Philosophy

He has written a…dare I call it awesomelong dialogue, based on my earlier post on why I do not believe in God.  Any paragraph would make an excellent excerpt, it is hard to choose, here is just one set of observations:

Instead, what I think you are looking for is a kind of black swan among revelations…

And, no surprise here, I think the combination of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is the darkest swan in the sea of religious stories — the compendium of stories, histories, poems and prophecies and parables and eyewitness accounts that most suggests an actual unfolding of divine revelation, and whose unlikely but overwhelming role as a history-shaping force endures even in what is supposed to be our oh-so-disenchanted world.

Ross also considers that if he were to play a kind of Bayesian game on reported personal revelations, treating all revelations equally (please read his whole discussion and don’t quote him out of context, as he is not actually advocating treating all revelations equally), he comes up with 45 percent for classical theism, “the pantheistic big tent” at 40 percent, gnosticism (hurrah!) at 6 percent, hard “no supernatural” deism at 4 percent, dualism at 3 percent, and finally “Which still leaves that two percent chance that Daniel Dennett has it right.”

There is much much more at the link, self-recommending, if there ever was such a thing.

P.s. Ross says yes, I should believe in God.

A while ago I tweeted something like “If you use 2x on your podcasts, should you also aspire to speak twice as fast to others?”, or something like that.  In turn I started thinking about the optimal speed of written responses.

Sometimes you won’t email back until you have something quite good to say, and discourse may be inefficiently slow.  You are waiting, not only because you might be busy, but also to protect your reputation. It would be socially preferable to just “get the response over with,” even if you seem a little duncey every now and then.  In fact you are a little duncey.

Alternatively, you may drum up an obviously perfunctory response, so that no one judges your intelligence by it.  In equilibrium, some people will overinvest in being brusque over email for this reason.

If one has been smart or clever, it raises the bar for future interactions, raises expectations, and so slows down discourse.  So often (too often?) we judge others by the trend.  In that case, cleverness should ascend with time, at least in the initial stages of relationships.  If that is the case, do not raise initial expectations so high, though neither can you sound too stupid at first.  Perhaps the same is true for blogs and blog posts.

Or say you wish to flatter the sender of the email.  What is the appropriate response pace toward that end?  Not one second later, but not three years later either.

The now-defunct gmail chat eased some of these problems by lowering expectations for quality of response, by making “right away” the default pace.  I suspect one does gmail chat, or whatever is replacing it now, mainly with people where “expectations of quality” already are fairly well set.

If you have a really clever email response, you might wish to send it right away, even if you could come up with a slightly better version after a day of thought.  The immediate send will produce a more favorable impression.

People who are quick thinkers should answer their email right away.  Some of this may be a general attachment to a propensity for “quick response.”  But they will seem smarter this way too, albeit less smart once their recipients figure out this logic.

Overall the argument is that point estimates should not be shoved into a Drake equation and then multiplied by each, as that requires excess certainty and masks much of the ambiguity of our knowledge about the distributions.  Instead, a Bayesian approach should be used, after which the fate of humanity looks much better.  Here is one part of the presentation:

Conclusion 2: the great filter is likely in the past

Given the priors and the Fermi observation, the default guess should be that the low -probability term(s) are in the past.

The conclusion can be changed if:

We reduce the uncertainty of past terms to less than 7 orders of magnitude

The distributions have weird shapes

Note that a past great filter does not imply our safety

(The stars just don’t foretell our doom)

And:

Life only actually occurs 8% of the time

It is also noteworthy that most life on earth shares the same genetic system, implying it takes a long time for a particular kind of life, and also intelligence, to evolve.

Those slides are by Anders Sandberg, Eric Drexler & Toby Ord, “Dissolving the Fermi Paradox,” and the pointer is from Patrick Collison.

Whew!  That said, your rate of savings now ought to go up just a wee amount.

Yes,I mean the book by James Fenimore Cooper.  I am reading it for the first time and it is much better than I had expected.  Mark Twain’s mockery of Cooper led me wrong, as I let it turn me away from being an appreciator.  And for all the more recent talk of the book being archaic and racist, I am finding it surprisingly sophisticated, for instance:

“Why, then, does the pale-face use them [rifles and powder and bullets]?  If he is ordered to give double to him that asks only for one thing, why does he take double from the poor Indians who ask for no thing?  He comes from beyond the rising sun, with his book in his hand, and he teaches the red-man to read it; but why does he forget himself all it says?  When the Indian gives, he is never satisfied, and now he offers gold for the scalps of our women and children, though he calls us beasts if we take the scalp of a warrior killed in open war.  My name is Rivenoak.”

