Sunday, January 31, 2016

I am a fan of actual evolutionary *thinking*



Just to be clear, when I write a post like this one, I am in no way disparaging actual attempts to think about the impact our biological history has had on our present-day state. For instance, Thorstein Veblen speculated that perhaps we find the grounds of an English nanor house, with its scattered trees set in huge swathes of grass, so appealing because it evokes our past as a savanna ape. Now, that was sheer speculation on his part, and a lot of work would need to be done to confirm his guess, but it is at least a serious hypothesis that could be confirmed or not.

Unlike, say, invoking "poor monkey brains" whenever someone has trouble sorting out a sentence.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Our poor monkey brains


Once again, someone at Language Log pulls out the above phrase to explain some logic problem that people have a hard time solving.

I draw your attention to it because it is an important phenomena, a sign that one is in the presence of the ideology of evolutionism*: not a mere belief that Darwin and his successors have a pretty darned good theory in hand (a proposition with which I heartily concur), but the belief that the theory is a talisman, a guide to explaining all of human experience.

Because really, what does invoking "monkey brains" have to do with explaining why humans have a hard time with multiple negations? Do rhesus monkeys and howlers have a similarly hard time, while turtles and sloths handle multiple negations quite nicely? Of course not: the more significant empirical fact** here is that not one of these animals even has the notion of a negation, and that that is pretty darned good evidence that we humans possess something somewhat different than the average monkey brain, whatever that something might be.

So, given the invocation explains absolutely nothing, why do Language Log writers repeatedly use it? It is a signaling mechanism: "Look at me: I am an evolutionist too!"

* Similarly, someone can value traditions without subscribing to traditionalism, which is respect for tradition turned into an ideology.

** I emphasis the empirical fact of the matter because evolutionists like to pretend that they are hard-nosed respecters of the empirical data, when they are, in fact, nothing of the sort, at least when it comes to their ideology.

My home page

After years of not having one, I have once again created a personal web site.

Please have a look, and let me know what you think.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How "White Privilege" Helps Explain the Polls


How is it possible that Donald Trump has surged to his largest lead yet in national GOP polls, just a week before real voting starts? His campaign was supposed to be a joke, and his early decent poll numbers an aberration that would disappear once voters "got serious."

Here, I think, is a good chunk of the explanation: When our elites keep telling single mothers living in a trailer with their unemployed, meth-addicted sons, and working at Walmart for $10 per hour, or guys whose father had a high-paying factory job for 45 years but who were laid off from a similar job four years ago and have found no work since, that they are beneficiaries of "white privilege"... well, what you get is Donald Trump.

When I mention such examples to someone who uses the phrase "white privilege," at least someone intelligent who uses it, e.g., Daniel Kuehn, the response I typically get is, "Of course, 'whiteness' is only one aspect of privilege, and there are many others." And it is true, there are times and circumstances in which it is an advantage to be "white." (I use quotes because making "white" a monolithic category is itself a political choice: I grew up thinking I was "American" and "Irish," and that "Italian" and "Jewish" and "black" and "white protestant" were all similar categories to "Irish." And by the way, growing up in an "ethnic" manufacturing town slowly transitioning to a commuter suburb, by far the most foreign of these to me was "white Protestant.")

But if the only form of privilege ever talked about is "white," and no one ever mentions, say, Obama's "Ivy-League privilege," or Vernon Jordan's "at-the-top-of-the-corporate-hierarchy privilege," the "just-one-of-many-forms-of-privilege" qualification starts to seem a little like, "Aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" In fact, it starts to seem like a way a bunch of people very much privileged, like tenured professors and wealthy attorneys and corporate managers, of all races, can try to keep the "white" working class from getting too angry about all of the jobs they once had being shipped overseas.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Importance is not made of atoms


One of David Wootton's contentions in The Invention of Science is that the Scientific Revolution is the most important even in human history since the Neolithic Revolution. So it is, per Wootton, more important than, for instance, the Axial Age, the discovery of monotheism, or the rise of Christianity.

