Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The violinist analogy improved

Judith Jarvis Thompson famously put forward an analogy between abortion and someone who suddenly finds themselves hooked up on life-support to a famous violinist, and told that they cannot disconnect the life-support apparatus linking them to the violinist because it will take the life of the violinist. (The analogy is described in the fourth paragraph of the article I linked to above.)

I think her analogy is seriously flawed, and here I will offer what I believe is a much more accurate one. However, in honor of the loyal reader who recently brought this analogy up, I change the musical instrument.


Srinivasan is a famed and beloved sitar player. He is so good, and so pleasurable to listen to, that many people have paid very large amounts of money to hear him play. But a tragedy has struck: his kidneys are failing. However, medical researchers are on the verge of perfecting artificial kidneys. In fact, they predict with confidence that in nine months, these will be completely viable for transplants.

But Srinivasan does not have nine months. He needs help now, or he will be dead in weeks. So his management team cooks up the following way to save him: He will give a concert for free, open to as many people as will fit in the arena in which the concert is to be given. But there is a condition on this free admission: someone from the audience, based on genetic screening, will be selected to keep Srinivasan alive for the nine months necessary to get him through until the artificial kidneys are ready for transplantation, by being hooked up to him in just the way that Thompson describes.

This condition is so well-publicized that we can say "ignorance is no excuse." Every person who accepts the offer of free admission to the concert ought to know that there is a chance that he or she will be hooked up to Srinivasan in this way, and will be obligated spend nine months supporting his life.

The venue is filled to capacity as the concert begins. Some of the attendees love Srinivasan so much that they would not mind if they were selected as the one to give him life support. Others just find his concerts so pleasurable that they attend despite hoping that the roulette wheel will not pick out their number, given that his concerts are so pleasurable. Some of them even come wearing prophylactic devices, intended to make their kidney functioning look worse than it is.

The concert ends, and I see a number of security guards approaching me. One of them taps me on the shoulder and says, "Gene, you are the one we need." They then sedate me (since the hook-up procedure is painful), and I awake to find myself hooked to Srinivasan, the only thing keeping him alive.

But this was not what I had bargained for: I had thought the roulette wheel would not pick my number, and I could enjoy a free concert at no cost. I invoke my "rights," and complain that I am now being used as a mere means to keep him alive.

Does anyone agree that my complaint is valid?

And to be fair to Thompson, she does make a hand wave at the issue of rape, only to declare that this can't possibly make any moral difference. But that conclusion only follows if one holds that rights are absolute. But I don't: all rights must be balanced against each other. In fact, I am not even a strict abortion prohibitionist in non-rape cases. Simply because I recognize that argument X is invalid does not mean that I accept the completely opposite argument Y as being entirely valid.

"Blaming the Victim"

Bob Murphy puzzles needlessly over two stories. Here is the thing about cries over someone "blaming the victim": There is a sense in which victims can be partially to blame for what happened to them: blame for something bad happening can be shared among several people. This becomes objectionable when it is used to excuse the perpetrator, but there is nothing wrong with advising people to protect themselves.

So: Let I say that I drive into a rough neighborhood and park my car there. I leave my windows down, and a $20,000 diamond bracelet laying in plain view on the dashboard. I then go shopping for a half an hour. When I come back I am shocked to learn that the bracelet is gone.

Is there anything wrong with someone telling me, "Well, Gene, you were being somewhat of an idiot there"? I think not. But this doesn't mean that it was okay for someone to steal the bracelet!

Similarly, there is nothing wrong with advising women to wear protective nail polish, or to obey traffic laws. Sexual predators are part of reality, and while culture certainly must have some influence on their frequency in the population, short of the coming of the Kingdom on earth, they will always be with us, just like thieves and murderers. While we wait for the Kingdom, it is sensible to do what we can to protect ourselves.

Now, as I noted above, this certainly does become objectionable if the person giving this advice starts to excuse a crime if it is not followed. Women are not "asking for it" if they fail to wear date-rape-drug-detecting nail polish, or if they roll through a stop sign. And if someone implies that, it is right to call them out on it.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Idealism is a defense of objective reality

"There are difficulties enough, no doubt, in the way of accepting such a form of 'idealism,' but they need not be aggravated by misunderstanding. It is simply misunderstood if it is taken to imply either the reduction of facts to feelings... or the obliteration of the distinction between illusion and reality...

"On the contrary, its very basis is the consciousness of objectivity. It's whole aim is to articulate coherently the conviction of there being a world of abiding realities other than, and determining, the endless flow of our feelings." -- T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, pp. 41-42

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Cheese-eating surrender monkeys?

This was this sort of smear that the neocons liked to hurl at the French when they refused to go along with the American attack on Iraq in 2003. (I recall Jonah Goldberg using that very phrase.) In retrospect, they might have just instead called them "sensible." I have criticized this nonsense before, but, in listening to some lectures on World War I, I just came across a fact that highlights how ridiculous it is:

Half of French men between the ages of 20 and 32 were killed in that war. And, of course, France never surrendered.

Can you even imagine Americans' response if half of our young men between 20 and 32 had been killed in the Iraq war that started in 2003? Think about this carefully before you insult the French for their "cowardice."

As someone who was a software engineer for 18 years…

I always find it shocking to see someone who has been in the trade declaring that, for instance, "Siri often makes mistakes."

When my software went wrong, I always knew that *I* had made a mistake. The software was simply performing the way I had programmed it to. I don't know how I even could have performed my job if I had thought for a second that it was my program that was making a mistake, rather than me.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The implications of Locke's dualism

"No one is more emphatic then Locke in opposing what is real to what we 'make for ourselves,' the work of nature to the work of mind. Simple ideas or sensations we certainly do not 'make for ourselves.' They therefore and the matter supposed to cause them are, according to Locke, real. But relations are neither simple ideas nor their material archetypes. They therefore, as Locke explicitly holds, fall under the head of the work of the mind, which is opposed to the real. But if we take him at his word and exclude from what we have considered real all qualities constituted by relation, we find that none are left. Without relation any simple idea would be undistinguished from other simple ideas, undetermined by its surroundings in the cosmos of experience. It would thus be unqualified itself, and consequently could afford no qualification of the material archetype, which yet according to Locke we only know through it or, if otherwise, as the subject of those 'primary qualities' which demonstrably consist in relations. In short, the admission of the antithesis between the real and the work of the mind, and the admission that relation is the work of the mind, put together, involve the conclusion that nothing is real of which anything can be said." -- T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, pp. 24-25


"The terms 'real' and 'objective,' then, have no meaning except for a consciousness which presents its experiences to itself as determined by relations, and at the same time conceives a single and unalterable order of relations determing them, with which its temporary presentation, as each experience occurs, of the relations determining it may be contrasted." -- T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, p. 17

Friday, September 26, 2014

T. H. Green on evolutionary ethics

"In Hume's time a philosopher who denied the innateness of moral sentiments, and held that they must have a natural history, had only the limits of the individual life within which to trace this history. These limits did not give room enough for even a plausible derivation of moral interests from animal wants. It is otherwise when the history may be supposed to range over an indefinite number of generations. The doctrine of hereditary transmission, it is held, explains to us how susceptibilities of pleasure and pain, of desire and aversion, of hope and fear, may be handed down with gradually accumulated modifications which in time attain the full measure of the difference between the moral man and the greater ape...

