Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

This is how you pass the ideological Turing test1

As someone who is neither a Reactionary nor a Progressive, I found this article an engaging, well-crafted overview of Reactionary philosophy. I strongly recommend that you read and, whilst reading it, keep in mind that the author is not a Reactionary. This author gives an exceptionally even-handed and well-crafted overview of Reactionary philosophy while not, himself, subscribing to it.

I think that the core of all philosophy and, indeed, of all human knowledge, is intellectual humility. I think that a corollary to this is that you should always be able to both fairly describe the best arguments against your own position and give an intellectually honest accounting of positions with which you disagree. The article linked about is the finest example of the latter endeavor that I have read in years. I strongly recommend you read it.


1 For terminology, vis. The idea, as pointed out by Caplan, is much older.

Of Barrel Shrouds, Unlocked Phones, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia

First, a video:

The article mentioned in the video above made the rounds of most of the popular gun blogs a month or so ago when it was written, so any firearms enthusiasts in the audience will probably have already read it. If you haven’t, though, I highly recommend you do.

I tend to stay out of online firearms debates for the intellectually selfish reason that they got boring for me a some time ago. This is because everyone arguing on the Internet is, as a rule, already as informed as they are going to permit themselves to be. At this point, arguing about guns on the Internet can only ever aspire to a frustrated argument about priors, and that’s the extremely unusual best case.

But I think that, wherever you fall on the gun debate, you can watch the video above and marvel at the stunning ignorance of the people attempting to ban “assault-style weapons”. And while I’m absolutely okay with people on the Internet not knowing what a barrel shroud is, to see our government servants trying to outlaw them out of pure ignorance is maddening.

But what’s particularly crazy-making is that this kind of ignorance isn’t the exception, but rather the rule in modern American governance. I would be willing to bet that of all the people involved with writing the currently proposed assault weapon ban, not a single one of them could accurately describe all of the features that it proscribes. No matter how you feel about the substance of the current law, that regulations are drafted under such ignorant conditions should make you sore afraid.

Because let’s face it, the second amendment may not be an issue you care about one way or the other, but even the most apolitical among us has something we care deeply about that the government is trying to regulate. And the ignorance at work in crafting this horrid ban on “assault weapons” isn’t limited to firearms issues. The same levels of ignorance are at play screwing up the regulatory regime around whatever issue it is you do care about, whether it’s educational policy, abortion rights, immigration reform, etc. etc. etc.

So why is this ignorance able to persist? Because most people only see it when exposed to it in the context of their own area of expertise or passion. If you know about firearms, you can look at the AWB and see it for the ignorant pandering that it is. But when the same people suggest an immigration reform bill that flatters your priors, suddenly you just assume that they know what they’re talking about.

Or, to use a more current example: I have a lot of friends in the tech industry who, being fairly typical, garden-variety American liberals, are completely in favor of an Assault Weapons Ban. It seems sensible and common-sensical to them, and they have a hard time understanding how anyone can disagree with them. As such, the proposed legislation seems on-point, well-crafted, and long overdue.

But present them with the fact that it is now illegal to decouple your cellphone from your provider in the United States without express carrier permission, and they will instantly rail against the stupidity and ignorance that went in to crafting the legislation that permitted that to happen. The same legislative bodies that they assumed were well-reasoning and well-informed about gun rights, are suddenly seen for the ignorant charlatans they are.

Of course the punch line is that all topical regulation is equally bad, it’s just bad in domain-specific ways that only the informed will see or care about.

This phenomenon isn’t novel or limited to government. The name for this effect is “Gell-Mann Amnesia”, named for the physicist Murray Gell-Mann and first articulated (as near as I can tell) by author Michael Crichton in his 2002 essay “Why Speculate?”. (Note: I can’t seem to find a copy of the original essay online any longer. If anyone does track down a copy, please drop me a link to it either by comment or by email.) Crichton pointed out that he and Gell-Mann often marveled at the stupidity of newspaper articles about the areas of their expertise. Such articles were often so wrong and confused as to completely reverse causal relationships (“wet streets cause rain” in Crichton’s words) or to be so muddled as to be completely non-sensical to someone in the know. Both men would then turn to an article outside their domain knowledge and read on in happy credulity.

