applying the conclusions of liberal argumentation to practical decisions is a category error, and thus not a rational procedure at all. But luckily, that is easily avoidable, since:

2) Alasdair McIntyre (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) had not shown that, in any case, liberal argumentation pretty much never reaches a conclusion. (Rawls argues that some redistribution is morally justified, Nozick argues back that no it isn't, Cohen responds that not only is it, it is required at a much higher level than Rawls' envisioned, someone else responds to Cohen, etc.) Instead, as MacIntyre demonstrates, engaging in argumentation has itself become the central liberal virtue. If one is a communist, one shows one's virtue by organizing a workers' strike, if a Muslim, by undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca, and if a liberal, by engaging in endless, inconclusive argumentation. This is illustrated in the fate of philosophy in liberal hands: whereas it originated as the search for wisdom, in philosophy departments today, one is likely to be told that philosophy is all about (clever) arguments.

Truncating Your Utilitarian Analysis

We should not want to treat human babies as a commodity whether or not we "gain utils" by doing so. But that is not the only problem with Abby Hall's "analysis" of the issue. She also severely truncates her utilitarian analysis.

First of all, she treats the number of "unwanted" babies as being unmoved by a legal market for children. Coming from a crew of people who can never stop telling us that "incentives matter," this is a rather shocking omission. Of course, once they know they can legally get a new car or a trip around the world for the infant that is whining at 3 A.M. and keeping them up, a lot more mothers are going to "realize" that they don't want their babies. In fact, it won't take long before poor mothers see that they have years of good-paying work ahead of them, becoming pregnant again and again.

And Hall also fails to look at "substitute goods" in a broader context: adopted babies are a substitute for your own. She invokes the sad cases of people who cannot conceive, but there is no way to limit a market for babies to just such couples. People will naturally form business marketing babies, and marketing the idea that the "rational" thing to do is to avoid the risk and mess of pregnancy, and pick your ideal child out of a catalog.

So, we will have a world in which poor mothers will produce child after child as their "job," children that will be corporate commodities marketed on glitzy Internet sites to the wealthy. And having bought their children the same way they would a TV or jacuzzi, if they find their purchase to be "defective," they will want the right to return it. And what will "Babyland" do with a defective product that gets returned several times?

Your analogy is broken, bcause *X is not exactly like Y*!

It is shocking how often this slippery trick is used when someone wants to evade the force of an analogy. Consider this post. The point of it, of course, was not to show that buying and selling children is equivalent to slavery! If that was what I wanted to claim, I would have simply claimed it. No, what I wanted to show was that the exact same sort of arguments Hall uses to justify buying and selling children could be used to justify slavery.

But of course, not one person who wanted to defend Hall's argument, here or on Facebook, tried to dispute the similarity between Praetorium's fictitious arguments in my post and Hall's real arguments. How could they? I basically just copied and pasted her arguments into my post, and then substituted "Africans" for "children"!

Since they couldn't dispute that the arguments are point-for-point in the exact same form, with just this simple substitution made, they tried a sleight-of-hand: they noted that buying and selling children is, in some ways, different than slavery! Wow, what a revelation! But since the (rather obvious) point of my post was not to show that they are exactly the same... so what? Well, it provides a nice distraction from the actual point.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Shackle on gambling

"Even in gambles in which the downside outcome involves money being lost, gamblers get something that is not available by holding on to their money, namely, the opportunity to 'indulge their hopes' by imagining what it would be like to receive a gain of some kind. In other words, the traditional theory of risktaking mistakenly focuses purely on the value the decision-maker would assign to each potential outcome if it actually eventuated. It thereby ignores the impact that expectations about the possible outcome of a gamble have on how one feels between the moment of choice and the revelation of the outcome. This is an early statement of an idea that he later developed at length as 'enjoyment by anticipation'..." -- G. L. S. Shackle, p. 104

This passage does, unfortunately, illustrate the authors' penchant for clunky writing. What do they mean, "Even in gambles in which the downside outcome involves money being lost..." It's not a gamble if there is no risk of losing, and it hardly matters if what is lost is money in particular. A bit later, they choose to write "if it actually eventuated," when "if it actually happened" sounds a lot more like real English to me, and says the same thing.

A Shocking Discovery in a Monastery Library


While doing research in the Aedificium of the Kloster Eberbach, I came across the following fascinating manuscript, apparently written by a monk named Abbius Praetorium, and presenting an early argument for the legitimacy of the African slave trade. I present these arguments, by the way, not to endorse them, but to show the depths to which the moral imagination may sink when it is weighed down by the shackles of a false world view:

****************************************

It is with the high costs of finding labor in mind, and the knowledge that there are thousands of farmers that would like to expand their labor force but cannot (if you will, a shortage in workers), that I’d like to make a suggestion.

African chiefs should be allowed to sell the lordship rights to their tribesmen, or to those they have captured in war.

Stick with me here. I am not advocating human trafficking or the idea of kidnapping Africans in order to sell them to desperate farmers. What I am suggesting is a general deregulation of the market for labor. Allow African chiefs to enter into contracts with willing farmers for the rights to work Africans for profit.

Before unleashing your moral outrage at the idea of "selling human beings," consider the potential for very significant, very positive outcomes for all parties involved. Allowing African chiefs to profit from such sales  fundamentally changes the costs and benefits of a variety of transactions. They include:
  1. The "labor shortage" will diminish or be eliminated as chiefs enter  the market to sell the rights to work their tribesmen. The "supply" of tribesmen  to be purchased is more likely to meet current demand.

  2. Chiefs will experience greater wealth as they may profit from the sale of their sovereignty rights.

  3. There will be fewer executions in Africa. As chiefs experiencing troublesome tribesmen look at their options, the potential for financial gain means fewer chiefs are likely to execute.

  4. The health of Africans will improve. Since healthy Africans are likely to command a higher purchase price than ill ones, chiefs would face strong incentives to improve the health of their tribesmen.

  5. Africans themselves are likely to be better off: who wouldn't want to be moved from a tribe, where their presence is a cause of consternation, to a farm community, where they will be loved and wanted?

  6. Tribesmen abuse would decline. The current system incentivizes chiefs  to keep their tribesmen, rather than give them up, even if they find them a royal pain in the butt.

  7. The above argument especially applies to prisoners of war. African chiefs now often have no choice but to kill those prisoners. But, if there is a market for them, they won't need to be killed. Anyone in favor of less slaughter of prisoners of war ought to be for a market in Africans.

  8. The price of labor will fall. Since hiring free workers and buying Africans are what economists call "substitute goods," or goods that can be used for the same purpose, an increase in Africans for sale would decrease the demand for free labor. As demand falls, wages would fall as well, and farmers will prosper, meaning cheaper food for everyone.

