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Category: Philosophy

The philosophy of science, empiricism, a priori reasoning, epistemology, and so on.

March 16, 2010 | 17 Comments

Are All Governments Destined For Failure?

Here’s an experiment you can try at home. Gather a set of children’s building blocks and form them into a square, flat on the floor.

The square can be of any dimension. In the middle of the square, and not touching any side, place another block on top. If your original square was more than three blocks on a side, then you can fit more than one block in the square’s center. These additional blocks form a second level.

Now take a step back and jump up and down once or twice. If the floor is hard and sturdy, nothing will happen. The blocks won’t topple unless your bouncing is of sufficient force to crack the foundation.

You can add a third level to your blocks, but only if that third level follows the same rules as the second: none of the blocks can touch the edges of the level below. After it’s built, recommence jumping: the structure should hold. It will still take devastating force to topple it.

If you want to add a fourth level, you’ll have to increase the size of the base. If you didn’t, the levels above would touch the edges, violating our rule.

You can continue quite a while along these lines: those blocks high up will be admirably supported by those below, but they will also add a substantial weight to the blocks under them. The base can be crushed by too many blocks on top.

Your experiment will show the most stable set up of blocks will have a wide base with only a few on top. You’ll need some on top, else the blocks below will move too easily; they will break apart slowly with persistent small vibrations. There will be a balance where you have a stable system that holds together naturally.

That pyramid of blocks is like a society as it stands at some point early on in its history; but not too far along, either.

Because eventually comes a new generation, and from them, a new government. Fresh politicians and unelected leaders look about and see that much of what needed to be done has already been done.
If the base has grown, there is a place for them. If not, they are not needed.

Ideally, they would do nothing. But people, especially people inclined to politics, are not inclined to sit still. They must do something. So they convince themselves that not all is well. They must add to and rearrange the structure! To not do so would be to admit their uselessness.

Being naturally fussy, the bureaucrats will meddle with the structure, adding to it there, subtracting to it there. Eventually, these folk will retire or die, only to be replaced by another batch.

They’ll be dissatisfied by the work that came before them; they’ll meddle, too. They’ll add more blocks on top, right near to their own. The occasional dishonest politician will add more than his fair share.

Occasionally, there will appear a few who want to shift the blocks into a stabler position. These “originalists” will be resisted most strongly by the people in the most unstable blocks, where the system is most unstable and complex because they benefit—in the here and now—by those complexities.

Eventually, inevitably, the structure will become sensitive to the slightest application of external force. Any small shock will send shivers everywhere. Some shocks can be anticipated: the smallest hint of troubles to come will require massive efforts to patch the structure so that it remains in balance. Yet the weight of the blocks and their odd configuration will require a delicate balance, a surgeon’s touch.

You know what is bound to happen: what has happened to every government that has ever existed. In time, it falls.

All experience shows that because people are people and must do something—politicians especially feel a burning desire to interlope—all governments grow until such a point that they can no longer sustain themselves. They end.

They either fall over on themselves, or they break apart into pieces; either mechanism brings destruction.

The only thing that has restrained—slowed, but not eliminated—the unlimited growth is a firm, fixed set of rules that all must adhere to. Allow the members of the government leeway to ignore the rules or rewrite them as they go along, and the growth and instability only increases its pace.

Well, all metaphors are limited. The thesis behind this one, even if expressed badly, is sound: that all governments where the population exceeds more than a handful grow inexorably, become overly sensitive to external forces, and then collapse. Just because people are ever dissatisfied.

This dissatisfaction leads to progress (and occasional collapses) in other areas, but nobody needs to progress a government beyond a solid foundation.

March 7, 2010 | 50 Comments

Do only the less intelligent write papers about theists being less intelligent?

There are some new statistical papers floating around that conclude that the more intelligent among us tend to be atheists.

An equivalent, but more enjoyable, way of stating this is that dumber people tend to be theists. It must be fun for degree-holding atheist journalists to report these matters, since it flatters their degree-bred sense of superiority.