In the context of newspapers, Gell-Mann Amnesia might lead to a bad broadsheet surviving a few months longer than it otherwise would. In the context of modern panarchic democracy, Gell-Mann Amnesia leads bad laws, curtailed freedoms, and a regulatory regime in which good people become felons because they own politically incorrect sheet metal or twiddle the wrong bits on their phone.

Matt Ridley on the Poverty of Self-Sufficiency

Just two minutes long and well worth watching. I can also highly recommend Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist.

Arnold Kling on How to Discuss Politics

The great Arnold Kling has an excellent post up outlining one productive way to argue with Progressives, Conservatives, and Libertarians. Excerpt:

I wish that people would begin political conversations by conceding that the generic way that their opponents view the world is sometimes correct. Start by saying, “It is sometimes appropriate…”

My hypothesis is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.

Kling’s argument that political ideologies argue from different axes flatters my priors, of course. I am a big fan of Charles Taylor, Jonathan Haidt, etc. Taylor and Haidt’s arguments (about hypergoods and moral foundations, respectively) both describe these kinds of differences pretty well.

So Kling’s premise isn’t exactly new, but where his post excels, I think, is his practical advise for discussing politics partisans of the three camps he identifies. Starting our arguments by conceding the instances in which a person’s model of politics is clearly correct is one way of productively structuring an argument to discover the limits of that particular world view for the topic at hand.

Decca Aitkenhead on Grief

Via Peter Hitchens I stumbled across this heart-wrenching essay from Decca Aitkenhead. It’s a touching story of trying to cope with the loss of her mother, and the ways in which our best intentions can go awry. But the passage that touched me the most was the following:

This new way of looking at life was made easier to adopt by the fact that I was finding it increasingly difficult to remember my mother. When anyone dies, the bereaved take comfort in a degree of posthumous deification. When someone dies young, the revisionism can get completely out of hand. In no time at all, the woman grown-ups described when remembering my mother had turned into a total stranger – a fairytale creature of mythical virtue. Old women would stop me in the village shop, and grip my hand. “Your mother – your mother was an angel.”

The deification, rather like a video recorder, taped over my own memories until they were all gone, and replaced them with a technicolour memorial to somebody else altogether. I could hardly miss someone I didn’t even know, so it became increasingly implausible to consider myself bereaved. If I found myself feeling inexplicably sad, I would think about their loss, and feel terribly sympathetic.

Memory is a singularly tricky and deceptive phenomenon. Our memories feel so solid most of the time. Memory can convince us of “facts” that are false and recall for us in intricate detail events that never actually occurred. Our memories are eager and skillful liars.

And to be honest, that’s not a problem most of the time. Our memories are “truthy” enough to get by. They maintain sufficient accuracy for us to recall the truly important functional details that help us survive day to day. But the fact remains that our memories can’t really be trusted.

A Scene of Social Corrosion

OR An Attempt at an Explicitly Non-Libertarian Argument for Marijuana Legalization

On my bus ride home a few days ago, a young man sitting near me was rolling a sizeable blunt on the back of his skateboard. The bus was crowded, everyone could see and smell that he was rolling weed, but of course no one said anything and most people didn’t even look twice. Despite having a huge captive audience for his crime, the man made no attempt to hide his activities. He didn’t seem furtive or ashamed, and certainly didn’t seem worried that anyone would alert the constabulary.

I think that ignored laws are dangerous things. And that the habit of legal disobedience has a generally corrosive social effect. For one thing, laws that are generally, but not always, ignored foster an air of capriciousness under which any citizen might be arrested for what is commonly accepted to be permissible behavior. This leads to situations in which, e.g., black men are arrested at much higher rates for marijuana use, despite using at roughly the same rate as white men. The laws regarding using marijuana are generally ignored and the police are free enforce the laws on disfavored people or groups or to use the law as a way of crushing dissent.

Ayn Rand was hitting on something true when she said:

“There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws.”

A government that criminalizes or maintains laws against socially permissible behavior is reserving itself the right to punish people arbitrarily. It can cover itself with the figleaf of “our drug dog alerted”, when the arrest was really a naked abuse of power.

There’s another important aspect to this, though. Aside from handing the government undue power, ignored laws foster mistrust in the people which in turn corrodes the rule of law. This mistrust is due not only to the specter of arrest hanging over citizens for engaging in what they consider quotidian behavior, but also because it signals that the legal system itself cannot be trusted. After all, if The Man is lying to you about weed being evil, what else might He lying to you about.

