The nature of economic laws

"To make economics a science is to suppose that its conclusions, even if hypothetical, have the same certainty as, for instance, those of physics; to assume, in other words that the same constancy which is discoverable in the dropping of the stone and its fall to the ground, is also discoverable in the relation between the imposition of tariffs and the movement of prices. This latter relationship is not one between abstract concepts, but between men's acts, and human ingenuity is continually altering relations between them. In short, when the economist professes to give us universality, he forget that an economic law is not merely like a physical law, one which man can understand and use, it is also one that he can alter. For the laws intended to cover man's asked and all of those he, unlike the stone that is dropped, it is conscious, and this very consciousness involves freedom to act differently. A law of human action can therefore be at best no more than a statistical generalization about the past, and if that is all that it is, there is no a priori probability that it will have any applicability in the future; for men may change their minds about what they want, or they may be led, by the discovery of a new invention or the examination of statistics of the past, to act in ways that hitherto had not occurred to them or that had been regarded as impossible." -- T.M. Knox, "The Study of Economic Activity," Philosophy, 1936

Economic History

"to tear economic history out of its context and to study it by itself as if the economic activities of the epoch were something separate or separable from its other activities, or as if economic institutions had a history of their own, is to make it unintelligible or else to reduce it to propaganda in favor of the dubious dogma of the materialist interpretation of history." -- T.M Knox, "The Study of Economic Activity," Philosophy, 1936


We need to have a name for the pairing, in current sports reporting, of absolute worship of "statistics" combined with absolute ignorance about how to do probabilistic reasoning. "Stapidity"?

For instance, the NBA draft lottery is a domain in which we can be sure pure probabilistic reasoning applies, since it is deliberately set up that way. If a team has a 42.3% chance of getting the top pick, that's that: there is no point looking at "recent history" to see how teams in that position did, since in a random sampling, we expect to see subsets with different distributions of results than we will get as our sample size approaches infinity. And we know with certainty (unless we suspect the NBA has a broken random number generator) that in the limit, 42.3% of such teams will wind up with the top pick. And yet:

"And as the fine folks at ESPN Stats & Information pointed out, recent history says not to be too confident the Lakers will keep the pick should they enter the lottery in that fourth spot, even though 82.8 percent seems like a solid figure.

"Over the past five years, teams that had a pre-lottery position of fourth dropped to sixth on two occasions: the Golden Warriors in 2010 and Washington Wizards in 2011." (Italics mine.)

The implication is that 82.8% is really only about the same as 60%, since if we look at the last five cases, that is the percentage we get. And if a fair coin comes up heads twice in a row, we know it isn't really fair!

Smith on Human Capital

J.A. Smith, that is:

"Is labour capital? If a labour meeting labor in act, "labouring," certainly not. But the strengths, etc., which is employed in labor certainly is actual capital when it is in use, potential capital before it is in use. The labourer is therefore just as much and as really "a capitalist" as the employer. More exactly, the abilities, etc. presupposed by economic labour are capital, and their possessor is 'a capitalist.' But they are not usually recognized as, or named, capital... The refusal to call them capital wrongly separates them from other parts of wealth." -- J.A. Smith, “Further Notes on Some Fundamental Notions of Economics: Capital,” Economic Review, 1914.

Although Smith does not use the term "human capital," it clearly is what he is talking about. Of course people, such as Adam Smith, had earlier noted that increases in human skills play an important part in increases in production. But had anyone earlier than 1914 explicitly asserted that such skills are capital?

An Interesting Way of Viewing Consumption

"Consumption is the inverse of production, and 'the consumer' the inverse of 'the producer.' To consume, in the economic sense, is to diminish, and in the end to destroy, the utility or 'commodiousness' of a commodity, and 'the consumer' is the person who has legally the final right to do this." -- J.A. Smith, “On Some Fundamental Notions of Economics,” Economic Review, 1913.

This definition helps to illuminate the notion of household production, and clarifies just what are producer goods and what consumer goods. So putting a piece of bread in the toaster is an act of production, and the untoasted bread still a producer's good: the good's utility is still increasing. It is only the toasted and buttered piece that is a consumer good, and it becomes that in the process of having its utility destroyed.

J.A. Smith on Why a Market for Establishing Property Rights Is a Nonsensical Idea

"in the establishment of my wealth presupposes a system of recognized and established rights. What I own (by law or custom) consists of rights and nothing else; my wealth therefore consists of rights and nothing else." -- J.A. Smith, “On Some Fundamental Notions of Economics,” Economic Review, 1913.

Alfred Marshall leading us by the nose in a circle

'we are told [by Marshall] that [wealth] consists of two classes of goods, which together constitute "economic goods." If we ask what quote economic goods" far, we are informed that quote economic goods" include quote those goods, and only those, which come clearly within the scope of economic science, as defined in Book I." (p. 127). But as "economic science" is there defined as "the study of Wealth," we are clearly being led by the nose in a circle. Wealth is defined as consisting of all those goods, and those only, which come clearly within the scope of the Science of Wealth.' -- J.A. Smith, “On Some Fundamental Notions of Economics,” Economic Review, 1913.

Rationalism in ethics

I believe I was the first person to note in print just how Aristotelian Oakeshott's analysis of rationalism is, although I must credit Noel O'Sullivan for dropping the hint that got me going in that direction. Here is the kind of thing I was getting at:

"At the start of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle observes that moral action does not arise from deliberation. In order to think clearly about virtue, one must first already have a virtuous disposition formed by good habits. Aristotle drily remarks that the endless ethical debate of some philosophers is really just a sophisticated way of doing nothing. You become virtuous – and thus able to understand virtue – by acting virtuously. Nobody ever reasoned their way into right living."

"...the endless ethical debate of some philosophers is really just a sophisticated way of doing nothing": Peter Singer springs instantly into my mind!

Humpty Dumpty

Reading traditional Catholics is an interesting experience for me. I often agree with their analysis of what has gone wrong and how it went wrong. But I find their remedy implausible: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, and all the king's horses, and all the king's men, can't put Humpty together again.

John Locke

"The confused man's Hobbes" -- C.B. Macpherson

A Bayesian Spirit Catcher

Since my recent posts on material and spiritual explanations have been so egregiously misunderstood by some commenters, let me try again, with a new tack.

Bayesian inference is given by the rule:

Our H is: "Hildegard of Bingen had visions sent from God."

Our E is that we discover that Hildegard was suffering from migraines. (By the way, this idea is just sheer speculation on the part of Oliver Sacks, with little evidence behind it. But let us imagine it confirmed.)

Let us say someone like my friend Ben Kay has the prior P(H) that Hildegard experienced divine visions of 0. (Ben is a committed atheist.) Then E arrives. Ben touts it as, "See, she just had migraines." But this is insincere: with a P(H) of 0, for any evidence that arrives, Ben will have a P(H | E) of 0!

I have another friend, an Inuit fellow named Nahallak, who thinks Hildegard's life story makes her report of divine visions likely, so that he has a P(H) of .8. But he is also convinced that if someone does have a divine vision, that is certain to affect their body in a profound way! So while P(E) (the probability someone has migraines) may be, say, .2, he also believes that P(E | H) is .2: he was already certain that divine visions have some physiological impact, and so the possibility that someone who experiences divine visions has migraines is simply the probability that they have migraines. So for Nahallak, P(H | E) is .8. The new evidence has no impact, and this is not due to "irrationality," but because Nahallak is a logical Bayesian updater.