"...the theory of descent and evolution opens up a vista of possibilities beyond the facts, so far ascertained, of human history... Such enquiry, it is thought, will in time give us the means of reducing the moral susceptibilities of man to the rank of ordinary physical facts, parts of one system, and intelligible by the same methods, with all the natural phenomena which we are learning to know...

"It has generally been expected of a moralist, however, that he should explain not only how men do act, but how they should act: and as a matter of fact we find that those who regard the process of man's natural development most strictly as a merely natural one are as forward as any to propound rules of living, to which they conceive that, according to their view of the influences which make him what he is, man ought to conform. The natural science of man is to them the basis of a practical art…

"Now it is obvious that to a being who is simply a result of natural forces an injunction to conform to their laws is unmeaning. A philosopher, then, who would reconstruct our ethical systems in conformity with the doctrines of evolution and descent... if he has the courage of his principles, having reduced the speculative part of them to a natural science... must abolish the practical or preceptive part altogether...

"[This theory] logically carries with it the conclusion, however the conclusion may be disguised, that, in inciting ourselves or others to do anything because it ought to be done, we are at best making use of a serviceable illusion." -- Prolegomena to Ethics, pp. 7-12

The above was published in 1883. What is interesting to me in the passage is:

1) Evolutionary ethics had already been propounded by 1883 in a form very close to the one it has today. It is not some new discovery of the sociobiologists of the 1970s or the later evolutionary ethicists of the present day.

2) Idealists such as Green (and Bosanquet and Collingwood and Oakshott) understood the theory perfectly well, and even acknowledged its genuine achievements in partly explaining how we have come to have the ethics we do have.

3) The chief problem with the theory was already well understood: while it might explain, in whole or in part, why we do behave the way we do, it cannot possibly recommend how we ought to behave, and fact renders such recommendations otiose: they are like recommending to amoebas that they stop reproducing asexually and get on with having sex like us more advanced beings. Genghis Khan was every bit as much a product of evolution as St. Francis of Assisi, and was, in fact, fantastically more successful at passing on his genes. It is hard to see how something calling itself "evolutionary ethics" could argue, with a straight face, that capturing women and using them as sexual slaves is "wrong," so long as one is fairly certain to be able to successfully implement that strategy. (Of course, a society where every single male tried to do this would not turn out too well, but if someone was certain that he would be as successful as Khan, how could the "evolutionary ethicist" say anything other than "Help yourself!"?)

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Colbert Pounds the Krauthammer

Is there an uglier figure in our public discourse than Charles Krauthammer? Oh, yes, I forgot: Ann Coulter. But is there a second-uglier figure than Krauthammer? Here Colbert dismantles his ridiculous psychoanalysis of Obama:

Collingwood on Berkeley

Thus we get a wholly new metaphysical position. Taking the elements of the traditional seventeenth-century cosmology and simply rearranging them, Berkeley shows that, if substance means that which exists in its own right and depends on itself alone, only one substance need be asserted to exist, namely, mind. Nature as it exists empirically for our everyday perception is the work or creature of mind; nature in Galileo's sense, the purely quantitative material world of the physicist, is an abstraction from this, it is so to speak the skeleton or armature of the nature we perceive through our senses, and create in perceiving it. To sum up: we first, by the operation of our mental powers, create the warm, living, coloured, flesh-and-blood natural world which we know in our everyday experience; we then, by the operation of abstractive thinking, remove the flesh and blood from it and are left with the skeleton. This skeleton is the ‘material world’ of the physicist.
In the essence of Berkeley's argument as thus restated there is no flaw. He often expressed himself hastily, and often tried to support his contentions by argument that is far from sound; but no criticism of details touches his main position, and as soon as one understands the problem which confronted him one is bound to realize that he solved it in the only possible way. His conclusion may seem unconvincing, and the difficulties in which it places us are undeniable; but there is no way of escaping the admission that, if the conceptions of mind and matter are defined as they were defined by the cosmology of the seventh century, the problem of discovering an essential link between them can only be solved as Berkeley solved it. (The Idea of Nature, 1960: 114-115)

Responding to Stove's critique of Berkeley

Another excerpt from my forthcoming paper:


David Stove, in his essay “Idealism: a Victorian Horror Story (Part One),” begins by at least granting Berkeley his historical context, as we saw Hegel also did:
Berkeley is one of those philosophers who are always arguing, and he gave a number of arguments for abridging the Cartesian world-view to the exclusive benefit of its mental half.  Once he had done it, everyone could see, even if they had not seen before, that Cartesianism had begged for an idealist abridgement, and that it had got it from Berkeley. (1991: 102)
But what he gives with one hand he immediately takes away with the other: “There was only one catch; but it was a rather serious one.  This was that no one could believe the world-view to which those arguments of Berkeley led.” (1991: 102) Stove is certainly correct here in so far as his depiction of Berkeley’s world-view strains credulity, as it is as follows:
You cannot expose yourself to even a short course of Berkeley’s philosophy, without contracting at least some tendency to think, as he wants you to think, that to speak of (say) kangaroos is, rightly understood, to speak of ideas of kangaroos, or of kangaroo-perceptions, or “phenomenal kangaroos.”  But on the contrary, all sane use of language requires that we never relax our grip on the tautology that when we speak of kangaroos, it is kangaroos of which we speak.  Berkeley would persuade us that we lose nothing, and avoid metaphysical error, if we give up kangaroos in favour of phenomenal kangaroos: in fact we would lose everything.  Phenomenal kangaroos are an even poorer substitute for kangaroos than suspected murderers are for murderers.  At least a suspected murderer may happen to be also a murderer; but a phenomenal kangaroo is a certain kind of experience, and there is no way it might happen to be also a kangaroo. (1991: 110)
Once again, we find Berkeley’s case being badly misconstrued, in this instance in order to make it appear crazy. Berkeley certainly does not want us to “give up kangaroos in favour of phenomenal kangaroos.” In fact, the very view he is criticizing is the Lockean one that drives a wedge between the real world and the phenomenal world, that, indeed, creates the idea that there is a phenomenal world separate from the real world in the first place. Berkeley is insisting that the kangaroos you see in front of you are not “phenomenal kangaroos” at all: no, the kangaroos you are perceiving are the real thing. For Berkeley, we directly perceive reality, and we can do so because reality is a world of ideas. It is by first adopting a view that idealists reject, that ideas are “just in our heads,” and then reading idealist metaphysics through this anti-idealist filter, that misunderstandings like Stove’s are generated.
Stove goes on to attribute more denials of reality to Berkeley: “...his idealism... denies the existence of human beings.  Indeed, there are no land-mammals at all in Berkeley’s world.  In fact there is not even any land” (1991: 111). Again, it is only necessary to point out that it is the very reality of all of these things that Berkeley set out to assert to see that Stove has seriously misinterpreted him.
To Stowe’s credit, he does avoid one frequent error committed by Berkeley’s critics:
People think, that is, that Berkeley maintained a causal dependence of physical objects on perception: that things go in and out of existence, depending on whether or not we are perceiving them… [this view] is certainly not Berkeley… The benevolence and steadiness of the Divine Will, and nothing else, ensure that the ideas produced in the various finite spirits are, on the whole, in harmony with one another. (1991: 108)
But as before, having gotten that much right, Stove immediately goes very wrong, claiming that it follows that “there are no physical objects Berkeley’s world” (1991: 109). Once again, we must point out that Berkeley never denies the existence of the physical world of common sense: the wall you see in front of you is really there in the exact way common sense thinks it is, as a solid, say red, flat surface, which, if you try to run through it, you will fail and be hurt in the process. As Laird put it, “[Berkeley] gloried in being a realist because he affirmed and proved the full reality of what any sane man regards as real, just as he regards it before he allows himself to become debauched with learning” (1916: 309). What Berkeley is doing is trying to get at the source of why the common sense world is the way it is, and his answer is, “Because God wills it.” One may not like that answer, but it is far from the nonsense Stove attributes to Berkeley: there certainly are physical objects in Berkeley’s world, just as God willed there to be.
In part two of the “Horror Story” essay, Stove accuses Berkeley of having reached a contingent conclusion from a tautological premise. As he puts it, one of Berkeley’s central arguments for idealism, which he calls “the Gem,” runs: “You cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, without having them in mind. Therefore, you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind.” (1991: 139) This is basically a rehash of Russell’s critique, discussed above, of this contention of Berkeley’s, and it is flawed in a similar way, but let us address this particular formulation of it: Stove had to add a step to Berkeley's argument to make it appear so bad: “without having them in mind.” The actual argument is that you cannot have trees-without-the-mind in mind, period. What Berkeley is noting in the passage Stove cites is that when you attempt to have trees-without-the-mind in mind, you fail. And that failure is inevitable. “Trees-without-the-mind” is a mere abstraction, and to mistake mere abstractions for things that actually exist is what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness."

