Category: Philosophy

What if sleep was a commodity?

Dane emails me:

This is a speculative solve-for-the-equilibrium-type question that I’d love to get your thoughts on:

Imagine there was a technology that allowed essentially frictionless harvesting, selling, and buying of (non-perishable) human sleep. Essentially, anyone can strap in to a machine, be put to sleep, and their time/sleep would be harvested in a way that their time sleeping could be used by anyone else who would then get all the benefits of that sleep but instantaneously instead of sleeping themselves, maybe through a painless injection or a drink perhaps.

Imagine also that this technology was relatively non-capital-intensive, or at least, cheap enough that all humans were potential suppliers/buyers of sleep. Call them sleep-workers and sleep-consumers.

Additionally, there’s nothing “free” about the technology. Any sleep-worker’s or sleep-consumer’s lifespan would be unaffected in terms of calendar time. Instead, there would be a zero-sum transfer of waking hours between persons. Even an “around-the-clock” sleep-worker could only net 16 hours of saleable sleep per day. The other 8 hours would have to go to meeting their own sleep needs.

How would this market evolve? How would society evolve? What is the market price for an hour of sleep? How would norms around sleep-working and sleep-consuming evolve? How would the economic indicators evolve (GDP, productivity, inequality, etc)? Which jobs could or could not compete with non-consciousness? How would the welfare state then evolve? How much inter-temporal saving of sleep would there be? Should prisoners be allowed to sleep-harvest for their entire sentences? Would we allow them? Would it be ethical to farm never-conscious humans for the sole purpose of harvesting sleep? Etc…

What should I ask Michelle Dawson?

I will be having a Conversation with her, here is part of her Ordre de Montréal citation:

Michelle Dawson is an autism researcher who is passionately engaged in promoting the rights of autistic people. Her research has led to important advances in the understanding of autism and its legal status.

Ms. Dawson is autistic and has never attended university as a student. In the early 2000s, faced with the devastating effects of human rights violation based on her diagnosis, she started learning about autism science, ethics, and law.

Since 2004, she has been affiliated with the Université de Montréal’s autism research group. Despite her lack of formal education and the precariousness of her situation, she has collaborated widely with academics here at home and around the world, and made original contributions to autism research in scientific journals, encyclopedias, scholarly books, and conference presentations. She has also used social media to promote better standards in autism research.

Her work has contributed to the advancement of knowledge in several areas, including perception, cognition, learning, and intelligence in autism. She has documented the poverty of scientific and ethical standards in autism intervention research, and the resulting harm to autistic people. Contrary to long-entrenched views, she believes that autistics deserve the same basic rights as the rest of humanity. She also believes that in research, as elsewhere, autistic and non-autistic people should work together as equals.

She tweets at @autismcrisis, and here is her work at scholar.google.com.  I also have a co-authored paper with her, on Alan Turing.  Many of you also will know Michelle as a long time MR correspondent.

So what should I ask her?

My Conversation with Elisa New

Here is the audio and transcript, Elisa is a Professor of English at Harvard, with a specialty in poetry, and also star and driving force behind the new PBS show Poetry in America.  Most of all we talked about poetry!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let me express a concern, and see if you can talk me out of it. I’m going to use the word best, which I know many literary critics do not like, but I believe in the concept nonetheless.

In my view, the two best American poets are Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, and they were both a long, long time ago. They were quite early in the literary history of this nation.

Is that a statement about the fame-generating process, a statement about somehow their era was better at generating the best poets because we had a much smaller population, or am I simply wrong in thinking they’re the best American poets?

NEW: I don’t know what to say to you. I revere them. They are the most important poets for me. They invent two ways of being a poet, and two of the ways that so many poets who have followed them also acknowledge.

Would there be Hart CraneAllen GinsbergCarl SandburgC. D. WrightC. K. Williams? Would there be any of those — Frank O’Hara — without Walt Whitman? And they would be the first to say, “No.”

Would there be Susan HoweMarianne MooreElizabeth BishopSylvia Plath? All in different ways, would we have them without Emily Dickinson? I don’t know. I’m not sure I can enter . . . Is it that we’ve lost it? I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think we’ve lost it.