I suspect that if Wootton were challenged on this thesis, he would point to the material transformation of the human world occurring in the wake of the Scientific Revolution. But why should that be decisive? "Importance" is itself not a material concept, and thus Wootton certainly cannot indicate material reasons for giving material transformations priority over spiritual ones.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Science going to the dogs


These guys are barking up the wrong tree:

'Some researchers question whether dogs experience feelings like love and loyalty, or whether their winning ways are just a matter of instincts that evolved because being a hanger-on is an easier way to make a living than running down elk.'

I question whether these researchers really have 'questions' and 'findings,' or if they have just evolved to act as if they because being a hanger-on around grant-writing agencies is easier than working for a living.

'Raymond Coppinger, a professor emeritus of biology at Hampshire College, noted in his landmark 2001 book, “Dogs,” that “best friend” is not an “ecological definition.” And he suggested that “the domestic house dog may have evolved into a parasite.”'

You know what else is not an "ecological definition," Raymond? Professor emeritus. And I suggest that some intellectuals have evolved into parasites.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The concrete universal unfolding in time


Hegel partially solved the problem of the relationship of the forms and their particulars with the idea of the "concrete universal." As Collingwood expressed this, the universal is only the universal of its particulars.

But even with this, we are only two-thirds of the way there. The concrete universal as a static entity is a dead thing. Its full meaning can only be realized by witnessing it unfold in time.

And now we have arrived, again, at the Trinity (or the Trikaya): the Father (Dharmakaya) is the universal, the Son (Sambhogakāya) the concrete, and the Holy Spirit (Nirmāṇakāya), proceeding from the Father and the Son, unfolds the concrete universal in time.

And this is why, contra Strauss, their is no opposition between Reason and Revelation. Revelation shows us truths that naked reason would never discern, but which, once revealed, are correctly understood as supra-rational, rather than irrational.

Rod McKuen unable to answer one of the great puzzles of my life


Here. (Search for my name on the page.)

Friday, January 22, 2016

The three-legged debugging stool

There are three tools I have frequently used to help me debug programs: logging, symbolic debugging, and print statements.

Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. The advantage of logging is that it is always there. When something goes wrong in your program, It should already have been writing out a log file. If you have chosen what to log with some care, occasionally simply looking at the log file will be enough to determine what went wrong.

Symbolic debugging it's great because you can walk through your the program line by line, and examine anything in scope at the point in the code.

What, then, would be the use of print statements? Let me give an example: I had a bug that occurred somewhere around the 80th iteration of a model, and would become worse over the next 40 or so iterations. I knew exactly which variables were involved in what was going on. Rather than set a breakpoint in the offending code, and then repeatedly examine the same four or five values while stopping at the breakpoint dozens of times, it was much simpler to just put a print statement in the problem lines and let the program go. Then I could just scroll through the output and watch the variables change.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Judging Butterfield


In The Invention of Science, David Wootton takes a whack at strawman Herbert Butterfield, as follows:

"In 1931 he had published The Whig Interpretation of History... Butterfield argued... it was not the historian's job to praise those people in the past whose values and opinions they agreed with and criticize those with whom they disagreed; only God had the right to sit in judgment" (p. 21)

"It should be obvious that he was not right about this: no one, I trust, would want to read an account of slavery written by someone incapable of passing judgment" (p. 21n).

This is a silly caricature of what Butterfield thought. Consider the following quotes from The Whig Interpretation of History:

"There can be no complaint against the historian who personally and privately has his preferences and antipathies..."

"If he deals in moral judgements at all he is trying to take upon himself a new dimension, and he is leaving that realm of historical explanation..."

So Butterfield quite explicitly says that, far from being "incapable of passing judgment," it is fine for historians to pass judgments as human beings. Butterfield personally is just as capable of disliking slavery as Wootton. Butterfield's point is that the historian's job is to determine what happened in the past, and condemning or praising various participants in historical events is no part of that job. This is not essentially different from arguing that, as a doctor, it is not the doctor's job to pass judgment on the sick who appear before him, but to cure them. Once Stalin or Gandhi is cured, the doctor is free to disparage the first and praise the latter. One may agree or disagree with this idea, but it is far from the nonsense Wootton puts in Butterfield's mouth.

