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Date: Friday, 03 Oct 2014 13:58
[P]art of the purpose of beauty is always to make both the poor and any revolution they attempt appear to be crude and in bad taste, to be a breach of manners. There is simply no way, when power has acquired the trappings of beauty, to avoid the spiritual wonder and humility such beauty provides. Any opposition somehow acquires a stridency, leaves itself open to charges that the world it seeks to destroy will always be more uplifting, more miraculous, than whatever replaces it, whatever you propose. The better choice, the wiser choice is to remain allied with the beauty, support what it upholds, since they cannot be separated.

— David Mura, Turning Japanese, p. 300
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "quotations"
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Date: Saturday, 06 Sep 2014 17:11
"Never, in the history of humanity, has a man been at risk of a woman leaping out of the bushes and accidentally impaling herself on his onrushing erect penis." -- PZ Myers
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "feminism, quotations"
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Date: Friday, 05 Sep 2014 08:04
I've been sitting in on the principles of micro- and macro-economics classes, which has been a lot of fun.

But one thing has been bothering me: the justification seems weak for the assertion that market (and aggregate) supply functions are upward sloping. It makes intuitive sense to just say that if the price of a good (or service) rises, the producers of that good will produce more. But four years of economics has trained me not to trust my naive intuition. Instead, I want to set up a model and see what happens in that model. Then I want to carefully consider the relationship of reality to the model's assumptions.

So, let's start with a simple economy where all producers are in perfect competition, are operating at the maximum efficient scale, and no one is making economic profit. Hence, the supply and demand schedule for every individual firm looks like this:

P=Price, Q=Quantity
MC=Marginal Cost, ATC=Average Total Cost
D=Demand, M=Marginal Revenue

Next, we lower (raise) permanent tax rates so that in general, demand increases (decreases) due to income effects. Not all firms will experience the same effects. Some firms (those making normal goods, which have positive income elasticity) will see demand rise (fall); some firms (those making inferior goods) will see demand fall (rise), and some (those making goods with highly income-inelastic demand) will see little change in demand. Since most goods are normal, with income-elastic demand, we'll focus on the first category. In the short run, these firms experience the following, with D' being the new demand curve with lower tax rates, and D" the new curve with higher rates.

So, yes: quantity supplied increases (decreases) when the price increases (decreases). When prices increase, the firms make a short-run economic profit (labeled EP on the graph); when prices fall, firms experience a short-run economic loss.

Let me take a moment to check my assumptions.
  • Perfect Competition: The same behavior holds for monopoly and monopolistic competition with rising marginal costs (and all but the most rigidly doctrinaire Libertarian economist will admit that monopolies with falling marginal costs should be regulated by the government), so this is a useful simplifying assumption.
  • Maximum Efficient Scale: Not relevant in the short run.
  • No Starting Economic Profit: Usually realistic per se.
  • Mostly Normal Goods: Usually realistic per se.

The only dodgy assumption is the upward-sloping marginal cost curve. Because I'm investigating why market supply curves are upward sloping, assuming that marginal costs curves are upward sloping is to implicitly assume the consequent. I want an independent justification. Given that I'm analyzing the short run, we can increase only one factor of production, and labor is the easiest factor to change. So, firms need to pay their existing workers overtime to produce more (obviously increasing marginal costs), or they need to hire more temporary workers (in the short run, firms do not want to commit to a long-run increase in their permanent workforce). Temporary workers are more expensive and less productive, so marginal costs will increase. So I think this assumption is supportable.

However, economists assert that the upward sloping market supply curve is a long run curve, so we need to figure out what happens not just in the short run, but in the long run. That will be the topic of the next post.
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "economics, wonkery"
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Economics   New window
Date: Tuesday, 02 Sep 2014 05:08
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "economics, humor"
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Date: Sunday, 31 Aug 2014 05:45
Political Economy

Reading Hamilton From the Left (Bob Avakian makes a similar case in Communism and Jeffersonian Democracy)
Why Conservatives Should Read Marx
This Economy Is Ruined For Everyone: The "obvious" reading of this piece is that if working class people are screwed, so what, but when middle-class people are getting screwed, there's a real problem. That's probably the intention of the article. However, a deeper point can be made: if working-class people are getting screwed, sooner or later middle-class people will feel the fist of capitalist injustice deep in their colons.

Ferguson, MO

White privilege: An insidious virus that’s eating America from within
4 Weird Decisions That Have Made Modern Cops Terrifying
A Question with a 400 Year-Old Answer
What I've Learned from Two Years Collecting Data on Police Killings
7 Important Details Nobody Mentions About Ferguson
Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison
In Ferguson, Black Town, White Power (why a republic is not democratic)
St. Louis Police Killed Kajieme Powell Because They Were Following Insane Rules


Against Empathy
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "links"
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Date: Saturday, 30 Aug 2014 17:48
When he's careful, Massimo Pigliucci can write some kick-ass philosophy. Unfortunately, he's often not careful. In his recent article, The return of radical empiricism, Pigliucci tries to attack scientism, a.k.a. "radical empiricism," but instead does nothing more than string together a series of logical and rhetorical fallacies, failing even to define his central term. I started a detailed rebuttal of Pigliucci's article, but it got too depressing. The article is just too arrogantly stupid, and it's incomprehensible that a professional philosopher could write such drivel.

Pigliucci is, unfortunately, not an exception: that's the problem that I saw in philosophy in general. I studied philosophy on my own for about ten years. I don't hold this study as evidence of any particular expertise; I just mean to say that I didn't make a completely uninformed decision. When I finally decided to go to college, I was originally going to study philosophy. But literally every philosopher I interacted with — just the ones I liked — displayed the same sort of arrogant stupidity when his (philosophy is almost thoroughly male-dominated) views were challenged. Sturgeon's Law is one thing, but the fetid stench of insufferable condescension and incompetence of even the best philosophers was simply too much to bear. So I switched to political science and economics. Even when economists are dead wrong, and even when they're doing their best to be mean to their opponents, they don't display the stupidity and ineptitude of a philosopher with a position and no argument.
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "bad philosophy, egregious stupidity, phi..."
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Date: Friday, 22 Aug 2014 07:44
Political Economy

The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race
Why Is It So Controversial to Help Poor Mothers Afford Diapers?
Syria in Revolt: Understanding the Unthinkable War
The Future of College? A brash tech entrepreneur thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries. What if he's right?

