Category: Philosophy

John Stuart Mill on the English

From causes which might be traced in the history and development of English society and government, the general habit and practice of the English mind is compromise.  No idea is carried out to more than a small portion of its legitimate consequences.  Neither by the generality of our speculative thinkers, nor in the practice of the nation, are the principles which are professed ever thoroughly acted upon; something always stops the application half way.  This national habit has consequences of very various character, of which the following is one.  It is natural to minds governed by habit (which is the character of the English more than of any other civilized people) that their tastes and inclinations become accommodated to their habitual practice; and as in England no principle is ever fully carried out, discordance between principles and practice has come to be regarded, not only as the natural, but as the desirable state.  This is no an epigram, or a paradox, but a sober description of the tone of sentiment commonly found in Englishman.  They never feel themselves safe unless they are living under the shadow of some convention fiction — some agreement to say one thing and mean another.

That is from Mill’s Vindication of the French Revolution of February 1848.

My Conversation with Elijah Millgram

Elijah is one of my favorite contemporary philosophers, here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Elijah joined Tyler to discuss Newcomb’s paradox, the reason he doesn’t have an opinion about everything, the philosophy of Dave Barry, style and simulation theory, why philosophers aren’t often consulted about current events, his best stories from TA-ing for Robert Nozick, the sociological correlates of knowing formal logic, the question of whether people are more interested in truth or being interesting, philosophical cycles, what makes Nietzsche important today, the role that meaning can play in a person’s personality and life, Mill on Bentham, the idea of true philosophy as dialogue, the extent to which modern philosophers are truly philosophical, why he views aesthetics as critical to philosophy, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Newcomb’s paradox: Are you a one-boxer or two-boxer, and why?

MILLGRAM: I’ve never been able to take a stand on that, mostly because there’s this moment in Robert Nozick’s discussion of the Newcomb paradox. Should we pause to tell the audience . . .

COWEN: No, no. This is not for them; this is for us. They can Google —

MILLGRAM: Oh, this is for us? OK. Nozick said, “Look, here’s what happens when you get a class,” or not even a class. People talk about Newcomb’s paradox. Some people end up having one view and some people end up having the other view. Each side has the argument for their own view, but they don’t have the explanation of what’s wrong with the other argument. Then Nozick says — and I think this is absolutely on target — “It doesn’t help to just repeat your own argument more slowly and more loudly.”

Since I don’t know what’s wrong with the — whichever other argument it is, I don’t have a view.

COWEN: If you don’t have a view, doesn’t that by default put you close to the one-box position? It means you don’t consider the dominance principle self-evident because you’re not sure that in fact you’re getting more by opting for the two boxes. Quantum mechanics is weird; aliens may be weirder yet. You don’t know what to do. Why not just take the slightly smaller prize and opt for one box? Not with extreme conviction, but you would be a default, mildly agnostic one-boxer.

MILLGRAM: Who knows what I would do if somebody turned up and gave me the . . .

But let me say something a little bit to the meta level, and then I’ll speak to the view that I would be a one-boxer. I live in a world where I feel disqualified from a privilege that almost everybody around me has. People are supposed to have opinions about all kinds of things. They have opinions about politics, and they have opinions about sports teams, and they have opinions about who knows what.

I’m in the very peculiar position of being in a job where I’m paid to have opinions. I feel that I can’t have opinions unless I’ve worked for them and I can back them up, and that means that unless I’ve done my homework, unless I have an argument for the opinion, I don’t have it — so I don’t.

Now, going back from the meta level, kind of one level down: let’s stop and think about what’s built into the . . .

When you explain dominance to a classroom, you say, “Look, here are the different options you have,” and I guess the options are used to the column, “and here are the different states of the world, and you can see that for each state of the world this option does better than that option. So you should take . . .”

There’s a lot built into that already. For example, that the world is carved up into these different — the state space is carved up, and your option space is carved up, and you don’t get to rethink, recharacterize — the characterization of the things that you do is already given to you, and it’s fixed. It’s an idealization.