****************************************

But, of course, we children of the Enlightenment are much better people than the barbarians of a few centuries back, and would never endorse buying and selling human beings. I only share the above to show how far we have advanced since those dark times.


Las Vegas says the odds of Murphy topping Callahan...

Are 1-in-20.

What does this mean? Many people have the impression that there are a bunch of sports experts in Las Vegas who know the likelihood of different outcomes of a contest, and use their expertise to "set" odds that somehow reflect an objective fact about the world. But what really happens is this:

"By adjusting the odds in their favour or by having a point spread, bookmakers will aim to guarantee a profit by achieving a 'balanced book', either by getting an equal number of bets for each outcome or (when they are offering odds) by getting the amounts wagered on each outcome to reflect the odds."

If the bookmaker can equalize the dollar amount to be paid out when Murphy wins and when Callahan wins, and then can take a commission or vigorish from that, the business is guaranteed to make money, no matter the outcome of the event.

So picture a contest between some hypothetical Callahan and some imaginary Murphy for "Lightweight intellectual champion of the world." It just so happens that for every dollar bet on Murphy, 19 are bet on Callahan. Let's say there were only 20 $1 bets, to make our math simple. The bookmaker has $20 in his pocket. He wants some of that left there when the contest is over. So he sets the odds 19 to 1 in favor of Callahan. If Callahan wins, he pays out something like $1.04 for every one dollar bet, and is left with a quarter in his pocket. If Murphy wins, he pays out $19.75 to the single Murphy better, and is left with a quarter in his pocket. The bookmaker wins either way!

So the bookmaker has no interest at all in anything that might be called the "real" odds in the contest. His odds are simply the odds that balance his book, and guarantee he will make money whoever wins. If he personally believes that Murphy is being seriously underrated in this contest, he may make a bet himself on Murphy. But then, of course, he is acting as a bettor, and not a bookmaker.

Replacing a deformation with a new deformation

Eric Voegelin's discussion of Hegel in Volume V of Order and History is very interesting: he praises Hegel for his recognition of the deformed state of consciousness of his time, but criticizes him for attempting to replace one deformation with another (Hegel's own system).

This has an interesting analogy today in the work of many liberatarians: they are often quite sharp in their critiques of our current woes: their diagnoses aren't bad. But their prescription is to replace the disturbed order of today with a fantasy order created in their own heads.

Remarkable rebound variance

Here:

"Washington, which out rebounded Toronto 61-48 in Game 1, was dominant on the glass again. The Wizards finished with 45 rebounds while the Raptors had 28. Toronto didn't get a single offensive rebound in the first half."

To me the really remarkable thing is that game one out-rebounded game two 109-73. That's a pretty big difference in total rebounds.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Self interest and the common good

I am still seeing a lot of confusion in the public choice community about what it means to say that politicians or government employees are "self-interested." For instance, I just read a (draft) paper by someone prominent in the public choice world who wrote (I quote from memory): "Government officials don't pursue the common good. They are no better than anyone else: they are just out to realize their self-interest as well."

I offer a real-world happening for your contemplation in this regard:

While living on the corner of Court and Atlantic in Brooklyn, a number of years ago, I noticed that the light was designed wrongly: the green light on Atlantic would turn to yellow and then red, and then, after a couple of seconds, the traffic on Atlantic would get a green arrow to turn left onto Court. This was a problem, because when pedestrians saw the light turn red, being New Yorkers, they would start to cross Atlantic right away, without waiting for the cross walk signal to turn, and not realizing that a bunch of cars that had been waiting to turn left would soon start crossing their paths. And the drivers that had been waiting to go left, having sat still for some time, and knowing their green arrow time would be limited, would race to make the turn.

Having seen a number of near accidents, where a car narrowly avoided a pedestrian, I grew worried about this light. One day, I approached two cops on foot, and explained to them the problem, and how to fix it: put the left-turn arrow at the beginning of the light cycle, so that the cross walk signal had just turned red, and pedestrians would be expecting traffic. The cops listened carefully to what I said, and replied that they would report the problem.

A month or two later, the light was changed to work as I had recommended. I can't guarantee that my conversation with the cops caused the change, but the evidence suggests it plausibly could have. Let's imagine it did so.

I certainly did not report this for any narrowly self-interested gain: living on that corner, I already knew the light cycle. But in the broader (Misesian) sense of self-interest, I was of course acting in my self-interest: I was very interested in not seeing someone being crushed by a car at my corner!

And we can imagine the cops who reported my finding were similarly motivated: perhaps they might get promotions for forwarding my worry, but most likely they, too, were not looking forward to a messy traffic death on their beat.

Now compare this to a hypothetical ambulance-chaser lawyer, anxious to find cases to bring a lawsuit against drivers. He lobbies against changing the light (he will invent some respectable reason), since he sees the badly designed light will bring him more cases, and more monetary gain, than would the properly designed one. He, too, is acting in his Misesian self-interest, but also in his self-interest in the narrow sense.

T. H. Green understood the process of becoming more moral precisely as one of realizing that one's true self-interest and one's interest in the common good are complementary, rather than opposed. We needn't here ask whether Green's conception captures the whole of morality, but can merely note that it cerainly captures an important aspect of it.

And there is no particular reason to think that politicians, as opposed to the rest of us, are incapable of so aligning their self-interest with the common good. (Hayek's chapter on "Why the Worst Get on Top" very specifically addressed politicians in totalitarian regimes, not politicians in general.) Of course, they are just as likely as the rest of to let those two factors drift apart. But the naive public choice critique of political actors is unsound, for the reason explained above.


The Problem of the Fragile Base Class

If (almost) all classes inherit from a single base class in a system, we get the problem of the fragile base class: a change to that single base class can break subclasses in non-obvious ways.

But this problem must be weighed against the advantages of a single base class. The foremost advantage is probably that one can add a capability to the base class and have it available to every class in the system if they all inherit from that base class.

What's more, the very problem can be an advantage: if some capability is provided in the base class, and there is a problem with it, the fix will also be all in one place!

The upshot: if you use a single base class, be very careful about changing it!

Reports from the Ent Wald

The defenders of the ancien régime are wrong in thinking that every jot and tittle of the old moral order is correct, or was an expression of transcendent truths. But its assailants are wrong in thinking they can ignore the (very real) transcendent source of moral order, spin out a new one using "reason," and generate a civilization out of their own noodles.

The history of civilizations is one of:
1) People forge a living connection with the source of transcendent order.
2) That connection ossifies over centuries and becomes dead and brittle dogma.
3) Finally the old order snaps apart under attacks by relativists and nihilists (who are rightly angered at its stifling close-mindedness).
4) But rebellion is not itself a source of order, and so a period of chaos and decline ensues.
5) Finally, a new, living connection is forged.