Ferguson, Race, and the American Police State

White St. Louis Has Some Awful Things to Say About Ferguson
The time the cops pulled their guns on me
Love Me, Ferguson, I’m a Liberal: How liberals brought an anticommunist slur from America’s past back to life.
The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race
The Fire This Time: If poverty and racism persist, it won’t be long before there’s another Michael Brown, Eric Garner or Trayvon Martin
Socialism and the Repressive State Apparatus
The Day Ferguson Cops Were Caught in a Bloody Lie: The officers got the wrong man, but charged him anyway—with getting his blood on their uniforms. How the Ferguson PD ran the town where Michael Brown was gunned down.
This Is a Cop. In America. The disturbing trend toward secrecy in American policing
After A Traffic Stop, Teen Was 'Almost Another Dead Black Male'
Rioting Mainly for Fun and Profit: The Neoconservative Origins of Our Police Problem
A Militarized Police, a Less Violent Public

Every Insanely Mystifying Paradox in Physics: A Complete List
Where academic philosophy went wrong
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "links"
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Date: Monday, 11 Aug 2014 14:07
Contrary to the saying, all is not fair in love and war, especially when the war isn't literally a war, but a political struggle. There are things we shouldn't do, even if they seem helpful in the short run. Unfortunately, Kamil Ahsan, a PhD candidate in developmental biology at the University of Chicago, doesn't get it. In The New Scientism, Ahsan demands that scientists relax their scientific standards to help in the fight against the evil agricultural-biotechnology (ag-biotech) firms that are using genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to exploit farmers in developing nations. Ahsan is wrong on just about every point: scientists and the scientific establishment are, by and large, not part of the problem. The truth has a liberal, even revolutionary, bias, but Ahsan's calumnies risk alienating one of the left's most valuable allies.

Ahsan sensibly worries that the vast amount of money from Big Pharma and ag-biotech firms is corrupting scientific inquiry. He is not alone. Simple Google searches* will reveal that these issues are being discussed inside the scientific community, in the pages of Scientific American as well as papers in PLOS and ISPUB, etc. Google Scholar reports about 1.5 million results (not all of them original papers) just in the scientific literature. Ahsan links to an earlier article, Llewllyn Hinkes-Jones's Bad Science: Free-market academic research policies have unleashed medical quackery and scientific fraud, forcing consumers to pay premiums for discoveries we’ve already funded as taxpayers, which competently and accurately covers both the economic and scientific problems of big money in science. Many of the links Ahsan himself provides show that the scientific community is concerned about this issue. For example, in the Nature article, GM crops: Battlefield, Emily Waltz investigates whether critics of studies suggesting saftey issues with GMOs "fight fair." There is a real problem, and a problem that requires deep public debate, but the scientific establishment is not a monolithic entity on the wrong side of the issue; there is considerable support in the scientific community for resisting the corrupting effects of money on scientific inquiry. Ahsan does not focus on this important issue. Instead he unleashes a barrage of calumny to discredit the scientific community and subordinate science to his own political agenda.

*pharmaceutical/biotechnology industry influence on science

Ahsan asserts that the scientific community absolutely refuses to legitimize criticism: "To [the scientific establishment], any criticism of this historical narrative [of the "march of technological improvement despite the opposition of a supposedly anti-science public"] is tantamount to wholesale opposition to science." But Ahsan does not cite any criticism of this supposed "historical narrative" and does not cite any response to such criticism. Without support, Ahsan is simply poisoning the well. Ahsan follows with a nonsequitur fallacy: "[D]efenders of science lump together global-warming-denying conservatives, anti-GMO activists, and grassroots environmental activists, treating each as disturbingly anti-science. This simplistic analysis is rooted in the arrogant assumption that science is somehow above criticism — indeed, that it’s above politics entirely." The conclusion simply does not follow from the premises. Furthermore, Ahsan does not provide support for the premise that "defenders of science" really do lump these groups together, and Ahsan makes no mention in his article of the vague category "grassroots environmental activists." Simple assertions without evidence not only fail to persuade, they seriously undermine the author's credibility.

Ahsan seems incapable of an honest reading of anyone he disagrees with. For example, he cites Michael Shermer:
But try telling that to Michael Shermer, who, writing in Scientific American, sees in every critique of corporate behavior an anti-science temper tantrum: "Try having a conversation with a liberal progressive about GMOs . . . in which the words 'Monsanto' and 'profit' are not dropped like syllogistic bombs. . . . The fact is that we've been genetically modifying organisms for 10,000 years through breeding and selection."
Try as I might, bending over backwards to be charitable, tilting my head and squinting, Ahsan's interpretation does not have anything to do with the quotation he interprets. Shermer is not talking about every critique, he is talking about one specific attitude, dropping the words "Monsanto" or "profit" like "syllogistic bombs." Shermer juxtaposes these "syllogistic bombs" with a scientific statement; presumably he intends to mean that those who criticize Monsanto ignore or falsely deny that GMOs are ubiquitous and long-standing, not that Monsanto is a model of corporate social responsibility. There are many other examples where Ahsan labels the legitimate back-and-forth of critical inquiry as arrogant obstinacy. Ahsan clearly cannot engage honestly with disagreement.