Until the situation arrived and I had a chance to face it and think about it, I wouldn’t know whether to accept that idealization. I know that sounds really coy, but the principled view is that since I don’t have an argument, I don’t have an opinion.

Recommended.  And here is Elijah’s home page and research.

My Conversation with the very very smart David Deutsch

I think this episode came off as “weird and testy,” as I described it to one friend, but I like weird and testy!  Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: How do you think the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics relates to the view that, just in terms of space, the size of our current universe is infinite, and therefore everything possible is happening in it?

DEUTSCH: It complicates the discussion of probability, but there’s no overlap between that notion of infinity and the Everettian notion of infinity, if we are infinite there, because the differentiation (as I prefer to call what used to be called splitting) — when I perform an experiment which can go one of two ways, the influence of that spreads out. First, I see it. I may write it down; I may write a scientific paper. When I write a paper about it and report the results, that will cause the journal to split or to differentiate into two journals, and so on. This influence cannot spread out faster than the speed of light.

So an Everett universe is really a misnomer because what we see in real life is an Everett bubble within the universe. Everything outside the bubble is as it was; it’s undifferentiated, or, to be exact, it’s exactly as differentiated as it was before. Then, as the bubble spreads out, the universe becomes or the multiverse becomes more differentiated, but the bubble is always finite.

COWEN: How do your views relate to the philosophical modal realism of David Lewis?

DEUTSCH: There are interesting parallels. As a physicist, I’m interested in what the laws of physics tell us is so, rather than in philosophical reasoning about things, unless they impinge on a problem that I have. So yes, I’m interested in, for example, the continuity of the self — whether, if there’s another version of me a very large number of light-years away in an infinite universe, and it’s identical, is that really me? Are there two of me, one of me? I don’t entirely know the answer to that. It’s why I don’t entirely know the answer to whether I would go in a Star Trek transporter.

The modal realism certainly involves a lot of things that I don’t think exist — at least, not physically. I’m open to the idea that nonphysical things do exist: like the natural numbers, I think, exist. There’s a difference between the second even prime, which doesn’t exist, and the infinite number of prime numbers, which I think do exist. I think that there is more than one mode of existence, but the theory that all modes of existence are equally real — I see no point in that. The overlap between Everett and David Lewis is, I think, more coincidental than illuminating.

COWEN: If the universe is infinite and if David Lewis is correct, should I feel closer to the David Lewis copies of me? The copies or near copies of me in this universe? Or the near copies of me in the multiverse? It seems very crowded all of a sudden. Something whose purpose was to be economical doesn’t feel that way to me by the end of the metaphysics.

DEUTSCH: It doesn’t feel like that to you. . . . Well, as Wittgenstein is supposed to have said (I don’t know whether he really did), if it were true, what would it feel like? It would feel just like this.

Much more at the link.  And:

COWEN: Are we living in a simulation?

DEUTSCH: No, because living in a simulation is precisely a case of there being a barrier beyond which we cannot understand. If we’re living in a simulation that’s running on some computer, we can’t tell whether that computer is made of silicon or iron, or whether it obeys the same laws of computation, like Turing computability and quantum computability and so on, as ours. We can’t know anything about the physics there.

Well, we can know that it is at least a superset of our physics, but that’s not saying very much; it’s not telling us very much. It’s a typical example of a theory that can be rejected out of hand for the same reason that the supernatural ones — if somebody says, “Zeus did it,” then I’m going to say, “How should I respond? If I take that on board, how should I respond to the next person that comes along and tells me that Odin did it?”

COWEN: But it seems you’re rejecting an empirical claim on methodological grounds, and I get very suspicious. Philosophers typically reject transcendental arguments like, “Oh, we must be able to perceive reality, because if we couldn’t, how could we know that we couldn’t perceive reality?” It doesn’t prove you can perceive reality, right?