The white settlers are perplexed and dumbfounded in response.

The Deerslayer himself is a kind of naif, frequently confronted with new situations and trying to figure out the boundaries between man and nature, between man and woman, what law might mean across differing civilizations, and which of the rules apply or do not.  He is continually experimenting with one point of view and then moving on to the next, though I suspect by the end of the book he will settle somewhere.

It seems he is attracted only to the Delawares (Native Americans) and he doesn’t quite know what to do about that.  At least up through my p.196.

It’s also about the loss of innocence, and to what extent violence is an inevitable part of history, some of the plot line being drawn from Homer’s Iliad.  The protagonist is called Deerslayer to highlight that he has not yet taken human life.

There was, by the way, a 1920 German silent movie version of the book, with Bela Lugosi playing the role of Chingachgook.  “This was the first part of the two-part Lederstrumpf silent film.”

And: “While on his death bed, the Austrian composer Franz Schubert wanted most to read more of Cooper’s novels.”

It has a good amount on the evolution of property rights and also how to, verbally, make credible or enforceable agreements.

I’m find this book much fresher and more stimulating than my recent reread of the well-worn Crime and Punishment.  Twain’s essay, while full of talent and his good humor, is actually one of the most harmful and misleading pieces of literary criticism ever penned.  You can take it as a model for what to avoid in life and in your intellectual thought — what I call “devalue and dismiss.”  Appreciate, there is so much to appreciate in books.  Do not devalue and dismiss.

Ben was wildly charming and charismatic before the crowd.  My questions tried to get at how he thinks rather than the hot button issues of the day.  Here is the transcript, audio, and video.  We covered Kansas vs. Nebraska, famous Nebraskans, Chaucer and Luther, unicameral legislatures, the decline of small towns, Ben’s prize-winning Yale Ph.d thesis on the origins of conservatism,  what he learned as a university president, Stephen Curry, Chevy Chase, Margaret Chase Smith, and much more.

Here is one bit from Ben:

Neverland and Peter Pan is a dystopian hell. Neverland is not a good place. You don’t want to get to the place where you’re physically an adult and you have no moral sense, you have no awareness of history, you have no interest in the future. Peter Pan is killing people, and he doesn’t really care; he doesn’t remember their names. It’s a really dystopian thing. Perpetual adolescence is the bad thing.

Adolescence is special. We need to figure out how to use adolescence; it’s a means to an end. So that’s what the book’s about.

I am an Augustinian in my anthropology, but Rousseau is a romantic. I think he’s wrong about lots and lots and lots of things, but I think he’s really, really smart. You have to engage him, and you have to engage people who have ideas that are different than yours because you may ultimately be converted to their view, and you need to encounter things that are big and challenging and threatening to your worldview. Or you may sometimes come to believe you’re right and be able to respond to the counterarguments, while your argument will be better. You’ll grow through it, and you’ll become more persuasive to others through it.

So I think Rousseau’s fundamental anthropological understanding of why we feel that things are broken in our soul is, he’s got a reason to blame society for everything we feel is wrong in the world, and I think there’s a lot of brokenness deep inside all of us, and so, that’s the Augustinian versus Rousseauvian sense of what’s wrong.

But I think the Emile is brilliant, both because it forces me to wrestle with ideas that I don’t agree with, or mostly don’t agree with, but I think it’s also just an incredibly good read.

Then there was this:

COWEN: …Might one argue that the more one thinks and writes about sex, the more you’re led to Rousseauian conclusions that a certain kind of constraint will prove impossible, and then one is pulled away further from Ben Sasse–like conclusions.

SASSE: That’s a really fair question. I wanted to stay away from sex 100 percent, and then ultimately I couldn’t do it.

COWEN: There’s three pages in your book about sex.

SASSE: Yeah.

COWEN: And page 33 mentions it once.