And I have looked up every reference to "God" in Butterfield's book, and he simply does not say anything like "only God had the right to sit in judgment." What he does say is that historians have a tendency to mistake their personal judgements (with which, as we have seen, Butterfield had no problem) with "the judgements of history," and then to conflate history with God. If we want to sum up what Butterfield meant here accurately, we might say that, while everyone has the right to his or her own judgements, only God has the right to ultimate and infallible judgement, and practicing the craft of history does not make one God.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Arthur Melzer, Historicist?


Melzer, like his forebear Leo Strauss, certainly does not like "historicism." The trouble with with both men's complaints about the topic is that they appear to heave in a bin a gallimaufry of thinkers ranging from people who simply take history and culture seriously to the most postmodern of relativists. Does Edmund Burke really belong in a bucket with Michel Foucault? Husserl with Derrida? Was Michael Oakeshott's attack on "rationalism" really an esoteric attempt to make philosophy subservient to practice, an idea that on the surface Oakeshott emphatically rejected?

But ironically, Melzer at points in his text lays himself open to the charge of "historicism," to regard ideas as a "manifestation of their times." For instance, he writes, "Specifically, we have a systematic tendency to misunderstand -- or rather, to dismiss and forget -- that conflict [between philosophy and politics] because the whole form of state in which we live was invented precisely in order to obscure or eliminate it" (p. 173). Given the broadness of the brush with which he colors thinkers as "historicist," won't it coat him here as well?

A conversation about race

I've tried to have one with progressives: they were just kidding. And Scott Sumner points that out.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The true revolution


"The socialists of our own day have clearly perceived that the revolution at the end of the eighteenth century led merely to the bourgeoisie’s taking the place of the old elite. They exaggerate a good deal the burden of oppression imposed by the new masters, but they do sincerely believe that a new elite of politicians will stand by their promises better than those which have come and gone up to the present day. All revolutionaries proclaim, in turn, that previous revolutions have ultimately ended up by deceiving the people; it is their revolution alone which is the true revolution. 'All previous historical movements' declared the Communist Manifesto of 1848, 'were movements of minorities or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.' Unfortunately this true revolution, which is to bring men an unmixed happiness, is only a deceptive mirage that never becomes a reality. It is akin to the golden age of the millenarians: forever awaited, it is forever lost in the mists of the future, forever eluding its devotees just when they think they have it." -- Vifredo Pareto, The Socialist System

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Progress versus reality


"For if the world is originally well ordered, then God is needed to explain that order. And if it is incurably disordered, then God is needed to save us from that disorder. Only if life is originally bad but fixable through human effort is it the case that God is neither a necessary hypothesis nor a fundamental need. That is why this specific humanistic posture seems to be the product, not so much of some new discovery about the world, as of a need, a demand, an imperative. The humanistic credo that life has no fundamental problems that we cannot cure has the character less of a calm, settled belief than a mixture of hope and insistence." -- Arthur Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines, p. 103

Aaron Rodgers embraces the gambler's fallacy

Here.

And Mike McCarthy coached to avoid losing as long as possible, not to win.

Jesus Christ, Esotericist?


One figure Melzer cites to show the prevalence of esotericism is Jesus himself. And he quotes some New Testament passages that seem to back him pretty strongly, e.g.:

"To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given... That is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand." (Matt. 13:10-12)

Or:

"To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of god, but for those outside everything is in parables." (Mark 4:11)

Melzer's take on "historicism"


“From Burke to Foucault, [the counter-Enlightenment] emphasizes and heightens the conflict between reason and society, although now putting primary blame on the former instead of the latter. It attacks rationalism for such varied social evils as political doctrinairism and utopianism, the uprooting of tradition and inheritance, violent revolution, intolerance, persecution, colonialism, and totalitarianism. But, again, it engages in this political critique of reason, heightening the conflict between rationalism and society that this conflict is somehow an aberration, mistake, another problem to be solved. Harmony is possible.” – Philosophy Between the Lines, pp. 86-87