To be fair to my critics, there is one class of people for whom this new evidence might result in a P(H | E) different from P(H): if someone thinks visions from God are possible, but, if they occur, the person receiving them will show no physiological response to the vision whatsoever, then P(E | H) will be 0, and the migraine discovery will falsify H. But this is a very odd position, and I have never heard of anyone who holds it. The person in question would have to acknowledge that seeing a tree, or feeling a cold wind, or hearing from one's mother, all produce a physiological response, but receiving a communication from the very source of all being itself leaves the recipient's body completely unmoved!

So, what I have been trying to say is that, except for the very odd position of the last mentioned class of people, E provides no new evidence at all as to whether Hildegard had divine visions or not. If your P(H) was already low, it will remain low, but if it was high, it will remain high, and logically so. And nothing in my argument, anywhere, was about what one's initial P(H) ought to be, so the people arguing about this were completely missing what my posts were about.

And the fact that every person who misunderstood this analysis already had a P(H) at or near 0 is, I think, good Bayesian evidence that I have analyzed this situation correctly!

Galen Strawson on Consciousness

Those superstitious ancients

In the ancient days, people thought that Babe Ruth was a "great home run hitter." But now science has determined that all that was going on was a cylindrical piece of wood was striking a canvas and cork sphere and imparting a velocity to it that caused it to travel over a wooden barrier. They were so superstitious in New York in the 20s!

I'm Possessed by a Spirit...

of massive frustration. Modern forms of superstition, such as materialism and scientism, are apparently completely immune to reason. And the people who embrace the myths put forward in establishing these superstitions hold to them with a tenacity that exceeds that of any Young Earth Creationist.


The Ancient Greeks thought epilepsy involved possession by a spirit.

Today, we "know" that epilepsy occurs when physiological processes X, Y, and Z take place.

So this contradicts the Greek view, correct?

It is almost unbelievable that people think that with such assurance, since there is absolutely no logic supporting the conviction.

What?! Don't these views posit mutually exclusive explanations for the same thing?

Of course they do not. It is a symptom of the complete confusion people have been put into by the rise of scientism and positivism that anyone even suspects that they do. Let us first imagine what an ancient Greek thought, and then see if we can detect even a hint of a contradiction between their view and modern medical evidence.

1) Did the ancient Greeks deny that anything physiological was going on during an epileptic seizure? Of course not! They damned well knew that something physical was occurring: there was the victim's body, writhing around on the ground right in front of their faces! In fact, they (correctly, it turns out) prescribed fasting for epileptics to reduce the incidence of seizures.

2) Did the ancient Greeks have some alternate view of what was going on physiologically that is ruled out by our modern understanding? Well, no, they did not.

So let us transport an ancient Greek physician, convinced of the theory of possession, to the modern world, and have modern specialists in epilepsy fully explain to him every bit of our physiological knowledge of the disease. Having mastered all of this material, he sits back on his στοα and says, "Aaah, so that is what happens in the body when it is possessed by a spirit! It is wonderful you people have discovered all of this."

"No, no, you don't understand! We can actually stop the seizures using a drug!" the modern doctors tell him.

"Excellent: you have found a way to block the entry of the spirit, much like I would block a thief's entry with a lock. Well done!"

Is there anything logically contradictory about the Greek's interpretation of modern findings? Absolutely not.

Are there any modern findings that he cannot fit, quite comfortably, into his understanding? No, there are not.

One of the semi-educated will inevitably invoke Ockham's razor at this point. But materialists shave with this very selectively: they pay no attention to the fact that materialism itself falls to this razor, or that attempts to sustain materialism in the face of modern physics lead to massive violations of the principle. The invocation of Ockham's razor only works here if we already have some good reason to think materialism is true. And there is no such good reason: modern materialism is an ideology, cooked up during the Enlightenment to aid the philosophes and their friends in their power struggle with the old order.

The idea that, if we can trace the physical processes leading to event X, that therefore we have ruled out any spiritual explanation for X, is, quite simply, a piece of Enlightenment propaganda, an attempt to wield the prestige of science to discredit religion. It makes no sense at all, but it can be very useful as a rhetorical weapon.

AI hype as job security for software engineers

My student told me, "My setup is exactly the same as Brian's, but his works and mine doesn't."

"No," I replied, "if your setup does not work, that is because it is different than Brian's."

We got online so I could see his screen. Brian and I had set "PYTHONPATH" to point to a particular directory. When I asked to see the other student's value for "PYTHONPATH," he said, "Oh, I used 'PATH' for that. I thought it wouldn't matter."

So he had set the wrong variable. But rather than seeing the box in front of him as a dumb machine, where you have to set each switch properly or it won't work, he viewed it as something semi-magical that would just "know" that by 'PATH' he meant 'PYTHONPATH.' And if it wasn't working, well, the likely explanation was that the box was busy thinking about something else, like world domination, rather than it just being a dumb machine, in which he had set a switch wrong.

I can't conceive of how anyone could program decently who really believes that the computer he is trying to program is also thinking its own thoughts. Instead of building a machine in circuitry that does what he wants it to (a task that is already plenty complex!), the "programmer" of a thinking machine would always be engaged in Holmes-Moriarty paradoxes and so forth. Thus, I conclude that when you see an experienced software engineer promoting the idea of "Artificial Intelligence," he is really engaged in subverting the competition: if enough young people buy into the hype, they will become unable to think as programmers, and the older folks' jobs will be safe.

The myth of liberal neutrality

I made the stupid mistake of writing a serious comment on a Facebook post. Immediately, a good liberal--call him "Wilson"--popped up, robotically chanting about how "religious people" want to force their values on others. (I am quite sure he believed he was "thinking for himself" in repeating this mantra.)

When I noted that he was just as willing to force his values on others in the legislation he backed, he became outraged: "I am not the one who wants a special exemption from anti-discrimination laws!"

So in Wilson's picture of the world, when a Christian cake-maker declines to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, she is "forcing her values" on them. But when Wilson endorses using the full power of the law to shut down her business if she won't cater gay weddings, well, that is just common sense!

Note that the point here is not about who is right in these disputes or what discrimination should be legally permitted. For instance, I think basic anti-discrimination laws are just fine, even if I also think that we have gone overboard with them today, so I guess am a moderate liberal in that regard. No, my point is that in supporting, say, the 1965 Civil Rights Act, I am "forcing my values" on racists, among others.

This is what law does. The idea that liberals don't want to force their values on others is pure marketing malarkey.

Our Established Church: Americanism

"it is clear that Madison and Jefferson, under the guise of religious neutrality, were arguing for the imposition of a new theology of the State in preference to the old one involving some form of Church-State alliance." -- Christopher A. Ferrara, Liberty: The God That Failed, p. 560

Of note in this regard: The founders of the new republic placed a newly invented goddess, Liberty, on almost all American coinage up until the 20th century. They knew they were founding a new religion.