You’ll have to read the whole thing to see where Ben took that line of inquiry, his answer was excellent.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is part of the argument:

More generally, the U.S. is an environment where new products — and here I mean of the non-political sort — get started relatively easily. People are willing to take more chances with their consumption, and so this is a fertile environment for startups, which then spread to the broader world.

As for Britain, the traditional aristocracy is remarkably weakened, voting along class lines has disappeared and, most observers agree, if it were really up to the House of Lords, Brexit wouldn’t be happening.

On top of these factors is English, by far the world’s leading language for scientific and philosophic and political discourse, for blogs, for Twitter, and for many other kinds of dialogue. We shouldn’t be surprised if new ideas are more likely to surface and take hold in the English-speaking world.

Here is another bit:

To be sure, some evidence suggests the influence of President Trump is actually causing Western Europe to become more liberal. But don’t confuse style and substance. Another five to 10 years of deindustrialization, terrorist attacks and migrant crises might lead to a “home brew” version of Trumpian ideas in continental Europe, albeit cloaked in a more intellectual and more aristocratic garb. There is a running joke going around along the lines of “If fascist ideas come to [Country X], they will come in the form of anti-fascism.” Once the properly European version of the product comes to the fore, it might do very well indeed.

There is much more at the link.

I was sent an email asking what I myself thought of the recent Jeff Bezos charity query, and that email contained a number of questions.  I’m not at liberty to reproduce it, but with some minor edits I think you will be able to make sense of my responses, as given here:

  1. Since the marginal value of extra consumption by him (or even far less wealthy people) is essentially zero, there are many “good enough” charitable ventures.
  2. The rate of abandonment is high for charitable support.
  3. Often the key is for a super-productive person, with lots of stimulating opportunities at his or her disposal (if only running the status quo businesses, or say meeting other famous people), is to find something charitable that will hold his or her interest.  But how can it possibly be as fun as the earlier successes and extending them?
  4. I disagree with your descriptions of the philanthropic strategies offered in your email.  I suspect that most or all are attempted examples of my #3, namely what is actually short-run thinking.
  5. They are all super short-term strategies, once the attention constraint is measured.
  6. In this regard, there is nothing strange about Bezos’s plea and expressed desire to do some good in the short term, except its transparency.
  7. Perhaps earlier philanthropists, such as Carnegie, had many fewer opportunities for fun, if only because their times were so primitive and backward. That made it easier for them to keep up enthusiasm for truly long-term projects.
  8. I still think the real opportunities are for *true* long-run thinking, admittedly subject to the constraint that it keeps one’s short-term interest up.
  9. Cultivating one’s own weirdness, or having a lot of it in the first place, is one way to ease the congruence I mention in #8.
  10. Even truly smart and wise people often “give to people” rather than to projects.  This is for one thing a strategy for keeping one’s own interest up.

So to tie this all back in to Jeff Bezos, I don’t know what he should do.  I don’t know him personally, nor do I even have an especially strong knowledge of the second-hand sources about him.

But I think he is exactly on the right track to be thinking about what motivates him personally, and what is likely to hold his attention.  And I don’t think his approach is any more “short term” than most of the other philanthropy of the super-rich.

Here is the tweet link, here is the text:

This tweet is a request for ideas.  I’m thinking about a philanthropy strategy that is the opposite of how I mostly spend my time — working for the long term.  For philanthropy, I find I’m drawn to the other end of the spectrum: the right now.  As one example, I’m very inspired and moved by the work done at Mary’s Place here in Seattle.  I like long-term — it’s a huge lever: Blue Origin, Amazon, Washington Post — all of these are contributing to society and civilization in their own ways.  But I’m thinking I want much of my philanthropic activity to be helping people in the here and now — short-term — at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.  If you have ideas, just reply to this tweet with the idea (and if you think this approach is wrong, would love to hear that too).

Thanks!

Jeff

After I see what you all come up with, and after I edit out the most brilliant ideas, I’ll tweet back your responses to him.  I’ll come up with something of my own as well.

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.

COWEN: Yes.

LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.

And:

LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.

Recommended…

I mean for the West, not for emerging economies.  Obviously we need to know future trajectories, and that is hard to do.  But try this simple question: since 2000 or so, have the predictions of the optimists or the pessimists come closer to being correct and insightful?