We are roughly in phase three right now. Those who are frantic about the old order fading should relax a bit: civilizations come and go, and another one will arise.

Those who are self-righteous in their attacks on the old order should take a step back, and realize they are analogous to civilization's dung beetles: useful, but hardly a role to get all puffed up about.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Siri's strange predilection for "it's"

It seems to me that in my writing, I use "its" and "it's" about equally. But Siri seems to prefer "it's" by a ratio of about 100 to 1.

Was Berkeley a Subjective Idealist?

This paper had an exciting weekend: it has been accepted for publication in Collingwood and British Idealism Studies, I presented it at the annual meeting of the Long Island Philosophical Society on Saturday, and it is now available at PhilPapers.

What is the source of sportswriters misuse of statistics?

I parodied the kind of thing they write here.

But what is the error in their reasoning? This issue is not merely of academic interest: medical doctors and juries are both prone to commit statistical errors that render their practical judgments fallacious.

Doctors for instance, have overestimated the likelihood that a patient has a disease, given a positive test result, by a factor of 33. And the prosecutor's fallacy can convince juries despite it being a fallacy: "In another scenario, a crime-scene DNA sample is compared against a database of 20,000 men. A match is found, that man is accused and at his trial, it is testified that the probability that two DNA profiles match by chance is only 1 in 10,000. This does not mean the probability that the suspect is innocent is 1 in 10,000. Since 20,000 men were tested, there were 20,000 opportunities to find a match by chance." In fact, in this situation, there is an 86% chance an innocent man will match the DNA profile found at the crime scene.

The error sportswriters most typically make in their probabilistic reasoning is that of treating the distribution of some previous results as a casual force determining future results. We find propositions like, "The Blues face an uphill battle in their playoff series facing the Greens this year, as they lost 90% of their games against the Greens in the regular season."

But this gets things precisely backwards: the reason the Blues face an uphill battle against the Greens is not their record during the year against them: it is the fact that they are not as good a team as the Greens. Evidence for the fact that they are not as good is provided by the fact that they lost 9 out of 10 games against the Greens, but that statistic itself is no barrier to their winning the playoff series: perhaps their two best players were out for the nine games they lost, but present for the one they won, and are now back for the playoffs.

The apogee of this kind of silliness is achieved when some surely irrelevant fact is introduced to generate a statistic that is supposed to "create trouble" for a team: "The Greens have lost four games in a row on Monday nights against teams from the alpha conference, so history is against them tonight." Well, what happened was (perhaps) that they weren't very good for a few years, and during those years, it just happened that their Monday night games were against a pretty good team from the alpha conference. The real "statistic" here is just that "The Greens tend to lose against teams better than they are," which is a simple tautology, since the "better" team is just that team that usually tends to win.

The ability of humans to reason probabilistically is a relatively recent development, and represents a genuine advance in human knowledge. But as with all such advances, it tends to take on a magical aura, so that simply invoking "statistics" can appear to support "reasoning" that has no reasonable basis whatsoever.

Statistic, when used properly, may give us a glimpse into real causal factors at work in our world. But statistics are not themselves causal factors operating in the world: they are snapshots of the effects produced by actual casual factors.

An analogy: We find the mauled body of a hiker in the woods. All around his body are bear footprints. We may reasonably conclude: "The hiker was mauled and killed by a bear." But it would be utter nonsense to conclude "The hiker was killed by all of those bear footprints." Statistics (properly understood) are very much like those bear prints: they are the footprints of an actual causal process at work in the world, but are never the cause of anything.

An exception to the above proposition that is not really an exception: it is possible that some agent, say, a sports team, may itself fall prey to the fallacious use of statistics of which I accuse sportswriters: The Greens may come to think, "Tonight's game is hopeless: we always lose on Monday nights against teams from the alpha conference." But the real causal factor here is not the statistic itself, but the Greens' erroneous belief that it somehow controls the result of tonight's game.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Voegelin on Science and History

'On the one hand, the advance of the natural sciences concentrated attention intensely on the particular problems of conceptualization they posed, so intensely indeed that the concentration has become the motivating force of a socially still-expanding movement of sectarians who want to monopolize the meaning of the terms “truth” and “science” for the results and methods of the mathematizing sciences. On the other hand, the equally astounding advance of the historical sciences has concentrated attention on the problems of symbolization posed by the discoveries in the ancient civilizations and their mythologies, as well as by the exploration of the modes of thought to be found in contemporary tribal societies. Again the two concentrations are transparent for the experiences of intentionality and luminosity, of thing-reality and It-reality, behind them; again the representatives of both concentrations are right in their pursuit of truth as long as they confine themselves to areas of reality in which the structures of their preference predominate; and again both are wrong when they engage in magic dreams of a truth that can be reached by concentrating exclusively on either the intentionality of conceptualizing science or the luminosity of mythic and revelatory symbols.' -- Order and History, Vol. 5, p. 32

How Bad Is Pop History of Science?

Renaissance Mathematicus gives an example here.

The author of the piece critiqued -- which was published by Scientific American! -- puts forward nonsense like "Copernicus's system did not explain retrograde motion of the planets" -- when, in fact, the major advance of Copernicus's system was its natural explanation of retrograde motion! -- and that Galileo "discovered that Venus was a planet and not a star" -- something the ancient Greeks knew quite well.

I studied the history of science for a year at King's College in London. Pretty much the first thing our lecturer told us was that pop history of science was complete nonsense.

And note: although sometimes the junk pop history of science involves religious issues, nothing in the Scientific American piece has anything to do with such matters. It just seems that, concerning the history of science, lots of people who have no idea what they are talking about want to publish on the topic.

Voegelin on Ideology and Philosophy

"Ideology is existence in rebellion against God and man. It is the violation of the First and Tenth Commandments, if we want to use the language of Israelite order; it is the nosos, the disease of the spirit, if we want to use the language of Aeschylus and Plato. Philosophy is the love of being through love of divine Being as the source of its order. The Logos of being is the object proper of philosophical inquiry; and the search for truth concerning the order of being cannot be conducted without diagnosing the modes of existence in untruth. The truth of order has to be gained and regained in the perpetual struggle against the fall from it; and the movement toward truth starts from a man’s awareness of his existence in untruth." -- Israel and Revelation, ix-xiv

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Why meditate on Aquinas's analysis of sexual morality?

When the issue of gay marriage first hit my radar, perhaps ten years ago, my first inclination was, "Well, why not?"

