2023-10-27

They call her Natasha when she looks like Elsie

PXL_20230831_172105039 "The exception proves the rule" is a well-known phrase with more than one meaning; the one I take uses "prove" in the sense of "test". In maths or science of software this makes sense: edge and corner cases are useful: my software must work given any legal but unlikely input, and must fail in defined ways if given illegal input.

It isn't so obvious in whifflier domains such as morality; hence the enduring popularity of talking about The Trolley Problem, wherein we are faced with a moral dilema well out of the bounds of any experience1. Morality is custom and so things well outside experience and therefore custom aren't subject to our moral intuitions.

This smacks once again of the softer sciences thoughtlessly aping the harder ones. If there genuinely are strict laws, then testing them with edge cases makes sense. If there aren't, trying to interpret out-of-bounds information within your (admittedly unclearly-)bounded framework will only confuse you.

Even less sensible is the attempt to think about TTP in the context of Implications for autonomous vehicles. No-one is going to write their software in a way that the question comes up.

Refs

(I Don't Want to Go to) Chelsea.

* Philosophy of Physics Seminar: Sabine Hossenfelder (Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy): 'Superdeterminism – The Forgotten Solution'

The FTC’s Confused Case Against Amazon.

* In talking about The Ethical Case for a Siege of Gaza, Richard Hanania says that Individual morality does not transfer to geopolitical issues. This is consistent with what I'm saying here.

Notes

1. This also doesn't begin to cover what people would do in practice if faced with such problems. And in practice they can't be: the conditions are not real-world.

2023-10-22

Après ma mort, je ferai tomber une pluie de roses

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My title isn't really related to this post in any clear way; Google recently reminded me of this photo that I took in Amiens in 2020 on the way back from the Ecrins; I didn't make much of it at the time, but appreciated it more in arrears. My title is from a little quote visible at the bottom and is from Thérèse of Lisieux. I doubt I'd have got on with her, but the words are lovely. The pix I show here has been cut and de-trapezoided by Googly magic; the original is here. It's only a humble Pixel3 though.

No, my post begins with Descartes; for some reason I feel the need to rant about this poor long dead chap. But really he is just an examplar; what I'm really ranting about is philosophy, and the lamentable state of philosophical scholarship.

But first a brief interjection: the other thing I'd rant about, if I could be bothered to, would be the vast torrent of crap that pours upon us. So many people writing some many books, papers, and articles because their voices are important, at least to them. And so many people consuming this torrent of drivel because our glorious free-market capitalism has delivered to them so much free time that they don't know how to use. I am minded of the quote about Hobbes from a previous post, which I'll repeat here: He had read much, if one considers his long life; but his contemplation was much more than his reading. He was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men.

So ignoring my own injunction: browsing a not-very-slim-tome (second hand, Heffers) on The Rise of Modern Philosophy I come to the chapter on Descartes, which is long on his virtues, and padded with the irrelevant stuff about him being in the wars, but very short on what he actually contributed. It includes the Cogito, of course; although that in itself contributes little; but like everyone else doesn't mention at all how badly it all breaks down after that; you may read my fine analysis here. The Cambridge Companion to Descartes is somewhat better, but that only leads me to his anti-atomism. As Stanford puts itDescartes rejects any form of atomism, which is the view that there exists a smallest indivisible particle of matter. Rather, he holds that since any given spatially extended length is divisible in thought, thus God has the power to actually divide it . In fact Stanford somwhat errs in reproducing his not-desperately clear thought, to the degree that we could blame God for his errors; what he actually says is something like things can't be indivisible, but even if they were, God could make them divisible if he felt like it; see here, here)4.

And that anti-atonism on the part of big D leads me to my startlingly original and definitely worth troubling the world with take on antient Greek physics, specifically that of Aristotle (see-also my not very original notes below). Which is: none of it matters to them, which is why it is all so badly wrong. One can go through identifying errors but that's all beside the point: the unifying principle is that there tech level was so low, they were too far away from it making any difference. Was the world continuous or atomic? They didn't know, and it didn't matter. They couldn't even observe Brownian motion. The penalty for guessing wrong was zero. The penalty for writing down a stream of words that appeared to be a logical argument, and which generations of philosophers were unable to correctly identify as drivel, was zero. It turns out that getting the right answer is hard, and so if you just randomly guess you'll continuously be wrong. See-also: science is grounded in experiment, which I forgot.