An unjust price

The concept of a "just price," and by contrast of an unjust price, have sometimes been harshly criticized by libertarians. But it is really not too hard a concept to grasp, and I think even the critics know, in their heart-of-hearts, that it is possible for "voluntary" exchange to be unjust.

To offer an example: last night, while falling asleep watching Perry Mason, I caught an add for "pure gold" Buffalo "coins." There were charts about the price of gold, and history about the American Buffalo shooting up to $3000 in price. (I cannot see they ever actually were that high, but...)

Then, quickly mumbled, was a bit about the good for offer not being the American Buffalo, but a non-monetary copy. Louder again about the gold being 99.99% pure, and then something real quick about the actual amount of gold in these "coins," which turned out to be 14... milligrams! That is about 5/10000 of an ounce, or about 70 cents worth of gold.

And these curios were being sold off at the bargain basement price of... $9.95.

That, my friends, is an unjust price.

Avicenna: An Early Oakeshott?

Avicenna is widely regarded as one of the two or three greatest Muslim philosophers. He also reportedly loved wine and promiscuous sex.

When asked about this odd combination of traits, he apparently would reply something along the lines of, "God gave me the capacities to enjoy wine and women, and it would be ungrateful of me to let those capacities go to waste."

The five ways and the five second dismissals

After Aquinas formulated his "Quinque Viae," students would often spend weeks studying each "way," as an introduction to these ideas.

Today, students spend five seconds having some professor guffaw, "Ha, if everything has a cause, what caused God?!" (Showing the professor himself has no idea what the second way claims.)

But to take this argument seriously, to spend the time necessary to grasp it, would start to produce doubts: maybe Aquinas was on to something! And we don't want that.

Learning history through movies

To learn about the 1960s, don't watch Mad Men: watch shows produced during the 1960s.

A show produced in the 1960s that is purportedly about the Middle Ages is likely to tell us more about the 1960s then will a show produced today that is purportedly about the 1960s.

The worst argument for open borders ever made?

Jason Brennan links to a new paper. I have only
read Brennan's summary, so the paper may be much better than he depicts it (more
on that later), but anyway, here is how he summarizes its argument: 

“Freiman says to readers
(again, a paraphrase, not a real quotation): ‘Okay, so you believe it’s
permissible to prohibit foreigners from moving to your country (even when
there’s someone who wants to hire them or let them lease a house), but it’s not
permissible to deport current citizens. Fine. Give me some feature F that
citizens have, which non-citizens lack, that plausibly explains why it’s
permissible to exclude one but not to deport the other. Or give me some feature
G that non-citizens have, but citizens lack, that explains why it’s permissible
to exclude foreigners but not deport citizens. Let’s confine ourselves to cases
where the harm done to the foreigner by excluding him is equal to the harm done
to the citizen by deporting her. And, no, you can’t just say F = is a citizen
or is a member of the social contract, or that G = is a foreigner or is not a
member of the social contract, because that’s the very thing we’re asking
about. What is it about natively-born people that they count as having certain
rights while foreign-born people don’t?’” 

 This is a remarkable
argument. Firstly, it demands that we ignore the only relevant difference
between citizens and non-citizens: "And, no, you can’t just say F = is a
citizen or is a member of the social contract, or that G = is a foreigner or is
not a member of the social contract, because that’s the very thing we’re asking

 Or, to paraphrase: 

 "OK, so let me first
ban from consideration the very reason that one of these things is permissible
and the other not, and then see what those who want to make this distinction
have left to say!" 

 Secondly, the argument
fallaciously calls both failing to allow someone to move to one’s country and
kicking someone out of it as “harm”: But no, the first is simply not acting to
improve someone’s condition, while only in the second case is there harm being
done. To make this easier to see: If I throw my own young child out of my
house, I am harming her, since I have an obligation to house my child. But in
no way am I “harming” the millions of homeless children in the world but not
allowing all of them to come live with me: I am under no obligation to house

 Freiman shows up in
Brennan's comment section to dispel the hope that perhaps his paper is better
than Brennan's summary, writing: "what you don't want to say is that
citizens are morally special simply because they fall on one side of a line
(the border) rather than another" 

 The very phrasing
"simply because they fall on one side of a line (the border) rather than
another" essentially contains Freiman's whole argument. He begins by
denying that a nation is or should be any sort of community whose members have
special obligations to each other that they do not have to others simply by the
way he characterizes the relationship, and at the end he "reaches"
the conclusion that a nation is not any sort of community whose members have
special obligations to each other that they do not have to others. It is like
the joke recipe for sausage: to make a sausage, start with some sausage... 

 Then Freiman continues to
dig in deeper: "Think of it this way: suppose I am on a sidewalk and draw
a line with a piece of chalk. I then proceed to step across that line. Has my
moral status changed?" Well, yes, if we "think" of a political
community in this brain-addled way, we will reach very bad conclusions. Of
course, the analogy breaks apart on the very point where the similarity
supposedly lies: I don't cease being a member of the American political
community simply because I am in Montreal for a weekend, nor does a Canadian
cease to be Canadian if she drives to the Adirondacks. By analogy, if we define
a "family" simply as "some people who happen to live on the same
side of a house wall," then we will not find any reason I might have a
greater obligation to care for my sick son than for a sick child in California.

 It is a fact of earthly
existence, easily confirmed by a survey of our world, that every living entity,
whether we count them as individuals or groups (and recent biology has shown
that it is often hard to say which is which), must have some boundary where it
controls what passes through. Our immune systems are a perfect example of this,
or ant colonies that prevent incursions of “foreign” ants, or private business
firms, that certainly do not permit just anyone to wander around in their
offices, answering customer calls and placing orders for new computers.

On Facebook a friend
brought up the fact that many churches may feel an obligation to admit some
categories of outsiders as a counter-argument this proposition. But this
actually illustrates my point: a church may have obligations to admit some
people (and so may a political community, e.g. children of members) but also must have a right to exclude some from
membership (Satanists, for instance), or it will simply cease to exist as a
separate entity. His argument that a church has an obligation to admit certain
supplicants implies that it has a
right to admit or not: otherwise, no one would need to make an argument that people
fitting description X or Y ought to be admitted: they would just be in

So, similarly, if one
argues that the US ought to admit, say, Vietnamese refugees, given our role in
destroying their country (an argument I would be very sympathetic to, by the
way) presupposes that our political community has the right to decide who can
join, and we are attempting to persuade our fellows that in this case, it
should use that right by saying "yes." This request for
"symmetry" in approaching those inside some group and those outside
is fabricated just to create a “trap” (Brennan’s characterization of Freiman’s
argument) for those who will not agree to open borders: I can't think of a
single important relationship in human life where we regard kicking someone out
of the relationship as lightly as we do not letting them in in the first place.
If we don't want to marry someone, we can simply tell them, "I am not
interested." But if we are going to leave a marriage, decency (and perhaps
the law as well) demands a little more than that. And it is not necessary for
us to calculate if the “harm” done to the suitor we turned down: there is no
harm, as we have no obligation to marry anyone. We can decide not to have
children simply because we don't want children, but once we have them, we
cannot just send them out to live in the woods because we have changed our
minds. There are many cats roaming the streets of New York City that I have
failed to adopt, and without moral censure, but if I turn the cat I do have out
onto the street, I have earned both blame and legal penalties. Nowhere else do
we find this “symmetry” that is being demanded of political communities. 