But I wanted to understand why others might object to it. And I had already encountered Aquinas's theorizing on sexual morality. So I have returned again and again in my thoughts to his arguments, because Aquinas is clearly one of the most brilliant people who has ever lived, and nothing he wrote should be dismissed lightly. Furthermore, Aquinas's argument was certainly not based on any "bigotry" against homosexuals, since, as noted in the post above, it condemns masturbators and heterosexual promiscuity far more strongly than it does a committed homosexual relationship.

As I have noted in that post, I think Aquinas erred. But I am epistemically humble enough that my thoughts return to his arguments repeatedly, to see if I have missed something. (The idea that I am epistemically humble may appear ridiculous to some of you, but realize what I mean: I test my ideas, again and again and again, against those of Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Plato, Aristotle, Jesus, Paul, Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, Aquinas, Maimonides, Leibniz, Berkeley, Hegel, Green, Bosanquet, Collingwood, Whitehead, Oakeshott, Voegelin, MacIntyre, Taylor, and so on: and often I am in a complete muddle as to which of them is correct on some issue. But it is true that when I encounter someone who has read one book by some philosophical ignoramus like Richard Dawkins and therefore sees himself as an authority able to dismiss all alternative metaphysical views, yes, I am pretty intolerant of such rubbish, precisely because of my humble, lifelong engagement with serious metaphysical thought.)

So, although my initial intuition was that Aquinas got this wrong, I return to him repeatedly to check my intuition, and I often find myself in prayer, asking that I not get this issue wrong. One thing I know for sure: those who base their opposition to SSM on reasoning like that of Aquinas are not bigots, and moves on the part of SSM proponents (with whose conclusion
I agree!) to liken their opponents to racist opponents of inter-racial marriage are themselves an expression of hatred and contempt for religious traditionalists.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Times Have Changed!

An argument for nothing, and for anything. The person using it has changed his mind about some issue because most people he knows have changed their minds about that issue.

Why Does Tyler Cowen Deliberately Write Very Badly on His Blog?

We know Cowen can write well. As this fellow put it:
Before heading into the book’s substance, I want to note that Cowen has truly mastered the art of writing a book for the “intelligent layperson.” When I sat down to start reading it, since it was "work reading," I told myself I’d read for an hour before turning to "pleasure reading." Four hours later I had not put the book down: his prose is that engaging.
But on his blog he seems to want to deliberately write "in your face" badly. In a quick perusal of the main page today, I found:

"Michael is a political scientist at UCLA, and this volume is one of the most important social books of the last fifteen years."

"Social book"? It goes out a lot? He means "social science" book or "social theory" book, but can't be bothered typing the extra word?

"A good example of a book I wish was longer than it was, it is shorter than its 199 pp. might indicate."

A comma?! Those are entirely separate sentences.

“China tobacco facts of the day”

Ugh.

"The (tight money) culture that is Dutch"

"Dutch (tight money) culture" is more readable and uses 40% fewer words.

"He shows the importance of 'common knowledge' in explaining social phenomena, namely we create rational rituals so that others can see we are acting in concert with them."

"Namely we"?

Is Cowen testing out a form of writing brutalism on his blog?

How sports writers use statistics

"Well, although Frank Smith is over 100 years old, and has just been shot 7 times in the chest, it is still going to be an extremely difficult challenge for him to die today, as he has now gone over 36,500 straight days without doing so. Is today the day he finally manages to end that streak?"

Thermometers

Bob Murphy has noted how interesting the evolution of the meaning of a second has been.

But have you ever thought about the effort that went in to devising a thermometer? To make a thermometer, one has to devise something that responds uniformly to uniform changes in temperature.

But... how do you know when you have a uniform change in temperature without having a thermometer already?!

"Money Is Dope!" Shackle as hip-hop poet

"Money is dope, a tranquilizer against the effects of not knowing what to do. Money is what saves you from having to make up your mind what to buy.

"Liquidity is, in some sense and degree, a substitute for knowledge." -- quoted in Earl and Littleboy, p. 35

Catching up is hard to do!

I now have 563 draft posts at this blog. If I knock off one a day, it will be late 2016 before I get through them all.

Science is concerned with the shadows on the cave walls

And properly so:

"It is plain that what we apprehend as 'reality' is only 'shadows cast from without into the shadows of the cave'. But it is only with these shadows that science can be concerned." -- G. L. S. Shackle, quoted in Earl and Littleboy, p. 23

Flat is better than nested?

The above dictum is part of the "Zen of Python."

It is also a load of hooey.

If Python users really believed this... they wouldn't be working in Python. They'd be working in C. Or better yet, assembler. Because Python already "nests" those two languages. And they wouldn't be using all the many Python libraries: yet more nesting!

The right statement is: "There is a trade-off between flat and nested, so think about the trade-off carefully."

I have seen this trade-off with my students: sometimes, the fact that they are working at the leaves of a deep inheritance tree confuses them. But it also gives them the ability to easily add features to their programs like:

 Ain't no easy answers!

The English-centric world of computer languages

Python's built-in functions have names like 'all', 'any', 'callable', 'enumerate', 'filter', 'list', 'map', 'open', and 'print'. These names are designed to make the program more readable by humans.

And if you speak English, they do so. But what if you speak Mandarin or Turkish? Of course, over time, these little sequences of characters come to have the same meaning for you as for an English-speaking programmer... but at first they might as well have been 'grolf', 'purbu', 'luzed', etc.

And the creator of Python is Dutch... but, of course, most of the Dutch speak English better than me.

Shackle on welfare economics

"For very many years I've not believed in welfare economics as a scientific construction. My idea of welfare economics is that you choose an administrator, a man with a conscience himself, and broad sympathy, with a generous mind and then you say, quote 'Leave it to him!' I don't believe you can do any better…

"Those economist who are going to give advice, or who are going to be advisors either to government or to business, should have their training based in economic history, and they only need as much theory as you find up to the second-year textbook." (Quoted in Earl and Littleboy, p. 21)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Battle Between Competing Elites

Something like "marriage equality" isn't really about "marriage equality," which is really just an empty slogan: who is actually in favor of all potential marriages being treated "equally"?

In reality it is a weapon in the battle between the old elite of the ancien régime and the new elite of a highly educated bureaucracy. Traditional morality and traditional religions are aligned with the old elite, so the rising elite tries to blast them out of its path to power. What people like Paul Krugman are working for is not an egalitarian society, as that's impossible:

"The conservative position has never been simply that a hierarchical society is better than an egalitarian one. It’s that an egalitarian society is impossible. Every society includes rulers and ruled. The central question of politics, therefore, is not whether some will command while others obey. It’s who gives the orders."