COWEN: I turn to European history, again using the “best” word, but it’s plausible to think Homer and Dante are the two best European poets ever in some regards, and they, too, are each quite early in a particular stage of history. What is it about poetry that seems to generate so many people as at least plausible bests who come at the very beginnings of eras?

NEW: Well, isn’t it that poetry is cumulative, and canons are cumulative, and those who are there first, they’re never superseded — unlike, say, for economists who would say, “Adam Smith is a really smart guy, but it’s not like we go to Adam Smith to understand Bitcoin.” They would say, “No. That knowledge has been superseded.”

In literary knowledge, we continue to learn from our predecessors and also continue to feel awe before the persistence of certain phenomena that they . . . Shakespeare saw that Iago was a slippery-mouthed conniver of a kind we still recognize.

We recognize ourselves. We recognize something enduringly human in these oldest of poets, and then, maybe, we elevate them even more.

And:

COWEN: Is it possible that American English isn’t rich enough? I find if I go to Ireland, or especially to Trinidad, I envy the language they have there. They’re both speaking English. If you think of America today, there’s texting, now a long history of television.

Our language is great for quick communication, number one in the world for science. Now there’s social media. Nineteenth-century American English has longer sentences. It’s arguably more like British English. Isn’t the problem just the language we grow up with around us isn’t somehow good enough to sustain first-rate poets?

NEW: It is. It’s so rich. I love the way it evolves, the way my kids don’t say “whatever” anymore. “Whatever” had such incredible potency. “Epic.” When they started to say “epic” had such potency. When hip-hop artists say, “That’s really ill.”

I love the fertility of slang. I love the way mass culture, and its technological limitations, and then its new breaths does funny things to language. I tell my students about this. I say, “You know the way how in ’30s movies, the women are always sweeping around going, ‘Oh, darling,’ in The Thin Man, and there’s this ‘Hi, honey . . .’” [laughs]

If you watch a ’30s movie, and then you watch a ’50s movie, and you see the plasticity and the ingenuity that human beings put into . . . We don’t say, “Hey, kid.” We don’t call anyone a kid anymore. It sounds really archaic and corny.

And:

COWEN: Which is more interesting, Instagram poetry or Facebook poetry?

Definitely recommended, interesting throughout.  We talked about Shaq too.  After the conversation ended, Elisa said something striking to me, something like: “I liked this conversation because you didn’t ask me about “the humanities,” you asked me about poetry.”

Yale Politic interview with me

I enjoyed this one, lots of real questions from Eric Wallach, not “tell us about your book” and the usual snoozefest.  Here is one bit:

So you like the idea of pardons– how do you work through that one?

I don’t even firmly believe that punishment is justified morally. Maybe it’s necessary, maybe you just can’t do without it.  But the mere fact that someone has wronged another, I don’t think causes them to forfeit their rights in the way that was claimed in classic, early modern political philosophy. Once you think wrongdoers still have their human rights, on what grounds do you punish them? Could be that you simply have to– either the public won’t accept another option and they would overthrow your non-punishment regime and bring in fascism, and something with a lot more punishment would come about.

I get that– I’m not saying you can just toss away the keys to all these jails. But insofar as you have options of not punishing people – who in the cases I’ve read about it seems they’re not going to go out there and continue their serial killing sprees – I think we just simply ought not to punish them. Martha Stewart, again, that seems to me a very clear case. Undo the wrong. If I were a president, I’d consider just only pardoning people and then resigning. I know I couldn’t get away with it forever, but it’s one way to think about the job.

There are other points of interest, new and interesting throughout.

*Won’t You Be My Neighbor?*

That is the title of the new documentary on the life and career of Mister Rogers.  Are there better movies on?:

1. The roots of American greatness.

2. The importance of “will” in building a succcessful career.

3. Toleration and individualism and respect for children.

This has to go down as one of the better documentaries, and it seems Mister Rogers was a better and more important thinker than many of the intellectuals of his time.  I had not known that Rogers had been trained and ordained as a Presbyterian minister.

On top of all that, the film is Straussian throughout.  Definitely recommended.  By the way, the documentary doesn’t mention this, but the show actually had its origins in Toronto on CBC.

My Conversation with David Brooks

David was in top form, and I feel this exchange reflected his core style very well, here is the audio and transcript.