A Plague of Locusts in My Brain

I have heard that Ken B. and rob are going for a hike in the mountains. I decide to put a stop to their stream of repetitive comments once and for all: I sneak up onto a path above them, and, as they pass, I cause an avalanche to descend upon them, killing them.

Now, avalanches happen without anyone intending them. And my defense attorney will surely bring that point up at my trial: yes, it is interesting to know that there are other possibilities than "Gene killed them" at play.

1) But what would be nonsense for him to argue would be, "Ah, Gene didn't kill them! It was an avalanche that killed them!"

Because everyone involved agrees there was an avalanche. The question is, "What started the avalanche?" Of course there was some physical cause of their death; what we want to know to reach a verdict was "Did someone intend that cause?"


In the Bible, when God is trying to persuade the Pharaoh to "let my people go," one of the things he does is to send a plague of locusts to Egypt. The UN Human Rights Commission puts God on trial for violations of the Geneva Conventions committed against the Egyptian people. God claims that plagues of locusts occur without His intending to exercise His wrath on anyone. And this is a good point in His defense!

But if in His defense rebuttal of our case, God says, "I didn't engage in aggression against the Egyptians: it was a plague of locusts!" then His defense is similarly absurd to 1) above: Everyone agrees that there was a plague of locusts! The question at hand is, "Did you, Jehovah, send this plague, similarly to how Gene sent an avalanche down to smite the heads of Ken B. and rob?"


Hildegard of Bingen reports God sent certain visions her way. She decides to put God on trial at the anarcho-capitalist Nuremberg trials for NAP violations, since she didn't ask for these visions, and they were sent directly into her brain, causing migraine-like symptoms.

God responds, "No, I didn't send any visions: your brain was just in a certain state!"

God's defense here is obvious nonsense: everyone agrees that Hildegard's brain entered certain unusual states. The question is, "Did you, God, send a communication to Hildegard that caused her brain (against her will!) to enter these states?"

And if God notes that similar brain states occur without Him (apparently) sending messages to anyone, that is interesting, but certainly does not prove His innocence, any more than does my lawyer's noting that many avalanches occur without human intervention prove my innocence.


Now, the final turn of the screw: Let us say that, in 1), there are a number of jurors who were convinced, well before the avalanche or the trial, that Gene doesn't exist: No one that outlandish could be real! For them, the trial was over before it started: no non-existent entity can kill someone! So for them, it is a great relief to hear that avalanches occur that are not caused or intended by any person. They can put their minds at ease: "We don't need to consider the possibility that this ridiculous figure Gene exists! It was just an avalanche!"

Of course, this is not really relevant to the case at all: all sides agree that an avalanche occurred! The fact that there was an avalanche is not any evidence one way or the other as to whether or not Gene murdered Ken B. and rob. What is going on here is that these jurors prior conviction that Gene doesn't exist made them favor any explanation that does not involve this fictitious "Gene" figure.

Temple Grandin

She is the top animal handling consultant in the world, and has been instrumental in bringing about more humane treatment of animals in meat production: "Most modern livestock-handling facilities and methods that minimize stress and insecurity to large animals owe their implementation to an autistic person, Dr. Temple Grandin."

She attributes her great understanding of animals to her autism. Ken and rob better get on the horn to her and let her know she doesn't understand animals at all: her brain is just in a peculiar state!

Heloise and Abelard

This pair were hippies way ahead of their time. Not only did Heloise claim that she and Abelard did not need marriage, a mere human institution, to sanctify their cosmic relationship, but they named their kid... Astrolabe! That is like the names of 22-year-olds I met in Berkeley in 1990.

Brain Salad Surgery

A person "sees a tree." He is asked what caused him to see this. "Well, light from the tree coming to my eyes."

A neuro-phile says, "No, what caused you to have that experience was this brain state I detected." *

The neuro-phile is obviously confused: these are not competing explanations, but complementary explanations from different points of view.

If someone asks me, "Gene, why are you in England?" then "I came for a conference" and "This is where the jet landed" are not contradictory answers! They address the question from two different perspectives.


A person experiences strange fits. Doctors are puzzled as to what is occurring, but he is not: Aliens are beaming mind-control waves into his head, totally disrupting his brain patterns.

We may not believe him, but that will be because we doubt aliens are visiting the earth, or something like that. What would be absurd here is to point to his unusual brain scans and say, "See, it is just that your brain is all funny!"

Because that is exactly what he (and we) should expect to find if his explanation is correct! His come back will be, "Of course my brain is all funny! That is what I have been telling you, and it is the aliens that are doing it!"

NOTE: The point here is not that we should believe the person having fits: it is that it is nonsense to try to use his odd brain states as evidence against his explanation, since those brain states fit his explanation perfectly.


August Kekulé reports that, in a daydreaming state, he had a vision of a serpent eating its own tail, and that this enabled him to solve the mystery of the structure of benzene.

Kenneth von Skeptik scolds him: "You had no vision about benzene! Your brain was just in an altered state. Here: I can show you the brain scan."

Obviously again, Kenneth is talking nonsense: Kekulé was both in a state where his brain waves were altered, and where he had a vision. These explanations don't compete with each other: they are alternate ways of describing the same event.

(Imagine: you tell a friend you just took a family vacation, and he contradicts you by saying, "No, you and your kids' molecules were just traveling in certain trajectories through space!")


Hildegard of Bingen has visions. They seem to her to be from God, but she is uncertain. So she corresponds with Bernard of Clairvaux, Pope Eugene III (now you see why I like her!), and others. After examining her claims with some skepticism -- the Church heirarchy was really, really not enthusiastic about people who went around claiming to be talking to God, since God might tell them to challenge the heirarchy: see, Luther, Martin or Bruno, Giordano for illustrations on this point -- these people admitted that, yes, these seemed to them like genuine visions. For one, she did not merely "see lights," but she received theological messages, and those messages seemed sound.

Following these visions, Hildegard launches a career of writing theology, medicine, theater, music, letters, and of traveling about preaching, one that is simply extraordinary for anyone of anytime, let alone for a woman in the Middle Ages. Furthermore, in her medical writings, Hildegard describes migraines in some detail: people then knew quite well that migraines existed, and in particular, Hildegard was very familiar with them. What did not happen at the time was that all of these migraine sufferers claimed divine visions, and went on to become great polymaths, or that every nearby monk immediately put up every migraine victim for sainthood. In fact, I'd bet it is safe to say that 99.999% of migraine sufferers do not have experiences like Hildegard's.

Now, I don't think for a second that any of the above constitutes proof that Hildegard had visions sent by God! But, just as with the UFO believer in case 2, or Kekulé in case 3, what is ridiculous is to point to the fact that Hildegard might have been in some unusual brain state as contradicting the idea that her visions had a divine origin. If the creator of the universe is projecting a vision straight into your head... well, don't you think that might put your brain in a rather unusual state?

* Let us leave aside the questions of if brain states can be said to "cause" experiences, and how they might do so, and just accept that there is some connection between the two, and use "cause" to describe it.