Which doesn’t follow. That “superiority”, I mean. It would if it were true that atheism is morally superior to theism. But morality is logically independent of intelligence (empirically, the evidence goes both ways; and since 1789, intellectuals have little to boast of, morally).

Point is, any study, or any reporting on such a study, that seeks to correlate intelligence and theism should remain mute on the subject of morality. But that’s not the case in the reporting and comments on our two articles (here and here)

The first study was authored by Satoshi Kanazawa, an “evolutionary psychologist.” Evolutionary psychologist spend a lot of telling us what we already knew (women hate philandering mates) or by telling us things that are false or misleading. Such as this statement by James Bailey, who said, “The adoption of some evolutionarily novel ideas [like atheism] makes some sense in terms of moving the species forward.”

Bailey also says that it’s the more intelligent that usher in novel ideas. This is unhelpful because, while it is true that every advance by definition requires a “novel idea”, every setback does, too. And since setbacks are more common than advances (is atheism a setback?), are intellectuals, on average, an evolutionary disadvantage? Maybe: see below.

Anyway, Kanazawa thinks atheism is a novel idea, and says that higher IQ people tend to support it. But Kanazawa’s study employs poor statistical methods. Here’s the problem.

Many do not come to atheism by reasoned thought about the existence or not of God. Most people do not engage theologians about, say, the strengths and weaknesses of the ontological argument.

As acknowledged in our second study by professor David Voas, they come to it through culture,. Fresh college students meet not-so-fresh students and stale professors who share a common belief that theism is stupid, and that belief comes from the blind following of tradition. Most new students, as is human nature, adopt this belief of their associates and superiors. To say it another way, they begin to blindly follow a different tradition.

But, since it is higher IQ kids who attend college and who are exposed to the culture of atheism, it makes it more likely that students, rather than non-students, who will become atheists. Atheism and IQ will show a positive correlation, but what is missing is the causation. There will also be a correlation between “degree of liberalism” and IQ, which Kanazawa also tracked, and for the same reason.

If you object to that, it is probably because you have forgotten that for most of history people with high IQs were theists, and that it was those with the highest IQs who contributed the most to theology. Arguments for or against the existence of God have not changed much through time, but culture has. It is thus more plausible that culture and not intellect is what drives belief.

Kanazawa is not silent on causation. He says that theism causes “paranoia.” He strung these English words together, “It helps life to be paranoid, and because humans are paranoid, they become more religious, and they see the hands of God everywhere.” Each of those words is English, but their ordering is gibberish.

Is he implying that theists are mentally ill and atheists not? Kanazawa would not be the first to argue that theists are insane, but he may be the first who attached a p-value to that belief. Or is he merely saying that humans are cautious because the future is uncertain? No, because he can’t resist the disparaging, and false, remark that theists “see the hands of God everywhere.”

Bailey takes a subtler view. He claims that, regardless whether a novel idea is good or bad, holders of novel beliefs, who tend to be smarter, attract more mates. His argument is thus a version of the theory that some women like bad boys. There is no proof of his theory, of course, and it is difficult to test because it is difficult to quantitatively define “novelty.” For one, ideas do not have to be liberal to be novel, even if the predominant culture is conservative.

Even Kanazawa himself is aware that his own argument is on thin ice. For example, he acknowledges that nowadays “[m]ore intelligent people don’t have more children.” This is true.

So I wonder: does he realize that this empirical truth negates everything else in his study?

February 26, 2010 | 10 Comments

Should I be Responsible for Your Health?

I’m traveling today and unable to update the blog. Since our leaders in Washington are still discussing health care, I thought a repost of this dialog on the ethics of socializing health care would be helpful. It originally appeared on Pajamas Media on 11 January 2010.

Christmas Day: At a coffee shop Julius, a socialist, and me.

Julius It’s a day of celebration!

Me I thought you hated Christmas.