Ahsan conflates three distinct issues. The first is scientific: are GMOs safe? Can we eat them? Do they have negative effects on the environments and the ecosystems where they are grown? The second is economic: what are the effects of the business practices of ag-biotech companies that are providing GMOs, especially to low-income farmers in developing nations. The third is an issue of political strategy. As documented in several of the links Ahsan provides (e.g. Nina Fedoroff's Scientific American article, Can We Trust Monsanto with Our Food?), anti-GMO activists claim that GMOs are harmful; scientists consider these claims entirely without scientific merit, indeed anti-science. These issues are obviously interrelated, but they are still distinct.

It is one thing to allege that because of the corrupting influence of ag-biotech money, scientists are getting the science wrong on GMO safety. But this is not Ahsan's focus. Instead, Ahsan asserts that because Monsanto and other ag-biotech corporations exploit developing-world farmers, the scientific establishment should therefore, and for that reason only, not label anti-GMO activists, who are struggling against this corporate exploitation, as anti-science:
A rigid defense of “the science” prevents scientists from recognizing that Monsanto monopolizes seed production, dictates market prices to the exclusive benefit of rich farmers, drives the emergence of superweeds, allows the spread of transgenes to wild crops in other countries, and uses the state to boost its profits.

Acknowledging these facts should produce a thorough rethinking of the politics of GMO research and the ethics of GMOs. It should prompt a response to anti-GMO activists that doesn’t cast them as malevolent and anti-science, or conflate the movement to label GMO foods with celebrities who refuse to vaccinate their children. [boldface added]
This passage is the crux of Ahsan's thesis. If Ahsan really believed the problem was that money is corruption of science, then he himself would be defending "the science"; instead, he attributes problems directly to the defense of "the science." He asserts we should not consider the scientific claims of anti-GMO activists on their scientific merits, but on their political merits. Essentially, Ahsan is not decrying the corruption of science, he is lamenting that the wrong side has corrupted science, and hopes that the correct side will do so, indeed that the scientific establishment has an obligation to corrupt its standards of evidence and analysis in the service of the left.

It is not the scientific establishment but Ahsan himself, with breathtaking hypocrisy, who is arrogant, obdurate, and resistant to criticism. The truth is simply this: scientific criticism should be scientific. Moral, political and economic criticism should be moral, political, and economic. Neil deGrasse Tyson makes this point crystal clear:
If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-prerennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing -- and will continue to do -- to nature so that it best serves our survival. That's what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn't, have gone extinct extinct.

In life, be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don't agree with.
We gain nothing and risk much by distracting the conversation away from the corruption of scientific inquiry, a conversation that can only help the left, towards a insistence on rigid short-term political loyalty. Shame on Ahsan for writing this piece, and shame on Jacobin for publishing it.
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "bad journalism, egregious stupidity, sci..."
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Date: Sunday, 10 Aug 2014 11:26
If this pans out, and the preliminary results are encouraging, we may actually have a working space drive that will put the whole solar system within reach: Nasa [sic] validates 'impossible' space drive [link fixed].

Either the results are completely wrong, or Nasa has confirmed a major breakthrough in space propulsion. . . . British scientist Roger Shawyer has been trying to interest people in his EmDrive for some years through his company SPR Ltd. Shawyer claims the EmDrive converts electric power into thrust, without the need for any propellant by bouncing microwaves around in a closed container. . . .

[L]ast year . . . a Chinese team built its own EmDrive [ and confirmed that it produced 720 mN (about 72 grams) of thrust, enough for a practical satellite thruster. . . .

[A] US scientist, Guido Fetta, has built his own propellant-less microwave thruster, and managed to persuade Nasa to test it out. The test results were presented on July 30 at the 50th Joint Propulsion Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. Astonishingly enough, they are positive. . . .

A working microwave thruster would radically cut the cost of satellites and space stations and extend their working life, drive deep-space missions, and take astronauts to Mars in weeks rather than months.

See also 10 questions about Nasa's 'impossible' space drive answered [link fixed].

Who knows: I might live at least to see people explore the solar system!
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "cool shit, science"
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Date: Sunday, 10 Aug 2014 05:31
I don't have much to say about this article: Sam Harris: You Are My Data, because Matt Sheedy, a PhD candidate in religious, spends 1700+ words saying nothing but that religion is complicated. Duh. This is probably the one thing that really irritates me most about religious studies majors and theologians. They literally do nothing else but use thousands (or tens or hundred of thousands) of words to say nothing more than that religion is complicated, and that people who aren't (soi-disant) experts in religion just should just STFU and GBTW. I'm sorry, but the role of experts isn't to shut up the laity; their job is to educate. Don't tell me what religion isn't; tell me what it is, and back up your assertions with real scholarship and science, not empty bafflegab.

I rarely agree with Sam Harris, but at least the man tells us what he thinks and why he thinks it, something I've never seen, heard, or read any religious person — expert or layman — do in any honest, sincere way.
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "bad philosophy, egregious stupidity, rel..."
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Date: Friday, 08 Aug 2014 05:39
miller does not find the article I recently linked to, Rent, Rent Control, and Economic Rents, especially convincing. He has two criticisms. First, showing that rents rise when rent control is relaxed does not prove that rent control does not disprove economists' claim that rent control increases rents. Secondly, he cites his personal experience that rent control does cause problems, notably causing voters to erect barriers to entry to protect their housing values. Both of these are legitimate criticism that deserve answers.

I want to start by noting, as mentioned in the article, that economists do not consider rent control as just an example of an undesirable price ceiling, but as a canonical example. There are many other potential examples, such as gas prices in the 1970s, or Nixon's wage and price ceilings, but economists haved picked rent control as the example as the best teaching tool to show that price ceilings are socially undesirable. Thus, we can look at the article first as criticizing this pedagogical choice. If removing rent control in typical, real-world situations does not typically result in increasing social welfare, but merely transfers surplus from consumers to suppliers, then it is a poor pedagogical tool, akin to trying to teach gravity by having students think about the behavior of airplanes (which do not, of course, fall when you drop them). In this regard, I think the authors succeed.