It was just a migraine

In a lecture on St. Hildegard, the lecturer mentioned that's some modern "scholars" explain away her spiritual visions as having been caused by migraine headaches.

It is certainly possible that Hildegard may have been having migraines. But what in the world does that have to do with whether or not God was sending her visions? When I see a tree, certain things happen in my brain. But it would be nonsense to point to those neurological phenomena and say, "See, Gene is not seeing a tree: there is just this electrical activity in his brain."

Perhaps visions sent by God are so intense that they cause migraines. Or perhaps migraines are God's way of sending us a vision. I don't know if Hildegard was having genuine revelations or not, but I do know that whether or not she was having migraines has nothing to do with answering the first question.

In any case, here is one of her migraine headaches for your viewing pleasure:

It looks remarkably like the migraine headaches experienced by Tibetan monks, doesn't it?

UPDATE: As I feared, Ken B. invoked his "parsimonious explanation" mantra when commenting on this post. Sorry, Ken, your parsimonious explanation would "prove" that Paul Erdos was not really having mathematical insights in his hundreds of papers, but was just feeling the effects of speed.

The Political Economy of the British Idealists: Introduction

James Connelly and I have begun serious work on our book, The Political Economy of the British Idealists. That means, as usual, my faithful blog readers get to see snippets of it in progress. Here is the start of the introduction:


There has been a revival of interest in the ideas of the group of thinkers known as "British Idealists" of late, with a stream of books emerging discussing one aspect or another of their broad ranging thought. But this attention has focused chiefly on the metaphysical, ethical, and political philosophy of these figures.

Nevertheless, many British Idealists paid a fair amount of attention to political economy. What is more, while they certainly did not think as a monolithic unit, when one views this body of work as a whole, a characteristic approach to political economy comes to light, featuring a rejection of one-sided abstractions and an attempt to see an issue holistically. And it is an approach that, in out troubled economic times, featuring the clash of seemingly irreconcilable economic dogmas, is worthy of our consideration.

All of the figures included in this volume were aware of the main results of 18th and 19th century political economy. They understood the arguments for the economic efficiency of markets, for the increased productivity brought about by the division of labor, and for the importance of secure property rights. But, as is typical of idealist thought in general, they were also aware of the danger that a one-sided emphasis on the market as the supreme social institution presents, in reducing all human interactions to mere calculations of profit and loss. The market, as they saw it, had an important place in a flourishing community, but if it was allowed to overwhelm all other aspects of social life, it transformed from a vital organ to a cancer. A proper understanding of the role of the market would place it within the context of the political and ethical life that it depends upon for its very existence.

Paul Franco was specifically describing Oakeshott, but he could have been characterizing British Idealist thought in general when he wrote:

"The question of economic organization is not considered by itself [by Oakeshott], apart from politics and social organization; the economic is set in the wider context of an entire concrete manner of living." -- The Political Philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, p. 147

Yet today this balanced approach to political economy is widely unknown. By bringing it to the attention of modern students of the history of economic thought, this volume may serve to introduce a much-needed voice of moderation into our present, contentious economic debates.

In compiling this volume, we have sought to create a collection of works that both demonstrates the characteristic approach of British idealists as well as the wide range of topics they addressed. What follows in this introduction is a list of every author included here, ordered by date of birth, along with some discussion of the author’s life and the particular works of his that we have chosen.

"Think for yourself"

A very nice essay by Adam Gurri has some gems:

"individual responsibility – like liberty – is itself a concept that emerged within a tradition that had particular groups as its caretakers. Not only do I think that individual responsibility, properly understood, is compatible with the notion that groups can choose; I think that individual responsibility has only ever existed within a space framed by groups."


"It often amazes me how the most committed individualists will speak of 'thinking for yourself' and then will draw on ideas that they learned entirely from other people."

The second quote reminds me of an online conversation I had recently. I encountered an online friend claiming that some physicist had "proved" that time was an illusion.When I mentioned this was nonsense, and that the physicist had confused mathematics with metaphysics, I was met with cries, by him and his buddy, of, "But this guy we are citing knows mathematics!" (And "Metaphysics is a bad word!" -- that sort of thing is used constantly by people who don't want to be challenged on their bad metaphysics.)

And then I asked them if either of them could explain to me how, "mathematically," we can show time doesn't exist. Oops, nothing.

This pair are like primitive tribesmen deferring to a witch doctor: "Ooh, scary mathematical physicist says time no exist! We must accept this!"

And yet, I am sure they praise themselves for "thinking for themselves" on a point where they take for truth a ridiculous assertion that they admit they can't understand at all on the level upon which it is supposedly "proven."

Dijkstra on the Middle Ages

Pioneering computer scientist E. W. Dijkstra writes:

"On the historical evidence I shall be short. Carl Friedrich Gauss, the Prince of Mathematicians but also somewhat of a coward, was certainly aware of the fate of Galileo... when he decided to suppress his discovery of non-Euclidean geometry, thus leaving it to Bolyai and Lobatchewsky to receive the flak. It is probably more illuminating to go a little bit further back, to the Middle Ages. One of its characteristics was that 'reasoning by analogy' was rampant; another characteristic was almost total intellectual stagnation, and we now see why the two go together. A reason for mentioning this is to point out that, by developing a keen ear for unwarranted analogies, one can detect a lot of medieval thinking today."

Similarly, we can go even "further back," to the 20th century. One of its characteristics was that 'doing history by making shit up' was rampant; another characteristic was almost total intellectual arrogance, and we now see why the two go together. I think we can still find a lot of this modern thinking today.

White privilege; Religion is personal?

Here is a very good John McWhorter piece about "white privilege." I agree with almost everything he says: this obsessing over white privilege, or constant self-auditing as to whether one was ever scared of a few black people, is just self-indulgence, and a means to feel OK about continuing to hang out with one's white liberal friends in Park Slope because one keeps confessing to how privileged one is. McWhorter hits the heart of the issue:

"For example, it’s a safe bet that most black people are more interested in there being adequate public transportation from their neighborhood to where they need to work than that white people attend encounter group sessions where they learn how lucky they are to have cars."

Yes, yes, yes.

But McWhorter does say something he takes for truth but is instead "true of the way people like to think about this today":

"Politics is about society. Religion, however, is personal."

No society in the world before the culture of the West since the 1700s would have been able to make any sense of this idea: religion didn't really even exist as a separate category in most cultures: it was simply how a people came together socially to express a sense of the sacred, and was intimately connected to the rest of a people's life.

August Comte, while rejecting traditonal religions, was at least intelligent enough to realize that a people, to hold together, need some sort of communal religion. When we try to deny this is true, the end result is not a "secular society," but a society with a sort of "KMart blue-light special" religion consisting of ritual football watching, rah-rah American boosterism, the Pledge of Allegiance, prayers to the gods of NCAA basketball pools, Lincoln sainthood, Oprah Winfrey platitudes, Arianna Huffington self-help books, and so on.

The Fall

As I have mentioned previously, to mistake a myth for a theory is a terrible error. Genesis I is not a scientific theory of how the world was created, nor is it an historical account. It is a myth about creation: it expresses a mystery that we can't capture in scientific theories or historical accounts, but that we can hint at through poetry such as, "Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters."