Returning to my picture: at some point I'm going to make a list of all the places I want to go to in France, and then go to them. Or alternatively just go to all the places in France. I should certainly visit all the cathedrals; I've made a fair stab but there are a lot left.

Aristotle's Physics


[I wrote this, but was never really happy with it, which is why I didn't publish it. But now is its time and place.]

If you want to read people being nice about A you will find no shortage out there1; so I feel no urge to join them. TL;DR The historian of philosophy, accordingly, must study them, in spite of the fact that hardly a sentence in either can be accepted in the light of modern science (that nice Bertrand Russell). But more that this, as I hope to show, it doesn't even make sense on its own terms. None of this is relevant to the problem of people being mislead by Aristotle for so many years; that was strictly their own fault, their own stupid reverence for authority and inability to think for themselves; Aristotle left any number of clues that his stuff was blatantly wrong.

There is quite a lot of words in the Physics. In a way, that's surprising: my mental image of those days is that paper3 wss in short supply, so you'd expect authors to have thought carefully before writing and to have compressed their work. Instead, A does the reverse: is discoursive and repetitive and doesn't follow a clear sequence. In this - as with the Politics - one gets the impression of a poorly edited collection of lecture notes. What it doesn't read like is ideas that have survived testing by rigourous dialectic.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the work is as an example: that something that has survived for a long time can still be completely wrong, and yet still be defended. Consider what other ideas we see in the world today are similar. Of course, part of the problem is that anyone inclined to study this stuff deeply is going to be in sympathy with the material; no-one is going to waste much time ripping it to shreds. So why - I hear you ask - am I bothering? Well I've had these volumes on my shelves for many years now, and the time has finally come to finish reading and dispose of them.

Like say Hippolytus or Iphigenia in Tauris this comes into the "it lasted 2,000 years so there must be something worth while in it" but unlike them it is not literature; and it has not fared well. In the following I shall assume that the (English) words I'm reading have captured the original meaning of the text, despite the gulf that separates us; given the contortions that his translators and interpreters have gone through, I think it likely that I'm getting his best shot, or perhaps better than.

A discusses, let us say, motion. And he is smart enough to try to abstract; he is not interested in the motion of any individual ox-cart. Unfortunately, he abstracts all the way to abstraction; which I can best explain by comparing to, say, Galileo's experiments with rolling spheres down inclined planes. That abstracted to a concrete reality, and so was able to learn something, by observing how very simple entities behave. A abstracts out everything but movers and moving, and so is unable to learn anything.

A is interested in both the real world - or at least, in an abstract version thereof - and in the world of mathematics. Unfortunately he rarely distinguishes the two, or says which any given discussion appertains to; so much so that I doubt he has the distinction clearly in his mind. He is, however, aware that there is a distinction2.

In trying to think about how to Do Physics, A starts well Hence, in advancing to that which is intrinsically more luminous and by its nature accessible to deeper knowledge, we must needs start from what is more immediately within our cognition, though in its own nature less fully accessible to understanding. Now the things most obvious and immediately cognizable by us are concrete and particular, rather than abstract and general; whereas elements and principles are only accessible to us afterwards, as derived from the concrete data when we have analysed them. So we must advance from the concrete whole to the several constituents which it embraces; had he stuck to this, he would have fared much better. That's book I chapter I; chapter II starts off wondering how many "principle"s or "primary constituents" there are; attempting to translate this into ModernSpeak, it seems likely that he is wondering how many elements there are (rather than fundamental particles or states of matter) but - characteristically - his discussion is so unanchored by reality that one cannot really tell; he is already lost, and doesn't know it. He deduces that there must be either one, or finitely many, or infinitely many; after that he bogs down; then chapter VI concludes It is clear, then, that there must be more than one element or principle, and that there cannot be more than two or three. But, within these limits, the decision as between two and three presents great difficulties. This is based on "logic" along the lines of we need a pair of antithetical qualities; and (for the third, if needed) they need something to act on. So alas despite his declared intent to start with reality he falls at the first hurdle, and is reduced to being either Wrong, or perhaps Not Even Wrong. To the obvious rebuttal (which will come up time and again) "but in those early days it was really hard to know anything" comes the obvious answer: yes, it was. And so A, if honest, would have concluded that he simply didn't know and couldn't say anything useful on the topic. To some extent, supported by the end of book I, I believe that A was in this section merely surveying other opinions of the time, or felt himself unable to avoid opining. And sadly book II chapter I begins by stating that the elementary substances are earth, fire, air and water; see previous comments re badly edited lecture notes. Nothing else of interest appears in book II. I should perhaps note that there's quite a lot of stuff that my eyes just slide off... all the verbiage about causes for example; he does love classifying things, even if he has to make them up to do so.

