Category: Philosophy

Noah Smith Substack interviews me

Here is the interview.  Here is one excerpt:

N.S.: So how would you generally describe the zeitgeist of the moment, if you had to give a simple summary? What do you think are a couple of most important trends in culture and thought right now? My impression has been that we’re sort of in a replay of the 70s — a period of exhaustion after several years of intense social unrest, where people are looking around for new cultural and economic paradigms to replace the ones we just smashed. But maybe I’ve just been reading too many Rick Perlstein books?

T.C.: I view the 1970s as a materialistic time, sexually highly charged, and America running into some significant real resource constraints, at least initially stemming from high oil prices. Mainstream culture was often fairly crass — just look at disco, or the ascendancy of mainstream network television. The current time I see as quite different. Sexually, we are withdrawing. Society is more feminized. America has far more immigrants. And we are obsessed with the virtual and with make-believe, to a degree the 1970s could not have imagined. Bruno Macaes is one author who is really on the right track here, with his emphasis on how America is building virtual and indeed often “unreal” fantasies.

I think today the variance of weirdness is increasing. Conformists can conform like never before, due say to social media and the Girardian desire to mimic others. But unusual people can connect with other unusual people, and make each other much weirder and more “niche.” For instance, every possible variant of political views seems to be “out there” these days, and perhaps that is not entirely reassuring. A higher variance for weirdness probably encourages creativity. But is it a positive development on net? We are going to find out.

Recommended throughout, and of course do subscribe to Noah’s Substack.

The Jeff Holmes Conversation with Tyler Cowen

Jeff is the CWT producer, and it has become our custom to do a year-end round-up and summary.  Here is the transcript and audio and video.  Here is one excerpt:

HOLMES: …Okay, let’s go through your 2011 list really quickly.

COWEN: Sure.

HOLMES: All right, number one — in no particular order, I think — but number one was Incendies. Do you remember what that’s about?

COWEN: That is by the same director of Dune.

HOLMES: Oh, is that Denis Villeneuve?

COWEN: Yes, that’s his breakthrough movie. It’s incredible.

HOLMES: I didn’t know that. I’d never heard of it. French Canadian movie, mostly set in Lebanon.

COWEN: Highly recommended, whether or not you like Dune. That was a good pick. It’s held up very well. The director has proven his merits repeatedly, and the market agrees.

HOLMES: I’m a fan of Denis Villeneuve. Obviously, Arrival was great. I can’t think of the Mexican drug movie off the top of my head.

COWEN: Is it Sicario?

HOLMES: Sicario — awesome.

COWEN: It was interesting, yes.

HOLMES: He is one of the only directors today where, when he now makes something, I know I will go and see it.

COWEN: Well, you must see Incendies. So far, I’m on a roll. What’s next?

HOLMES: All right, number two: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

COWEN: Possibly the best movie of the last 20 years. I’m impressed by myself. It’s a Thai movie. It’s very hard to explain. I’ve seen it three times since. A lot of other people have it as either their favorite movie ever or in a top-10 status, but a large screen is a benefit. If you’re seeing the movie, pay very close attention to its sounds and to the sonic world it creates, not just the images.

There are numerous interesting observations in the dialogue, including about some of the guests and episodes.

Self-recommended!

What should I ask Sam Bankman-Fried?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is an excerpt from Wikipedia, shorn of footnotes:

Samuel Bankman-Fried (born March 6, 1992), also known by his initials SBF, is an American businessman and effective altruist. He is the founder and CEO of FTX, a cryptocurrency exchange. He also manages assets through Alameda Research, a quantitative cryptocurrency trading firm he founded in October 2017. He is ranked 32nd on the 2021 Forbes 400 list with a net worth of US$22.5 billion. In addition, Bankman-Fried a supporter of effective altruism and pursues earning to give as an altruistic career.

SBF is also well-known for his interests in veganism and utilitarianism and philanthropy.  So what should I ask him?

What should I ask Chuck Klosterman?