But I want to take a closer look at price ceilings in general. In general, economists talk about consumer and producer surplus. For consumers, this surplus is getting some good or service for less than they would have paid. I really love beer, for example. I would spend \$5 on the first beer of the day, but all my beer costs \$0.50. For my first beer, I'm getting \$4.50 of "surplus." For producers, the surplus is the difference between the marginal cost and the price. The brewery can make some of its beers for only \$0.45, so they're getting \$0.05 of surplus on those beers. (They sell a lot more beer than I drink, so that the \$0.05 adds up quickly.) We show this concept like this:

The shaded areas represent "surplus", a.k.a. "welfare", benefits that the consumers and producers get "for free". It is generally accepted that, absent externalities (people who gain or lose who are neither producers nor consumers of the good) and transaction costs (costs paid by the consumer that do not benefit the producer), the point where the (marginal) supply and demand curves meet, the market price, represents the price and quantity that maximize total welfare (consumer surplus + producer surplus).

Rent control is commonly modeled as a price ceiling, where the government arbitrarily sets a price for a good below the market price.

The canonical model of a price ceiling looks like this:

Here, the government has set a price ceiling, Pc. Because we don't force firms to produce at a loss, firms produce a smaller quantity if they can sell only at the price ceiling. Some of the welfare is redistributed from producers to consumers, but more importantly, some trade is just lost; welfare just vanishes. This lost welfare is labeled "Deadweight Loss" is the graph. At higher prices, producers are willing to produce goods, and consumers are willing to buy them, but the price ceiling prevents these welfare-generating trades. Economists see this loss of welfare as a Bad Thing, and thus argue against price ceilings.

Note too that at the restricted quantities, enough consumers are willing to pay a lot more, the "black market price" (Pb), than even the market price. This willingness can lead to illegality and corruption. Also, at the price ceiling, a lot more consumers are willing to buy (Qb) but cannot. Price ceilings can lead to a lot of problems all around.

But, like all economic graphs, the graphs above lie: specifically, they make assumptions about the supply and demand curves that are not always (indeed rarely) true, notably that they have a slope of about +/-1. I argue that in many cases, in the short term, the absolute value of slope of the supply and demand curves for rental housing is much larger than one, i.e. both are relatively inelastic.* The reason is that in the short term, i.e. holding the level of capital constant, we cannot build new buildings (since new buildings represent new capital). Thus, when there is increased demand, all we can do is use labor, a lot of labor, to rehabilitate the few older buildings back into economic use. Furthermore, there are cities, such as New York or San Francisco, where people will pay a lot to live there, especially at the margin (i.e. a new person coming to the city will pay a lot to move there). Hence, a small shift in the demand curve, such as when Google decides to add a thousand new engineers, whom they can pay enough to cover any rent increases, can have a dramatic impact on the market.

*Note that unless we're using a log scale, the slopes of curves do not directly represent elasticity, which is percentage change in the dependent variable per percentage change in the independent variable, which depends not only on the slope but the level. But slope is a pretty good proxy for elasticity.

I look at rental markets like this:

(Note that my graph is too small to show the short run quantity, which is between Qe and Qlr.)

Here, a small shift in the demand curve, from D to D' causes a large increase in the short run market price. I'm obviously oversimplifying here: e.g. not all rental housing is alike, but I think the graph gets the basic point across.

There is a perfectly good neoclassical economic argument that the government should do something here; the market, by itself, is insufficient to achieve the socially optimal outcome. The story includes the enormous transaction costs associated with moving, especially to a different city. The story goes like this: Google hires a thousand engineers, causing a shift in the demand curve. Rent goes to Psr, pricing a lot of people out of the rental market, people who could afford to pay the long run rent, Plr, and the city fills up with people who can afford to pay the short run rent. In the long run, rent decreases to the long run level, but people who could have paid that rent are long gone. Hence we incur wasteful transaction costs because of the short- and long-run disparity in rent. The government could prevent these wasteful transaction costs by imposing a price ceiling on existing rents (where no additional cost is necessary to bring the property into service), letting them rise to the long-run level, but not to the short-run level. New residents, who can afford it, pay the short run price in the short run, but eventually pay the long-run rent. This is, essentially, what most rent control regimes actually do.

Second, there's a political economy argument. We do not live in a laissez faire political economy; we live in a capitalist political economy, where people who own capital have political control. Furthermore, residential real estate is fundamentally different from an ordinary firm. The present value of any business is the discounted expected income stream of the business. For example, if my business runs a profit of \$100000 per year, and I discount future income at 2.5% per year, then the value of the business is $100000*∑↙{n=0}↖∞ (1-0.025)^n = $\$4 million. A normal business (like a sandwich shop or automobile manufacturer) has to actually be operating to have an expected income stream; the expected income of a closed sandwich shop is 0. However, real estate does not have to operate to have an expected income stream. An occupied and an unoccupied building have about the same value. A building owner can realize the value of his building just by borrowing against it (and paying minimal maintenance costs) rather than letting nasty tenants poop in the toilets. In a depressed economy, buying a building and leaving it empty is a viable investment scheme, as long as few enough people actually do it.

Building owners, then, have a double incentive to enact supply limits (shortages), both market-based and just by taking property off the market, to essentially make the long-run supply curve match the short-run supply curve, essentially creating a quota (which works the same as a price ceiling, except the producers expropriate surplus from the consumers).

Again, rent control can mitigate this market failure both by limiting the incentive to create shortages and by forcing buildings to be occupied to be valuable.

So... that, I think, is why rent control is a bad illustration of a quota, and why rent control is a Good Thing when both demand and supply are highly inelastic in a particular market.
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "economics, rent control"
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Date: Sunday, 03 Aug 2014 08:22
As Reed and Taleb note, something about "religion" (which they do not define analytically) is especially effective at establishing "interdicts," i.e. near-absolute prohibitions,* over multiple generations. But how? The authors are silent about this crucial point. Because this is a blog and not an academic paper, rather than trolling all their references, I will attempt a common-sense analysis.