This leads people break other laws which may have real victims and to try and avoid contact with the legal system which ostensibly exists to protect them. Living without a legal system which reliably protects one’s rights can be pretty hellish. Reliable governance and a lack of corruption, after all, is the single biggest difference between safe, prosperous countries and third-world hellholes.

Aristotle, in his Politics said that “the law has no power to command obedience except that of habit, which can only be given by time.” This habit of legal obedience is one of the many factors of good governance and there’s no surer way to break people of that habit than outlaw that which is generally accepted as being socially permissible. Once this habit breaks down, it serves as both an indicator that the law is debased and corrupt and also as an impediment to fixing the state and returning to some semblance of good governance.

Once the people mistrust the state to provide them with effective protections and sensible laws, they tend to stop trusting that the institutions can be reformed. This leads to cultural cynicism, which further fosters an acceptance and even expectation of corruption and graft (which I think is best evidenced by crony client states like Greece or some of the South American Republics). This begins to describe a negative feedback loop in which legal corruption fosters cynicism which in turn tolerates further corruption.

So what I really saw on the bus this evening was a small sign of social decline. Not because of the marijuana, but because a bus-load of presumably upstanding citizens witnessed a man break the law and didn’t even bat an eyelash. This doesn’t reflect poorly on the observers, but on the law. When the state outlaws that which civil society accepts, it aligns itself against society rather than with it and the resulting conflict can only serve to damage both institutions.

Poverty, Redistribution, and Bad Memes

Peter Risdon has an excellent post from a few years back about poverty, ownership, and self reliance. It’s a great post and it does an excellent job of highlighting a fact that a lot of people miss, which is that modern poverty is primarily caused by bad memes.1 Some of these memes are personal mental traits, some are social or group traits, but ultimately it is these dysfunctional ideas that are at the root of almost all poverty in Western countries. Which memes they are specifically (and I have my personal theory) is an important debate, but outside the scope of this post. It doesn’t matter what the bad memes are exactly, the fact is that poverty as we know it today will not change until those memes get replaced by better ones.

A natural consequence of this fact is that redistribution of wealth is not a solution to poverty. Taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor does not fix poverty any more than ingesting aspirin fixes a cold. It relieves some of the symptoms, and so it may be desirable in the short term, but it’s not going to resolve the underlying problem. In addition, as Risdon points out in his essay, redistributive welfare may actually foster bad memes. Implemented poorly, welfare encourages bad memes to go unresolved, to spread, or to get worse.2

Until we as a society start working to eliminate (through education and welfare reform) the bad ideas that keep people in poverty, we’re never going to appreciably reduce the suffering caused by poverty in America and the rest of the industrialized world. Again, whether you personally believe that the bad memes causing poverty are fundamentally personal (e.g. lack of future orientation or entitlement culture) or social (e.g. endemic greed, lack of charity, or interpersonal alienation) doesn’t really matter. The memes are the issue and wealth transfers won’t change those bad ideas one bit. Per Risdon, though, poorly-implemented welfare may actually worsen them, meaning that redistributive welfare might end up being not the cure for poverty, but the cause of it.


1 Two caveats to this post are that I’m not talking about poverty due to disability or mental illness, which are clearly not caused by bad memes. Also that poverty is relative and that poverty in the modern Western world is a different beast from poverty a century ago or poverty in the Third World.

2 For more evidence of this, see this CFP post showing that the War on Poverty correlated with the end of poverty numbers declining in America.

Meta-Ethical Question

I was thinking earlier about some conversations I had while I was TAing a class in grad school on the Philosophy of Technology. We were talking about ethics of genetic engineering and whether or not it was ethical to, for instance, predispose your unborn child to heightened athleticism or intelligence. So I’m interested in the spectrum of possible uses for genetic engineering and which ones people feel are permissible under their ethical intuition.

So, assume that you’re an expectant parent and the doctor tells you that he can cheaply, safely, and with a 100% success rate tweak your child’s genetics. He explains the benefits to you and asks you to decide which genetic alterations (if any) you feel comfortable having performed on your child.