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The universal explanation

I was just telling Nelson, my friendly neighborhood bodega operator, about my close encounter with a bear at my house in Pennsylvania. A woman at the counter said, "You're the second person I've heard today talking about a closing counter with a bear!"

"Well," I said, "they are moving into populated areas more and more."

"It's all a part of climate change," she replied.

As I have mentioned before, I am not a climate change "skeptic." But ma'am, no, just no. Not every single circumstance that alters in the natural world is due to climate change. Bears disappeared from populated places after European settlement because there were people in those places who had guns and would shoot them. They are now repopulating those places because they are less likely to be shot. (Not that I think they are consciously calculating the odds here: no, this is a marginal process like so many other range of population changes.)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Well, of course if you *name* it...

Here is a researcher who claims dolphins aren't uniquely intelligent among non-human animals. And perhaps he is correct! I have no reason to doubt him, in any case. But along the way, he makes a bold claim: that human language is "limitless in its ability to discuss subject matter." And he backs this up by noting: "But humans can talk about anything—abstract ideas, concrete ideas—you name it and we can discuss it."

Well, yes, I have no doubt that anything we name can be discussed using language... in fact, I have no doubt that once you have named it, it already is being discussed using language!

Wittgenstein was not so confident: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."

Andy Borowitz: Less Funny Than Ever

I have never been a big fan of Andy Borowitz. But this column finds him in a particularly unfunny mode. Let's start with this:

"A climate-change march that organizers claim was the largest on record is nevertheless unlikely to change the minds of idiots..."

Ha, ha, ha, they are so stupid, their minds are not going to be changed even by a very large march! Um, but wait a second, Andy: I don't think a march is an argument, and it is hard to see why any march, however large, should ever convince anyone of anything other than, "Wow, a lot of people are enthusiastic / passionate about whatever it is they are marching about." When the Nazis had very large rallies in the 1930s, would Andy have called everyone who wasn't immediately "convinced" by these rallies an idiot?

Anyway, Borowitz continues: "Despite bringing attention to a position that is embraced by more than ninety per cent of the world’s scientists..."

First of all, someone has surveyed "the world's scientists"? Every one of them? But let us stipulate that this statement is correct.  Well, what in the world does it matter what, say, an inorganic chemist or a computer scientist or a low-temperature physicist thinks about this issue? Finally, the statement, if true, means roughly ten percent of "the world's scientists" don't embrace this position. Are they all idiots too? And what puts Andy Borowitz, a man with a theater degree, in a position to judge between these groups of scientists with different opinions? Is he aware that, in 1580, well over 90% of astronomers rejected Copernicus, or that plate tectonics and the big bang theory were also widely rejected when formulated?

Nothing! In short, the "joke" here is simply repeatedly calling people who disagree with prevailing opinion "idiots." My, that is funny, Andy!

(And note: as I have said several times, I think, as uneducated amateur, that the scientific consensus probably is right, since that is my best bet. So Borowitz is probably right as well... just really, really unfunny.)

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Stove Can Be Funny

He writes that later idealists learned that the thing you had to do, when beginning any idealist work, was "First kick Berkeley."

Answering Stove on Berkeley

I happen to be reading David Stove because he addressed Berkeley (and the later British idealists) at some length. Here is an excerpt from my forthcoming Berkeley paper addressing Stove in particular:


To Stowe’s credit, he does avoid one frequent error committed by Berkeley’s critics:
“People think, that is, that Berkeley maintained a causal dependence of physical objects on perception: that things go in and out of existence, depending on whether or not we are perceiving them… [this view] is certainly not Berkeley… The benevolence and steadiness of the Divine Will, and nothing else, ensure that the ideas produced in the various finite spirits are, on the whole, in harmony with one another” (1991: 108).

But once again, having gotten that much right, Stove immediately goes horribly wrong, saying that this means that “there are no physical objects Berkeley’s world” (1991: 109). Once again, we must point out that Berkeley never denies the existence of the physical world of common sense: the wall you see in front of you is really there in the exact way common sense thinks it is, as a solid, say red, flat surface, which, if you try to walk through, you will fail and be hurt in the process. What Berkeley is doing is trying to get at the source of why this is so, and his answer is, “Because God wills it.” One may not like that answer, but it is far from the nonsense Stove attributes to Berkeley.

Just because I am not an anarchist...

it doesn't mean I don't find a lot of the things that governments do ridiculous.

For instance, today on the radio, I heard New York Governor Cuomo saying that hundreds of extra security personnel were being dispatched around NYC due to "the obvious situation."

This "obvious situation" turns out to be that ISIS is beheading people... in Syria and Iraq!

