Pursuit of Truthiness

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Archive for the ‘natural philosophy’ Category

Dialogue on Randomization

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Roger Bacon- Consider the diverse benefits of randomization. Piercing through the vagaries of chance and deception, it allows us to discern truly the causes and consequences of action.

Trollius Maximus- Yet, there are costs to randomization. A trial requires an exceeding amount of time and treasure, while other methods can be done in short time by a single natural philosopher of modest means. Even if trials were as easy to conduct, they are harder to generalize to far-away lands and eras. To say nothing of the ethics of rewarding one man while spurning another, all according to the flip of a coin.

Bacon: I do not say that randomized studies are the only way. Where traditional methods fail, or when the question is of true import, we will find the costs of randomization to be of little matter.

Trollius: Even the ethical costs? Will you so lightly toss aside the question of the good?

Bacon: What could be the flaw of helping one while passing another by, so long as I do no harm to the other? Does not every good deed only help one or a few, while the multitudes remain ignorant of the deed?

Trollius: Have you indeed done no harm to those passed over in your trial, or those who bear witness to your study? Have you not convinced them that the world was a more random place than they had thought, that their own actions matter little compared to the all-powerful, uncaring hand of chance?

Bacon: Perhaps I have. Indeed, I stand convinced. I shall demonstrate in a paper using a randomized trial that exposure to randomization undermines people’s conviction that they are the master of their fate, the locus of their control, and I shall show that this new belief causes them great harm.

Trollius: Your paper would roil the world of randomistas.

Bacon: Yet I worry that natural philosophers will still turn too readily to randomization, since they gain most of the benefits from doing such studies, while experiencing only a fraction of these costs. Witness how psychologists continue to use deception, while economists and others spam the world with audit studies.

Trollius: Ah, but your work would be so convincing, your brilliance could shatter the randomista movement with a single blow. They would return to running cross-country regressions, and Sophists will carry the day once more.

Bacon: I see. Your trolling has convinced me to stay silent, for the good of the world I must maintain the Noble Lie that randomization is the ideal and the future of natural philosophy.

Trollius: By silence, you mean not writing a paper. Certainly a blog post could do no harm; people would find it funny, rather than a failed attempt at cleverness and a lame imitation of Brad DeLong (who you shouldn’t be trying to imitate anyway).

Bacon: Indeed. To the blogosphere!

Written by James Bailey

November 11, 2014 at 11:15 pm

Philosophy is Pointless

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There are three kinds of philosophy:

1) Natural Philosophy

2) Ethics

3) Answers to made-up questions like ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ that show the answerer is really clever.

If most philosophical questions were definitively resolved one way or another, should people act any differently as a result?  I think not, and if not, I submit that philosophy is pointless.

Except, of course, as a way of showing how clever you are.  That is to say, most philosophers are just in it for the chicks and the money.

So, philosophers, tell me why you do it and what would change if you got definite answers to non-scientific, non-ethical questions.

Written by James Bailey

February 18, 2010 at 11:24 am

The World Though Einstein-Colored Glasses

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Just read Albert Einstein’s The World As I See It. The book, published in German in 1933 and in English a year later, was Einstein’s first publication directed at a general audience. The first half is devoted to science, both to an explanation of Einstein’s work and a record of his thoughts on the work of others and on the scientific method.

Next follow a series of letters about what it means to be Jewish and about the Zionist cause. Einstein thought highly of the value placed by Jews on learning and on justice. He hoped they would be able to integrate into Western, Christian societies without losing their own traditions and identity, and he saw the Zionist project as a way to bring all Jews together, whether or not they actually went to Palestine. His views are striking today do to the form of Zionism he advocated. He did not envision Israel as a political entity, a national state; he thought it enough that Jews were once again living together in their ancient home. It was not a problem to be living under British or Arab rule. Significantly, Einstein repeatedly states that the Jews and Arabs must be reconciled, so that when someday when the British would leave, then they could still live together in peace and friendship. I imagine that this very sound advice in 1933 was deemed too much of a risk after the experience of the Holocaust; after an experience like that any people must be reluctant to leave their security in the hands of others.