Meaningful interdicts, that is, prohibitions against doing things people would otherwise do. We do not need any kind of social structure to interdict dropping a bowling ball on one's own foot.

In a purely secular world, we have three general methods of establishing social and legal norms: individualism, elitism, and democracy. Individualism obviously cannot establish any meaningful interdicts. Secular elitism can, of course, establish interdicts, but they are hard to maintain without an enormous, poverty-inducing project of coercive maintenance. Democracy requires less coercion, simply because norms generally have some basis in the majority, so dissenters are, by definition, (and unlike under secular elitism) always outnumbered. But democracy requires negotiation and compromise, which leads to moderation, which Reed and Taleb assert is inferior to interdiction. Given opinion on anything is statistically distributed, only the rare interdicts could be favored by anything other than a small minority.

So what accounts for this undefined religion's exceptional ability to enforce interdicts? Clearly, according to Reed and Taleb, it has something to do with God: "People can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics." (222, quoting Taleb in Silent Risk). But what? Again, the common-sense answer seems to be that if people are convinced they will go to Hell if they violate an interdict, they won't do it. This social construction has the feature of overwhelming force without the need to actually exert that force. Even if people are not convinced a literal Hell, it's still a good idea to refrain from doing that which the creator of the universe, in His just and loving wisdom, wishes people to refrain from. Being convinced in this way, however, leads inescapably to the importance of the epistemic basis of religion.

Religion must be thought of as both true and known for it to have its effects. If I am not convinced we know that God exists and that we know God wants us never to do something, the specifically religious establishment and maintenance of interdicts collapses. In the opposite sense, I observe (at least overtly) legal regulations that are not to my taste precisely and only because I know the United States government exists, and I know how they want me to regulate my behavior.

We can quibble around the edges. It might not, for example, be coherent to say that God exists; "existence" is too narrow a concept to fit God. But that's a side issue. The crux of the biscuit is knowledge. We know that something God something, and we know that because something God something, we should not do X. And, of course, if we say know something, we necessarily believe it to be true.

Michael Robbins seems makes the connection. Robbins claims that the Enlightenment project fails to provide a "ground", i.e. coherent first principles, for a moral system; by opposing the Enlightenment to Christianity, he seems to implicitly claim that Christianity succeeds in providing a ground for its moral system. Even accepting arguendo this implicit claim as true, the claim itself begs us to investigating this ground. Robbins correctly says, "There is a real question of why anyone should agree with you" about morality, presumably a better reason than force. This real question applies to beliefs labeled as "religious" as much as they do those labeled as secular. But that's just what an epistemic basis is: a consistent method to come to agreement using reason. We cannot strip out the epistemic basis from religion and still call it religion, at least not if the word "religion" is to retain a nontrivial meaning. Religion is not just a set of practices, it is a set of practices with a specific kind of epistemic basis: a basis in knowledge about God.

Religion, i.e. claims of knowledge about God, is by definition private. Some human beings have special, privileged knowledge that is denied to most other people, regardless of their "intelligence" (broadly defined), diligence, or time commitment. Joseph Smith had his golden plates and seer stones. Christians have Jesus Christ, the son of God, and those who (supposedly) knew Him personally, Islam, of course, has Muhammed. All of these people claim knowledge that is completely inaccessible to me, regardless of my intelligence, diligence, or time. I cannot say anything about any religion except by starting from a foundation of private, privileged knowledge. Contrast religion with science: no scientist ever claims private knowledge. "Brilliance" in science consists of seeing the world in a new way, but once that way is found, everyone can see the world that way. Even the most recondite science requires only ordinary intelligence, diligent study, and hard work to independently confirm — or reject, if the science is wrong. Religion affords no such independent confirmation or rejection.

Robbins is correct on another point: "MacIntyre shows that Kant, Hume, Smith, and Diderot failed to provide justifications for their moral philosophy." (I disagree with the Robbins' opinion that their failure was "because of their historical backgrounds, grounded in Christian morality." I believe this interpretation is both false and misses MacIntyre's point.*) To his list we can add Bentham (who explicitly treats utilitarianism as self-evident) and Mill. It is important to understand that these moral philosophers fail on epistemic ground: there is no consistent, objective basis for us to know their first principles are true. However, religion not only fails on this basis, but explicitly fails. Religion says explicitly that I cannot know the truth of scripture (or authoritative interpretation). I cannot see the golden plates; I cannot know Jesus Christ personally; Allah does not talk to me the way he talked to Muhammad. Even if I were convinced that the authors of some scripture did have private knowledge (in the same way I can convince a colorblind person that I have "private" (to him) knowledge about color), I still do not know myself the actual truth of any scripture. Religion fails by definition, on its face, the test that Kant etc. fail "deeply." If we are to (justly) criticize these thinkers on deep examination, then religion must therefore fail on the most superficial examination.

*Yes, I've read After Virtue.

Atheist tend to criticize "superstitious" beliefs such as the literal flood, six-day creation, Adam and Eve, Muhammad's winged horse, etc. for two reasons. First, lots of people, tens or hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people really do believe these stories are literally and factually true, and their belief that these stories are literally true really does justify and explain their objectionable behavior. (If religious moderates believe these stories are not literally true, and belief in their literal truth really does cause objectionable "fundamentalist" behavior, then why would they criticize atheists for making an argument they agree with?) But, perhaps more importantly, we talk about these stories because of the long-standing maxim in law and morality, "false in part, false in whole." Once it has been shown that part of an account is false, the whole account can no longer be relied on as facially valid, veridical, or authoritative. (For example, because I myself have made mistakes, you should not take anything I say for granted; you should go out and see for yourself.) If we find a single error in a sacred text or authoritative interpretation, then the claim to private knowledge is completely and utterly destroyed. "Sacred texts" can still have value as what they really are, works of entirely human literature with no more private epistemic authority than Lord of the Rings, but the notion that they are a foundation of private knowledge is complete and utter nonsense.