1.) The doctor can detect and fix a host of life-threatening or debilitating genetic diseases and disorders, guaranteeing that your child will not suffer from e. g., Coeliac disease or Haemophilia.

2.) The doctor can detect and fix non-debilitating genetic defects, guaranteeing that your child won’t, e.g., be color blind.

3.) The doctor can guarantee that your child will be right-handed or left-handed.

4.) The doctor can give your child some modest, but naturally unusual advantage like ambidexterity or tetrachromacy.

5.) The doctor can give your child enhanced athletic predisposition, guaranteeing that they’ll be at least one standard deviation above today’s mean in athletic potential.

6.) The doctor can give your child enhanced cognitive ability, guaranteeing that they’ll be at least one standard deviation above today’s mean in intellectual abilities.

7.) The doctor can activate some genes that are associated with good looks in their gender, predisposing them to being more attractive.

8.) The doctor can predispose your child to using certain moral foundations, improving the chances that their political and ethical models will be similar to yours.

Which of these (if any) would you be willing to have the doctor perform on your unborn child? Let’s assume perfect safety and efficacy for the sake of this thought experiment.

The Sin of a Good Education

David Thompson points out the staggering response to a Guardian columnist’s choice to enroll her child in private school. I really can’t extract a quote from Thompson’s post, you really should go read the whole thing.

Apparently one of the greatest sins a right-thinking person can commit against their child and society is to send the child to a school run by any body other than the State. Heaven forbid parents should want the best for their kids and heaven forefend they try to act on such sinful thoughts by sending their children to a private school. The act of sending one’s child to a private school is lambasted as being beyond justification and “utterly immoral”.

The ratiocination behind these attacks is entirely opaque to me. I honestly can’t imagine a world view so sick, small, and petty that it would begrudge people their efforts to improve the lives of their children. Providing the best possible life for one’s offspring is one of the most natural and noble of human impulses. Any moral model that would willfully emiserate children and strip them of advantage for some abstract notion of “fairness” is completely alien to me.

And yet there it is on proud display. What’s next, a campaign against advanced placement courses? My parents put me into a series of very good programs for advanced students and I have no doubt that my International Baccalaureate classes in high school helped me get a great start in life, and while they were taught at a public (i.e. state-run) school, they certainly weren’t available to all children. Does that make them inherently immoral?

For my part, good on Janet Murray for working to give her child the best possible start in life. And I hope the jackals who are deriding her some day develop the good sense to be ashamed of themselves.

The Tragedy of William James Sidis

I am fortunate that I get to work with some of the smartest people in the world. In my time at Amazon, I’ve yet to meet a salaried employee that was anything other than above-average in general intelligence and far above average in mathematical/logical reasoning. It’s no secret that such intelligence has costs for many of the people who possess it. I recently came across an excellent overview of those costs by Grady M Towers, written for the journal of the Prometheus Society. The essay, called “The Outsiders” begins with the story of William James Sidis:

His name was William James Sidis, and his IQ was estimated at between 250 and 300 [8, p. 283]. At eighteen months he could read The New York Times, at two he taught himself Latin, at three he learned Greek. By the time he was an adult he could speak more than forty languages and dialects. He gained entrance to Harvard at eleven, and gave a lecture on four-dimensional bodies to the Harvard Mathematical Club his first year. He graduated cum laude at sixteen, and became the youngest professor in history. He deduced the possibility of black holes more than twenty years before Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar published An Introduction to the Study of Stellar Structure. His life held possibilities for achievement that few people can imagine. Of all the prodigies for which there are records, his was probably the most powerful intellect of all. And yet it all came to nothing. He soon gave up his position as a professor, and for the rest of his life wandered from one menial job to another. His experiences as a child prodigy had proven so painful that he decided for the rest of his life to shun public exposure at all costs. Henceforth, he denied his gifts, refused to think about mathematics, and above all refused to perform as he had been made to do as a child. Instead, he devoted his intellect almost exclusively to the collection of streetcar transfers, and to the study of the history of his native Boston. He worked hard at becoming a normal human being, but never entirely succeeded. He found the concept of beauty, for example, to be completely incomprehensible, and the idea of sex repelled him. At fifteen he took a vow of celibacy, which he apparently kept for the remainder of his life, dying a virgin at the age of 46. He wore a vest summer and winter, and never learned to bathe regularly. A comment that Aldous Huxley once made about Sir Isaac Newton might equally have been said of Sidis.