Book III begins by defining motion; I took the piss out of that some years ago and don't feel much more merciful now. His problem is not realising that some things are better left undefined, as Newton did with time; we all know what it is (errm) so wrapping a pile of complicated words around a simple idea doesn't help; see-also Popper. That said, he is also covering too broad a scope; had he restricted himself to physical motion of inanimate objects he might have got along better. 

Chapter IV begins to talk about infinity; but in the context of Nature (and thus, implicitly, not Maths).

[I'm fairly sure I intended to write more, but realised that it was all drivel anyway, and badly organised at that. I did Aristotle and the continuum before.]


Refs

* Paul Graham: how to do philosophy.

Russell on Aristotle's Politics.

McTaggart on Time.

My Left Kidney - ACX.

The sleepwalkers.

Notes

1. Although to be fair, generally not about his Physics. The sort of defensive thing you can expect supporters to say about the Physics is along the lines of What, then, are we to expect from the Physics ? Something that is still of philosophical interest; very much that is of historic interest and that has entered deeply into the texture of our language; much of purely intellectual interest and bracing gymnastic; but also much that is of vital significance in relation to that borderland between physical and metaphysical thought where mathematics and philosophy meet, which I quote from the Loeb intro. Notice that they cannot even begin to mention that so much of it is wrong.

2. From book II chapter II: we have next to consider how the mathematician differs from the physicist or natural philosopher; for natural bodies have surfaces and occupy spaces, have lengths and present points, all which are subjects of mathe matical study. And then there is the connected question whether astronomy is a separate science from physics or only a special branch of it; for if the student of Nature is concerned to know what the sun and moon are, it were strange if he could avoid inquiry into their essential properties; especially as we find that writers on Nature have, as a fact, discoursed on the shape of the moon and sun and raised the question whether the earth, or the cosmos, is spherical or otherwise. Physicists, astronomers, and mathematicians, then, all have to deal with lines, figures and the rest. But the mathematician is not concerned with these concepts qua boundaries of natural bodies, nor with their properties as manifested in such bodies. Therefore he abstracts them from physical conditions; for they are capable of being considered in the mind in separation from the motions of the bodies to which they pertain, and such abstraction does not affect the validity of the reasoning or lead to any false conclusions.

3. Or equivalent.

4. Descartes is lead to this error by his idea that the "essential" property of a given object is its extension in space, which causes him to think in these terms; presumably, an indivisible object would have a property-in-itself that wouldn't fit into his schema. In turn this leads him to fail to get to momentum, despite some promising thoughts in that area. But analysing his errors individually isn't really interesting; my point rather is that there are endless ways of going wrong; you will always fall off the knife-edge of truth, unless you have something - in the case of physics, reality - to correct you.

2023-10-20

Country capture

around-v Regulatory capture is a familiar concept, but "Country capture" in the sense that I mean it doesn't seem to be. State capture exists, but as a different concept. Country capture is when the govt has acquired the people. I'm prompted by the Economist's Tuvalu plans for its own disappearance (arch), where Tuvalu is (nominally), as the headline says, planning to keep going even if it physically disappears. 

Why would you do that? Obviously, if you're the leader of a country and would like to stay in power, you might do that. And yet no (democratic) leader is likely to stay in power for long enough for it to matter. Another possibility is that this is just PR wank, as a means to draw-attention-to-your-sad-plight kinda gumpf. As TE says, part of the plan is The government is especially keen to make explicit that it would expect to retain its claim on the waters surrounding present-day Tuvalu, but this isn't obviously a good idea either: why would Tuvalu manage them any better than those who might inherit them?

Instead, think of it from the point of view of the people of the country, which the govt is at least supposed to pretend to be serving. If the country vanishes, the people will be best served by moving somewhere else. Rather obviously. "preserve cultural traditions online" as Tuvalu pretends to be considering is drivel, founded upon the idea that natioanlism is a good idea, which it isn't. Think people, not countries.

The other obvious example of this is the poor benighted Palestinians, captured by Hamas and Fatah. Who would be far better off if they were just Human Beings, whereupon they could go to some other country and lead productive and useful and fulfilling lives, instead of locking themselves into their forebears stupid conflicts.

My pic shows a few days walking around Vallouise. Full write-up to follow.

Refs

My Book List by Bryan Caplan. You'll love it. Or The Identity of Shame.