I will be doing a Conversation with him.  If you do not already know, here is part of his Wikipedia entry:

Charles John Klosterman (born 1972) is an American author and essayist whose work focuses on American popular culture. He has been a columnist for Esquire and ESPN.com and wrote “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times Magazine. Klosterman is the author of eleven books, including two novels and the essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto.

His forthcoming book is about the 90s, namely The Nineties: A Book.  So what should I ask him?  Including about the 90s of course.

Many heads are more utilitarian than one

Highlights

Collective consensual judgments made via group interactions were more utilitarian than individual judgments.

Group discussion did not change the individual judgments indicating a normative conformity effect.

Individuals consented to a group judgment that they did not necessarily buy into personally.

Collectives were less stressed than individuals after responding to moral dilemmas.

Interactions reduced aversive emotions (e.g., stressed)associated with violation of moral norms.

Here is the full article by Anita Keshmirian, Ophelia Deroy, and Bahador Bahrami.  Via Michelle Dawson.

Psychedelics alter metaphysical beliefs

Can the use of psychedelic drugs induce lasting changes in metaphysical beliefs? While it is popularly believed that they can, this question has never been formally tested. Here we exploited a large sample derived from prospective online surveying to determine whether and how beliefs concerning the nature of reality, consciousness, and free-will, change after psychedelic use. Results revealed significant shifts away from ‘physicalist’ or ‘materialist’ views, and towards panpsychism and fatalism, post use. With the exception of fatalism, these changes endured for at least 6 months, and were positively correlated with the extent of past psychedelic-use and improved mental-health outcomes. Path modelling suggested that the belief-shifts were moderated by impressionability at baseline and mediated by perceived emotional synchrony with others during the psychedelic experience. The observed belief-shifts post-psychedelic-use were consolidated by data from an independent controlled clinical trial. Together, these findings imply that psychedelic-use may causally influence metaphysical beliefs—shifting them away from ‘hard materialism’. We discuss whether these apparent effects are contextually independent.

Here is the full piece, by Christopher Timmermann, et.al., via Anecdotal.

Solve for the Swiss suicide equilibrium

A 3D-printed capsule is set to “revolutionize” assisted suicide. It may be legally operated in Switzerland. This is according to an expert opinion obtained by Exit International – the organization that developed the “Sarco” machine – and was first reported by Swiss Info.

In 2020, around 1300 people died in Switzerland through euthanasia. They were cared for by the two largest euthanasia organizations in the country: Exit (no connection to Exit International) and Dignitas. The current common method is the ingestion of liquid sodium pentobarbital. After taking the drug, the person falls asleep within two to five minutes before slipping into a deep coma and dying soon after.

The capsule called “Sarco” offers a different approach to a peaceful death, without the need for prescription substances.

“It is a 3D printed capsule that can be activated from inside by the person who wants to die. The machine can be taken to any place to die. This can be in an idyllic outdoor setting or, for example, in the rooms of an euthanasia organization.” (Philip Nitschke)

The capsule is mounted on a device that floods the interior with nitrogen and very quickly reduces the oxygen content from 21 to one percent.

The person feels a little disoriented and may also feel slightly euphoric before losing consciousness. The whole process takes about 30 seconds. Death occurs from hypoxia and hypocapnia, a lack of oxygen and carbon dioxide, respectively. “There is no panic, no feeling of suffocation,” Nitschke added.

Here is the article, via Neville.  Whether or not you think this particular device has a future, the point is more general.  Technological advances come to many areas, not just the ones that make the cover of Wired magazine.

What should I ask Russ Roberts?

I will be doing a podcast with him, specifically focusing on his decision to emigrate to Israel.  Here are the suggestions that Russ solicited from Twitter.  We will release the episode both on EconTalk and on CWT.

So what should I ask him?  Keep in mind this is the Conversation with Russ I want to have…

From John Harland on Quora

Identity confusion is a potential hazard for autistic people. Neurotypical people characteristically develop a “personality” that they use to define and to ground themselves. That is the mask through which they interact with society. Autistic people do that to a much lesser extent and that can be a major strength, as well as a risk.