What they are fighting for is a society in which they rule.  And if you are not one of them, and if you are out fighting for "marriage equality" or against "white privilege": well, they need foot soldiers, don't they? And "We educated elite should rule" is not a slogan with which you can recruit many foot soldiers! As Pareto put it:

'A politician is inspired to champion the theory of "solidarity" by an ambition to obtain money, power, distinctions... If the politician were to say, "Believe in solidarity because if you do it means money for me," they would get many laughs and few votes. He therefore has to take his stand on principles that are acceptable to his prospective constituents... Oftentimes the person who would persuade others begins by persuading himself; and even if he is moved in the beginning by thoughts of personal advantage, he comes eventually to believe that his real interest is the welfare of others.'

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Shackled to philosophy

(All quotes from G. L. S. Shackle.)

Interestingly, Shackle, also, was a presentist: "Present thoughts and acts, so far as our consciousness can tell us, are all that is" (quoted on p. 11).

His critique of mainstream economics is worth examining in some detail.

Shackle wrote: "In sum... predicted man is less than human, predicting man is more than human. Man in his full humanity can neither be predicted nor predict" (quoted on p. 11).

And: "The standard economic theory of choice does not in fact permit genuine choice. The answer is uniquely predetermined, and choice is illusory" (p. 11).

The authors quote Kurt Klappholz, who notes that Shackle views "have attracted considerable attention from philosophers. Yet do not think it is unfair to say that Shackle's impact on economics has been limited..." (p. 12).

They go on to quote Shackle:

"History and philosophy, political theory, psychology of some sorts and economics all along in a single Great Theme. Economics is not pure logic but, quite in contrast with such a character, it is part of the endeavor to describe the integral nature of man." (p. 13)

So Shackle's interests lay in philosophical economics, which is all well and good. But there is no inherent conflict between scientific economics and philosophical economics: such conflict only arises if one or the other misunderstand its own calling.

Did Macro Models Fail Us?

Noah Smith says "no".

I say "no" as well, but for a somewhat different reason: contra this: "if you're going to give policymakers real advice, you're going to have to choose which model - or which basket of models - to base your advice on," macroeconomic models are not the sort of thing upon which one can base policy advice. And this post explains why.

How to make your Python classes document their own inheritance tree

First we connect our base Node class to a graph, which prevents searching further up the inheritance tree and trying to add 'Object' itself, which don't care to do:
           
    def __init__(self, name):
        self.ntype = self.__class__.__name__
        if not Node.node_added:

            Node.class_graph.add_node(
                Node.__name__)
        # now search the class graph
        # to see if the current class
        # is there:
        if self.ntype not in Node.class_graph:
            self.__class__.connect_to_class_tree()


And here is the method that recursively adds classes to the tree:

@classmethod 
def connect_to_class_tree(cls):
    for c in inspect.getmro(cls):
        if c != cls:
            if c.__name__ not in Node.class_graph:
                c.connect_to_class_tree()
                break
            else:
                Node.class_graph.add_edge(
                    get_class_name(c),               
                    get_class_name(cls))
# call until all upper classes are in 
                cls.connect_to_class_tree()

UPDATE: The call inspect.getmro() returns classes in "method resolution order."

And we get a nice tree like this:

Rothbardian Mom treats son to non-aggresive trip to the park

Prediction and science

Some people contend that successful prediction of the hallmark of science. "If economics is a science, why is it so bad at prediction?" they ask.

But they fail to notice how little of the real world physics can predict. I was sitting in my diner this morning as I was composing this, with the jukebox playing and people talking. I thought of what parts of the world around me a physicist could predict with any decent degree of accuracy:

What sound waves will reach my ear in one minute? Not a chance.

Where will my oldest son be in fours hours? Hell, I can't predict that!

When will a complex assemblage of proteins, fats, and carbohydrates arrive in the space in front of me? Sometime in the next ten minutes: a physicist would do worse than anyone who is a regular at the diner.

At what times during the Spurs-Pelicans game tonight will the basketball pass through the net? No.

Where will the maple seed falling off the tree on the street outside land? Well, within a few hundred feet, maybe.

What will be the first star visible in the (partly cloudy) sky this evening? No.

On the stove, one of the chefs was boiling some water. About the only thing of interest going on around me that a physicist could have predicted was how long it would take the water to boil. And that is because the water has deliberately been put in a constrained, artificial set up, in the limited space of a uniformly conductive pot and over the steady heat of a carefully designed flame, precisely to make its time to boiling predictable... much like the way physicists set up an experimental environment.

Scientific prediction is not about the real world as a whole: it is about a world of pure quantity abstracted from the real world.

I am Shackled in chains of my own making

I am now working on a review of G. L. S. Shackle by Earl and Littleboy... so guess who you, my faithful readers, will be learning about?

The authors interestingly begin with Donald Rumsfeld's famous quote about "unknown unknowns," and defend it as a Shacklian (?) point, something I noted previously. They argue that, as Shackle contended, "we create the future; it is not sitting there merely beyond our epistemic grasp" (p. 1).

The next point of interest is what Shacklian political economy is like:

"A society of Shackle's design would rely more on the imagination and judgment of decision-makers and less on technical expertise" (p. 2).

They then quote a passage from Shackle on why probability cannot be applied to many real-life situations
Napoleon could not repeat the battle of Waterloo a hundred times in the hope that, in a certain proportion of cases, the Prussians would arrive too late. His decision to fight on the field of Waterloo was what I call a crucial experiment, using the word crucial in this sense of a parting of the ways. Had he won, repetition would for a long time have been unnecessary; when he lost, repetition was impossible. (p. 3)
 I think I am going to like this book.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

An Ironclad Proof of God's Existence

Even Ken B. will have to admit that, with his argument from eternal non-abandonment, theologian Richard Astleigh settles the case.

Mountain Jam

A group of pilgrims is lost on the slopes of an inhospitable mountainside. A cold rain is falling, night is approaching, and the pilgrims lack food, fire, and tents.

But at the top of the mountain, there is a warm, secure, well-supplied shelter. If the pilgrims can just reach that shelter, they will be saved. And, just as they despair of ever reaching it, lost as they are, a guide, who has been to the mountaintop, appears. He tells them, "Follow me, or you will be lost."

There are other guides on the mountain as well, on other slopes, who also know the way to the top. If these pilgrims were on the same slope as those other guides, those guides might well lead them to the top. But it would be recklessly irresponsible for this guide, the one who actually found them, to say, "Well, you know, I am just one choice among several guides, and you might consider the following other options for how you might proceed... "

No, these pilgrims have encountered this guide, and if they go wandering around the mountain, comparing various possible guides, they will perish on the lower slopes. It is the duty of this guide to tell them, "Follow me, or you will be lost"... because it is true.