I believe that moderates publicly criticize atheists (for agreeing with them!), and at least mute their public criticism of "fundamentalists" precisely because they wish to preserve scripture as a foundation for private knowledge about morality. At least the "fundamentalists," especially the inerrantists, are at least honest. They believe their scripture is absolutely true in every respect (or so they say, even though the most devoted literalist and inerrantist has to fudge a bit around the edges), and really is private knowlege. The moderates, I think (for they are emphatically not explicit on this point), believe that their scriptures really are private knowledge, even though they accept that some parts are not literally true. Their position is fatally flawed, and I think they know it at some level, so they simply say the epistemic basis of their moral philosophy is irrelevant, that it is naive and unsophisticated to even look at it, much less examine it critically. I think that most religious moderates are not intentionally being dishonest and hypocritical, but I think they really are being dishonest and hypocritical with themselves. And, as Feynman says, the easiest person to fool is yourself.
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "bad philosophy, religion"
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Date: Sunday, 03 Aug 2014 06:54
Oy vey, Robbins is terrifyingly inept. Responding to critics [link fixed], he states:
The point is simply that a morality predicated on Enlightenment rationalism retains its Christian foundations, at the expense of coherence. Therefore the moral codes we retain after the death of God are grounded in nothing, a point the Neo-Darwinians underscore every time they trumpet that article of faith, the “morality gene.” It is not enough to argue that we can simply ground our morals in ourselves, in our conceptions of the good (for one thing, it is self-evident that we don’t agree about what these conceptions should consist in).

That religious people of the past were often quite as murderous and duplicitous as we is beside the point, properly understood. We are talking about the loss of a coherent worldview, about grounds, not about practices. Anyone interested in the history of the shaping power of mental conceptions should understand why such a loss is a problem.
This is bullshit on several counts.

First, it is just calumny to claim that "Neo-Darwinians . . . trumpet that article of faith, the 'morality gene.'" This statement is a pure straw man. There's no "morality gene," and the genetic basis for morality is hardly an article of faith. Morality has a genetic basis in the same sense that everything has some sort of genetic basis: morality happens in our brains, which obviously have a genetic basis. We have, for example, mirror neurons, which seem like a possible cognitive basis for empathy; these neurons have a genetic basis (which is almost certainly not a single gene). Simply dismissing opposing ideas as ridiculous is egregious intellectual dishonesty.

Second, the idea that "Enlightenment rationalism retains its Christian foundations" is at best controversial. It is, of course, true that Enlightenment rationalism (as well as modern welfare ethics) has an historical/genetic* relation to Christianity, just as Christianity has a historical/genetic relation to Roman paganism, which has a historical/genetic relationship to Greek paganism (and rationalism), and so on, probably back before the invention of language; chimpanzees seem to have a kind of morality without even a proper (Turing-complete) language.

*Not in the biological but the philosophical sense.

While a lot of the early Enlightenment thinkers retained belief in God, the whole point of the enterprise was to decouple morality, law, politics, economics, etc. from Church authority. But without Church authority, God lacks an authoritative voice. Once you undermine Church authority, you undermine any divine foundation for anything. For one thing, it is self-evident that we don't agree about what our conceptions of God should consist in. Indeed, the foundation of religious morality is not God, but the Church.

It is moronic to claim, "It is not enough to argue that we can simply ground our morals in ourselves, in our conceptions of the good (for one thing, it is self-evident that we don’t agree about what these conceptions should consist in)." Yes, we disagree, but has Robbins not noticed that human beings are clever and creative about developing methods of coming to agreement: e.g. argument, negotiation, persuasion, diplomacy, and sometimes force?

I suspect Robbins holds the all-to-common fallacy: morality is that which (among other things) is grounded in the transcendent; if something is not grounded in the transcendent, whatever it might be, it is therefore not morality. But of course there is no need to add the transcendent as an analytical component of morality. But of course we need not ground morality in the transcendent: we can in fact ground morality in human preference, utilitarianism, welfare, empathy and sympathy, pragmatism, natural intuition, categorical imperatives, or in any number of reasonable, natural bases.

Third, there is considerable controversy about what constitutes a ground of anything, whether we really need a ground, and whether a ground is even possible. Anti-foundationalism, for example, claims that grounds are impossible. The ground of logical deduction, for example, consists of premises, but what is the ground of the premises? It can't be deduction, but if it's something else, why not go directly to that, instead of using premises. Taking a different tack, dialectical materialism renounces the concept of ground: everything changes everything else; there is no philosophical starting place.

And finally, just because an intellectually dishonest doofus thinks that we have just abandoned grounding, or even that grounding is intellectually important, doesn't make it so. And grounding not really that important. "That's just the way things are" is a perfectly good, and perfectly trivial, ground.

ETA: Robbins argument fails on a more basic level. I don't think he's correct, but let's suppose arguendo he is correct: lacking "theistic belief" (whatever that is), our present ideas about morality become in some sense "incoherent." the incoherence of present ideas about morality would not by itself justify theistic belief: it could be the case that our ideas about morality are just hopelessly confused. If so, it would be rational to provisionally adopt historical morality out of pure expediency while we worked on a more coherent account. Even if theistic belief really could make our present ideas about morality coherent (which it cannot), theistic belief would still need an independent justification.