For the price Newton had to pay for being a supreme intellect was that he was incapable of friendship, love, fatherhood, and many other desirable things. As a man he was a failure; as a monster he was superb.

If you believe, as I do, that the ultimate resource, the one from which all other resources and all benefits of life and civilization flow, is human energy, then Sidis’ story is a social tragedy. But more than that it is a personal one. Sidis was perhaps the brightest mind mankind had ever produced, but being that bright in modern society was so painful for him that he ended up disavowing his own gifts.

The kind of psychic scars that would cause a person to walk away from their own minds and talents must be exceptionally painful, but “The Outsiders” makes the point that those same kinds of scars are present in many talented human beings, they’re just somewhat shallower. I see this occasionally in the tech industry. I don’t know many bright programmers who had happy, socially-fulfilled childhoods. Many of them have trouble connecting with people to this day. For some, working at Amazon is the first time they’ve had intellectual peers, much less encountered people smarter than themselves. That must be welcome for many, but it definitely has its own challenges. It’s never easy learning the lesson that you’re not the best at what you do, least of all when you learn the lesson for the first time in your early- or mid-twenties.

As far as Amazon programmers go, I suspect I’m at the lower end of the general intelligence scale. But I’m still above-average as far as the general population goes. Attending public schools in modestly-sized community meant that I was the smartest kid in most of my classes for most of my young life. I got respectable (though not stellar) grades without investing much effort in high school. I breezed through, applied to a few colleges, and picked the best that I could afford to attend. I applied for and was accepted to the Gonzaga Honors Program.

In my Freshman year, I ran hard up against the fact that I was no longer the smartest kid in class. Hell, I’m not even sure I was average in that group. And I have to confess, it sparked in me something of an existential crisis. If I wasn’t the smartest guy in the room, then what was I?

Fortunately, I weathered that personal storm well. I formed strong friendships, grew as a thinker and as a human being, and I owe a great deal of my identity and my current happiness to the Honors Program. In the end, the reward of finding peers (and intellectual superiors) was well worth the pain of first contact.

And so I wonder about the people who never have that experience. Who never experience the painful, powerful enlightenment that comes from people meeting you on your own level and showing you how much further you have to go. It saddens me that William James Sidis lived his life mostly trapped in his own world, far beyond any that we could understand.

Of course, there are counterpoints to the lone(ly) genius archetype. The Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős is widely regarded as a strong contender for the title of the brightest mind in mathematical history. He is the most prolifically published mathematician in history and collaborated widely. Every part of his mathematical life involved one or more collaborators, and by all accounts he was gregarious, well-liked, and had many close friends.

And yet, as with Newton, there was something of the superb monster about Erdős. He never married, never had children, and showed very little interest in many human pursuits. (In his unique vocabulary music was called “noise” and alcohol was “poison”. In counterpoint, though, he was apparently enthusiastic about his amphetamines.)

His life was devoted to his work in a way that William James Sidis himself rejected.

This seems to be the key divergence for many geniuses throughout history. Either they renounce their talents and “die” (as Erdős would say of mathematicians who retired), or they devote themselves whole-heartedly to their work.

But I wonder if that might be changing. One of the fundamental problems faced by genius-level intellects (as highlighted by Towers’ essay) is a lack of peers. Sidis had no peers and so renounced his own mind. Erdős found them and so prospered in his field. Sidis was personally miserable and socially ignored. Erdős lead a happy life and revolutionized mathematics many times over.

The era of truly universal communication (which we’re only a few decades into) stands to help those with genius level IQs find peers and compatriots far more easily and so help them onto the happy path of Erdős, rather than Sidis’ road of pain and personal disavowal.

The ultimate thrust of Towers’ essay is that the real need for high-IQ societies (like the Prometheus Society for which it was written) is not as a self-congratulatory boy’s club, but as a social support group. They serve as a peer group for those whose minds are so far beyond the peak of the bell curve, that they risk isolation and severe mental trauma. In years past, these societies were either non-existent or almost invisible, and finding them would have been a matter of luck, rather than searching. But in the modern age of the Internet and ubiquitous computing, finding peers is only a Google search away.

So here’s hoping that the Internet era brings us many more Paul Erdős and many fewer William James Sidis’.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.