Why this calls for more National Guardsmen at Grand Central Station is a little fuzzy for me.

Well, There's Fanaticism, and Then There's Fanaticism

A friend of mine just posted on Facebook that the fanatics who make up ISIS are really not that different than the fanatics in the US would take away the "reproductive rights of women."

But fanaticism comes in many forms. Consider this one: there are fanatics who think that the "reproductive rights of women" always and everywhere trump the "right-to-have-a-life-at-all rights" of unborn children. The work of those fanatics results in about one million deaths per year in the United States, a lot more people than ISIS will kill this year, and the means of killing are often far more gruesome than mere beheadings.

But, of course, when a fanatic is surrounded entirely by other fanatics who think exactly the same way, their fanaticism comes to seem perfectly normal to them, in fact, moderate, and the way any sane person would consider the matter.

Oh, and it is easy to name the fanaticism involved: fanatical individualism.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Italy's entry into World War I

I am currently reading a set of history books acquired for me in Italy by my Italian tutor. Tonight's reading is on Italy's entry into World War I.

What I find fascinating here is this: the Socialist party, the Catholic party, and the Liberals all supported Italian neutrality. According to this text, the one of the main groups supporting Italy entering the war was... Italian artists and writers!

How weirdly different from the typical stance of our modern artistic class!

OK, I have to call this policy choice stupid

It looks to me, based on what I know, that the members of ISIS are generally very bad people. Could the US successfully intervene to defeat the group's aims? I find it doubtful, but if in fact we could, I am not reflexively opposed to the idea of doing so.

But this idea of picking out particular "moderate" rebel groups and funding them just strikes me as ridiculous. But it is typical of our current politics: it expresses the felt need to "do something" about anything unsatisfactory in the world, while doing it without any real commitment or any real likelihood of success. It is based on the same sort of sentiment that regards NFL players wearing pink shoes for a month as an important step forward in curing breast cancer.

The History of David Stove's Career

A rather blunt, stupid man, unable to make sense of any of the great philosophers, decides it is because they are all irrationally worshiped.

UPDATE: I am not really being just to Stove in calling him stupid. He can be very clever at times. What is really going on is that he is completely unwilling to try to enter into the thought of any philosopher whose ideas upset his prejudices. And this unwillingness makes him stupid when discussing any such philosopher's ideas.


Another example. These signs are up all over town:

I have no idea if expanding this compressor is a good idea or not. And I guarantee you that 90% of the people putting up these signs don't either. What they do know is that all of the "caring" sort of people have them up, so they had better too.

I Feel the Monkey in Your Soul

You know your are in the presence of a shibboleth when you see something being repeated again and again that adds absolutely nothing to the substance of what is being talked about. One modern instance of this is the frequent dropping of "our monkey brains" and such into discussions of almost anything to do with human cognition. This happens often over at Language Log: consider this post. What in the world does mentioning "plains apes" add to the discussion, except a shibboleth? Nothing. It is not as if we could see that if we were culturally-evolved forest lizards, we would have no such problems. It is not as though people prior to the formulation of the theory of evolution were unaware of human cognitive difficulties. And it is not as if we have the typical scalar-predicate-handling ability of the average ape, which is exactly zero. No, quite the opposite: the real surprise if not that an ape is using scalar predicates badly, but that it is using them at all.

No, this is a intellectual-content-free ritual: Liberman is just showing his membership in a club here, no differently than if he were using a Masonic handshake.

A poem for a friend

God or no God?
Makes no difference: practice!
Buddha mind or no Buddha mind?
Makes no difference: practice!
Soul or no soul?
Makes no difference: practice!

What is enlightenment?
A hammer banging in the distance

Thursday, September 18, 2014

A dull-witted sensor?

I bought a new dehumidifier. Like every other one I have owned, water from the air is extracted into a bucket. If the bucket is full, the machine stops dehumidifying. And the same thing happens if you remove the bucket, say, to empty it.

But, unlike with any other dehumidifier I have owned, with this one, that doesn't happen right away. In fact, I have time to carry the bucket to the sink a few feet away, empty it, and put it back in place before the machine stops dehumidifying! I find this behavior baffling. The mechanism that detects the bucket is gone must work almost instantly, mustn't it? And then it's got to be sending a signal electronically to the "brain" of the machine. Did the manufacture intentionally build in a delay? Why in the world would one do that? Could the cost of starting up the dehumidifying process be high enough to justify a long delay like this?

Silas? Ken? Any other engineers out there?

Maybe I am prejudiced, or perhaps it is just my pride...

but I am having a lot of trouble getting into Jane Austen.

Don't get me wrong: she is an excellent writer. I truly appreciate her exemplary skill.

No, it is the characters. I am 30 pages into Pride and Prejudice, and I find myself hoping that on page 31 a nuclear weapon wipes out Meryton and some characters I am vaguely interested in move in afterwards.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The significance of my quotations

Sometimes blog readers think that if I quote something here, I must be endorsing the quotation. But that misses the main purpose of this blog: it is first and foremost my writer's notebook. The fact that some others seem to enjoy reading what I jot down here is an added bonus, and I appreciate their feedback, but it is secondary.

So as I read, I collect quotes here that I find interesting. Some of them I might strongly disagree with. Others I agree with. Yet others I may not know for years whether I agree or disagree with.

Just so you know.

Science does not deal with concrete reality

"All the matters about which science speaks, whatever the science be, are abstract, and abstract things are always clear. So that the clarity of science is not so much in the heads of scientists as in the matters of which they speak. What is really confused, intricate, is the concrete vital reality, always a unique thing." -- José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p. 156

Who could have imagined?

Wild, anti-police rhetoric actually leads to anti-police violence:

"Frein has held anti-law enforcement views for many years and has expressed them both online and to people who knew him, said Lt. Col. George Bivens."

What ever is of ultimate importance

is useless.

I forget where I picked up this idea from, but its proof is very easy.

Something is useful if it is useful for purpose X. For instance, sleep is useful to maintain our health. But this means that maintaining our health is what is truly important here, while sleep derives its importance from that goal.

Therefore, it follows that whatever is of ultimate importance cannot be useful, because that would mean it derived its importance from something else for which it was used, which would mean it is not of ultimate importance after all.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Ortega y Gasset on the specialist

"We shall have to say he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.

"And such in fact is the behaviour of the specialist. In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of--this is the paradox--specialists in those matters. By specializing him, civilisation has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations; but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his specialty." -- The Revolt of the Masses, p. 112

Ortega y Gasset could not have better described the attitude of many contemporary physicists, such as Hawking, towards philosophy. While I would never dream of challenging anything Hawking says about, for instance, about black holes, he feels perfectly confident expounding on philosophy, without any apparent familiarity with the subject.

A Hayekian Caveat About Mass Immigration


Monday, September 15, 2014

Calling someone who thinks that there might be an optimal number of immigrants...

less than infinity "anti-immigrant" is like calling someone who thinks there might be an optimal amount of calories consumed less than infinity "anti-eating."