My friend Joe

He's a pretty nice guy, and I have real affection for him. Like all of us, he has his faults, but he is often generous. He is open-minded, when measured against the average human. He is fairly accepting of those from other cultures, and will often stretch himself to understand them. He welcomes innovation in many areas, and is not unduly tied to past ways of doing things.

But Joe has one serious character flaw: he believes he is exceptional, indeed, unique, among humans. When Bill proposes that we should hold the neighborhood barbeque at his house, rather than at Joe's, Joe can only believe that it is because Bill is in some "axis of evil," and that Joe is then  justified in entering Bill's yard and destroying Bill's grill. If Joe lets his kids watch The Wire, but Ira, another neighbor, decides it is too violent for her kids, Joe declares this a "human rights violation," and tries to get all of the other neighbors to stop dealing with Ira.

And when, due to my sincere affection for Joe, I try to get him to realize that he is not exceptional, but just another flawed human being like the rest of us, he declares I am "anti-Joe," and that I hate him.

It is tough to help someone out of this condition, but I think I have to keep on trying.

Epistemically closed basketball players

Imagine you are a newly hired basketball coach. You meet with your team, survey their talents, and find something remarkable: a certain number of the squad members do not believe that baskets exist.

Some of this number may be extremely talented. They are, perhaps, great dribblers, great passers, great rebounders, and so on. But they simply do not understand the fundamental end of playing a basketball game: to score more points than one's opponent.

You might still be able to make use of some of these players. You might be able to use their rebounding skills, or their ability to bring the ball up court, or their exquisite passing. And you might be able to have completely rational discussions with them about any of these sub-aspects of the game.

But, so long as they continue to deny that baskets exist, it will simply be hopeless to try to engage them in a rational discussion of any overall game plan. Their denial of existence of the very telos of the sport means that any game plan you suggest, involving actually scoring more baskets than the other team, will be incomprehensible to them. They will instead want to talk about "grabbing the ball more often," or "dribbling past other players," or "passing in an unexpected way." But these actions will be understood as ends in themselves, rather than as means towards the end of outscoring one's opponent.

Applications of this metaphor are left to the reader.

Monday, April 13, 2015

I am an SSM ent

In The Lord of the Rings, when the ent Treebeard first meets Merry and Pippin, he tells them, "I am not altogether on anybody's side, because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me."

That is the position I find myself in on same-sex marriage. When this issue first started coming to prominence, perhaps half a dozen years ago, I began to seriously ponder Aquinas's reasoning on sexual ethics. As I understand him, Aquinas posits three goods that are the telos of sex: 1) pleasure, 2) intimacy, and 3) procreation. By his reasoning, any form of sex that thwarts any of these three ends is immoral, by falling short of this ideal. So loveless sex without pleasure engaged in by a married couple, just to create a child, per Aquinas is immoral. And masturbation, interestingly, is more immoral than homosexual intercourse, as it can only fulfill aim 1), while homosexual sex can fulfill 1) and 2).

But Aquinas's reasoning seems off to me: why do I have to achieve all the possible ends of an activity for my engagement in it to be good? We might say that music ultimately aims at three ends as well: artistic excellence, enjoyment by an audience, and self-fulfillment for the musician. And the best music will achieve all three (and I grant Aquinas the point that the best sex achieves all three aims of the activity). But that certainly doesn't make it immoral if I go bang around on my bongos just for fun!

Now, things get trickier if I am actively thwarting one of the ends of an activity: say, if I am having fun playing music that is making my audience miserable. I might indeed be inclined to call that immoral.

But is that what homosexuals are doing? It seems that, for many homosexuals, physical intimacy with someone of the opposite sex is not an option. And they don't actively prevent aim 3): I suppose many homosexuals would, in fact, be pleasantly surprised if they somehow produced a baby. So for someone who is oriented towards intimacy with their own sex, only aims 1) and 2) are achievable, and so sex that achieves those is the best sex on offer.

Given the above reasoning, and our current social circumstances, I think that, on the whole, legalizing same-sex marriage is a good idea right now.

But note: I arrive at this position using the sort of moral reasoning that Aquinas, Thomists, and other moral realists would approve of (even if they might think I am mistaken in my conclusion), and the sort that many (not all!) proponents of SSM would completely reject: many (not all!) SSM proponents think that any sort of "moral reasoning" about any sexual activity whatsoever, just so long as it is consensual, is "judgmental" (which it certainly is, but they use "judgmental" as a curse word). They think it is "no one else's business" if, say, they want to have sex (whether homo- or hetero-sexual) with twenty anonymous partners in a night. And this position I regard as sheer hedonistic nonsense: lust is, indeed, a sin.

So, as I say, on SSM I am like Treebeard: I am not altogether on either side, because no one is altogether on my side (an exaggeration, of course: certainly someone else has thought about this issue in the above fashion). From where I stand, the thoughtful opponents of SSM (and I don't for a second deny that there are those opposed to it through sheer bigotry) have reached the wrong conclusion, but for the right reasons, while most of the proponents of SSM have reached the right conclusion, but for the wrong reasons.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

When are we "forced" to do something?

Bob Murphy claims that a threat of firing doesn't constitute "forcing" someone to do something.

But I contend in the ordinary sense of the word, it does.

No one can be "forced" to do something if "forced" is taken to mean, "compelled to act against their will." If you give someone a drug that knocks them out and then use their finger to fire a gun, they did not "do" anything. But if they consciously do it, then it was not against their will.

What "forced" typically means is that someone has been presented with a situation, of the "forcer's" making, where they will to do something they would ordinarily resist, because if they don't do it, the forcer will create a situation even less to the forcee's liking than is compliance.

So, the government "forces" me to pay taxes in the sense that, if I don't pay, I will ultimately be arrested. My employer "forces" me to take a drug test, because if I don't, I will be fired. My girlfriend "forces" me to quit smoking, because if I don't, she will break up with me.

Libertarians want to make a special case out of government forcing by citing the threat of violence, but it really won't work, since many cases of private forcing cannot be distinguished based on that or any other important criterion. The government will send armed men to forcibly arrest me if I don't pay my taxes, but my employer will send armed men to get me out of the building if I attempt to keep working as though I were still employed despite being fired. Private property owners send armed men to force me off their property if they decide I am trespassing.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Bosanquet on authentic utterance

"Suppose, what is quite arguable, that the parable of the good Samaritan is not an utterance of Christ. What does it matter so long as it is a part of Christianity?" -- Value and destiny of the individual, p. 54n

My review of "Liberal World Orders"

Is up online.