I cannot pretend to have read every single "counter-Enlightenment" thinker; for instance, I have barely glanced at Foucault. But this does not strike me as a sound critique of the ones with whom I am familiar. It is very contentious to cite these thinkers for "heightening" the conflict between "reason and society": First of all, many of them, such as Oakeshott, view rationalism as eminently unreasonable. For them, what exists is not a conflict between "reason and society," but between the irrational creed of rationalism and society. And if they are correct, a position that Melzer himself could at places be read to take, then it is nonsense to claim they are "heightening" this conflict: they are trying to dissipate it.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

A top search string for this week

For finding this blog was: "can u sexually harass Siri".

My memory fails me these days: is this something I discussed at one point?

Friday, January 15, 2016

Hating Cancer

Over the past year or two, when someone famous passes away from cancer, I inevitably see people posting on social media sentiments like, "I hate cancer."

I find this strange: It strikes me as a statement of a new declaration of faith, one in which "cancer" plays a role like "Satan" did in an earlier one. It is one thing to mourn for David Bowie or Alan Rickman, but expressing one's "hate" for cancer is not doing anything for them, their families, future victims, etc. It is not as though cancer is feeling one's hatred and considering it might "back down" if people really are so angry at it. Nor are there any "pro-cancer" factions out there that one can taunt or disenhearten with one's hatred of the disease.


If losing people to cancer upsets you a lot, become a cancer researcher, or give money to cancer research. Empty signaling of being firmly on the "anti-cancer" side is actually kind of disrespectful to the people who have died because of it, as if they are just a vehicle for expressing one's own virtuousness in hating the correct things.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Territorial Weirdness Circa 1700


Oddly enough, to our modern sensibilities, the Holy Roman Empire encompassed parts of Prussia, Denmark, Austria-Hungary, and France, while leaving other parts of each country outside the empire.

Silliest article of the new year

The winner so far! The author writes things like:

"Consciousness doesn’t happen. It’s a mistaken construct. The computer concludes that it has qualia because that serves as a useful, if simplified, self-model."

So, you don't actually see these very letters appearing on this very screen in front of you! Your brain just contains a "model" that "concludes" that you see them!

There, that should clear everything right up.

Philosophy Between the Chapters


Having made it to chapter three of Arthur Melzer's Philosophy Between the Lines, I find that the book has taken a surprising turn for the better. I say surprising, because after the weaker material in chapters one and two I did not expect to like chapter three as much as I do.

The problem I see with chapters one and two is that I think Melzer overstates his case. For his main argument, which I feel is found in chapter three, to go through, all that he needed to claim was that there are frequent and important instances of esotericism classical and Medeival thought. And that claim he can back. Instead, he claims that it "was a nearly universal practice among Western philosophers prior to the late modern era" (p. 69), a claim that is well beyond the evidence he presents. And trying to back it leads him to stretch the term "esoteric" beyond its useful limits.

And it is particularly unfortunate that Melzer leads with this weaker material, since chapter three is so strong. Its central claim concerns the difference between classical rationalism and Enlightenment rationalism: "this new enlightenment rationalism goes decisively beyond Plato and classical rationalism by claiming that theory can not only free itself from praxis but ultimately return to, rule, and rectify praxis" (p. 81).

Monday, January 11, 2016

Chesterton on progressives


"After belabouring a great many people for a great many years for being unprogressive, Mr. Shaw has discovered, with characteristic sense, that it is very doubtful whether any existing human being with two legs can be progressive at all. Having come to doubt whether humanity can be combined with progress, most people, easily pleased, would have elected to abandon progress and remain with humanity. Mr. Shaw, not being easily pleased, decides to throw over humanity with all its limitations and go in for progress for its own sake. If man, as we know him, is incapable of the philosophy of progress, Mr. Shaw asks, not for a new kind of philosophy, but for a new kind of man. It is rather as if a nurse had tried a rather bitter food for some years on a baby, and on discovering that it was not suitable, should not throw away the food and ask for a new food, but throw the baby out of window, and ask for a new baby." -- Heretics

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Reliable knowledge



"They served as a passage between Montaigne's world, a world of belief and misplaced conviction, and our world, the world of reliable and effective knowledge." -- David Wootton, The Invention of Science, p. 565

This is an astounding contention: before science, human beings had no "reliable knowledge"! Our ancestors weren't sure whether planting seeds or stones would grow wheat. When they went to hunt deer, they didn't know if they should put arrowheads or fur on the end of their arrows. If they were thirsty, they were uncertain if they should ingest water or sand. When freezing, sometimes they put on furs, but other times they laid down naked in the snow: who knew which would work?