J: Don’t be a putz; you know what I’m talking about. The Senate has finally recognized our rights. It’s time to party!

M: A right, eh? So what responsibility is induced by that right?

J: Oh, I’m too happy to be bothered by your technical questions. But I’ll play along because you have such a sad face. It will be my Christmas present to you. Besides, the answer is easy: the responsibility is clearly the government’s.

M: So it’s ‘easy’, is it? Aren’t you the one who is always deriding others for their ‘simple’ views of ‘complex’ issues? Anyway, it isn’t nearly as easy as you think.

J: My, aren’t you the sour one. However, I remain cheerful. Our government has finally joined the international community in recognizing the rights of its citizens to health insurance.

M: Who, then, is the government?

J: The President, our wise Senate, and so on. I told you it was easy.

M: So you claim that just the President and members of Congress, and presumably its attached bureaucracy, is the government?

J: Of course.

M: Then the full responsibility for providing health insurance falls to this small group of people?

J: In a manner of speaking.

M: What manner? Surely, you aren’t claiming that these few people will pay the health care expenses out of their own pockets.

J: Of course not. They will administer the costs; that’s what I meant.

M: I assumed that’s what you meant, but I want to know where those funds are coming from. You claim it is the government’s responsibility, but then you say the members of the government won’t actually be the ones paying. So it appears the actual responsibility lies elsewhere. Where?

J: Come on, don’t be so obtuse. You know that the money will come from taxes.

M: And the taxes will be paid by me and you, and other citizens?

J: Yes.

M: So then, what you’re saying is that the responsibility is mine, and it is yours.

J: If you want to get technical.

M: But I do. It comes to this: we, the citizens, are ‘the’ government, are we not?

J: I guess so.

M: The government is not some abstraction, some far off, beneficent entity, but real people. People like you and me. When you’re always crying for ‘the government’ to pay for this or pay for that, what you’re really saying, is that I should pay for this, or that I should pay for that. Is that right?

J: Well, yes, I suppose so. But I know you agree with me that since you are a citizen, you have a responsibility to contribute to our society.

M: Unquestionably. I just want to see what the limits of those responsibilities are. Just as I want you to see that when you ask the government for money, you are really asking me for my money.

J: Oh, you can afford it, else you wouldn’t be blowing three bucks on this overpriced coffee.

M: Maybe. But let’s find out. What new right do you claim that Senate created in their vote?

J: The right to health insurance, naturally.

M: I think you misspeak. Even you would agree that health insurance is not the same as health. Are you sure the ‘right’ you’re claiming is health insurance?

J: Everybody knows that health insurance…

M: Let’s not bother with what everybody knows. Let’s figure out what we know. You agree, do you not, that having insurance is not equivalent to having health?

J: Not directly.

M: If not ‘directly’, then not at all. Insurance does not bring health, care (from medical specialists and so forth) and certain ways of living do that, am I right?

J: You are. But insurance pays for that care.

M: Once more, you are in a rush to jump to the simple answer. Let’s go a little slower. I don’t think we have reached an adequate definition of the new right. We need that so that we can figure what responsibilities are induced by that right. We have already agreed that these responsibilities are mine, and yours, so it is well that we understand them.

J: Then the right I mean is health. After all, the Senate was following the Constitution when it said we should promote the ‘general welfare.’ Our citizens should be as healthy as possible.

M: I think you should have some more coffee, because you aren’t awake yet. You cannot possibly mean what you just said.

J: I do mean it.

M: Then let’s discover where the statement ‘as healthy as possible’ leads. To guarantee your optimal health requires that I spare no expense, time, or effort, that I withhold from you no test or treatment, no matter how speculative, that I follow behind you with a safety net, even, lest you fall. Further, since you agreed that each citizen has the same responsibilities, each of us would have to spend the same effort for each other person. We would become a society where all that mattered was health.

J: If I weren’t wearing these sunglasses, you’d see me rolling my eyes. You know that the right to optimal health is not what I meant. It was clear that ‘health’ means to be cared for in a manner which is reasonable. If I don’t have money, I should be given it so that I can seek care when I need it.