How religious traditionalists will be forced to attend same-sex marriages

Or lose their jobs:

My friend Jim Henley recently wrote (I quote from memory, but I am pretty sure Jim will say I got him essentially right here): "Come on, Gene, no one is forcing traditional Christians to attend same-sex marriages."

Not quite yet, but it is coming very soon. Here's how it will work:

Many company employees are typically invited to the wedding when someone in a company, particularly someone prominent in a company, gets married. What will happen when this is a same-sex couple?

A traditional Christian, or Jew, or Muslim, may be able to opt out of attending one of these ceremonies by being "sick," or something of the sort. But if they do this a couple of times, they will get called to HR. If they let slip that they could not attend, because they don't believe in SSM, they will be fired for creating a "hostile work environment."

A prediction: the first instance of this happening will occur within the next year. Then it will become more and more common.

The Enlightenment

Providing so much freedom, people are losing their heads over it!







Hat-tip Samson Corwell.

Painless re-factoring of a class hierarchy

I had the following inheritance tree:

Environment______SpatialEnv______GridEnv

This was wrong. SpatialEnv implemented a complex plane, which GridEnv just did not need: it is a grid, after all!

What I really wanted was:

                                                        ___GridEnv
                                                        |
Environment______SpatialEnv___|
                                                        |
                                                        |___PlaneEnv

Where PlaneEnv would implement the complex plane, and SpatialEnv would just contain a few methods, and mostly act to indicate that space exists (in some form) in a model. (Some code-checking program could test isinstanceof(SpatialEnv) to see if we are in space.)

But there were already a bunch of models using both SpatialEnv and GridEnv. How to slip this new class in the heirarchy without creating a lot of bugs?

I first simply copied the file containing SpatialEnv to a new file, and renamed the class PlaneEnv. At this point, there are no code changes. I then went through every model that used SpatialEnv, and changed it to use PlaneEnv. Then I ran each one to confirm they all worked... which it was pretty certain they would, since they were running the same code as before. (You can always miss something subtle that could go wrong, which is why I wanted to test.)

Now I made PlaneEnv a descendant of Spatial Env, and tested again. Everything was still working, but of course all of my code for PlaneEnv and SpatialEnv is doubled up at this point. So next I brought up all three of these classes on screen, and went through SpatialEnv method by method: if GridEnv used a method, it remained in SpatialEnv, and was deleted from PlaneEnv (since it would inherit the method from SpatialEnv.) If GridEnv did not use it, it was deleted from SpatialEnv and left in PlaneEnv. After each method was placed in one or the other class, I re-ran all of my models again. That way, if anything broke, I knew exactly which change had broken it.

I re-arranged this whole hierarchy while producing only one bug... and that was due to a typo. The key was proceeding systematically, instead of just hacking, as I might have in the olden days. Especially crucial was testing after every change was completed.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

The troubles and adventures of the finite creature

"Thus, as we shall attempt to make clear throughout our discussion, the troubles and adventures of the finite creature have the same root as its value, for both are inherent in the spirit that seeks the whole. And, moreover, these very troubles and adventures are instrumental, through shattering the given, to that very awareness or self-recognition in which the nature of the self-transcendence stands revealed." -- Bernard Bosanquet, Value and destiny of the individual, p. 19

The wheel of fortune

"If you set your sails to the wind, you shall be carried not where your will desires, but where the gale drives you. If you sow your seeds, then consider that there are as well barren, as fertile years. You have yielded yourself to Fortune's sway; you must be content with the conditions of your mistress. Do you endeavor to stay the force of the turning wheel?" -- Boethius, The consolation of philosophy, Book II, Prose I



Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The fall of the Roman empire

In his introduction to The Consolation of Philosophy, William Anderson writes:

"Theoderic was king over the Goths, but over the Romans in Italy he exercised what might be called a vice-royalty from the Emperor of the East. He kept the Roman administration as he found it and appointed one of the two consuls."

This is around 500 A.D., a generation after the "fall" of the Western Empire. There are still consuls. There is still a Roman Senate. Theoderic asked permission from the Eastern Emperor before he and his people entered Italy.

The point of revising the idea of a "fall" is not to contend that nothing changed, or that Western Europe was not experiencing hard times. It is more that, if we consider the Western Empire as a castle, it did not so much fall (implying a sudden collapse), as slowly sink into a swamp over a period of centuries, with bits of the building crumbling off every now and then.

Boethius on people who get just a bit of philosophy

"after [the death of Socrates] the Epicures, Stoics, and others, (everyone for his own sect) endeavored to usurp, and as it were in part of their prey, sought to draw me to them, exclaiming and striving against them; they tore the garment which I had woven with my own hands, and having gotten some little pieces of it, thinking me to be wholly in their possession, departed." -- The consolation of philosophy, Book I, Prose III

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Mises Echoing Collingwood on Exchange

When I noted that Collingwood held that all exchange is at its bottom with oneself, some readers were perplexed. But Mises (who admired Collingwood's philosophy of economics) says much the same thing:

"Action is an attempt to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory one. We call such a willfully induced alteration an exchange. A less desirable condition is bartered for a more desirable. What gratifies less is abandoned in order to attain something that pleases more. That which is abandoned is called the price paid for the attainment of the end sought. The value of the price paid is called costs. Costs are equal to the value attached to the satisfaction which one must forego in order to attain the end aimed at." (Italics mine.)

This exchange is clearly between one state of affairs for an agent ("eating the bread") and another, for the same agent ("eating the cheese"). In such exchanges, we often use other agents to help us effect them, but we can also often execute them by ourselves: I exchange my seat in the sun, where I am too hot, for one in the shade, where I feel cooler. If you are in the shady seat, and look cold, I may say, "Hey, do you want my seat here where it is warm?"

But the basic exchange I make is my sunny seat for my seat in the shade.

Rulers and Doing What's Right

When I posted that the classical-Christian tradition of political science was that rulers ought to do what is right, not whatever the "people" want, some people complained "Rulers are always out for themselves!"

Well, theory and practice often diverge! But furthermore, while there may be no reason to think that rulers are generally less self-seeking than the common man, there is also little reason to think that they are more self-seeking. (Hayek's "Why the Worst Get on Top" was very specifically talking about totalitarian political systems.)