Philosophy is not "useful"

"Philosophy needs neither protection, attention or sympathy from the masses. It maintains its character of complete inutility, and thereby frees itself from all subservience to the average man." -- José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p. 86

Sunday, September 14, 2014

"False" doctrines are usually one-sided views of the truth

"Hence, Bolshevism and Fascism, the two "new" attempts in politics that are being made in Europe and on its borders, are two clear examples of essential retrogression. Not so much by the positive content of their doctrine, which, taken in isolation, naturally has its partial truth--what is there in the universe which has not some particle of truth?--as on account of the anti-historic, anachronistic way in which they handled the rational elements which the doctrine contains." -- José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p. 92

Property ownership is based on violence: Who said it?

No googling!

"All ownership derives from occupation and violence. [...] That all rights derive from violence, all ownership from appropriation or robbery, we may freely admit..."

State trooper assassinated 10 miles from my house

And another was injured.

This was someone who just went gunning to kill some cops. To all of you who keep posting that all cops are thugs and are our enemy, this is the logical outcome of your words. You may be just playing to the crowd to get a bunch of your like-minded friends to like your posts, but there are people out there who will take your words seriously.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Is Caplan joshing us?

I am hard put to say whether Bryan Caplan really takes this argument seriously, or if he just thinks it works rhetorically with some people:
"What would you think about a law that said that blacks couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or women couldn’t get a job without the government’s permission, or gays or Christians or anyone else?" George Mason economist Bryan Caplan asks. It's a pretty easy question. Obviously, such a law is discriminatory on its face, serves no rational purpose, and is unacceptable in a liberal democracy. But Caplan continues: "So why, exactly, is it that people who are born on the wrong side of the border have to get government permission just to get a job?"

Well Bryan, it is because they don't. Someone born in Canada does not need the permission of the American government to get a job. They can take any job they want in Canada, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter, without checking with the American government. They can even take a job with an American company without getting permission from the American government, so long is that job does not involve moving to America.

It is not the "getting a job" part they need permission for, but the "moving to America" part. So once the situation is rightly understood, the question becomes, "Why should anyone not currently part of the polity of the United States of America need to get the permission of its government, the body recognized as holding sovereign power in that polity by the vast majority of its members, just to join that polity?"

But once you phrase the question sensibly, the answer becomes pretty obvious: a group has the right to control who can become a member of the group. If it loses such control, it will soon cease to be a coherent group. Since Caplan is an anarchist, this is probably what he wants: for the United States to fall apart as a coherent social entity. But it really won't do to be upfront about that, will it? "I favor open borders because it will lead to the collapse of the United States government" is not going to find as much favor as the pseudo-argument he actually uses.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Ortega y Gasset on what constitutes a world

"For this is the fundamental meaning of the idea 'world.' The world is the sum total of our vital possibilities. It is not then something apart from and foreign to our existence, it is its actual periphery." -- The Revolt of the Masses, p. 41

This gets at the heart of why the imaginary, abstract world of physical objects existing apart from all consciousness is not really a world at all: it is not a world to anyone or to anything. It contains no vital possibilities.

The stupid aspects of the universe

"Physical space and time are the absolutely stupid aspects of the universe." -- Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p. 39

How readers approach a piece of intellectual writing

"the present writer, when he takes his pen in hand to treat a subject which he has studied deeply, has to bear in mind that the average reader, who has never concerned himself with this subject, if he reads does so with the view, not of learning something from the writer, but rather, of pronouncing judgment on him when he is not in agreement with the commonplaces that the said reader carries in his head." -- José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p. 18

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The occupation of Fiume (1919)

Is it perhaps the only time in history that a poet (Garbiele d'Annunzio) led the invasion of a city?

A simple way to promote worker owned firms in our tax code

Josiah Neeley ask me how I thought corporations like this one could be promoted through policy.

A relatively simple way would be to extend eligibility for S corporation status to firms with over 100 shareholders, so long as:

1) The majority of shareholders are employees; and
2) The majority of employees are shareholders.

(Of course these conditions could be tweaked, so that the requirements might be two-thirds and two-thirds, for instance.)

Such companies would face no corporate taxation.

Political perfectionism

Oakeshott sometimes referred to the rationalist style of politics as "politics as the crow flies." I had occasion to think of the phrase today, while listening to an educational administrator on NPR.

She -- I think she was the head honcho of the Newark public school system, but I never heard her title or her name, and it doesn't really matter to this post anyway -- was defending the Newark charter schools. Apparently they are producing some great results.

But a caller, whose daughter is actually in a charter school, was very worried about the fact that not every child in Newark is getting this great education her daughter is. The administrator immediately conceded that the caller's point was a matter of grave concern, and talked about a plan being worked on to ensure that every child does receive this excellent education.

We all know that this will not happen. There are social pathologies in poor neighborhoods that leave too many young residents simply incapable of performing well in school. Now, to the extent we can fix the pathologies, we should do so. But that can't be done in the schools.

Meanwhile, what the schools can do is to allow escape routes for bright and/or hard-working students who would otherwise be trapped in an environment very detrimental to learning. And from what I heard today, Newark is doing that to some extent.

The danger of perfectionism in politics is that the good that can be achieved can be destroyed in the name of a perfection that can't be achieved. Until social conditions improve in poor areas, there is a real limit to what schools can do with children from those neighborhoods. If 20% of them can be given excellent education despite the conditions of their neighborhood, that is way, way better than 0%. Realism about what can be done is a moral virtue, and basing policy on fantasy is a moral vice. If you are the commissioner of your local Little League, it is fine to strive to enable every player to reach their potential. But it is absurd to set a goal of every batter hitting 1000, while every pitcher has an ERA of zero.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Capitalism done the right way?

E.F. Schumacher, in his book Small Is Beautiful, describes the Scott Bader Commonwealth, a chemical company where the founder turned much of his ownership over to the employees, and created a "constitution" that guaranteed a limited company size, a low ratio of remuneration between the highest and lowest paid employees (7-to-1), a no firing policy (since everyone was a partner), and guaranteed charitable contributions. At the time Schumacher was writing, in 1973, the company had been successful for over 20 years with this constitution in place.

But, I wondered, how had the company fared through another 40+ years of market tests? Pretty darned well, it turns out.

Here is a nice reform idea: let us rewrite our incorporation laws to favor company structures like this one. Efficiency should not be the only test of our social institutions: their humanity might be an even better one.


"A person goes by a signpost only in so far as there is a regular use of signposts, a custom." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein

No smoking

Professor Daniel Robinson of Oxford, in a very nice lecture series entitled Consciousness and Its Implications (Alex take note!), spends some time discussing rule following from a Wittgensteinian perspective. As Wittgenstein carefully demonstrated, "following a rule" is not at all the simple thing it appears to be at first glance.

Professor Robinson illustrates this point with the example of a "No Smoking" sign in a restaurant. He considers three different reactions to the sign by people who we can imagine to be alien to American customs to varying degrees. (Robinson actually makes the third reactor a space alien.)