We covered why people stay so lonely, whether the Amish are happy, life in Italy, the Whig tradition, the secularization thesis, the importance of covenants, whether Judaism or Christianity has a deeper reading of The Book of Exodus, whether Americans undervalue privacy, Bruce Springsteen vs. Bob Dylan, whether our next president will be a boring manager, and last but not least the David Brooks production function.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Walt Whitman, not only as a poet, but as a foundational thinker for America. Overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: I’d have to say slightly overrated.

COWEN: Tell us why.

BROOKS: I think his spirit and his energy sort of define America. His essay “Democratic Vistas” is one of my favorite essays. It captures both the vulgarity of America, but the energy and especially the business energy of America. But if we think the rise of narcissism is a problem in our society, Walt Whitman is sort of the holy spring there.

[laughter]

COWEN: Socrates, overrated or underrated?

BROOKS: [laughs] This is so absurd.

[laughter]

BROOKS: With everybody else it’s like Breaking Bad, overrated or underrated? I got Socrates.

[laughter]

BROOKS: I will say Socrates is overrated for this reason. We call them dialogues. But really, if you read them, they’re like Socrates making a long speech and some other schmo saying, “Oh yes. It must surely be so, Socrates.”

[laughter]

BROOKS: So it’s not really a dialogue, it’s just him speaking with somebody else affirming.

COWEN: And it’s Plato reporting Socrates. So it’s Plato’s monologue about a supposed dialogue, which may itself be a monologue.

BROOKS: Yeah. It was all probably the writers.

And on Milton Friedman:

BROOKS: I was a student at the University of Chicago, and they did an audition, and I was socialist back then. It was a TV show PBS put on, called Tyranny of the Status Quo, which was “Milton talks to the young.” So I studied up on my left-wing economics, and I went out there to Stanford. I would make my argument, and then he would destroy it in six seconds or so. And then the camera would linger on my face for 19 or 20 seconds, as I tried to think of what to say.

And it was like, he was the best arguer in human history, and I was a 22-year-old. It was my TV debut — you can go on YouTube. I have a lot of hair and big glasses. But I will say, I had never met a libertarian before. And every night — we taped for five days — every night he took me and my colleagues out to dinner in San Francisco and really taught us about economics.

Later, he stayed close to me. I called him a mentor. I didn’t become a libertarian, never quite like him, but a truly great teacher and a truly important influence on my life and so many others. He was a model of what an academic economist should be like.

Recommended.  (And I actually thought David did just fine in that early exchange with Friedman.)

New issue of Econ Journal Watch

Volume 15, Issue 2, May 2018

In this issue:

Do ghastly images much reduce smoking? A study published in Tobacco Control reports large impact from mandated graphic warning labels—pictures of disease, suffering, and death—on cigarette packages in Canada. Trinidad Beleche, Nellie Lew, Rosemarie Summers, and J. Laron Kirby raise empirical challenges and suggest that the reported impact is greatly exaggerated.

Colonial Maryland’s bills of credit: Fiat money, discounted securities, or something else? In Economic History Review, James Celia and Farley Grubb argue that the dollar-denominated bills of credit circulated at less than face value like discounted securities. Ron Michener offers evidence that they circulated at par with specie and were treated as interchangeable with specie dollars. Farley Grubb replies, disputing Michener’s reading of the evidence.

Another pathPatricia Saenz-Armstrong describes the history and current standing of liberalism in Peru, extending the Classical Liberalism in Econ, by Country series to 18 articles.

Dissing TMS: After Adam Smith died in 1790, The Theory of Moral Sentiments soon came to be disparaged and disregarded, and was largely forsaken all the way up to the late 1970s. Compiled here are quotations from 26 critics of TMS. The long train of ‘dissing’ is striking in light of our warm regard for TMS today. But have the criticisms ever been answered?

Esoteric instruction: Republished here by permission of University of Chicago Press is a chapter from Arthur Melzer’s landmark work Philosophy Between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric WritingThe chapter explains pedagogical esotericism, in which the author sparks the superior reader to work to find things beyond the exoteric.

