Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

Thoughts on Crime and Punishment

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  • Is Raskolnikov the least likeable protagonist of all time?
  • Great illustrations of what real poverty is like
    • Regular hunger, only one set of clothes (rags), turning to theft and prostitution
    • But not all sympathetic portrayal; one man drinks himself into poverty. Raskolnikov simply does nothing all day rather than work. Disdains going into business but then turns to murder.
    • Murder is hard to cover up when you are that poor! Have roommates, can’t afford a weapon and so must steal it, can’t throw away bloody clothes because they are your only set
  • Interesting half-parallel between Marmaladov and Raskolnikov. They both spend a lot of time wallowing in self-pity over their own weakness. M’s weakness is drinking away all his money while his kids go hungry. R’s “weakness” is having a conscience that tells him murder is wrong.
  • I’m not above being continually amused by funny Russian names
  • TVtropes seems surprisingly good at identifying the themes of this great work. (Attention conservation warning: TVtropes link)
  • Dostoevsky understood tobacco way earlier than medicine did!
    • “AH THESE cigarettes!” Porfiry Petrovitch ejaculated at last, having lighted one. “They are pernicious, positively pernicious, and yet I can’t give them up! I cough, I begin to have tickling in my throat and a difficulty in breathing. You know I am a coward, I went lately to Dr. B__n; he always gives at least half an hour to each patient. He positively laughed looking at me; he sounded me: ‘Tobacco’s bad for you,’ he said, ‘your lungs are affected.’ But how am I to give it up? What is there to take its place? I don’t drink, that’s the mischief, he-he-he, that I don’t. Everything is relative, Rodion Romanovitch, everything is relative!”
  • The book is interesting and readable, lots of subtlety but while reading it wasn’t clear to me why this is considered one of the all-time greats
    • This may be because it is hard to appreciate how original things were in their own time when they have since been heavily imitated. A bit of research seems to back this up
    • Many characters seem overly dramatic/histrionic
      • This may have been because Dostoevsky had a pretty dramatic personal life- spared execution at the last second thanks to a letter from the tsar; has his first seizure upon learning of the death of his father
    • I assumed throughout the whole book that Raskolnikov was a satire of Nietzsche’s ideas about ubermensch; then afterward I realize the book was published in 1866 and Nietzsche’s first publication was in 1870.

Written by James Bailey

January 15, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Placebos, Utilitarianism and Truth

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I finally got around to reading Predictably Irrational, and the chapter on placebos got me thinking.  The chapter describes how some surgeries were found to be no more effective than “placebo surgery”, when doctors told patients they would do the surgery, gave them anesthetics and made incisions but didn’t actually perform the part of the surgery that was supposed to be effective.  The usual response when a treatment is proven to be no more effective than a placebo is to stop doing it, or to claim the study was flawed.

But if a placebo is effective (and they are often quite effective), perhaps we should continue giving them.  If placebos require false belief on the part of the recipient, to what extent is it ok for the scientific and medical establishment to deceive people, or at least not expend effort discrediting placebos?

I know this isn’t exactly a novel question, but I haven’t put much thought into it and the answer is not obvious to me.  Like many other who think of themselves as “rationalists”, I am mostly a utilitarian but I put a value on truth that is likely out of proportion to that which can be justified on purely utilitarian grounds.  My modus operandi is to be truthful without even making utilitarian calculations, and even if I made them and they pointed to deception I would likely decide to be a single-issue deontologist.

This tension goes back to the beginning of both utilitarianism and classical liberal truthiness, since JS Mill helped come up with both ideas.  He tried to square the circle and argue that there was no conflict.  Today people acknowledge the conflict but I have not read a good solution to it.  I believe Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky have said something like “the conflict exists, I take the side of holding truthfulness as a value in itself but I cannot fully defend this position.” (except for mundane dishonesty)

I guess that’s where I am now too.  However, I do wonder if rationalists should spend so much effort trying to convince people that, say, homeopathy is quackery.  If people turn to homeopathic remedies in lieu of modern medicine when there is a real treatment available, that is certainly bad.  However, in the areas where modern medicine does little better than a placebo, homeopathy is likely to provide a much cheaper placebo.

