Tyler Cowen on Bloggingheads.tv

Tyler to Will:

No you can’t agree with me because its absurd.  I can agree with your absurd view, but you can’t agree with mine.   

That is from my Bloggingheads debut; Robin Hanson reproduces one critical and entertaining part of the transcript, in which I explain which is my most absurd belief.

Here is the link to the show, I am sorry that I cannot embed it.  The chat covers many topics, including whether capitalism will triumph, whether you should have more kids, and which country is most likely to be hit by the next nuclear weapon attack.  Can you guess my pick?  Hint: It’s not the U.S. or even Saudi Arabia or Israel.

I conclude with this:

If no one agrees with you, you should be quite worried.  If only a small number of people agree with you, you still should be quite worried.  I don’t think it’s a numbers game, but I think whatever view you end up with, it doesn’t have to be a majority point of view, that reasons have weight, not just adding up whoever agrees with you.  But you still ought to say at the end of the day, look all those other people are against me, maybe I think I’m right probability 57 to 43, but on any truly controversial question among intelligent people, you should never think it’s 95 to 5 in your favor. 

Addendum: Ann Althouse embeds the parenting discussion.


If it's not controversial, it's not interesting:

"Breathing -- An Important Thing to Do"

I thnik Will is correct regarding the untenability of assigning probabilities to *all* possible beliefs. Isn't this why probabilities live in a measure space and not the power set, and why there are unmeasurable sets? Of course Will is arguing from the perspective of finite capacity computational agents; but I believe the limiting behaviour is similar. You are essentially talking about notions of expressibility under computational constraints: cardinality in the case of measure theory.

I like the parenting bit. My wife and I play the parenting thing out every time we take our 4-year-old to the park. My wife worries that he'll fall and hurt himself when he climbs too high. I worry that he won't be as good in gym class later if he doesn't practice climbing now.

The full Bayesian picture is of course much more complicated. You must take into account:

1) Whether you spend an inordinate amount of time researching this issue (which generally raises your credibility);
2) Whether you win arguments with other people;
3) Whether your belief looks suspiciously biased because it aligns with your interests in some way


OMG! Turning into Ben Bernanke.

Tyler, how confident are you that your recommendation for responding to disagreement is the best policy? After all, lots of intelligent people are aware that other intelligent people disagree with them about some topic or another, and take that into account, but remain relatively confident in their view. So it seems that your policy would recommend being not all that confident that it is the correct policy.

I'm quite sympathetic to the policy you're recommending, but I'm worried about how to understand it such that it's not self-defeating.

Until watching this episode of you on Bloggingheads, I had not heard your voice nor seen your picture before. Two points:

1. Will looks more like a Will than you look like a Tyler. This is upsetting.

I could understand both of you perfectly at 1.4x speed. This is good, as Isaved 40% of my time.

I look forward to listening to you at 1.8x with the same level of comprehension.

Is everyone, everywhere afraid to ask the person they are talking to for clarification? There were several occasions where I felt Will and Tyler were talking past each other to some extent and one or both seemed unwilling to ask for clarification. I think clarity is especially important for conversations like these that are highly abstract and especially when they involve jargon and especially jargon that may be unique to a small circle of people or only to one person.

I still remember my first day of Property Law when the professor, in the fine socratic tradition, asked "what is Property?" The most unbelievable, incomprehensible bullshit started pouring out of peoples' mouths. I just wanted to stand up and yell "WTF are you talking about???" So that was a wasted class, up until the professor decided maybe his opinion was more valuable than that of the students ;)

So anyway, yes, on occasion this blog does remind me of that class (but not that bad). Clarity is good! You can't just string together abstract concepts and words somewhat related to an idea and throw them out there and expect people to understand you or get anything out of it.

i thought both were extremely cogent, for quite complex topics.

its interesting that will can't sit still, and how still tyler can sit. at one point i thought tyler's video had been replaced by a jpeg of tyler..but then he moved...this is an unbelievable feat.

i'm glad some other smart people (tyler) is worried about nuclear proliferation. this should be a wide topic of discussion but i fear its only discussed in security circles, and even then, perhaps not widely.

Regarding the probability of human extinction prior to the heat-death of the sun, which I believe you and Will put at over 99 percent, what's the probability of colonizing other solar systems within the next few hundred years? Better than 10 percent? If so, I'd think you are too pessimistic on that question.

I've asked atheists what's the chance you're wrong and they'll say something like a trillion to one, and that to me is absurd, that even if you think all of the strongest arguments for atheism are correct, your estimate that atheism is in fact the correct point of view shouldn't be that high, maybe you know 90-10 or 95 to 5, at most.

Well since no evidence, or even a coherent definition, has ever been advanced for "supernatural" phenomena, 5%-10% must be your lower limit of probability that any claim is true. Here are two unfalsifiable assertions that I just made up. What you are saying is that the probability that they are true, just because they have been stated is automatically 5%-10%:

1) There is a planet called Falko. On this planet 100 foot tall hamburgers eat people and wear pants.

2) The Earth's core is full of invisible, telepathic frogs.

So regardless if it's a trillion-to-1 or a million-to-1 -- whatever the number -- religious beliefs must be assigned the lowest possible probability of correctness as a class of claims, because there is a countless variety of them among human groups, they are mutually contradictory, mutually arbitrary, mutually unintelligible, contain nothing but false and unfalsifiable claims, and bear all the signs of human invention.

Jason Malloy just reminded me of a few of the reasons why, although I am not religious, I don't want to be associated with atheism:

religious beliefs must be assigned the lowest possible probability of correctness as a class of claims, because there is a countless variety of them among human groups

To me, that implies a higher probability that one of them is true.

The trouble is, which one? I believe that a God who wants us to be vengeful is more likely than a God who wants us to be forgiving, but most people seem to disagree.

they are mutually contradictory

Atheism is also mutually contradictory with all of them.

contain nothing but false and unfalsifiable claims

You see? atheists have supernatural knowledge of the falsehood of beliefs which cannot be scientifically proven to be false!

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