A muted sense of identity can make it much easier for an autistic person to become and effective contributor to a group because it makes them more adaptable. They carry less personal baggage about what ideas define them.

It can also make them very good at acting and at creating humour. However we might think of several famous actors and comedians who have killed themselves, seemingly because they were haunted by questions about who they “really” were behind all those adopted personas.

Learning to be ready for those questions, and learning why that trait can be a strength, are important lessons to impart to autistic children and adults.

Here is the link, with other interesting bits.

The Paxlovid Paradox

Zvi at LessWrong rounds up the COVID news including this excellent bit on Pfizer’s anti-Covid pill Paxlovid which looks to be very effective but is not yet FDA approved.

The trial was stopped due to ‘ethical considerations’ for being too effective. You see, we live in a world in which:

  1. It is illegal to give this drug to any patients, because it hasn’t been proven safe and effective.
  2. It is illegal to continue a trial to study the drug, because it has been proven so safe and effective that it isn’t ethical to not give the drug to half the patients.
  3. Who, if they weren’t in the study, couldn’t get the drug at all, because it is illegal due to not being proven safe and effective yet. 
  4. So now no one gets added to the trial so those who would have been definitely don’t get Paxlovid, and are several times more likely to die.
  5. But our treatment of them is now ‘ethical.’
  6. For the rest of time we will now hear about how it was only seven deaths and we can’t be sure Paxlovid works or how well it works, and I expect to spend hours arguing over exactly how much it works.
  7. For the rest of time people will argue the study wasn’t big enough so we don’t know the Paxlovid is safe.
  8. Those arguments will then be used both by people arguing to not take Paxlovid, and people who want to require other interventions because of these concerns.
  9. FDA Delenda Est.

Christopher DeMuth on national conservatism

I thought the recent WSJ Op-Ed by DeMuth was one of this year’s more important essays.  DeMuth argues that conservatism needs a new [and also older], less libertarian, less cosmopolitan turn.  Here is his core message:

When the leftward party in a two-party system is seized by such radicalism, the conservative instinct for moderation is futile and may be counterproductive. Yet many conservative politicians stick with it, promising to correct specific excesses that have stirred popular revulsion. Republicans will win some elections that way—but what will they do next? National conservatives recognize that in today’s politics, the excesses are the essence. Like Burke after 1789, we shift to opposing revolution tout court.

Why national conservatism? Have you noticed that almost every progressive initiative subverts the American nation? Explicitly so in opening national borders, disabling immigration controls, and transferring sovereignty to international bureaucracies. But it also works from within—elevating group identity above citizenship; fomenting racial, ethnic and religious divisions; disparaging common culture and the common man; throwing away energy independence; defaming our national history as a story of unmitigated injustice; hobbling our national future with gargantuan debts that will constrain our capacity for action.

The left’s anti-nationalism is another sharp break with the past.

Do read the whole thing, as they say.  I cannot summarize his entire argument, but here are some points of push back:

1. It is a mistake to start by defining one’s view in opposition to some other set of views, in this case progressivism.  You will end up with something limited and defensive and ultimately uninspiring.

2. Unlike many classical liberals, I’ve long made my peace with nationalism, but for pragmatic reasons.  I view it as morally arbitrary, but also as the only possible solid foundation for a stably globalized world, given the psychologically collectivist tendencies of most humans.  DeMuth opposes national conservatism to globalization for the most part, but strong nations and strong globalizations go together.  There is talk of “global markets that eclipse the nation and divide its citizens,” but the case needs to be stronger and more specific than that.  National security arguments aside (yes we Americans should produce more chips domestically), which exactly are the global markets that are eclipsing us?  And is it global markets that are polarizing us?  Really?  Which ones exactly and how?