M: It was not clear what you meant; but now we’re getting somewhere. However, you left something out, which will be obvious once we decide how much of the responsibility for your health is mine, and how much is yours.

J: I’m not sure I follow you.

M: We already agreed that the responsibility for your health is not solely mine, and that you share some of it. We’re just trying to figure your portion. For example, we are as sure as can be that smoking causes a lack of health. Does your right to health require a law mandating you to stop smoking?

J: I could give up smoking. I was going to quit anyway.

M: Good. But how about chips, ice cream, cheap hamburgers and other artery-clogging foods? These can certainly cause you to loose your health.

J: Dieting is no problem. I’m a little heavy as it is.

M: Drugs—you know the kind I mean—are also out. And how about driving a car? That really ups the chances of injury or death.

J: Wait a minute! I clearly have a right to drive!

M: Aren’t you always telling me that cars release pollutants into the air? Those can’t be good for health.

J: You know what I meant.

M: I didn’t. But I think what you’re hinting at is that you should be allowed the possibility of compromising your health in exchange for other benefits, or to enjoy the occasional excess. Driving or flying, for instance. Or having Thanksgiving dinner, a hot dog at the ball game, and so on.

J: It seems reasonable.

M: It isn’t. It doesn’t follow from your responsibility to maintain your health. If you believe that you have a responsibility, just as you say I have, for your health, then we should make it illegal for you to engage in behaviors that would affect your health adversely. If not, then you are asking to get away with whatever you like, and have society pay the bills to patch you up.

J: OK, I understand. What if I agree to wave my right to health in those cases where my lack of health was directly attributable to my own behavior? But then you’ll have to agree to restore me to health when the cause was external.

M: The first part of your bargain is acceptable. I’m not sure about the second. Can you explain it more fully?

J: Suppose I, out of the blue, develop cancer and I can’t pay for treatment. That kind of thing.

M: I notice you start with a dread disease, an extreme. Let’s start at a lower level where we are less apt to make a mistake. I’ll instead suppose you develop a plantar wart, which is certainly a departure from health. Should I be required to pay for its removal?

J: Maybe not.

M: How about we put the wart on your nose. Should I pay to have it cut away and restore your good looks?

J: Well…

M: Or suppose you developed a hangnail. Or zits. How much should I contribute to your acne wash funds?

J: Nobody is asking you to pay for trivials!

M: Aren’t you? OK, suppose you only thought you had cancer and you sought care. But it turned out to be nothing, a false alarm. Should I pay for your hypochondria?

J: It isn’t always easy to know when to go to the doctor. Better safe than sorry.

M: Perhaps, but that’s an evasion. Should I pay? After all, even if I agree to pay for your care when the cause of your lack of health was external, in this case there was no lack of health. If you insist I pay, then this isn’t a right to health you’re claiming, but an entirely new right. We can call it a right to ‘peace of mind.’

J: There is mental health, you know.

M: Of course there is. But your mistaken doctor visit cannot possibly weaken your mental health; if anything, it strengthens it.

J: I’m sensitive.

M: Don’t I know it. But should I pay? You still haven’t answered.

Continue reading “Should I be Responsible for Your Health?”

February 17, 2010 | 29 Comments

Keynes: The Return of the Master by Robert Skidelsky

Keynes: The Return of the Master

by Robert Skidelsky

Recommendation: read (buy here).

(It’s Keynes Week here at!)

The book’s tag-line is, “Why, sixty years after his death, John Maynard Keynes is the most important economic thinker for America.” Whether or not that is so, it is true that Skidelsky’s admiration of the “master” borders on idolatry.

Which is not a bad thing, because we know exactly what we’re getting. Mostly. Because Skidelsky can’t help but sneak in his own politics occasionally. We hear that the current economic system is “unjust”—that ever dangerous word—that budget deficits are caused by defense and war spending but not by increased “entitlements”, that we promote the “rape of nature”, that the level of “useless consumption” is too high, and so forth. However, we know our author is a modern academic, so we reflexively discard these distractions and get to the good stuff.