And this:

COWEN: A few very practical questions to close. Given the way British elections seem to have been running, that the Tories win every time, does that mean the error-correction mechanism of the British system of government now is weaker?

DEUTSCH: No. Unfortunately, the — so, as you probably know, I favor the first-past-the-post system in the purest possible form, as it is implemented in Britain. I think that is the most error-correcting possible electoral system, although I must add that the electoral system is only a tiny facet of the institutions of criticism and consent. In general, it’s just a tiny thing, but it is the best one.

It’s not perfect. It has some of the defects of, for example, proportional representation. Proportional representation has the defect that it causes coalitions all the time. Coalitions are bad.

COWEN: You have a delegated monitor with the coalition, right? With a coalition, say in the Netherlands (which is richer than the United Kingdom), you typically have coalition governments. Some parties in the coalition are delegated monitors of the other parties. Parties are better informed than voters. Isn’t that a better Popperian mechanism for error correction?

I also tried to sum up what I think he is all about, and he reacted with scorn.  That was an excellent part of the conversation.  And here is a good Twitter thread from Michael Nielsen about the Conversation.

More on Individualism and Benevolence

This paper investigates the role of individualism in charitable giving. Individualistic societies are those that value individual fulfillment, personal responsibility, and relationships with those outside one’s in-group. Though critics suggest individualism undermines virtues such as generosity, we consider contrary mechanisms first developed in the tradition of classical political economy, especially the “doux commerce” hypothesis (Hirschman 1982), which posits that self-interested pursuit of gains through trade has broader, usually positive, effects on the attitudes and behavior (Matson 2020). Originating in French Enlightenment–era works—especially Montesquieu (1777a, XX.2)—and later found in Mandeville (1988 [1714]), Smith (1982 [1759]), and Hume (1994 [1742]), these arguments fell out of favor within mainstream economics for much of the twentieth century (Boettke 1997). But interest in these works has reemerged alongside growing interest in endogenous preferences (Bowles 1998) and the cultural dimensions of economic activity and as experimental evidence identifying success in trade as a cause of prosocial conduct has accumulated (Smith and Wilson 2019).

…To test our hypotheses, we use evidence from a large cross-section of countries and several measures of individualism, including Hofstede’s (2001) individualism-collectivism index, the index of survival versus self-expression from the World Values Survey (WVS) (Inglehart and Oyserman 2004), and measures of generalized tolerance. Each represents a quantitative measure of culture, or what David Hume referred to as national character (Sent and Kroese 2020). Our empirical results show that individualism is indeed associated with charitable giving, as is economic freedom. The results support the argument of classical liberals thatcommercial society and the social and cultural institutions that support it are sources of the common good.

From Cai, Caskey, Cowen, Murtazashvili, Murtazashvili and Salahodjaev. See my previous post(s) on this topic.

@pmarca lets loose

Don’t underestimate yourself! The great writers of the past tended to be disassociative cranks. Diogenes Laertius says Heraclitus lived “by himself in the mountains, feeding on grasses and herbs” and died by burying himself in literal dung. Rousseau condemned his own children to the hell of an 18th century orphanage while sanctimoniously passing judgment on the rest of society. Nietzsche went insane protecting a horse from a whipping, and in his last messages to the world demanded the pope be jailed and all anti-Semites shot. You see, you fit right in.

And that is one of the more anodyne parts of the interview.  And yes it has been confirmed to be real.  Here is another one of the boring parts:

I predict that we — the West — are going to WEIRDify the entire world, within the next 50 years, the next two generations. We will do this not by converting non-WEIRD people to WEIRD, but by getting their kids. Their kids, and their kids’ kids, are going to grow up on the Internet at least as much as they grow up in the real world, and the pull of WEIRD culture will overwhelm all existing non-WEIRD cultures. I realize this is a very strong claim, but this process is already underway; at this point I think it’s inevitable. The cost of this will be a collapse of global cultural diversity exactly as you and Rozin predict.