At a dinner party two nights ago, the unanimous opinion, even from the optimists, was that the pessimists had been doing better in the predicting game.  Of course, that does not mean the pessimists will be correct going forward.  The optimists might try these counters:

1. There isn’t much of a true structure period, so a bunch of correct pessimist predictions doesn’t mean much.

2. The optimists had the better predictions for the 1980s and 1990s.  Perhaps the sides simply alternate being correct every now and then.

3. The recent correct predictions of the pessimists are mostly noise.  Soon, optimistic predictions are likely to start being correct again.

4. Since 2000, the pessimists didn’t actually predict as well as you might think.  They failed to see how quickly the internet would spread, the power and reach of smart phones, and furthermore peace has continued, at least among the advanced economies.  GDP still grew.

I don’t see #1 as giving a huge boost to a structurally-rooted optimism.  Note that for #2, it is usually cheaper to destroy than to build.  They are not the bleakest scenarios either, but still a big comedown for the optimists, I would think.

#3 cannot be ruled out, but it’s not a huge amount of evidence for optimism either.  It does allow the optimists, however, to keep their structural models intact.

#4 runs the risk of “if this is what optimism looks like…”

I believe many optimists wish to invoke an inconsistent mix of #1 and #3.

I thank Veronique de Rugy for pushing me on this point in the conversation.

How much should the predictive ability of a group matter anyway?  People who are good at predicting may or may not be good at understanding.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

When we make personal decisions, we usually compare a choice to the best possible alternative, not the worst. Imagine if you suggested to your spouse that you go out to the movies, and your spouse asked why that might be a good idea. It wouldn’t be much of an answer to say that the movie is better than the very worst show on television at home. Rather you should focus on comparing the movie to the next best thing you might do, like watching your favorite TV show or going to a new restaurant you want to try.

The upshot is that we should compare anti-poverty programs to other anti-poverty programs, and favor only the prioritized ones. But just how much of a priority does a program need to be?

One way to proceed is to ask: If we expand some programs, what is the most likely political response? It could be either lower spending in some other program or, in fact, raising taxes on the wealthy. But the evidence on the “fiscal gap” — the space between what the government owes and what it collects — suggests that the opportunity cost of expanding one transfer program is likely some government spending elsewhere, rather than expensive handbags for the wealthy.

Do read the whole thing.

Ray Lopez told me “Blog on it!”  So I posed that query on Twitter, here is the background, here are some of the answers, check my mentions for more and for credits:

Great filter perhaps more likely to be behind us, if it took us 295,000 years to start having anything like civilization?

We’re slower learners

Civilization is precarious and the great filter from apes to higher intelligence is worse than we thought.

Initially & erroneously, I read ‘president’ instead of ‘present’.

Great question. Certainly the concept of civilization is an incredibly late concept, and not necessary for human flourishing.

Based on a single data point, the advanced from anatomical modernity to civilization is 50% harder than previously thought.

The moral arc of history is…even longer and bends even more gradually

That current rates of productivity growth are somehow abnormal

That there’s a bigger delta between our current environment and the one we evolved in.

We don’t have _nearly_ the cultural bandwidth to transmit all the wonderful wisdom developed over _300k years_. Much has been lost.

Our first revision might be that we have good certainty on the age of mankind. Perhaps it’s 500,000 years? What other fossils might we find?

interbreeding with Neanderthals was even freakier than we thought?

That rather than being rare – ‘the end of the world’ is a horrifyingly repetitive phenomenon for human civs.

Lower probability that other intelligent species lived long enough to develop interstellar travel or communication

That 140 characters, instead of flying cars, is an even bigger disappointment. I mean, seriously, after 300,000 years?

The longer we have been evolving with our unique set of Sapiens traits the more time evolution has had to make them elaborate and distinct.

That it took twice as long to start the process of civilization than previously thought. Let’s not blow it.

That we really should know better.

Apologies if I missed yours!

I’ll be interviewing Ed on June 13, 6-8 p.m., GMU Arlington campus, including about his new and very interesting book The Retreat of Western Liberalism.  Ed is also “chief American commentator” for The Financial Times, and author of one of the best general introductions to India, In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India.  Here is Ed’s Wikipedia page.  Here are event details.

It is here, excerpt:

I wrote this book so that you don’t read it…

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.

Here is the full article.