EJW Audio: Patricia Saenz-Armstrong on Economic Liberalism in Peru

Michael Nielsen, standing on one foot

A highly sophisticated MR reader demanded a dose of Michael Nielsen.  I wrote to Michael, and he was kind enough to oblige.  Everything that follows is from Michael, here goes:

I started with the question “What might amuse Tyler?”, and it became very easy.

Three opinions that may amuse MR readers:

1. Peter Thiel has said: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 (280) characters.” Thiel is wrong: 280 characters are much, much better than flying cars. Twitter is misunderstood as being an online service; it’s merely the online component of a much improved offline experience. Twitter DM’s are a superpower, one of the most valuable ways of connecting people ever invented. More on one way of using Twitter here.

2. Movies are primarily a visual form; movie criticism and the popular conversation about movies are primarily a literary form, and informed by literary sensibilities. This is why good movies such as Transformers are so underrated. People who dismiss such movies are mostly revealing their own ignorance.

3. Many corners of the internet have a culture of judgement or argument. Typical subtexts in online conversation are: is this good or bad? What’s wrong with it? But until and unless healthy conversational norms are formed, argument and judgement are mostly useless status-seeking by participants. Much better is a “Yes, and” culture.

Three books or papers which should be better known:

1. Elinor Ostrom’s book Governing the Commons.  Ostrom dismantles the market / government dichotomy, sketching out ways common pool resources (and, to some extent, public goods) can be provided using non-market, non-government solutions.

2. Alex Tabarrok’s paper introducing dominant assurance contracts. Cryptocurrencies have huge potential as a way of creating entirely new types of market, using ideas like this. This potential is mostly unrealized to date.

3. Bret Victor on Media for Thinking the Unthinkable.

Blog posts don’t really get going until about 5,000 words in. Here are three favourites of mine:

1. Thought as a Technology, on how imaginative designers invent fundamentally new modes of thought.

2. If correlation doesn’t imply causation, then what does?

3. Using Artificial Intelligence to Augment Human Intelligence (with Shan Carter).

Despite the fact I’m well short of 5,000 words, I’ll stop here.

You can follow Michael on Twitter here.

Agnes Callard on why there is progress in philosophy

Here is her take, here is one excerpt:

Instead of gauging progress by asking what “we” philosophers agree about, one should ask whether someone who wants to do philosophy is in a better position to do so today than she would’ve been 10 or 100 or 1000 years ago?  The answer is: certainly.

And:

But if philosophical thinking is getting better and better—more precise, truthful, articulate, deep—why should we still read Aristotle or Maimonides?   The reason we need to do the history of philosophy is precisely that philosophy has made massive amounts of progress in Tyler’s sense of the word: it has filtered into, shaped and organized commonsense, ordinary thought.  Indeed, it constitutes much of that thought.

And:

So you are pretty much constantly thinking thoughts that, in one way or another, you inherited from philosophers. You don’t see it, because philosophical exports are the kinds of thing that, once you internalize them, just seem like the way things are. So the reason to read Aristotle isn’t (just) that he’s a great philosopher, but that he’s colonized large parts of your mind.

Finally:

It is not the point of philosophy to end philosophy, to ‘solve’ the deep questions so that people can stop thinking about them.  It is the point of people to think about these questions, and the job of philosophers to rub their faces in that fact.  Of all of philosophy’s achievements, perhaps the greatest one is just sticking around in the face of the fact that, from day one, anyone who has plumbed the depths of our ambitions has either joined us or … tried to silence, stop or kill us.  This is an “old debate” indeed.

There is much more at the link.  And here is my original post on the topic.  Here is my earlier Conversation with Agnes Callard.

Has there been progress in philosophy?

You know this old debate: why are we still reading Plato?  Haven’t they figured out free will yet?  Will they ever?  Don’t the philosophers obsess too much over very old texts?

My opinion is that there is significant and ongoing progress in philosophy, we just don’t always name it as such.  Here is a list of just a few breakthroughs in our philosophic understanding of the world, noting that part of our philosophic maturation is not to care so much anymore as to whether it is called philosophy:

1. Behavioral economics and much of cognitive psychology.

2. A much improved understanding of entropy, information, and information theory.

3. A much better understanding of human neurodiversity and its import..

4. The accumulated wisdom concerning cultural differences and similarities, as taken from anthropological investigations.  You will note that like many recent advances in philosophy, this cannot be found in any one single place.