3. Virtually every critic of globalization wants to pick and choose.  There is plenty of “globalization for me, not for thee” in these ideological arenas.  (In similar fashion, I don’t quite get the Peter Thiel bitcoin > globalization point of view….crypto has been quite international pretty much from the beginning, and often at least in spirit directed against national monies.)  And which exactly is the national body we are going to trust with micro-managing globalization?  Some DC bureaucracy that operates as effectively as the CDC and is filled 90% or more with Democrats?  From a national conservative point of view, or for that matter from my point of view, why do that?

4. For better or worse, Biden is far more of a nationalist than DeMuth makes him out to be.  “Confiscating vaccine patents” is the only example given of this supposed excess cosmopolitanism, but hey just look at the allocation of those third doses, something Biden has pushed hard himself.  On many matters of foreign policy, including China, the differences between Trump and Biden are tiny.  And Europe isn’t exactly happy with Biden either.

5. The policy recommendations toward the end of the piece are underwhelming.  Common carrier regulation to prevent Facebook from taking down controversial opinions is the first suggestion.  Whether or not you agree with that proposal, the major social media companies were not doing much in the way of “take downs” as recently as ten years ago.  To return to that state of affairs, but with the whole thing enforced by government (“Some DC bureaucracy that operates as effectively as perhaps the CDC and also is filled 90% or more with Democrats?”), is…uninspiring.

6. The next set of policy recommendations are “big projects” for cybersecurity and quantum computing.  Again, whether or not you agree with those specific ideas, I don’t see why they need national conservatism as a foundation.  You might just as easily come to those positions through a Progress Studies framework, among other views.  And is a centralized approach really best for cybersecurity?  How secure were the systems of the Office of Personnel Management?  Doesn’t the firming up of all those soft targets require a fairly decentralized approach?

7. DeMuth refers to our “once-great” museums as deserving of revitalization.  I would agree that the visual arts of painting and sculpture were more culturally central in earlier decades than today.  But putting aside the National Gallery of Art in D.C. (in a state of radical decline…maybe blame the national Feds?), and the immediate problems of the pandemic, American museums are pretty awesome.  MOMA for instance is far better than it used to be.  If there has been a problem, it is that 9/11 made foreign loan contracts for art exhibits more difficult to pull off, in part for reasons of insurance.  In other words, the contraction of globalization has hurt American museums.

8. I wonder how he feels about crypto, Web 3.0, and the Metaverse?  I think it is perfectly fine to regard the correct opinions on those topics as still unsettled, but is national conservatism really such a great starting point?  Aren’t we going to rather rapidly neglect the potential upside from those innovations?  Shouldn’t we instead try to start by understanding the technologies, and then see if a nationalist point of view on them is going to make sense?

More generally, if you are going to do the NatCon thing, how about embracing the tech companies as America’s great national champions?  Embracing them as your only hope for countering left-wing MSM?  Somehow that is missing from DeMuth’s vision.

So I liked the piece, but I say it is a rearguard action, destined to fail.  We need a more positive, more dynamic approach to a free society of responsible individuals, and that is probably going to mean an ongoing expansion of globalization and also a fairly new and indeed somewhat unsettled understanding of what the nation is going to consist of.  What DeMuth calls “empirical libertarianism,” as he associates with Adam Smith, I still take as a better starting point.

Apply for an ACX grant

From Scott Alexander:

I want to give grants to good research and good projects with a minimum of paperwork. Like an NIH grant or something, only a lot less money and prestige.

How is this different from Marginal Revolution’s Fast Grants, Nadia Eghbal’s Helium Grants, or EA Funds‘ grant rounds?

Not different at all. It’s total 100% plagiarism of them. I’m doing it anyway because I think it’s a good idea, and I predict there are a lot of good people with good projects in this community who haven’t heard about / participated in those, but who will participate when I do it.

How much money are you giving out?

ACX Grants proper will involve $250,000 of my own money, but I’m hoping to supplement with much more of other people’s money, amount to be determined. See the sections on ACX Grants + and ACX Grants ++ below.

Here is further detail, including a link to the application form.