Niccolo Soldo is the interviewer.

A young woman speaking about her date and dating philosophy

Her other nonnegotiable is quarantine behavior. She was happy when she found out [male name redacted] takes safety seriously, interacting with only a small pod of people and limiting travel. “That showed me we had similar values,” she said. “Being caring, empathetic — and also believing in science and CDC regulations and guidelines.”

No, I am not interested in giving you a link or in identifying anybody by name.  The point is this: this is one of the very best paragraphs ever written in helping you to understand the Blue State reaction to the pandemic.

Individualism Promotes Benevolence

NYTimes: On average, people in more individualist countries donate more money, more blood, more bone marrow and more organs. They more often help others in need and treat nonhuman animals more humanely. If individualism were equivalent to selfishness, none of this would make sense.

…individualism promotes a more universalist outlook. In focusing on individual rights and welfare, it reduces the emphasis on groups — and the differences between “us” and “them” that notoriously erode generosity toward those outside one’s own circle.

See also my posts Globalization and the Expanding Moral Circle and Testing Doux Commerce in the Lab.

Very good sentences

…if I argue with a higher status person, who for some reason engages with me in this context, and if my position is one seen as reasonable by the usual elite consensus, then my partner is careful to offer quality arguments, and to credit such arguments if I offer them. But if I take a position seen as against the current elite consensus, that same high status partner instead feels quite comfortable offering very weak and incoherent arguments.

That is from Robin Hanson.

Emergent Ventures winners, 14th cohort

Center for Indonesian Policy Studies, Jakarta, to hire a new director.

Zach Mazlish, recent Brown graduate in philosophy, for travel and career development., headed by Rohan Pavuluri, to support their work on legal reform and deregulation of legal services for the poor.

Madison Breshears, GMU law student, to study the proper regulation of cryptocurrencies.

Quest for Justice, to help Californians better navigate small claims court without a lawyer.

Cameron Wiese, Progress Studies fellow, to create a new World’s Fair.

Jimmy Alfonso Licon, philosopher, visiting position at George Mason University, general career development.

Tony Morley, Progress Studies fellow, from Ngunnawal, Australia, to write the first optimistic children’s book on progress.

Michelle Wang, Sophomore at the University of Toronto, Canada, to study the causes and cures of depression, and general career development, and to help her intern at MIT.

Here are previous cohorts of winners.

Philosopher Jimmy Alfonso Licon interviews me

Here is the full exchange (written only), here is one segment in the middle:

JL: I’m a philosopher, and you’re an economist. Do you think there are economic insights and tools philosophers could benefit from? What about vice versa?

TC: Philosophers are much better readers than economists are, and (some of them) are better at being self-critical and insisting on ever greater levels of depth. And they recognize the complexity of normative statements much better than economists do. Those are big advantages.

Working back toward the other direction, philosophers simply are not interested enough in basic empirical facts, in understanding statistics, or in understanding expected value theory (of course there are exceptions, especially for the latter point).

I also find that many philosophers, including many of the best ones, tend to be interested only in speaking with other philosophers. That is a sign of narrowness and provinciality, and it relates to the relative lack of interest in the empirical. You would not have found the same in David Hume, for instance, as his six-volume History of England remains a classic, as do his writings on economics and the arts.

The concluding sequence in fact refers obliquely to MR commentators, but you will have to click on the link for that.  Here is the home page of Jimmy Alfonso Licon, here is his research page.  I am very pleased that Jimmy will be a visiting Emergent Ventures fellow at GMU this coming fall.

The Moral Foundations of Progress

Applied Divinity Studies has written an excellent and thought-provoking 34-pp. review of my book Stubborn Attachments.  Excerpt:

Naively, say there are three possible timescales for humanity, and we assign equal (33.3%) credence to each of them:

1. Short: Humanity dies out within 100 years or fewer
2. Medium: Humanity dies out within 1,000 years or fewer
3. Long: Humanity dies out within 1,000,000 years or more

In this case, the overwhelming moral importance still lies in the far-future (1,000,000+ years). So long as you accept the basic Atemporal argument of Attachments, the mere possibility of a far-future dominates the expected value calculus.