This issue comes up in economics as well.  Some macroeconomic remedies may return the economy to prosperity by fooling people.  Rational expectations argues against this by saying that the government is incapable of fooling markets.  However, provided that they could, economists face a dilemma where telling people the truth about what government policy is doing could make the country poorer.

This conflict comes up in politics all the time.  Is it ok to use dishonest tactics to get better policies adopted?  Like end-justify-the-means problems generally, much of the problem is due to the fact that everyone considers their own ends to be worthy, but for many reasons their ends would not in fact increase total utility.

This is part of why I say err on the side of truth, but I cannot really defend this position.

Written by James Bailey

August 31, 2010 at 5:03 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

Arthur Conan Doyle- Historian

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The man remembered for Sherlock Holmes was not only a novelist, but a contemporary historian as well.

Searching for a good history of WWI in the Widener Library, I stumbled across his 5-volume his of the war. I decided to see whether his writing ability carried over to this new field.

One might expect that a man famous as a novelist would deliver a gripping narrative full of beautiful prose, but one lacking in historical accuracy and a thorough understanding of the political situation and military tactics.

One would, however, be wrong on all counts.

Conan Doyle wrote 1914 like a traditional historian. His prose mostly consists of precise descriptions of military actions- X unit attacked Y place on D date for R reason, and sustained ABC casualties. But he demonstrates a thorough knowledge of tactics, strategy and politics.

1914 was written and published in 1916, while the war still raged. Conan Doyle admits that his narrative is handicapped by a lack of information about the enemy and the allies. For this reason, his focus is on the British Expeditionary Force.

For a book written during an ongoing war, it is surprisingly fair. The author continually praises the courage of the German forces. He admits that “Germany was grievously handicapped at sea, and that she deserves the more credit for whatever she accomplished.” The book is not exactly wartime propoganda. His criticisms of Germany are restricted to the same sort impartial people made in hindsight- that invading a small, neutral country, sinking civilian ships, and wearing enemy uniforms are not good things to do. When he does editorialize, however, his words are passionate:

“The German representative at Brussels was perjuring his soul”

“The long-meditated crime had been done, and, with loud appeals to God, Germany began her fateful campaignby deliberate perjury and arrogant disdain for treaties. God accepted the appeal, and swiftly showed how the weakest State with absolute right upon its side may bring to naught all the crafty plottings of the strong.”

The author, like so many others, struggled to understand why the war started, and especially what could have brought English and Germans to fight each other.

“Up to the year 1896 there was a great deal of sympathy and of respect in Great Britain for the German Empire. It was felt that of all Continental Powers she was the one which was most nearly allied to Britain in blood, religion and character.”

He expressed continued consternation that two branches of the German race should be warring against one another, that the Saxons who went upriver should, after only 1500 years, be so different from those who went across the sea. He notes how English regiments would find on the corpses of their Hanoverian enemies insignia matching their own, from campaigns when they had served together.

He lays the blame for the English-German estrangement on the Kaiser, the construction of a massive German navy- and on the most dangerous people of all, fellow writers.

“a number of writers, of whom Nietzsche and Treitschke are the best known, had inoculated the German spirit with a most mischievous philosophy, which grew the more rapidly as it was dropped into the favourable soil of Prussian militarism. Nietzsche’s doctrines were a mere general defence of might as against right, and of violent brutality against everything which we associate with Christianity and Civilization….. The typical brute whom he exalted was blond, but a brute of any other tint would presumably suffice. It was different in the case of Treitschke….. he taught the rising generation of Germans that their special task was to have a reckoning with England and to destroy the British Empire, which for some reason he imagined to be degenerate and corrupt.”

Writing often exerts a power of the minds of men. With such power comes the potential for great danger. Why is it that the German writers of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche, Trietschke, and Marx, could sow so much sorrow in the twentieth? Will books of such power, for good or evil, ever again be written?

Moving back to more definite matters. As he wrote this book in 1916, Arthur Conan Doyle could still speak unashamedly of war in terms of honor and chivalry. He constantly praises self-sacrificing courage on the part of the troops. He refers hundreds of times to “gallant” officers, even as the absurdly high casualty rate meant that most references were to their deaths. Modern war, with its accurate rifles and its machine guns, did not permit many people to survive long enough for a real narrative to coalesce around them. But the author tries his best to see purpose and courage and avoid the words like “pointless”, “futile”, and “stupid”, to which men would soon turn. He could still speak of

“the days when the high gods of virility would smile as they looked down upon the chosen children of Odin, the English and the Germans, locked in the joy of battle.”