I was prompted to think about this again tonight when one of my online friends was circulating an inspirational poster telling the reader, "There is nothing wrong with you accept what other people tell you is wrong with you."

Of course there is something wrong, and fundamentally wrong, with each of us! That something is expressed again and again in myths: in the Biblical story of the Fall, or Plato's myth of the originally perfect beings that split in two, in the tale of Prometheus, in the Buddhist idea of samsara, and even in the work of a deep existentialist like Albert Camus. (Camus would not have been sympathetic to the idea that man's existential crisis could be solved by a few Tony Robbins pep talks.) These myths express our sense of brokenness, and may point us towards a path of healing. It is a complete misunderstanding of the mode in which these stories operate to ask them to give a double-entry bookkeeping account of just why someone eating an apple thousands of years ago makes a baby born today guilty of something.

Joe Jordan Guest Post II: Time and Morality

Gene's post on free will and time makes me think of an idea I was kicking around a while ago about the necessity of Time for us to be moral creatures:

If there was no Time (for us), we would never be compelled to make moral decisions. Since we live in Time, we are forced to make decisions, and those decisions take on moral weight. We are, I guess it can be said, "forced to be free" in the sense that we are compelled to face choices and therefore make moral decisions given the construct of Time (as we experience it). If there was no Time (for us) we wouldn't have to make any choices at all; we could simply accept infinite stasis. Perhaps that's what Hell (or a version thereof) is like? Complete frozen-ness?

To tie a bit of Judeo-Christian "existentialism" into this rumination: it would seem that there is something fundamental in our creaturely nature that requires us to make decisions. We were made to make choices. God wants us to freely choose to love Him; we are not robotically programmed to love Him. Hence a significance of the Garden of Eden story: Adam and Eve, of course, "had" to face the choice of whether they were going to eat the forbidden fruit. Apparently, this must have occurred "in Time." Otherwise, there would have been no rupture as they might never have made the wrong choice. There are inherent existential and moral risks, of course, in all choices; and Adam and Eve were the first of countless others who have failed. Fortunately, as we know from Christianity, we can ultimately be redeemed even if we have made the wrong choices in the past by "getting right with God" (however that is supposed to look on a case-by-case basis). This, too, requires Time. C.S. Lewis, throughout all of his writings and perhaps in his "The Great Divorce" especially, seems to be saying something like this.

Much like a fish requires water to swim, we require Time to be moral. We can only be moral by exercising our freewill in Time.  To be (as in, "to become") morally good beings, we must live in Time. God already is absolutely good, so there's no need for Him to live in Time.

In addition to Lewis, Kant's "categorical imperative" and Nietzsche's "eternal recurrence" factor in all this too, I suppose.

The confusion on free will

Despite Augustine having satisfactorily settle this issue 1600 years ago, some people, some of whom even comment this blog, still believe that if God knows what I am going to do, then I must not have free will.

I think I have identified the source of this confusion: if you or I know with 100% certainty that X will occur, then it must be necessary that it will occur. That is because we are beings embedded in time, and we can never know with certainty what contingencies will arise in the future.

But for any sophisticated thinker who has held both divine omniscience and human free will to exist, that is not at all the case for God: God exists outside of time, and sees the past, present, and future all at once. So all contingencies are know to Him at a glance. That fact that He knows with certainty that, say, a butterfly will land on my nose tomorrow in no way means that the butterfly could not have done otherwise. God simply sees what it actually does do.

Liberalism Is a Rival Religion, Not a Neutral Arbiter Among Religions, Part X

The great Patrick Deneen again:

The "radical" school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism. Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility. According to this view, liberalism is not a "shell" philosophy that allows a thousand flowers to bloom. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism, among which (Catholics hold) are the belief that we are by nature relational, social and political creatures; that social units like the family, community and Church are "natural," not merely the result of individuals contracting temporary arrangements; that liberty is not a condition in which we experience the absence of constraint, but the exercise of self-limitation; and that both the "social" realm and the economic realm must be governed by a thick set of moral norms, above all, self-limitation and virtue.

Two thousand cattle

In the early 700s, Ceolfrid, abbot at the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow abbey, sought a land grant for land on which the abbey could raise 2000 head of cattle.

The 2000 cattle were needed to produce... X.

Can you guess what X was?

UPDATE: X is a single unit of a something, so, a good answer would be, "They were going to produce one giant leather dome over their monastery." That is not the right answer, but they were going to produce one of something with these 2000 cattle.

Debugging the Old-Fashioned Way

I can usually see people making fun of using "print" statements to debug code. "That's so old-fashioned: haven't you ever heard of a debugger?"

Debuggers can be fine things. And if you're going to be working with a language a lot, pays take time to learn its debugger.

But the other day I was asked to debug some Perl code for someone. This group had been stuck, for a couple of months, not being able to process some important data because they couldn't figure out how to get this program to handle it.

I haven't worked with Perl for a dozen years. I think that I recall it has a debugger, but I have no memory of how to invoke it, let alone what its commands are. But I looked the code over and inserted a print statement.

Hmm, that's not the problem. Insert a second print.

Nope, not that either. Insert third print.

Bingo! An entry had to be made in a secondary file before the code would process the new data.

It took me less time to find the problem than it would have taken me to figure out how to bring up the Perl debugger and set a breakpoint.

Sometimes, grandpa's way is the best way.

Corey Abel and Leslie Marsh Contra Economism

"But the non-instrumental enjoyment of another’s company is the rejection of the entire worldview of economic trade-offs, and is not reducible to it. An economist can understand the activity of friendship in economic terms, but in doing so, he has stripped it of the meaning friendship has for friends. It is like understanding sex as a form of exercise, or marriage as a contract for sex. To understand humans as self-interpreting beings, one has to understand their self understanding, what activities and relationships mean to them." (In Nell, Guinevere Liberty. 2014. Austrian Economic Perspectives on Individualism and Society: Moving beyond Methodological Individualism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan: 131)

The Incoherence of "Non-Judgmentalism"

Here is famed software developer Eric Raymond telling Mozilla not to let the door hit it on the way out to oblivion. Why?

The company "betrayed one of the core covenants of open source." Which was? "One of the central values of the hacker culture from which Mozilla sprang is that you are to be judged by the quality of your work alone."

Which is, of course, exactly what Raymond is not doing in reference to Mozilla! He is judging them because they forced Brendan Eich to resign. But that is very much not their quality of their work (which is mostly Firefox): it was a political decision they made.

Now, I happen to agree with Raymond that Mozilla should have showed a little more spine! But despite my agreement, I am forced to note that is argument is self-undermining: you cannot use a universal ban on "judgmentalism" to judge those who violate it! It simply makes no sense.

Lamarck was right!

Or, at least, not so wrong.* It seems offspring can indeed inherit acquired traits: for instance, male mice were taught to associate the smell of orange blossoms with an electric shock. Their sperm was then used to fertilize in vitro, and it was found that even their grandchildren were startled upon smelling orange blossoms. And there are many, many other cases were it has been shown that this type of inheritance is real.