In our world of "reliable knowledge," how is it that a man as smart as Wootton can believe such rubbish?

He does provide examples of extremely fanciful beliefs our forebears held, for example, that garlic negates the power of magnets. But, as Wootton himself notes, before the compass, magnets were rarely encountered and of no practical import. To place this in perspective, for people before 1400 or so, magnets were like conservatives are to Park Slope progressives today: they have heard rumors that such things exist, but they never have and never expect to encounter them. Thus, if you go to a wine party in Park Slope and inform the guests that conservatives teach their children to shoot by age four, so that they can pick off women entering abortion clinics, your audience will nod in appreciation of your exotic knowledge.

Can whole cultures be "esoteric"?

"We in the West are accustomed to a plain and direct mode of speech, which we think of as normal... But outside the modern West, people incline to a kind of esotericism of everyday life... Whatever the reasons for it... that is the plain, empirical fact." -- Arthur M. Melzer, Philosophy Between the Lines, p. 51

This is the sort of equivocation which is all to common in Melzer. "Esoteric," in its common definition, means "intended for or understood by only a chosen few, as an inner group of disciples or initiates" (here.) It is bizarre to apply the term to a practice of indirect communication shared by an entire culture. What would be much more accurate would be to say that these cultures have an exoteric tradition of indirect communication. It is a "plain, empirical fact" that many cultures employ indirect communication styles: it is a very contentious hypothesis to say that such communication is "esoteric."

Liberalism, The Life of an Idea

My review is online here.

The bizarre notion that finding pagan themes in Christianity discredits Christianity


We see this often: "Well, the Egyptians already had the idea of a dying and resurrected God way before the Christians did!"

But Father Dwight Longenecker, discussing Tom Bombadil, quotes C. S. Lewis debunking this silly idea:
Pagan wisdom is a foreshadowing of the Christian gospel. 'If paganism could be shown to have something in common with Christianity, "so much the better for paganism," not "so much the worse for Christianity."'
Read his whole essay, which is quite good.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

The New Alchemy

Today, many people have trouble believing the intelligent, scientific people like Newton and Boyle were deeply involved in alchemy.

When people in a couple of hundred years look back on our time, it will be Artificial Intelligence that will play that role: "Can you believe that smart people thought that by re-arranging wires, they could make a machine intelligent?!"

René Descartes, Liar



I knew that Descartes' claim to have thought up everything in his philosophy from scratch was false: scholars have found many elements of it in his own schoolbooks. But I had thought he was simply deceiving himself. However, based on the following, it now seems to me more likely that he was consciously promoting what he knew to be a lie:

For two months Beeckman and Descartes work closely together, and when Beeckman left Breda they kept up a correspondence... Beeckman was assured by Descartes that... "If by accident I propose something which is not contemptible, you have every right to claim it for yourself."

Years later, in 1630, Beeckman did just that. In a letter to Descartes's friend Mersenne he mentioned that some of Descartes' ideas on music had come from him. Descartes was absolutely furious and denied any influence, but when Mersenne visited Beeckman and read his journal he discovered that, indeed, many of Descartes' ideas had first been formulated by Beeckman. Descartes exploded again, telling Beeckman he had learnt as much from him as he had learnt from ants and worms... Descartes explains to Beeckman that he is mentally ill and delusional... The truth of his intellectual dependence on Beekman was utterly intolerable to him.

-- David Wootton, The Invention of Science, pp. 363-364

Thursday, January 07, 2016

"Discovering" new elements

Four new elements in the periodic table have been "discovered."