1) Person one understands "smoking" to mean the direct inhalation of tobacco products. However, as he enjoys the smell of tobacco burning, he simply lights a cigarette and leaves it burning on a plate at his table, thinking he is not thereby smoking. He has violated the rule, despite thinking that he is following it.

2) Person two understands that it is okay to smoke outside the restaurant. But the way he does this is that he pops his head out the door and inhales a drag off of a cigarette, then comes back inside to continue his conversation while exhaling. He also has violated the rule despite his attempt to follow it.

3) Robinson's space alien, who happens to have picked up the cigarette habit, comes from a place that has some symbols in common with the Latin alphabet. In particular, the symbols 'S' and 'K' signify a sacred space, in which it would be a grave offense to the gods to burn anything. So he refrains from smoking so as not to give offense to the gods. Even though his behavior conforms to what the restaurant wants, he is not following the actual rule in place.

The point of all this is that, as Wittgenstein noted, understanding and following a rule often entails a fair amount of knowledge of the cultural context in which a rule is embedded.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014


"A person goes by a signpost only in so far as there is a regular use of signposts, a custom." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein

Monday, September 08, 2014

Another renowned physicist on mind and matter

"[T]here is a universal flux that cannot be defined explicitly but which can be known only implicitly, as indicated by the explicitly definable forms and shapes, some stable and some unstable, that can be abstracted from the universal flux. In this flow, mind and matter are not separate substances. Rather, they are different aspects of our whole and unbroken movement." -- David Bohm (emphasis mine)

Is Idealism Anti-Physics?

Let one of the physics greats assure you it is not:

"As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter." -- Max Planck

Sunday, September 07, 2014

And someone paid lawyers good money to write this!

On the news tonight, I heard that there is trouble with the BP settlement concerning the gulf oil spill. BP feels people are fraudulently claiming lawsuits. Who should have been eligible to claim a loss and get compensation? As I recall from what they kept repeating on the radio, it was much like "Anyone who suffered an economic loss due to the oil spill."

Well, it is no wonder that there is trouble afoot: what an incredibly vague criterion! If I fished for shrimp in the gulf, and could not fish for many months after the spill, it is clear that I qualify. But what about the fellow who serviced the engine of my fishing boat? What about the guy who serviced the van of the guy who serviced the engine of my fishing boat? What about the woman who sold that guy his sandwich and coffee in the morning? What about her babysitter?

For all I know, maybe *I* suffered economic loss due to the gulf oil spill. I'm thinking perhaps I should become a highly paid corporate lawyer. I have been writing that vaguely for years!

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Why idealists say that an object apart from all experience is "a mere abstraction"

Id asked me about this in the comments of another post. Let us consider the question in the context of a house, since that was the object in the original post.

Let us posit a house claimed to be existing apart from all experience, that of humans as well as any universal mind. Now we ask of the person making this claim:

"What color is this house?"

He will have to admit that it is of no color whatsoever, as color is an interaction between an observer and an object observed.

"What is the texture of the house?" we ask.

He will have to admit that it has no texture, since a texture is an interaction between an observer and an object observed. (As Berkeley noted, this kind of thing will be very different depending upon whether a human or a dust mite is answering the question: A surface that is smooth to a human might be mountainous to a dust mite.)

"What sound will the house make when a rock hits it?"

He will have to admit that it is no sound at all, since a sound is an interaction between an observer and an object observed.

"What does the house smell like?"

He will have to admit that the house does not smell like anything, since a smell is an interaction between an observer and an object observed.

"What size is the house?"

He will have to admit that it has no particular size, since a size is an interaction between an observer and an object observed. (If you don't believe me on this, just ask Einstein.)

"And its weight?"

You already know the answer, and again we can consult Einstein on this.

So what we have at hand is a house of no particular color, no particular texture, no particular sound, no particular smell, no particular size, and no particular weight.

That is why we call this a "mere abstraction."

Friday, September 05, 2014

Arguing with an Ancap

Rob and Gene go to the market

Some people are puzzled over why the rules governing the market can't themselves be an outcome of the market. (Claiming they can't is not the same as saying what goes on in real markets won't influence the rules!)

Let us then imagine Rob and Gene have been cleaning out their pads and finding stuff they don't need, and so they agree to meet at "the market" to exchange things.

"What rules will govern this market?" Gene asks.

"Oh, we don't need to set up some committee to determine this: let's just let the market itself decide the rules!" replies Rob.

"OK," thinks the devious Gene.

They arrive at the agreed upon spot, and Rob lays out the goods he wishes to trade. "What will you give me?" he asks.

"This," Gene replies, and whacks him on the head with a mallet.

Rob passes out, and when he comes to, he looks for Gene to complain. He finds Gene has dragged all the goods Rob brought back into his own house, and is sitting on the porch with Rob's gun on his lap.

"Howdy Rob! I sure do like this 'market' thing you've suggested. Can we have a market again tomorrow?"

"But, but... that wasn't a market! In a market we trade goods, and only after we reach an agreement to do so."

"Who says? That sounds like you wanted to set the rules in advance. But what you told me was the market itself would set the rules of the market. And it looks like I sure won that market competition. So I guess my rules triumphed, and they now govern how this market works, which is I got all the stuff, including this gun, and you'd better go on back home."