Einstein proceeds to turn his great mind to the problems of peace, war, economics, religion and philosophy. Einstein was an ardent pacifist, and a believer in the human potential for goodness. He earnestly hoped to see disarmament and the end of war in his own lifetime. He went about pursuing this goal every way he knew how, from attending peace conferences to fostering international ties among scientists to giving public speeches to writing prominent political figures.  But he was not a naive idealist.  He realized the collective action problem presented by disarmament, where each nation has an incentive to cheat; so he hoped for simultaneous universal disarmament.  Second-best would be attempts to punish those who start wars, regardless of the short-term interests of the other nations- so at best, every country would fight against an aggressor; or barring that, every country wold forgo potential war profits and put sanctions on the aggressor.  These last options border on the realistic.  Einstein’s foremost peace crusade was to fight against what he saw as the most evil part of war, but at the same time one of the easiest to eliminate: conscription.  He hoped, through changed laws and widespread conscientious objection, to eliminate the draft, and usher in a world where no man was forced to fight against his will.  In this, at least, he has been largely vindicated.

Einstein praises Americans for many reasons- our technology, our generosity, our freedom.  Much of this praise is still deserved today, to a greater or lesser degree than it formerly was.  But it is sad to see that in his time he placed the highest hope on Americans as the most peaceful large nation and the one most likely to bring about the end of war.  But seventy-five years later, it is the Europeans who have bucked their long history of warmaking, while America still engages in aggressive wars of choice.  I as much as anyone can give many reasons why our continued use of war is a good, or perhaps on balance even a peace-promoting strategy.  But it is sad to realize that a modern-day Einstein’s praise would flow the other way, and that America has given up a part of the moral high ground we long held relative to Europe.

If Einstein’s thoughts on peace do not now seem silly or naive, I thought perhaps he might slip as he waded into economics.  But his thoughts there too seem both wise and intelligent, especially in the desperate era of the Great Depression which left most economists baffled.  He advocated the regulation of monopolies and cartels, a maximum work-week, and a minimum wage.  Most importantly, especially as a German, he recommended the stabilization of the price level, to be achieved by controlling the money supply- Milton Friedman, twenty years early.  He hoped that the economy could be improved through regulation and organization, but recognized the severe inherent limitations of state enterprise:

“It is no accident that capitalism has brought with it progress not merely in production but also in knowledge.  Egoism and competition are, alas, stronger forces than public spirit and sense of duty.  In Russia, they say, it is impossible to get a decent piece of bread…. bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.  I have seen and experienced too many dreadful warnings, even in comparatively model Switzerland…. the state can only be of real use to industry as a limiting and regulating force.”

He saw Soviet communism as a grand experiment; he wondered whether it could work there, or work in a Western nation that would not tolerate such “terror” to enforce it.  But he expresses much skepticism in the project.  All in all, his views pass economic muster today, and are stunningly prescient for 1933.

Finally, Einstein puts forward some views on fundamental questions.  He sees a search for the meaning of life as an absolute necessity.  “The ideals which have lighted me on my way and time after time given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Truth, Goodness and Beauty.  Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind, of preoccupation with the objective, life would have seemed to me empty.”  Yet despite this need for fellowship, he feels “an obstinate sense of detachment” and a “need for solitude”, and is “sharply conscious, without too much regret, of the limits of mutual understanding and sympathy between one’s fellow creatures.”

Einstein sees science as a sort of religion.  He abhors religions based on fear, whether of God or death, and eschews anthropomorphic conceptions of God.  But he believes “a knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which our minds seem to reach only in their most elementary forms; it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.”

Einstein really opened his mind and his heart to the world in this book.  He demonstrates that his intelligence is wide-ranging, and in his letters shows himself to be wise, kind, and generous; a truly great man.

To end on a lighter note, and again recall a similarity to Milton Friedman, I quote Einstein’s views on prohibition:

“The prestige of the government has undoubtedly been lowered by the prohibition law.  For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced.  It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”

Clearly a wise man!

Written by James Bailey

August 4, 2008 at 11:07 pm

How well do you know yourself?

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As I get older and gain some experience in the wide world, I realize that some qualities which I had thought were intrinsic to my being were in fact contingent on something else.

When this happens, it feels a little bit like find out that your arm in detachable, or that unaided flight really is possible if you get the ratio of frosted flakes to beer just right.

Usually, these discoveries are really minor, but some are pretty important.  In middle school and high school, everyone (including myself) thought I was just a quiet person.  To some extent I was just shy.  But to a large extent, I was just chronically tired; I realize that I went through high school in a state of continual sleep deprivation.  Once I went to college and had classes starting at 11, I was suddenly a lot more social; and now I see as clearly as if it were graphed out this inverse relationship.

Conclusion- don’t make assumptions about your body or personality.  Instead, try some natural philosophy, where life is your laboratory.

Written by James Bailey

August 7, 2007 at 2:59 am