And there’s plenty. The chapters summarizing “The Crisis” are so well written that the words pour off the page right into your head. As do his descriptions of the two main ivory tower rivalries, which he labels, quoting Robert Waldman, Freshwater and Saltwater, or his own New Classical and New Keynesian. It is his contention that the Friedmanites have not advanced much beyond Adam Smith and Say’s Law. But he also chides New Keynesians for abandoning the faith. They are not true Keynesians, and their theories and methods differ so little from Classicalists that their spats are “in the nature of family disputes.”

Both schools have abandoned ethics, morality, epistemology, and common sense and have become a branch of Applied Mathematics too much in love with theory. By which he means the wrong theory. But I’m with him, because the same problems are found in my own field. He suggests economists are lost in admiration of the beauty of their models, so much so that they shun intrusions of reality. Take the rational expectations hypothesis and real business cycle theories as examples. These obviously false, but oh so pretty, theories form the basis of endless papers and tenure decisions.

But forget all that, and let’s get to the real question. What would Keynes do?

Keynes believed that the goal of life was not to create wealth, but to live “wisely, agreeably, and well.” He believed that “statistical information in the hands of the philosophically untrained was a dangerous and misleading toy.” And he strongly believed that people were far, far too certain of themselves (see yesterday’s post). To all of which we say, Amen, brother!

At the start, he rejected Bentham’s hedonistic utilitarian calculus. He said that Benthamism was “the worm which has been gnawing at the insides of modern civilization and is responsible for its present decay.” Keynes did not believe it was possible to calculate “happiness,” nor was it desirable to do so, nor should economic policy be designed in its name.

He opted instead for G.E. Moore’s ethics, which sought to increase the amount of good. Not that that concept is without difficulties, but Keynes felt it was defensible. Among the good: love of knowledge, being in love, “experiencing aesthetic emotions”, and such like. Pleasure, to counter Bentham, was external. Being in love “is a source of both pleasure and pain.” To know what is good is not an empirical question: no amount of data will ever help answer it.

Conspicuously, and thankfully, absent from Moore’s list is “justice”, though Keynes took it up in his idea of a “just price,” by which he meant a “fair” price. Skidelsky claims this idea “has long been banished to the attics of economics.” But we often hear condemnations of price gouging, monopolies are typically disallowed, and several sectors of the economy, such as utilities, have their prices heavily regulated. Anyway, Keynes only meant that rational people have an intuitive grasp of what is fair and what is not.

Keynes married his basis of ethics and morality with his brilliant understanding of probability and uncertainty, and from this flowed his theory of economics. Skidelsky spends a lot of time describing these foundations because he feels, probably rightly, that they have been forgotten or neglected. He also outlines Keynes’s economic theory, which is covered in enough other places we needn’t repeat it here.

Still, what do we do now? Regulate, says Skidlesky. Spend, and embrace deficits. He provides a sketch of ideas that should be implemented forthwith. Now, I do not have the expertise to judge whether these ideas are what Keynes would advocate or not. What is clear is that Skidelsky has forgotten his master’s warning about excess certainty. Plus, and although he didn’t mean for this to happen, he puts the reader on the hunt for unresolved foundational difficulties, of which there are many.

For example, terminology is a huge problem. Keynes and every other economist always use the term “full employment”, which has a technical definition, and which is everywhere assumed to be good. But nowhere is that assumption justified, or even explained. It’s just taken for granted. It might even be true, or obvious to economists, but I don’t see it.

“Equilibrium” is yearned for—economists are passionate about having it—but nobody offers what it means empirically. This feels like economists have had just enough physics to be dangerous.

And then there’s “inequality”, perhaps the most dangerous, certainly the bloodiest, idea ever had by man. But just what is that? Anybody care to answer?