Which is why I get a kick out of people who learned their biology decades ago, and sternly lecture people on the Internet as to how acquired traits cannot be inherited.

* There is some debate about whether this sort of inheritance is really "Lamarckian."

Libertarians in La-La Land


"'Smart property,' for example, refers to physical property whose ownership is registered in the blockchain and thus controlled by whoever has the private key. In other words, property rights can be cryptographically defined and self-enforced by code. The owner can sell it simply by transferring the private key to another party."

Sure Ronald! When some men with guns show up to take my land, I can show them my "cryptographically defined" property rights, and they will say, "Ooooohhhh! We didn't know you had a private key showing you own this land! Well, we'll just scurry off then."

Imagine if Native Americans had only had "cryptographically defined" property rights: the Europeans would have just sailed on back home, wouldn't they?

UPDATE: In the comments, rob has made me wonder if Bailey only meant "self-enforcing" in reference to things like a computer or automobile, that could be rendered inoperative for anyone who lacks the right cryptographic key. If so, then I take back the above: a computer that one can't run is only useful as a paperweight, and so the cryptography could be self-enforcing in that case.

Is the "Just Price" an Antiquated Notion?

Livio Di Matteo has a nice discussion of the history of supply-and-demand analysis here. Along the way, the idea of a "just price" arises, and is regarded, both by Di Matteo and commenter Bob Murphy (probably no relation to the Murphy we know and love) as an antiquated idea, incompatible with modern price theory.

But perhaps just price theories are not incompatible with supply-and-demand analysis. My reading of Aristotle (from whom Aquinas would have drawn his basic notions) suggests to me that what he was looking at (without having the terms, of course!) was producer and consumer surplus, and the "equality" that had to hold was between these surpluses, so that if I would buy at any price under $2, and Murphy would sell at any price above $1, the just price should be around $1.50. "Unjust" prices would come about when one of us has far greater bargaining power, and "forces" the price to $1.01 or $1.99.

To consider this in more concrete terms, the idea would be that while it is OK to profit from market contingencies (as Aquinas seems to indicate in Di Matteo's extensive quote), it is not OK to force every last penny out of someone in dire straights. Imagine I happen to have a stockpile of bottled water when a natural disaster hits my area, and I would normally have been willing to let bottles go at $3 each. With the disaster at hand, my neighbors are now willing to pay $9 per bottle. Re-interpreting Aristotle's idea that trades ought to take place at points of "equality" to mean not that I should value the good I trade exactly as much as the good I receive, a notion Carl Menger showed was nonsensical, but that both my neighbors and I should gain equally from our trades, I sell them water at $6 per bottle.

There is a general principle at work here: if you think Aristotle was saying something nonsensical, search for a different interpretation of what he meant. This is, after all, the principle that led Thomas Kuhn to write The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, so it has borne fruit in the past!

And finally, if we interpret the notion of a just price in this fashion, we can make perfect sense of this column from Paul Krugman: there is a bargaining range in which Walmart can profitably employ its workers, and the company has (justly) decided to share more of its consumer (of labor) surplus with the producers (its workers).

Platonic solids? (She says he's just a friend)

Have you ever met a shape that you tried to measure
But a year to find its sides don't give you no pleasure
Let me tell ya a story of my situation
I was talkin' to this shape from the Platonic nation
The way that I met her: rubber-sheet geometry
She had long sides and loved topology
I bounded onstage drippin' like a closed set
I was walkin' long a plane and guess who I met
I whispered in her ear, "A shape like you I wanna see her
So I ask a question, are ya isotopic to a sphere?"
I asked her her name, she said x-y-z
She had 9/10 edges and great homotopy
I made a couple of transforms and she was enthused
I said, "How you like the show?" she said, "I was very amused"
I started throwin' wind, she started throwin' back fire
But when I sprung the question, she was locally finite
I asked, "Do ya have a mirror image?" she tried to pretend
She said, "No I don't, I only have a friend"
Come on, I'm not even goin' for it
This is what I'm goin' sing

You got what I need
But you say tetrahedron's a friend
Yeah you say he's just a friend
You got what I need
But you say icosahedron's a friend
Yeah you say he's just a friend

Sunlight-stealing aliens invade the Solar System!

Apparently my point in this post was misapprehended. Although I wrote this: "My comments here are from the perspective of the philosophy and history of science, two subjects which I have studied a fair bit. I have absolutely nothing to say about global warming models or these predictions of a new little ice age...," commenters immediately began talking about "forcing factors" in climate models and so forth. Maybe the AGW advocates have underplayed the significance of the sun in their models: I don't know. But if they have, that still would not mean that they were wrong that humans have been creating warming, just that they were wrong about its significance compared to solar activity.

I was making a broader point about testing scientific theories: simply because the predictions of a theory do not pan out does not mean the theory is wrong! Let me create a fantasy scenario to illustrate what I was trying to get across:

Let us imagine that by some miracle mainstream climate scientists have their models exactly right. Every bad consequence of burning fossil fuels that they worry about is coming to pass. And then...

Tomorrow, a very advanced (but energy starved) race of aliens arrives inside Earth's orbit. They set up enormous solar panels in space to generate the energy their civilization needs, panels so enormous that they deprive the earth of 25% of its solar energy. A new ice age commences.

I bet at that point someone would come on Fox News and claim, "See! Those scare-mongers involved in the 'global warming' hoax were completely wrong!"

That person would be talking nonsense. And that was my only point in the earlier post.

What Is a Model?

Some thoughts:

1) Models are constructed.
2) They are made of distinct parts. (E.g., "a supply curve, a demand curve, an x-axis, a y-axis," or "red lines for highways, black lines for local roads, dashed lines for dirt roads.")
3) The parts are made to fit together. (The supply curve is measured in the same units as the demand curve, and crosses it somewhere. The roads are laid out on the same grid, using the same scale.)
4) We can adjust those parts, either purely mentally, or with our hands (as with an architectural model), or a pencil and eraser (a mechanical drawing), a computer (a weather model), and so on. (In using a map, we actually adjust a "part" we will in: where we are. Sometimes, this part is represented by our finger, as we trace a route, or the mark of a highlighter.)
5) Adjusting the parts produces an "answer" of some sort from the model: "Oh-oh, if we move that wall there, the stairs won't fit," or "If the supply curve shifts that far right, the new price will be $4.50."
6) The modeler hopes that the answer produced by the model says something about what will happen when changes occur in (or are deliberately made to) the  thing being modeled.

What Is Most Important About the Sacred Parent-Child Relationship... Rothbard Edition

Here: "In the first place, the overriding fact of parent–child relations is that the child lives on the property of his parents."

There you have it folks: the "overriding fact" of the parent-child bond is that the child is sort of a free-loading tenant of the parent.

Sociology implies Bob Murphy is an atheist

A sociological study finds that the majority of libertarians are atheists. (I think this might be true, but let us just suppose it is.)

Now I turn my attention to Bob Murphy, and discover that he is a libertarian. I write, "Sociology implies that Bob Murphy is an atheist, but I have discovered that he is a theist!"

I present this as a refutation of sociology.

From the comments he has posted recently, apparently Bob thinks that this is a valid form of reasoning. And not only is it valid, I am 100%, unequivocally wrong when I object to it.