You could tweak the probabilities to assign 99% credence to the medium-term view and only 1% to the long-term view, and the math will still work out.

Growth will still matter in that it accelerates our arrival at the “saturation” point, but as estimated by Nick Bostrom in Astronomical Waste, the cost of this delay is miniscule compared to the cost of outright extinction. So existential-risk remains of tremendous importance, but where does that leave progress?

There is much more at the link.  And here is the blog of Applied Divinity Studies.

Daniel Frank on me, his introduction to Tyler Cowen

He has written a very nice appreciative post, and I regard his interpretations as accurate, here is an excerpt from it, perhaps it is an introduction to the last ten or so years of what I have been writing here:

…I wrote this post because the area Tyler influenced me the most and what I think is his greatest strength is something few discuss; his ability to deal with emotional and intellectual insecurity.

For context, when I first started reading Tyler’s writing as a teenager 15+ years ago, I was upset at how apolitical, non-partisan and unemotional he was. Sure he had all these great ideas but the world was filled with silly people who needed to be taken down a notch. Tyler never did that and eventually I realized he was right. Tyler’s equanimity and the way he tries to confront his own insecurities and flaws (that all humans have) is what, in my opinion, makes him so unique. By spending so much time reading his work, Tyler’s demeanour has rubbed off on me and made me a much better thinker.

Here are a selection of some of my favourite Tyler Cowen posts that capture his unique way of thinking:

Pushing the Button

When describing a person/group/idea that you dislike, if you feel the need to attack them, it is akin to pushing a “button” that makes you temporarily dumber. You don’t want to be pushing the button yourself or in fact, spend time around/reading others who do.

The Fallacy of Mood Affiliation

When reading about an issue, people frequently identify with a mood and depending on how that mood resonates with that issue, they will artificially create a set of arguments to match and justify the mood.

Devalue and Dismiss

“a writer will come up with some critique of another argument, let us call that argument X, and then dismiss that argument altogether. Afterwards, the thought processes of the dismisser run unencumbered by any consideration of X, which after all is what dismissal means. Sometimes “X” will be a person or a source rather than an argument, of course. The “devalue” part of this chain may well be justified. But it should lead to “devalue and downgrade,” rather than “devalue and dismiss.”

Tyler Cowen’s 12 Rules for Life

1. Assume your temperament will always be somewhat childish and impatient, and set your rules accordingly, knowing that you cannot abide by rules for rules sake. Hope to leverage your impatience toward your longer-run advantage. 3. When the price goes up, buy less. Try to understand what the price really is, however, and good luck with that. 7. Learn how to learn from those who offend you. 9. I don’t know.

Why Do People Hate the Media So Much

“No matter what the media tells you their job is, the feature of media that actually draws viewer interest is how media stories either raise or lower particular individuals in status.” “The status ranking of individuals implied by a particular media source is never the same as yours, and often not even close.” “A good rule of thumb is that if you resent the media “lots,” you are probably making a number of other emotional mistakes in your political thought.”

This gem is also linked to in the original post expressing the idea: “So much of debate, including political and economic debate, is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status”

How Public Intellectuals Can Extend Their Shelf Lives

There is in fact much more, again here is the link.

What should I ask Alexander the Grate?

No typo there, nor has backward time travel been invented.  I will be doing a Conversation with him, and here is a brief summary:

He has lived on various heating grates in Southwest D.C. for almost all of his homeless life, which is why he introduced himself as “Alexander the Grate,” when he and I first met in 1983. Several years ago, he told me this: “The bottom line is that the urban homeless in Washington, D.C., don’t create structures. We can’t because of the restrictions. Rather, we impose ourselves into the interstices of the infrastructure.”

So what should I ask him?