Archive for October, 2006

Zero-sum dating game

Traditional free-market liberals generally pride themselves on their biological, or at least psychological, realism, following Adam Smith in the belief that humans are fundamentally self-interested, if not actually greedy, beings, and that self-interest has to be taken into account and put to use in any effective society and economic system. Now that their critics seem to be incorporating research in evolutionary biology to an encouraging degree (though whether they are interepreting the findings correctly is a different question entirely), I have noticed a bit of a strange drift towards tenuous psychological claims and social-constructivist claims in a couple of free-market defenses themselves. In one, this year’s Nobel laureate in economics, Edmund Phelps, tries to comparatively assess the economic systems of the Anglophone world and Continental Europe. Although he asks the question as to whether at some point continued gains in wealth and economic growth are valuable, he seems to assume implicitly that the comparison can essentially be reduced to these terms. I don’t think even the most die-hard defender of social democracy would deny that Americans have a higher average income than Europeans; that’s just a fact. Usually the defense, and a not invalid one either, is that the greater range and quality of state-provided or -guaranteed social services makes the society as a whole, and especially the poorer members, better off. And in fact, on other measures of quality of life, for example average health, European countries generally score a lot higher than the U.S. Phelps also seems to be aware that wealth is not the sole measure of quality of life, but his alternative justifications for more time spent working and earning money, as in America, seems to hinge on dubious non-empirical claims such as: “The American application of this Aristotelian perspective is the thesis that most, if not all, of such self-realization in modern societies can come only from a career. Today we cannot go tilting at windmills, but we can take on the challenges of a career. If a challenging career is not the main hope for self-realization, what else could be?” Um, I don’t know, but if we really want to be tolerant liberals, we should probably let people find out for themselves. I think a more pressing, and objectively verifiable, question about the social democracies is not whether they are providing a high standard of living for their people but whether with the general lack of economic dynamism it will be sustainable into the forseeable future. I know that the vaunted tuition-free university systems in most of the European countries, for example, are, if not bankrupt, under increasing financial strain, especially in comparison with American universities.

At the end, Phelps urges us to see entrepreneurs as the victims in a society that does not facilitate entrepreneurship, even if poor people benefit. I am rather skeptical that entrepreneurship is intrinsically prejudicial to the interests of the poor, but if it were than it seems to me the case would be a lot more complicated. Because Phelps doesn’t seem to acknowledge that some people’s desires are not compatible with others’. The desires of thieves or arsonists cannot be reconciled with the interests of the rest of society, so they have to be excluded. I am not saying by any means that entrepreneurs as a class fall into this category, but if one is willing to sanction a group’s activities even if it is detrimental to the well-being of another, which Phelps is apparently willing to grant hypothetically, then it has be determined whether the harm is only incidental or intrinsic.  That distinction to me often represents the line between what can be tolerated and what has to be suppressed. The other article responds to a claim made from several sources recently that income inequality is inherently bad because it is detrimental to the psychological well-being of humans who, evolved as status-seeking beings, are wounded by the seeing themselves as less well-off than others. There is evident psychological truth in this view, although it is equally evident that even its proponents, like the British politician Richard Layard (a member of the British nobility, it should be noted!), believe that it can be to some extent transcended, or they would not be presenting policy proposals for how to fix the problem. Nor does Will Wilkinson, the author of the article, really contest the biological evidence of this phenomenon, even though he throws out some pro forma arguments about how humans and rhesus monkeys are in fact different and results from research on one are not necessarily extrapolable to the other. His basic argument is that, even if status-seeking is a fixed element of human existence, the forms of status are not, and in an ever-expanding world the number of high-status positions can be multiplied without limit. In one sense this is obviously false, in that no matter how many status groups there are, one still has to have status relative to someone else or it becomes meaningless, like everyone in a class getting gold stars.  On the other hand, this view has merit insofar as it shows that, once again, wealth is not the only measure of status. One of the many ways in which Layard and his ilk are either naive or disingenuous is in seeming to believe that if perfect equality of wealth were achieved humans would either stop seeking greater status or would be stymied in their quest. But people are not equally intelligent, or athletic, or attractive. They would find other ways of one-upping each other. Wilkinson recognizes this. But it is unclear if he recognizes that there is at least one inflexible fixed measure of status, which is of course…reproductive success! Poets, economists, pop singers and politicians may define their status within different niches, but the odds are that they will not all be equally successfiul in getting girls or boys. And there is a rather high probability that people will find themselves competing across niche boundaries for a mate, which is where all the tidy non-competitiveness breaks down. And especially at these times, I doubt that a “high-status” poet will even be able to convince himself that he has a truly high status in the world.  Not that I have any policy proposal at the bottom of this. If you think about the basic tradional needs of humanity, like food, shelter and mating, there seems to be a radical and ever-increasing asymmetry between food and shelter, which are relatively easy to obtain for most people today, at least in the developed world, and mating, which seems to be just as difficult to secure as ever. And the reason, as I see it, is that our environment is the source of food and shelter whereas we are the source of mating to each other. We can make collective progress relative to the environment because it is relatively unchaning, but we can’t make collective progress relative to our selves, so the growth of societal knowledge and expertise has not been of much use. But at least we can make ourselves more beautiful.