But is "discovery" the right word here? Everyone already knew what these elements would be. And they weren't found in Antartica or a meteor or a distant star: they were deliberately created in a lab. It seems to me that "made" would be a more accurate description of what happened here.

Cis-Men: Don't Wear Feminine Clothing! It's Transphobic!

The revolution always eats its own children.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The Limits of the Market


"As we have said before, the market economy is not everything. It must find its place in a higher order of things which is not ruled by supply and demand, free prices, and competition. It must be firmly contained within an all-embracing order of society in which the imperfections and harshness of economic freedom are corrected by law and in which man is not denied conditions of life appropriate to his nature. Man can wholly fulfill his nature only by freely becoming part of a community and having a sense of solidarity with it. Otherwise he leads a miserable existence and he knows it." -- Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy, p. 91

Monday, January 04, 2016

Rapidly having an opinion about everything is a vice, not a virtue!

Alan Jacobs has a nice post on why that is so.

Markets in some things


"To the economist, the market economy, as seen from the restricted viewpoint of his own discipline, appears to be no more than one particular type of economic order, a kind of 'economic technique' opposed to the socialist one... We move in a world of prices, markets, competition, wage rates, rates of interest, exchange rates, and other economic magnitudes. All of this is perfectly legitimate and fruitful as long as we keep in mind that we have narrowed our angle of vision and do not forget that the market economy is t he economic order proper to a definite social structure and to a definite spiritual and moral setting. If we were to neglect the market economy's characteristic of being merely a part of a spiritual and social total order, we would become guilty of an aberration which may be described as social rationalism." -- Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy, p. 93

Lead us not into temptation


Let's say I have two friends, call them Bab and Jesiah. One day I contact Bab, and I say, "That guy Jesiah, he's taunting us on Twitter all the time. Here's what I suggest: I have hold of this new virus that can wipe things off the Internet. Remember [this is all just made up for this example, mind you] that terrible public bet you made a few years back? I can wipe out all evidence of that... if you take out Jesiah when he visits you next month."

Now, in the kind of simplistic view found here, "without a doubt this [offer] is making its participants better off!" After all, I wouldn't have made the offer if I didn't prefer to make it. And Bab can turn the offer down, and be in the same situation he was in before I made it, or take the offer... in which case he must think it makes him better off.

But the fact is that my offer is evil, and makes me worse off just by having made it, whether or not I "prefer" to do so. And while Bab can turn the offer down, by my putting temptation before him, he may be worse off merely having heard it: even to begin to seriously consider the offer is itself a moral error, and so he might have been better off had I never tempted him. That is why the Lord's Prayer contains the line "and lead us not into temptation," and not, "only present us with situations that in my model offer Pareto improvements."

And it is confusing a model with reality that is at the root of Hall's error in the post I link to above: there is nothing wrong with creating a model in which some new offer makes the person receiving it "without a doubt" better off. But it is a terrible mistake to equate that model with reality.

In the real world, sudden, unearned windfalls often leave the recipient worse off, and terrible events that a person never would have chosen to undergo may leave them better off. Reality, unlike our models of it, is complicated.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Excel success!

My PPF model can now dynamically highlight the optimum revenue point along the chart of a PPF curve:


The "point" here being that little pink dot moves, based simply on typing in new pizza and book prices. Try it for yourself! (Just click on "View Raw," and the spreadsheet will download.)


Friday, January 01, 2016

Things scientists have dismissed



"A good example is provided by meteorites. Eighteenth-century English and French scientists rejected the ample testimony as to the reality of meteorites, as we reject stories of alien abduction. On 13 September 1768 a large meteorite fell... [in] Pays de la Loire. Numerous people (all of them peasants) saw it fall. Three members of the Royal Academy of Sciences (including young Lavoisier) were sent to investigate. They concluded that lightning had struck a lump of sandstone on the ground; the idea of rocks falling from outer space was simply ridiculous." -- David Wootton, The Invention of Science, p. 301

Killing the Spirit

"The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world -- immanent action, the farther...