Correcting Russell on Berkeley

From a working paper (and a very hard-working one too, I might add):
Bertrand Russell devotes a chapter of his History of Western Philosophy to Berkeley. After a generally accurate discussion of the role of God in Berkeley’s metaphysics, he claims: “If there were no God, what we take to be material objects would have a jerky life, suddenly leaping into being when we look at them; but as it is, owing to God’s perceptions, trees and rocks and stones have an existence as continuous as common sense supposes.” (1945: 647)
But this is absurd: for Berkeley, without God, there would simply be no “material” objects (or other beings to see their jerky existence, for that matter). What characterizes something for Berkeley as being a part of the physical world is that it has existence not just in a human mind, but in the mind of God: that is what gives it its solidity, its ineleuctable character.
Russell goes on to discuss Berkeley’s “argument against matter” (1945: 648), and, as with so many others, ignores the fact that it is an argument against matter as conceived by Locke et al. Russell continues by attempting to show various fallacies committed by Berkeley. First he takes up the nature of objects of the senses:
‘[Berkeley] says: "That any immediate object of the senses should existing in an unthinking substance, exterior to all minds, is in itself an evident contradiction." This is here a fallacy, analogous to the following: "It is impossible for a nephew to exist without an uncle; now Mr. A is a nephew; therefore it is logically necessary for Mr. A to have an uncle." It is, of course, logically necessary given that Mr. A is a nephew, but not from anything to be discovered by analysis of Mr. A.’ (1945: 652)
But what Berkeley is claiming is that “analysis” of objects of the senses does show that they cannot exist in an unthinking substance. He may be wrong about that, but Russell has seriously misunderstood what he is doing to think it is analogous to his nephew example, which is most likely due to the fact that Berkeley’s “analysis” is not recognized as such by Russell, who only would admit logical deduction of analytical truths and induction from empirical regularities as possible sources of knowledge. But, as T.H. Green noted about a different, but similar idealist argument:
"Proof of such a doctrine, in the ordinary sense of the word, from the nature of the case there cannot be. It is not a truth deducible from other established or conceded truths. It is not a statement of an event or matter of fact that can be the subject of experiment or observation. It represents a conception to which no perceivable or imaginable object can possibly correspond, but one that affords the only means by which, reflecting on our moral and intellectual experience conjointly, taking the world and ourselves into account, we can put the whole thing together and understand how... we are and do what we consciously are and do." (1986: 250)
Russell continues:
‘There is a somewhat analogous  fallacy as regards what is conceived. Hylas maintains that he can conceive a house which no one perceives, and which is not in any mind. Philonus retorts that whatever Hylas conceives is in his mind, so that the supposed house is, after all, mental. Hylas should have answered: "I do not mean that I have in mind the image of a house; when I say that I can conceive the house which no one perceives, what I really mean is that I can understand the proposition 'there is a house which no one perceives,' or, better still, 'there is a house which no one either perceives or conceives.'" The proposition is composed entirely of intelligible words, and the words are correctly put together. Whether the proposition is true or false, I do not know; but I am sure that it cannot be shown to be self-contradictory. Some closely similar propositions can be proved. For instance: The number of possible multiplications of two integers is infinite, therefore there are some that have never been thought of. Berkeley's argument, if valid, would prove that this is impossible.”
Berkeley would have benefited from the work of later idealists in making his argument more clear here. Of course one can formulate the propositions that Russell formulates without self-contradiction. But they are what later idealists would term "empty abstractions." We can similarly formulate and even manipulate propositions about geometrical shapes lacking any color or texture, about infinitely thin lines extending forever, and points with no magnitude whatsoever. And forming such abstractions may be very useful, but we should never confuse them with concrete reality.
And Berkeley's answer to Russell on the proposition about multiplications ought to have been clear to Russell himself, had he not completely lost track of the mind of God after his initial, brief discussion of it: Berkeley would answer that God's infinite mind certainly has thought of the infinity of possible multiplications of two integers.
In another unwarranted swipe at idealism in general, Russell notes that “G.E. Moore once accused idealists of holding the trains only have wheels while they are in stations, on the ground that passengers cannot see the wheels while they remain in the train.” (1945: 657)
Once again, Russell ignores the role of the mind of God in Berkeley's philosophy, as he does yet again here:
‘Such a statement as "there was a time before life existed on this planet," whether true or false, cannot be condemned on grounds of logic...’ (1945: 657) Nor would Berkeley have tried to do so. Again, if Russell simply recalled what he himself had written only a handful of pages previous about the mind of God, that the possible truth of this statement would not have troubled Berkeley one wit.

Russell concludes by offering his own definition of matter, thinking he is correcting Berkeley: ‘My own definition of "matter" may seem unsatisfactory; I should define it as what satisfies the equations of physics.’ (1945: 658) But Berkeley would not have objected one bit to the idea of matter existing in the sense of there being things which satisfy the laws of physics.

OK, Google Docs is worse than a joke

It is supposed to be "compatible" with Microsoft Word. I had a document extensively formatted in Word, with about twenty styles or so. But to edit it on my Chromebook, I had to use Docs. Well, importing destroyed almost all of my styles and a lot of the formatting that went with them.

But I had edited the document quite a bit before I discovered the full extent of the devastation. "All right," I thought, "I'll bite the bullet and re-create all of these styles in Google Docs."

But wait a second: I see a few styles, but how do I create my own? There doesn't seem to be any "New Style" menu option... Oh, here we go. You just... WHAAAAAT?!! You can have custom styles, apparently, so long as they are all named "Heading X," where X is an integer.

So, I can create styles, but I can't name them "Bibliography" or "LongQuote" or "Equation." No, I have to memorize what number each style is! O, and if I try to create a table of contents, all of these "headings" will automatically get sucked into it, even if what they are really being used for is, say, formatting my bibliography.

Excuse me while I go smash myself in the head with a hammer for having put my work in Google's hands. This abortion is not a professional word processing tool.

How the false scent of consent led us astray

As in so much else, it was in the 17th century when things began to go seriously astray. The 17th century had its tremendous triumphs, but in a way these are the very source of the problems it bequeathed us. Like a childhood prodigy who achieves tremendous success early in one subject, and therefore comes to believe he is good at everything and has nothing to learn from his elders, 17th-century thinkers took the advances being made in physics in their time as evidence that the solution to all human problems was at hand, and only required employing the same approach that had advanced physics to everything.

Atomism was in the air, and was naturally carried over to social thought by understanding individual human beings as analogous to physical atoms. But what would bind these atoms together into a society? Since it was not completely forgotten that these were moral atoms, consent seemed a plausible candidate. And so in Hobbes, Locke, and the American founders we get the notion that a government is only just if the governed have consented to it. In an attempt to address the obvious problem that there had never been a government that all of its subjects had consented to, nor did there ever seem to be any possibility of there coming into existence such a government, various theories of representation were devised. Rousseau began to solve this problem but could not completely escape consent-based thinking, and Kant advanced further with his idea of the categorical imperative. A sound solution to these difficulties would only come in the 19th century.
But meanwhile consent-based thinking had captured the public imagination, to the extent that today truculent teenagers shout at their parents, "I never agreed to your stupid rules!" Anarchism is, of course, an understandable outcome of the muddle produced by basing government on consent: if that really were the only conceivable justification for government, since it is impossible to achieve, government must be eliminated!

But once we ask the right question for justifying a government, these problems dissolve. And that question is, "Is this government performing its function of preserving social order at least better than the plausible alternatives to it?" And since generally the most plausible alternative to accepting one's current government is civil war, very often the answer will be "yes."

"But, but," you stammer, "what about injustice X and injustice Y and injustice Z?"

"Go fix them," is my response. To mangle Stephen Stills: "If you can't be with the government you want, reform the one you're with."

Your government leaves open no possibilities for reform? Well, that would be one indication that your government actually might need to be overthrown.

Hamlet soliloquy mashup

I read the famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy to Siri, continually switching my input language is I did so (while continuing to read in English). James Joyce would have liked the result I think:


To be or Nacci B: Ben il est équation
Bei der Lektüre Snowboard in gemeint tschüss suffer
El sueño hacer arroz o outrageous fortune,
Oggi Telecom Circles SE auf Jobbox,
Un pareil à part août cinq end them? To die: Missouri,
No more; en pagas güey Chelsea y Willy end
The heartache Andy draußen Nerd Frau Sharks
Flash deals heir to, tu essayes train de ses mèches
Choacahui chipi web. To die, Küssli;
Si si: corcheas Cheo dream: ay, there's Vibrator
Four in that Slipknot e quattro dreams Weltraum
Berwick lascia poco this mortal coil
Masques passeport

Market Anarchism...

is the idea that the rules of the market themselves should be decided on the market.