Robbins goes on to write, "New Atheists . . . wrote books that purport to challenge theistic belief as such. They therefore have a responsibility to address the best cases for God, not the dullest." First, we're not challenging "theistic belief as such," because that term is too broad and ambiguous to have any useful meaning. We're challenging certain kinds of theistic belief. Second, we have a responsibility to address the cases for God that are actually used. ETA:Furthermore, we have a responsibility to address the kinds of theistic belief that are most problematic; Robbins' beliefs, besides motivating an insufferable smugness, are not as socially or politically problematic as "fundamentalism"; besides, every competent economist and businessperson will tell you to go after the low-hanging fruit first.

Finally, the arguments that are actually used, mostly the Aquinian arguments, really are the best; the rest are inferior, and many just vacuous bafflegab. (I'm amused that Robbins considers Aquinas to be a dullard.) Robbins offers what he presumably considers a good, non-dull argument for God (without God, we have no grounding for morality), which I just challenged (and disposed of) a few paragraphs above. I am not the first.
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "bad philosophy, religion"
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Date: Tuesday, 29 Jul 2014 14:12
A number of articles recently assert that the epistemology of religion doesn't matter; what matters are the practices. (The latest of course, being Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management, with my response.) And it is asserted that epistemology doesn't matter in a deep way: even if we know that the underlying structure of a set of practices is false, even in the "worst" sense of falsity, that doesn't matter. I find this position deeply problematic.

As a scientific thinker, epistemology and truth are important to me. So when someone says knowledge and truth doesn't matter, then a red flag goes up in my mind. But I am open-minded, so I will speculate about what such people could possibly mean by such a thing.

First, thinkers such as Reed and Taleb say that what matters about religion is faith, trust, and commitment to a way of life. But on what basis can a person figure out which way of life to have faith in, to commit to? Everyone is committed to a particular way of life. If religion just means that people should do as they themselves choose, taking into consideration the physical and social consequences of their choices, then these thinkers have defined religion into vacuity. That cannot be their intent: if everyone everywhere is already religious, then it would be astonishing for Reed and Taleb, for example, to exhort economists to incorporate religious thought. Clearly these authors intend to say "religion" means something more. But what?

A crucial feature of religion, according to Reed and Taleb, is its division between the sacred and the profane, with the sacred immune to "rationalization" in the weaker sense that we don't need to understand why something or another is sacred and profane. But again, sacralization without an examination of at least why human beings make and accept the division is just prosaic conservative historicism: we should X because we've done X for a long time, and it hasn't killed us yet. Not a bad general principle, but conservative historicism is hardly religious (conservative historicism explains why I continue to use English despite not being a linguist, United States currency despite not (yet) being an economist, or drive my car without being an engineer.)

(And the historicist argument can be abused, as Reed and Taleb abuse it in their paper:
Just as nature is ‘wiser’ than us (in a statistical, risk-management sense) with regard to a vast swathe of threats, illnesses, etc., just as our knowledge only surpasses nature’s in unusual and rare circumstances, so religious man is wiser than irreligious and non-religious man with regard to a vast swathe of threats, moral and spiritual illnesses and problems, etc. The knowledge of irreligious and non-religious man surpasses that of religious man only in rare and unusual circumstances. Until we have had a lot longer to develop non-religious heuristics that work, we should not throw the precautionary, religion-as-risk-management baby out with the superstitious, theological-claptrap bathwater. (224)(
This is a good argument against repealing the First Amendment and making religion illegal — a position held by only a tiny few completely marginalized idiot atheists — but it is not an argument at all that as the authors claim, examining the epistemic basis of religion is naive or unwarranted. And, of course, people have been examining the truth and knowledge claims of religion for all of recorded (Western) history; such inquiry has as much historical sanction as religion itself.)

It's one thing to say it's valuable to divide the world into the "sacred" and the "profane", but what should go where? Just the division does not seem satisfying by itself. The Nazis definitely divided the world into the sacred (the Aryan race) and the profane (everyone else); the fundamentalists' sacred is the heterosexual monogamous marriage and the life of the fetus; their profane is the homosexual and the individual woman. And, of course, many persistent social institutions, such as the United States constitutional regime, divide the sacred (free speech, property rights, federalism) and the profane (what the federal government may freely regulate). Even academic economics sacralizes (wrongly, in my opinion) the autonomous rational utility-maximizing agent. Again, if everyone does sacralizes something, and if thinkers do not tell us how to distinguish good sacralization from bad, the definition descends into a useless vacuity.

Reed and Taleb exhort us to sacralize behaviors that minimize risk and avoid rare (but inevitable) catastrophe. Good advice, to be sure, but Taleb has spent considerable effort, largely persuasive, on establishing an epistemic basis not only that we should minimize risk, but also on specific ways we can minimize risk. Clearly, this is not the epistemic basis Reed and Taleb intend to shield from epistemic scrutiny. We are clearly entitled to ask how Taleb knows that certain behaviors minimize or fail to minimize risk (and how he knows that the risks truly exist), and clearly Taleb has a responsibility to answer such questions, which he has.

We get closer to Reed and Taleb's meaning when we look very closely at their assertions. We need a good epistemic basis to decide what to sacralize, and we need religion to transmit and propagate what is sacred and profane. Furthermore, even if the underlying ideology of one or another religion doesn't have even minimal epistemic validity, we should judge it not on that basis, but on the basis of its ability to cement epistemically valid sacred norms across time. They say that "religion supplies potent tricks to mitigate people’s natural epistemic arrogance and overconfidence about the future" because "[p]eople can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics" (222). I cannot interpret this passage except as endorsing Plato's concept of the noble lie. There's a lot of things to like about Plato, but his absolute contempt, however paternalist and benign, for the common person is not among them.

If this is truly the view of Reed and Taleb, then we must see their assertion that the epistemic truth of religion is irrelevant and its study naive to be at best disingenuous. If the deficiencies of religious epistemology were necessary to transmit good risk management behavior, then a critical examination of their epistemology would be not naive but positively dangerous. If so, I think they should say so; even if they believe the common person can't handle the truth, they are speaking in their paper to the intellectual "elite," such as it is. And if we can't handle that truth, who knows what truths we can handle? Who decides? Reed and Taleb? They seem like nice people, but I don't trust anyone to tell me what I can and cannot know.