Das Eigentum des Einziges

Many people seem to believe that the major question in the study of consciousness is how inanimate matter could give rise to it, the ability to be aware of oneself and one’s environment. But would it not be equally valid to ask why consciousness, which is after all a quality possessed by the only being that we really know from the inside, should not be common to all things? I would not claim that all objects actually possess consciousness, but all knowledge comes through the filter of one’s own subjective point of view. Until very recently, pretty much the only decisive evidence of the consciousness of other things came from commication with them, and hence was almost entirely limited to our own species. Since consciousness is an interior experience and we can only see the outside, the surfaces of others, it seems not very hard to imagine that we might underestimate their capacity for conscious awareness.

John Searle is right: since the whole question of consciousness arises from the dichotomy between the simple movement of matter and the existence of subjective impressions of it in the mind, the attempt to somehow reduce the latter to or equate it with the former seems to defy everyday experience, even if mental impressions do correspond with objective physical events. But I don’t think even the causal link between them, i.e. how matter should give rise to consciousness (if it does), need be so problematic. Even if one granted that matter lies at the root and cause of all consciousness, the subjectivity of consciousness pretty much guarantees that, outside of oneself, one would only see part of what exists in the universe, i.e. the matter, that which is not consciousness. Even of other presumably conscious people we can only see the outward manifestations, not directly perceive the interior awareness, and therefore it is no wonder that consciousness should seem a little anomalous, since it can only truly be perceived in one single being in the universe. Therefore, we, like materialists, might suspect it, as the only foam in a clear blue sea, of being just an illusion. Alternatively, as the gate through which all knowledge of the world must pass, we might idealistically take consciousness to be more central than matter, or maybe even to be the only reality. The polarity arises from the inability to perceive viscerally the combination of matter and consciousness in other things, which would probably make the phenomenon seem more normal.

The Coloradan school of economics–what do you know about what people want?

Models only represent. Their creators often have a keen sense of their limitations, having struggled to find some adequate way of describing what they observe. Newton, for example, never claimed that his equations were anything other than simplified descriptions of physical phenomenon. But after several generations of being taught as the gospel truth, the distance between the model and the reality often begins to disappear, leading for example to the grandiose claims for the identity of words with the objects they represent, which somewhat opportunistic minds like Wittgenstein were able to overly-dramatically puncture later on. And so it seems to me with the new generation of psychologically-minded economists (or economically-minded psychologists) who have arrived at the shocking conclusion that in the mind “there is a conflict and interaction between passion, and reason and self-interest.”

Now, it’s not my intention to defend economists as a breed, particularly those of the so-called Austrian school who more than any other have contributed to the divorce of economics from actual lived human experience (accompanied by a more and more exclusive focus on mathematical models), but while most economists’ (and probably any sensible people’s) worldview is predicated on the idea that people pursue their self-interest, my understanding is that the crucial factor of rationality was introduced more as a standard by which to evaluate people’s behavior rather than a necessary component of it.

But even if economists have become more broad-minded as to the nature of people’s behavior, to tell the truth, the term “rational” still seems to encode a questionable invidious judgment about what things people ought to value. For instance, if one’s goal were to make as many friends as possible, one might rationally conclude on certain actions which would not necessarily be defensible from a purely wealth-aggrandizement point of view. So it seems to me that rationality within certain limits can pertain to the means of accomplishing a goal regardless of what that goal might be, and this does not seem to be sufficiently recognized within the field.