Is a Little Ice Age Upon Us?

Some scientists seem to think so.


1) The headline to the article linked above is sensationalist. The truth (as I gather from the body of the article) is that some scientists at or associated with NASA think we may be entering a little ice age. That is interesting, but not what the headline says.

2) If it is true, it does not mean that global warming theories have been wrong, or a "hoax," as some people absurdly have contended. What it means is, that like all scientific theories, these theories can only account for a certain range of phenomena, and when something outside the scope of the theory enters the picture... well, the theory doesn't account for that.

An example:

The government of Ruritania gives each citizen in its capital of Ruropolis the equivalent of a million dollars of the local currency, which it has just printed. An economist predicts, "Ruritania is about to see some wicked inflation."

The very next day, Ruritania's enemy, Freedonia, drops a nuclear bomb on Ruropolis, wiping out all of its citizens, along with their newly issued fiat money. No inflation ensues in Ruritania.

That does not mean the economist was wrong! We teach our students that our economic models apply ceteris paribus, but in this case, the ceteris were extremely not paribus. Economists do not include the possibility of nuclear attacks in their models, and rightly so: the usefulness of models derives from the fact that they simplify the world for us, and allow us to understand a very complex world through the lens of a much simpler model. But we must never forget the simplification involved: any model will only be applicable when the factors it ignores in its simplification have a negligible effect on some real situation. When one of those ignored factors becomes important, the model may be completely useless.

And it is not only economic theories that are only true ceteris paribus: all scientific theories are like this. E.g.: I drop a rock off of a cliff. A physicist says, "The rock will fall to the ground below with an impact derived from its mass and the equation for falling bodies, modified by the factor of air resistance."

But just after I let the rock go, someone hang-gliding snatches it from the air and carries it off with them. That does not prove the physicist wrong! His theory only holds ceteris paribus, and it did not include hang-gliding rock collectors in its equations.

The application to global warming theories should be obvious: these theories have attempted to model the effects of human activities on the global climate. The models involved may have been very accurate (I don't know: I am no climate scientist!), but they did not include a sudden decrease in the energy the sun is sending earthward in the model. And that is no black mark on the models!

3) If it turns out to be true that we are entering a new little ice age, the irony level will be remarkable: the global warming models may turn out to have been extremely accurate, but the worries unfounded, since the warming we have been creating actually may wind up acting to ameliorate the (apparently) devastating effects of the cooling that some scientists are now predicting.

4) My comments here are from the perspective of the philosophy and history of science, two subjects which I have studied a fair bit. I have absolutely nothing to say about global warming models or these predictions of a new little ice age, since I have studied climatology and solar astronomy not at all!

Innately despicable, evil beings

I saw a claim today that I've seen before: basically, that the only thing stopping normal people from doing very bad things is the consequences. See the comment from Stewart Smith here where he says, 

Ask your friend what they would do if they had one day to live and could do anything they wanted. See if they don't try and break one law with their last day on earth. I personally have asked this same question to otherwise perfectly upstanding citizens. These 'upstanding individuals' claimed they would literally rape some poor person because there were no consequences, or at the least steal loads of money to fulfil some other harebrained adrenaline rush. My point is that the only thing keeping us humans from committing evil acts is consequence, meaning we as humans are innately despicable, evil beings.

It seems to me that this can be disproven empirically. There are lots of people, right now, who are not bedridden, but know that they are experiencing their last days on earth due to a terminal diagnosis such as cancer. A quick Google search shows multiple heartwarming (and heartrending) stories. People are skydiving, getting married, going hiking, spending time with their children, and in general not being particularly evil. Can someone find some examples of the terminally ill going on rape and robbery sprees?

Andy Denis on Hayek and MI

“In his work on the evolution of social orders, Hayek thus abandons the individualist methodology he had proposed in his wartime writings, thereby rectifying the inconsistency that that precept implied for the system of his thought." (From Nell, Guinevere Liberty. 2014. Austrian Economic Perspectives on Individualism and Society: Moving beyond Methodological Individualism, p. 18)

Is there any point to these simulations?

Here is John Hollinger's description of how he gets his NBA playoff predictions:

"As always, the output of a product is only as good as its input, so let's explain a little about how this is derived. The computer starts with the day's Hollinger Power Rankings. Then, in each of the 5,000 times it replays the season, it makes a random adjustment up or down to allow for the possibility that a team will play better or worse than it has done thus far."

I've been trying to think this through: why run simulations at all? The power rankings must establish some relationship between teams, such that, say, when a 94.5 plays an 86.7 it will likely win by three points, or something like that. Now you can produce some random wiggles and determine what the likelihood 94.5 will win is. Then use similarly derived likelihoods for all remaining games to get all of the teams' final records.

In other words, my first impression here is that the run of 5000 simulations is just reproducing the data from the power rankings in its outcomes, so why not move straight from power rankings to outcomes?

Or look at it another way: if I know I have a fair "coin" (which is perhaps a computer algorithm proven to produce heads and tails with equal probability), I don't need to run 5000 "simulations" to "see" what the likely outcome of repeatedly tossing it will be: it will be 50-50. Of course, if I do run the program 5000 times, the "answer" I get is likely to be pretty accurate, but that is because I had a fair coin to begin with. The runs have not told me anything new, and if they produce 47% heads and 53% tails, that does not mean that 47-53 is really the likely long-run outcome.

Does anyone have any idea as to why one would run simulations in a case like Hollinger's?

I've Got a Sinking Feeling About This

Mike Munger brings to our attention a paper that purports to "measure" whether sunk costs matter. In the abstract, the authors claim:

"Behavioral economics implies that teams favor players chosen in the lottery and first round of the draft because of the greater financial and psychic commitment to them. Neoclassical economics implies that only current performance matters."

Now, I am not an expert on the literature on sunk costs, but I have taught the topic, and thought about it some. The mainstream view appears to me to fluctuate between:

1) a priori, only future costs can be considered, a proposition which can be made true by defining future costs appropriately; or
2) people do worry about sunk costs, but they really ought to stop doing so.

If we adopt viewpoint one, then "empirical" studies are irrelevant: the proposition is true a priori.

If we adopt viewpoint two, all this study would tell us is that NBA management has gotten this message. It certainly would not decide any question dividing behavioral and neoclassical economics. (And it is kind of weird to say that behavioral economics "implies" that people pay attention to sunk costs: it is an empirical discipline! Perhaps it finds that they do so, but it certainly doesn't assume this.)

Chronological Snobbery

I was sitting at my local near someone who is, in fact, a college professor. He happened to bring up how ancient literature is filled with barbaric practices such as crucifixion and stoning, and how "We've advanced past that" today.

"Boy, we sure have!" I thought. Today, we don't mess around taking hours to kill three people by hanging them on crosses! No, we wipe out 100,000 or more with a couple of button pushes, or tens of thousands in a single night, or use efficient, high-tech means to kill 6 million over the course of a few years.

We certainly have "advanced past" those primitive times when books like the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita were being written: today, we can kill thousands using science in the time it took the ancients to kill dozens! Thank God we are not as primitive as they were.

Neeley Talks Sense on Sand