5. Progress on cosmology and “the theory of everything” and even if you are cynical about the current state of affairs it is far better than say 1850.

6. A deeper understanding of the power and also limits of mathematics.

7. Having digested and then also spit out much of Freudian analysis, but we did learn something along the way.

8. The more philosophical sides of neuroscience, some of which of course are discussed by professional philosophers too.

9. A better understanding of man’s relation to the (non-human) animals.

10. Many ways of thinking about the environment — not all of them correct — have flowered only in relatively recent times.

11. Economics, and what we have learned from economic imperialism, including its failures.

12. Singapore, and in fact most other places/polities in the world.

13. Most literary works are understood much better today than they were in earlier eras.

14. Musical languages are far better developed and better understood.

15. Development of an “internet way of thinking.”

16. Much greater incorporation of the insights of women into philosophy, and many other formerly underrepresented groups too.

So our philosophic understanding of the world is far, far deeper than it was in the time of the so-called classic philosophers, whoever you might take those to be.  If “philosophy” has advanced by collaborating with other disciplines and the sciences, so much the better, and most of the “great philosophers” themselves would have approved of this.  And of course that list of sixteen items could be much, much longer.

My Conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interesting throughout, so interesting I don’t feel the need to give you an excerpt, here is the audio and transcript.  There is no other conversation with Taleb which places his ideas in the proper context, as far as I am aware.  At the end of the conversation, just keep on scrolling, Taleb starts up with Bryan Caplan for an hour, mostly on education.  Here is the link for the Caplan segment only.

*The Radical Fool of Capitalism*

Bentham…appraised the trophies — dismissively dubbed “baked heads” — as technical innovations and recognized their potential for his own plans.  He enthusiastically praised the “savage ingenuity.”  An 1824 draft of his will was the first to contain the score of his wishes: first, to see the corpse as an inheritance…

According to legend, Behtam carried around the glass eyes intended for the Auto-Icon in his pocket in his final years.  (Supposed) attempts to dehydrating body parts in his home oven are said to have yielded satisfactory results.  Bentham believed the [Maori] mokomokai process would discolor facial traits and produce a parchment- or mummy-like appearance (which could be corrected with paint), while maintaining the physiognomy.

But Southwood Smith botched the job.  He sprinkled sulfuric acid onto the head, and in doing so docked Bentham’s nose.  He used an air pump to aid dehydration, which caused the skin to shrivel.  Bentham’s face appeared melted, the physiognomy destroyed.  In spring 1833, Smith commissioned a replacement head of wax…

That is from the new, excellent, and short The Radical Fool of Capitalism: On Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon, and the Auto-Icon, by Christian Welzbacher.

Euthanasia and bargaining power within the family

Let’s say more of the world moves to a Netherlands-style euthanasia law.  While euthanasia is at first based on individual consent, it usually evolves into a “in unclear cases your spouse or guardian has the actual say.”

How will this affect bargaining power within the family?  Here are a few options:

1. Family members will be much nicer to each other, ex ante, so they will be kept around for longer if they come down sick.

1b. Because of time consistency problems, family members won’t be much nicer with each other.

1c. You fear that family members aren’t willing enough to pull the plug on you, so you become actively less nice.

2. Family members will be much more anxious with each other, because they will so often be wondering how the others will wish to dispose of them, and when.

3. Some family members will make explicit ex ante deals, such as: “You can send me to my doom when the time comes, with a clear conscience, but on Tuesday nights we’re going to watch my game shows, not your reality TV.”

4. “It stresses me out that you are stressed out over my dying, so I will apply for euthanasia right here and now, even though I still have nine months to live with my cancer.  Except I will tell you that I just don’t want to live any longer, so you don’t feel bad about why I am doing this.”

5. You have no family and given your illness you are a net revenue drain on your nursing home.  If you go back to live out your final days, you’ll end up with the worst room and less spicy food and no private TV.  You agree to euthanasia, granted that they send $20,000 to your favorite charity.  You leave this earth with a warm glow, feeling that 20k probably saved at least one life.  In reality, with p = 0.68 it subsidized someone’s overhead.

What else?