Written by James Bailey

July 14, 2008 at 11:25 pm

The War to End All Wars

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The memory of the Great European War, of millions of young men fighting and dying to win a few yards of shell-pocked mud, was enough to convince many that war was an ugly, irrational, pointless endeavor which civilized nations should have the good sense to avoid in perpetuity.  They hoped that something good could emerge from the mass of suffering, that this worst of all wars would also be the last.

Modern minds, in the knowledge that this war would only be the First to earn the dubious honor of being a “world war”, have looked back on the inter-war idealism as hopelessly naive.  I myself have ridiculed their dream, and still do feel safe predicting that wars will be with us for some time yet.

But in some sense, the dreamers and pacifists were right.  World War One did not instantly bring perpetual peace.  But it was the beginning of the end for European war.

In the ninety years since World War One, only a single inter-state war has erupted in Western or Central Europe, and the prospect of another seems quite unlikely.  The length of the peace and the current absence of plausible threats to it marks a major departure from millenia of European history, a history often remembered as one war after another.

There remained only one detour on the road to peace.  World War Two would wrest from the First World War the grim title of deadliest war of all time.  New technology and extreme mobility meant that the Second World War would be fought very differently.  But while the how of the war was very different, the why was largely the same.  The unification of Germany fundamentally changed the geopolitical balance of Europe.  The Germans thought that their newfound strength deserved recognition.  The spirit of the age was one of imperialism and social Darwinism.  German philosophers had spent a century glorifying the will to power and dismissing morality as born of slavery and meant for the weak.

Before each World War, the geopolitical situation of a rising Germany able to dominate its neighbors combined with a philosophical and ideological situation which made Germans willing to invade their neighbors.  Just as with previous attempts by the Hapsburgs and the French to establish European hegemony, Germany’s naked desire to dominate the Continent inspired her neighbors, individually less powerful that her, to form coalitions able to defeat her.  Geopolitics functioned as always.  Fundamental change came not when the European map was redrawn for the thousandth time, but when the hearts and minds of Europeans were realigned.

Human beings are naturally aggressive, and tend to cluster into groups distrustful of outsiders.  A disposition toward war is bred into our very beings.  It is there in babies jealous for food, there in children fighting in streets and in playgrounds.  This tendency from our nature requires a strong dose of “nurture” if it is to be overcome.  Instead many children of the time learned from parents and teachers that war was honorable and glorious and that other countries were untrustworthy and must be taught respect.  Nurture, rather than fighting the worst tendencies of nature, reinforced them.

World War One drove people to deeply question the beliefs that allowed such a war to take place.  Germany had sent a generation to die on French soil and gained nothing.  Germans questioned their beliefs, but in the end elected a man who give their beliefs one more try, saying in essence- we had the right idea, we just didn’t try hard enough.  So they did try harder, they even succeeded in conquering France.  But a second defeat, this time with Germany not only bled dry but also bombed out and occupied, finally convinced them.  They didn’t need to fight harder, or come up with a better plan of invasion; they needed a total gestalt shift.  They needed to look at their neighbors and see people like themselves, people who could be lived with.

You put you hand into a fire and it gets burned.  You might wonder if your technique of fire-touching was incorrect.  The more scientifically minded way wonder if fire caused pain or was only sometimes correlated with it.  But if you get burned again, and worse than the first time, you learn your lesson, and stop touching the flame, lest it consume you.  It took two World Wars, but Germany and Europe along with them learned their lesson.  The next geopolitical imbalance, pitting the U.S. and Western Europe against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, lasted forty years, but saw no no major war.  The Americans and the Russians had learned along with Europe, and saw major wars in Europe as a very last resort.  Gone were the days when a European nation would dare to, or even desire to invade their neighbor.

Written by James Bailey

July 3, 2008 at 10:03 pm

The Matrix Argument

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Are we living in a computer simulation?

An Oxford philosophy professor presents a formal case, complete with a though-provoking trillemma.

I can’t imagine what is to be gained by making the simulation quite so detailed, when it is in all likelihood working on a very specific problem like the ultimate chess strategy, or the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Written by James Bailey

February 13, 2008 at 2:53 am