Perhaps, as interaction between the several corners of the world makes it seem ever smaller and less mysterious, it increasingly seems an inadequate stage for the breadth of our imaginations and even of our immediate existences. Even the universe entire, for all its vastness, hardly seems, for the most part, a very enticing locale, being, apart from Earth, seemingly largely bereft of the resources needed to support our lives. Whatever the reason, I a strange renaissance in the oft-derided notion of alternative dimensions and universes, with the possibility of near-infinite parallel, and thus familiar, existences to our own. Currently the controvery over string theory has gotten back in the popular press because several physicists are airing their skepticism about the entire project through this medium. As far as I understand it (which is of course very little), string theory does not actually posit the existence of multiple universes, but it does call for numerous extra dimensions and other strange preconditions which cannot be perceived by us in any way. Since these elements are totally inaccessible no real experimentation, even observational, can be performed where they are concerned. A large number of possible models of the universe ensues, simply because of the ambiguities surrounding the elements of the universe’s structure which cannot be observed or experimented on. However, the hope is that the vast majority of these models would describe universes which would not support the very delicate balance of conditions needed to sustain life on our planet, and specifically ours (though presumably there are a lot of other delicate balances in the universe which such a model would have to account for). So if we eliminate all the models which describe alternative universes that do not support human life, hopefully only one possibility, or at least a manageably small number, will be left. Or, contra Dirk Gentley, when you eliminate the impossible, the possible left over must be the true answer.

To my untutored eye this all seems like a very convoluted and overly specific way of saying that a theory of the universe needs to account for everything that it exists and posit nothing that doesn’t, but I fully acknowledge my ignorance in these matters (though the laymen of the world are no doubt cheered by the recent discovery that, in judging the responses to questions about gravitational waves submitted by a sociologist and a gravitational wave specialist, a panel of physicists couldn’t accurately determine who was the professional and who the amateur). The critics of string theory often claim that since it supposes the existence of so many things which cannot be tested or measured, which string theorists don’t seem to dispute, it is not real science but rather mere metaphysical speculation. I find more interesting the seeming motives behind the growth of the theory.  Since so many parts of it seem to be intrinsically untestable, and therefore the theory is apparently unable to be verified, why bother with it? Its defenders seem for the most part to believe that even if it is unproveable as a complete, coherent model of the universe it has nonetheless a certain aesthetic, perhaps even spiritual, value. As long as it’s possible and doesn’t contradict that which we can verify it satisfies. Conventional physics, then, for where our hands and eyes can reach, and strings and curled-up dimensions for where they can’t. Of course, if we substitute “God” for “strings and curled-up dimensions,” intellectual religious people have been trying to do this for years, if not centuries, and how many physicists respect them for that?

Analytical philosophers, almost as bizarrely, have been indulging in speculation about alternate worlds and dimensions as well, at least since the days of Saul Kripke or David K. Lewis. Jerry Fodor pretty thoroughly, yet oddly deferentially, trashes the relevance of Kripke’s contribution. As far as I understand Kripke’s ideas, and Fodor’s critique of him, the basic problem with analytical philosophy is that it it is not an empirical discipline, but rather one predicated on definitions and logic, more like math (many of the first great analytical philosophers, like Bertrand Russell, were mathemticians and logicians).  The problem arises when analytical philosophers try to go beyond statements about the structure of language to making true statements about the world. Since they are not empiricists, they are limited to discovering a priori, or categorical, logically necessary truths. However, some influential critics, like W.V.O. Quine, contended that there aren’t any. Kripke then defused this critique by claiming that by positing a large number of hypothetical alternate realities you could determine what is logically necessary simply by analyzing whether it could be untrue or not exist in any possible world.

However, as far as I can tell, and as Fodor seems to feel, is that this doesn’t actually say anything about the world. Logically necessary truths don’t prove what exists in the world, they just prove the properties of what they describe. For instance, Fodor mentions as an example the fact that a king’s reign must last for some amount of time, because that is implicit in its definition. But that doesn’t prove that any king ever reigned anywhere. And, while everyone would probably agree that a reign must last some amount of time, unlike a mathematical quantity there are many possible definitions of what a reign might be. So the problem seems to be that the kinds of conclusions analytical philosophy produces in this way tend to be true but trivial, since we still rely on empirical knowledge both determine the meanings of words and statements in the first place and then to determine whether those statements are true.  Analytical philosophy, even as Kripke envisions it, doesn’t seem to do much more than ensure we don’t contradict ourselves.  This is the main reason I abandoned philosophy as an academic discipline in the American university. Well, that and the exceedingly annoying form of the syllogisms in analytical philosophy (“Water is the stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps. The stuff that is in the Thames and comes out of the taps undeniably contains impurities (bits that are neither hydrogen nor oxygen nor constituents thereof). So how can water be H2O?”), which after a while becomes barely less grating than literary theory. Basically, both this field theoretical physics seem pretty stagnant, and because they seem to have reached a bit of a dead end relative to their more experimental brethren, they have attracted a lot of very abstract speculative types who in another time would probably spend much of their time banging a drum at a camp somewhere. Or maybe they do now.