So consider Lorenzo de Medici:
In the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and the punishment of Pope Sixtus IV’s supporters, the Medici and Florence suffered the wrath of the Vatican. The Papacy seized all the Medici assets Sixtus IV could find, ex-communicated Lorenzo and the entire government of Florence, and ultimately put the entire Florentine city-state under interdict. When these measures had little effect, Sixtus IV formed a military alliance with King Ferdinand I of Naples, whose son Alfonso, Duke of Calabria, led an invasion of the Florentine Republic still ruled by Lorenzo.
Lorenzo rallied the citizens of Florence, yet with little support from the traditional Medici allies in Bologna and Milan, the war dragged on – only diplomacy by Lorenzo ultimately resolved the crisis.
In 1479, Lorenzo took a bold step and traveled secretly with a small party to Naples, placing himself recklessly at the hands of King Ferdinand I. Lorenzo argued to the king that warfare between Italian powers would increase the likelihood of a French invasion. Fearing an impending attack, Ferdinand agreed to sign a peace treaty with Lorenzo.
Apparently, as he was undertaking the journey, Lorenzo said (I quote from memory), "Either by my life, or by my death, I hope to secure the safety of my people."

So rulers sometimes do put aside their purely selfish interests and act in the interest of their people.

Political Order and Political Decay


My review of Fukuyama is online at The American Conservative.


Monday, April 06, 2015

OK, we are entering some sort of reality warp

So, a black guy calls a white guy the "n-word," and... well, what? What ought to happen is a little chuckle at the irony of it all, but instead we get national press conferences.

This helps keep people distracted from things that actually matter.

Liveblogging Anna Karenina: Diffusing a slight fog in the brain

How most people form their views on all but personal matters:

"Stepan Arkadyevitch took in and read a liberal paper, not an extreme one, but one advocating the views held by the majority. And in spite of the fact that science, art, and politics had no special interest for him, he firmly held those views on all these subjects which were held by the majority and by his paper, and he only changed them when the majority changed them—or, more strictly speaking, he did not change them, but they imperceptibly changed of themselves within him.

"Stepan Arkadyevitch had not chosen his political opinions or his views; these political opinions and views had come to him of themselves, just as he did not choose the shapes of his hat and coat, but simply took those that were being worn. And for him, living in a certain society—owing to the need, ordinarily developed at years of discretion, for some degree of mental activity—to have views was just as indispensable as to have a hat. If there was a reason for his preferring liberal to conservative views, which were held also by many of his circle, it arose not from his considering liberalism more rational, but from its being in closer accordance with his manner of life. The liberal party said that in Russia everything is wrong, and certainly Stepan Arkadyevitch had many debts and was decidedly short of money. The liberal party said that marriage is an institution quite out of date, and that it needs reconstruction; and family life certainly afforded Stepan Arkadyevitch little gratification, and forced him into lying and hypocrisy, which was so repulsive to his nature. The liberal party said, or rather allowed it to be understood, that religion is only a curb to keep in check the barbarous classes of the people; and Stepan Arkadyevitch could not get through even a short service without his legs aching from standing up, and could never make out what was the object of all the terrible and high-flown language about another world when life might be so very amusing in this world. And with all this, Stepan Arkadyevitch, who liked a joke, was fond of puzzling a plain man by saying that if he prided himself on his origin, he ought not to stop at Rurik and disown the first founder of his family—the monkey. And so Liberalism had become a habit of Stepan Arkadyevitch’s, and he liked his newspaper, as he did his cigar after dinner, for the slight fog it diffused in his brain."


"Natural History" as a trap for nascent sciences

"
But this does not mean that all thought, coming under the general head of economic thought, is scientific in character nothing: indeed is clearer than that economics as a science is hindered by extraneous interests and led astray by false pursuits. But in this respect, also, it is not unique among sciences. If economic science is not yet free from the concepts and requirements of so-called Descriptive Economics, a kind of natural history such as is found in the infancy of every science, the same is true of biology and scientific psychology. Natural history and science are, of course, not inimical to one another; but a science must be more critical of its friends and relations, with whom it may become entangled, than with its enemies from whom it is well and securely enough distinguished. Descriptive economics, because of its connexion with the world of practice, is a dangerous companion for an economic science. And it is, perhaps, on account of this connexion that economic science has not yet learned that it can borrow and carry with it into its own world no element of the world of perception which it has not discovered how to transform, that it has not yet learned that a science must make its own material as well as its own conclusions. And again, economic science is more intimately connected with the attempt to apply its conclusions to the world of practice than is healthy in a young science. Physiology has become a science not on account of its connexion with medicine, but in spite of it. This interest in practical life is not, of course, illegitimate; it is merely dangerous from the standpoint of scientific thought. And when we consider the confusion which this connexion with practice has caused merely in the vocabulary of economics 'economic conditions', 'economic events', 'economic consequences', 'economic needs'—it is difficult to dismiss the danger as negligible. Setting aside the merely misconceived attempts to apply the generalizations of economic science directly to the practical world, this underlying preoccupation with practical life and practical problems can still be seen to lead economics aside from the path of science. And where applicability to the practical world, the capacity to foretell a situation, is taken to be a criterion of the validity of the generalizations of an economic science, what was merely irrelevant turns to actual error." -- Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, pp. 232-233

Is Scientific Economics a "Science of Man"?

"If economics is to be a science of man, it must certainly show that its concern is with a scientifically conceived man, a scientifically abstracted man. But the economic man of the older economists was never scientifically conceived; he was a pseudo-ethical abstraction. And instead of offering economics an escape from ethical and psychological postulates, this conception ratified the connexion. However, the way out of the difficulty is clear, and economic science has already taken it. ' Man', a man of any sort, is not an appropriate subject-matter for any science ; and economics has now come to conceive its material not in the human terms of behaviour, action, desire, satisfaction, etc., but in such quantitative terms as those of cost and price, utility and disutility. Economics is not a science of man for 'man' is not a scientific concept. It is a science of measurements. Its generalizations do not refer directly to a 'human' world, a world of desires, feelings, wants and satisfactions, but to a world of impersonal quantitative conceptions and their relations. The valuations which form the basis of the observations of economic science are, of course, from another standpoint, human desires, but it is not in their character as human desires that economic science is cognizant of them. A valuation in economics is a quantitative measurement; a desire is a price." -- Michael Oakeshott, Experience and Its Modes, p. 230

It is very interesting that here Oakeshott appears to understand the direction economics is heading, into a world of abstractions that has nothing to do with human actions but is about quantitative relationships between prices, quantities bought and sold, utility, and so on. But what is more, he argues that this is exactly what economics must do to be scientific. Of course this science is not about real human beings, as some ideologues have contended economic science ought to be, because no science can be about real human beings: science deals with an abstract world of quantities. This view does not deny that there are other ways to think about economic matters: one can think about them practically, as does the businessman trying to predict next year's demand for his product, or historically, as does the economic historian, or philosophically, as did Collingwood in his earlier essay (or as Mises often did in Human Action): Oakeshott only seeks to differentiate these approaches from a scientific one.

The insidious ideology

"In contrast to its crueler competitor ideologies, liberalism is more insidious: as an ideology, it pretends to neutrality, claiming n...