It is very similar to the idea that the rules of NBA games should be decided by the outcome of NBA games.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Did Buddha Achieve Enlightenment?

I say "No." Because that way of expressing things gets it backwards. From the point of view of the possesive ego, enlightenment is a disaster: it confirms that ego's worst fear: that it does not really exist as a substantial entity. From the point of view of Siddhartha Gautama's pre-enlightened ego, he completely screwed up at that moment he stopped trying to achieve enlightenment (which all along was a trick of the ego to block actually achieving it) and accidentally did so in the process.

This is what Tolkein called the "eucatastrophe," which is portrayed symbolically at the climax of The Lord of the Rings. The ego (Frodo) can tell itself it is on a quest to destroy the ring of power (its attempt to manipulate reality to sustain the illusion of its own solidity), but it cannot achieve its goal: its very belief in its existence as a solid entity depends upon the failure of the quest, and at the edge of destruction (as it sees things), it attempts to seize the ring for itself.

But undertaking the quest was not pointless: by undertaking it, the ego has dragged the demonic forces keeping it in bondage (represented by Gollum) to the edge of destruction as well. They seize the ring and fall into the fires of Mount Doom.

Now what was previously understood to be destruction is correctly understood as liberation: there never was any solid entity to be destroyed in the first place, and the illusion that there was (samsara, or bondage to sin in Christian terms) had never been the only hope for safety, as it had appeared to be, but a prison.

Aristotle discovers pure mind

"It is clear then from what has been said that there is a substance which is eternal and unmovable and separate from sensible things. It has been shown also that this substance cannot have any magnitude, but is without parts and indivisible (for it produces movement through infinite time, but nothing finite has infinite power; and, while every magnitude is either infinite or finite, it cannot, for the above reason, have finite magnitude, and it cannot have infinite magnitude because there is no infinite magnitude at all). But it has also been shown that it is impassive and unalterable; for all the other changes are posterior to change of place." --  Metaphysics, Book XII

Aristotle on the desire to know

"ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things." -- Metaphysics, Book I

I am always stunned by academics who demand a "point," some practical guidance to action, from any and all research. Do they not have a sense of curiosity that wants to be satisfied even if there is nothing to "do" with what one discovers?

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Good history is not about determining the veracity of sources

"For lies, Mademoiselle, tell a listener just as much as truth can. Sometimes they tell more." -- Agatha Christie, Sad Cypress

What a great historical thinker!

Hume's theory of causation...

has pretty obvious problems, doesn't it? If it were really just "constant conjunction" that led us to posit causes, everyone would believe that the buying of summer fashions caused the hot weather that follows, right?

Monday, September 01, 2014

Real business cycle theory is not a cycle theory at all

I have pointed this out before, and got some flack for saying it, which is surprising given the fact that RBC proponents have boasted of this as a feature of their theory. Anyway, here is Noah Smith making this point:

"In fact, RBC is really sort of a giant null hypothesis -- a claim that the phenomenon known as the business cycle is just an illusion, and that recessions are the normal, smooth functioning of an efficient economy."

In Ancapistan, if you get shot, it was voluntary

Rob and George recently graduated from Hillsdale College and State U., respectively. They have been friends since childhood, and decide they will move near each other in Vermont so they can continue their friendship. But they have different political views, so while George picks the small town of Statesburg, Rob chooses to move to the private community of Ancapsville. Rob feels sure his choice is morally superior to that of George, and tries to convince him that this is so. Their dialogues on this point go something like this:

Rob: Ancapsville was founded in 1995 when The Pepzi Brothers Foundation bought 2500 acres of land from a lumber company. They constructed roads, divided the land into parcels of one to four acres each and sold them to builders or people who planned to live in the community. That set up a charter for the community which set the initial rules, and established how a democratically elected community board would take over from the corporation once a sufficient number of lots were sold. Everyone who bought in did so voluntarily, and had the opportunity to peruse the rules before doing so, and thus my community was not founded on State coercion!

George: Well, Statesburg was founded in 1695 by a group of English settlers who bought the land from local Indians. Every adult landowner signed the founding constitution for the town. That set out the rules as to how town laws could be changed. Everyone who has moved in since then has had the opportunity to study the town laws before they did so. Thus, I really don't see what is different at all.

Rob: Well, my community respects property rights.

George: So you mean that property owners can do whatever they want with and on their land?

Rob: Well, no, of course we have community standards! You can't arbitrarily cut down trees, or put a trailer on your land, or paint your house chartreuse. But other than a few dozen pages of other regulations like that, we respect property rights!

George: Well, in Statestown we do to. It just sounds like we have many fewer regulations than you do.

Rob: OK, but my community does not extract money from its residents at the point of a gun. We don't have any taxes!

George: Don't you have community fees?

Rob: Well, yes, we do. But we all consented to them when we bought in the community!

George: And so did we consent to our taxes when we bought in Statesburg. Or at least we knew about them before we bought there. And by the way, what happens to someone who doesn't pay their community fees?

Rob: Well, we send them a notice.

George: And if they ignore the notice?

Rob: Then we tell them they must leave the community.

George: And if they don't?

Rob: Well...

George: You send men with guns to their house to enforce your decision, don't you? And if they continue to resist, eventually they will be shot, right?

Rob: Yes, but they will be be shot voluntarily!

George: I'm sorry, I still don't see any real difference between your "private" government and my "statist" government.

Rob: Ah, hunting! Your statist governments restrict hunting with special "hunting seasons." How ridiculous!

George: So you can hunt whenever you want in ancapville?

Rob: Oh, um... actually my community bans all hunting. But that's because the residents don't want it!

George: Every single resident?

Rob: Well, not every single resident... but we took a vote, and most residents didn't want it.

George: So, the majority imposed their rules on the minority. Just like in Statesburg.

Rob: Well, at least we don't have money extracted from us for foolish "public goods," like your library.

George: Wait, don't you have a community swimming pool and several tennis courts?

Rob: Sure, sure, but people like those things!

George: Some people like the library.

Rob: All right, but I don't have to deal with politicians where I live.

George: You don't have a community board?

Rob: Yes, we have one of those...

George: And aren't they elected? Don't they run campaigns?

Rob: Yes.

George: In fact, our friend Gene was telling me that out in Pike County, there have been a recent series of scandals involving private community officials: election fraud, embezzlement, and so on. Sounds like politicians to me. So what really is different about the places where we each live?

Rob: It's that, it's that... Well, I'm free, because I live under private government, and you are enslaved, because you live under a state! Just read Rothbard*, and you'll understand!

* I was going to write "Rothbard and Hoppe," but I figure throwing Hoppe in the ancaps' faces is a low blow.

Open Source Software and Skin In the Game

I have been tinkering in the Haskell programming language recently. Trying to up my game, I have begun reviewing and working on issues in th...