2023-10-11

The Struggle

PXL_20230926_113705658 Whilst mumbling in our beer about the failings of the world, Tom bemoaned the state of the blogging game. Which brings some thoughts to mind:

With success comes power and great success has been given me
And with great power comes great fuckability.

(The Struggle, by Scroobius Pip, as you doubtless recognise). I make no claims in that direction, indeed I am thinking of the opposite: with great lack of reach, comes great lack of responsibility.

By which I mean that I have come to terms with the world. A great many stupid, pointless, cruel, horrible things have happened, are happening, and will happen in the future1. In many cases far better outcomes could be achieved with little more that a small willingness to compromise, a slight ability to sift evidence and make accurate rather than partisan evaluations; and a whole host of other tiny trivial improvements that just won't happen.

I don't think I ever blogged with much hope of being listened to2. When I read Xitter posts of those who very much do want to be listened to it all seems rather desperate and most often doomed, and I'm certainly not going to make the attempts to shout that they do. The world has far too many competing voices searching for ears, and far too many of the people who do listen are listening for entertainment purposes only, not because they wish to have their prejudices challenged or corrected, or even wish to think.

So blogging is really only to have an interesting conversation. That doesn't always work, but at worst I'm having a conversation with my future self; and those who do comment here are always welcome, even if I don't always reply in the most temperate of terms. I write what I think is true, but I don't feel any obligation to temper my message into ear-shaped portions or strive to avoid offending fools.

Notes

1. For example, did I mention my brilliant solution to the Palestinian Problem? The Palestinians should surrender. They'd be far better off as second class citizens of Israel than they ever could be as even first class citizins of a Free Palestine, even if that were ever to come into existence. Self-determination is over-rated. Yes, I know there is no chance of this happening.

2. I've said this before, I find; see this comment on Yet more Exxonknew drivel.

Refs

* My pic: Assyrian relief from the British Museum. Still amazingly good, after all these years.

* For those interested in The Bell Curve, some interesting graphs from Cremieux on Xitter. Here is the male / female comparison: males are ~3 times as represented as females at IQ 140, but also at IQ 60 (note that these are SAT scores converted to IQ).

The Grave Evil of Unemployment / Intellectual Autobiography of Bryan Caplan.

* On the inefficient economics of US slavery. Note that while the rest is interesting, I don't endorse it all.

Conversations - ATTP. I notice, reading that, this post isn't quite what I thought it was... I was more talking about me being at peace with the world than specicially about blogging. ATTP mentions Substack, which is a thing; indeed I even have one but do nothing with it.

* Volokh: The Moral and Strategic Case for Opening Doors to Gaza Refugees.

2023-10-07

Gray the sinner

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John Gray was tending towards despair a few years ago, but has now fallen. He not so much mourns what he considers the death of liberalism as revels in it, owning the libs or whatever. He is probably aiming at the wise-elder-statesman or -philosopher type of approach, but I think he is more an old man mumbling into his beer bemoaning the young folks and their ways.

His analysis of the death is weak; indeed he largely simply assumes it. Because to him it is so obvious; but since I'm not willing to grant him so much, most of the rest falls apart for me. At least the bits I've read; I won't claim to have got far into it; I stopped around the Russia / China analysis.

But the "frame" he has chosen is Hobbes, and I can't dislike that, though I do dislike the use he makes of Hobbes and the interpretation he uses (and he thinks too much of Malthus). As to Hobbes on international relations, the answer is clear: without the Civil Sword to hold men in awe there is no peace, no compacts, and the concept of injustice does not apply.

But towards the start there are some quotes from John Aubrey's brief live of Hobbes. I like:

He had read much, if one considers his long life; but his contemplation was much more than his reading. He was wont to say that if he had read as much as other men, he should have known no more than other men.

There is a lesson in that for all of us. And for those who favour in-person debate:

He would say that he did not care to give, neither was he adroit at, a present answer to a serious query: he had as lief they should have expected an extemporary solution to an arithmetical problem, for he turned and winded and compounded in philosophy, politics, etc, as if he had been at analytical work. He always avoided, as much as he could, to conclude hastily.

Refs

* Liberalism’s obituarist: John Gray extends his dark critique of the modern world. Note the nice JCWBC framing though I don't think he is current there.

A multitude of possibly unsatisfying answers to "why is it suddenly so hot?".

Economists are not engaged enough with the IPCC says Ilan Noy, but "Economics is a purely quantitative discipline" is Shirley bollox.