I do think that religious epistemology and truth claims are essential to transmitting its message, including any risk-management behavior it might include, but I do not think it is particularly dangerous to undermine it. And I most emphatically do not believe that "religious man is wiser than irreligious and non-religious man with regard to a vast swathe of threats, moral and spiritual illnesses and problems, etc." (224). I reject this statement not only because I have no idea what Reed and Taleb mean by "religious," "irreligious," and "non-religious", nor what they mean by "moral and spiritual illnesses and problems," but also because I think — with good evidence — that the evils of religion, caused by the very same epistemic defects and profound conservatism that (might) preserve risk-management, far outweigh the benefits.

I am certainly willing to debate and critically engage in this examination, but it is insulting to have such inquiry dismissed as naive.
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "religion"
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Date: Tuesday, 29 Jul 2014 07:41
Reader Justin Singh directs my attention to a new paper in economics: Religion, Heuristics, and Intergenerational Risk Management. In this paper, philosopher Rupert Reed and The Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb assert that religion is a unique, valuable, and perhaps indispensable method for avoiding unusual or "silent" risks (220), the "black swans" that Taleb has studied extensively. The authors explicitly focus on religion as practice; indeed, they consider the supernatural aspect of religion as "epiphenomenal," and assert that a traditional epistemic evaluation of religion is "extremely naive" (223). Instead, the authors insist that religion be viewed as "as closer to a form of trusting, as a form of action, or a willingness to take action, and, most crucially of all, as a set of interdicts upon action" (223), as well as establishing a rigid dichotomy between the sacred and the profane, a dichotomy taken on faith and immune to rationalization.

The authors claim that modern scientists and economists have far more confidence in their tools than is warranted. The models are fragile, sensitively dependent on initial assumptions. Crucially, modern scientists necessarily ignore unusual risk, i.e. rare but catastrophic events that have never occurred in the past, and thus do not form a (Bayesian) evidentiary basis for present action. The authors argue that religion, with its categorical interdicts immune to rationalization, is a unique mode that can protect us from modern scientific overconfidence.

I have read Taleb's book, The Black Swan, and he has convinced me of the value of his risk model, which focuses on rare but catastrophic events that typical scientific and economic models cannot describe. Catastrophic "black swan" events do happen, they are hard to positively predict, and people tend to ignore them in their planning. Indeed, Minsky's financial instability hypothesis seems to operate on much the same lines. (I would like to see Taleb comment on Minsky; perhaps he already has.) Taleb has also convinced me that modern scientific and especially economic practices are woefully inadequate to the task of describing, analyzing, and managing black swan events. Thus, I will not focus here on the topic of risk.

I concur that there is a problem, but I am not convinced that religion is a solution. First, the authors do not make an adequate case that religion really does effectively protect us from black swan events. More importantly, the authors fail to establish an effective definition of religion.

The authors give us only one case where religion might have protected us from a rare catastrophe. They juxtapose the 2008 global financial crisis with many religions' prohibitions or strict regulations against debt. However, this case is not particularly apt. First, it should be noted that religion is still ubiquitous, but failed to prevent the crisis. Indeed most modern organized religions, with the notable exception of Islam, permit nearly unregulated debt. Furthermore, the authors fail to look at the costs of using religion to prevent catastrophes. Credit and debt in general are crucial components of the modern capitalist global economy; eliminate them and the system would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Not that I think rebuilding the capitalist system is itself a bad idea, but it would be enormously costly, not just in stuff but in human suffering. The authors fail to consider these costs. (And if this case is strained and artificial, it was the authors who chose it.)

Even taking the benefits of religion as granted, the authors do not provide an adequate definition of what religion actually is, and without such a definition, we cannot understand what it is about religion that affords the claimed benefits. The authors do have a definition. First, the authors claim sympathy to "true religion; to what we call faith as practice; to a genuinely spiritual orientation toward life" (219). This sentence, however, does not help; they authors nowhere define "spirituality," nor tell us how to distinguish genuine spirituality for its bogus or insincere alternative. The authors go on to assert that the important aspect of religion is its practice, not the epistemic basis of the practice. (Just this condition is controversial; many people who call themselves truly religious and genuinely spiritual would reject this definition.) Furthermore the authors assert that a religion makes some absolute, inviolable distinction between the sacred and the profane. The authors consider the inviolability crucial: "The sacred is not open to ‘rationalization’—what we don’t understand is not necessarily irrational, and it might have reasons that can be probed only across generations of experience and experimentation" (223). Finally, to establish these crucial interdictions, some reference to God is necessary: "People can understand the notion of God, not unexplained rules, interdicts, and categorical heuristics" (222, quoting Taleb from The Black Swan, p. 21).

Except for the mention of God, the definition of religion is probably necessary — a religion with no practice is at best trivial and probably no religion at all — but hardly sufficient. Again, except for the mention of God, it fails to distinguish between what is ordinarily considered religious and non-religious. For example, the United States constitution meets the definition: it establishes practices (the federal government, voting, citizenship, and a general democratic/republican political psychology and sociology). The constitution enforces a distinction between the "sacred" (free speech, property rights, due process) and the profane (what the government may regulate by law), and the United States has maintained these interdictions for almost twenty-five generations. The epistemic basis of the constitution is certainly not scientific, and it is immune to the weaker sort of "rationalization" the authors mention. Just because we don't (fully) understand the basis of one or another provision is not sufficient grounds to change it; we need strong positive legal or political reasons to textually or interpretively change provisions of the constitution.

Indeed, the purpose of almost every social institution is to preserve norms across generations without continual epistemic inquiry. We obey the law, we go to our jobs, we pay for our meals not because we have performed a full double-blind, peer-reviewed scientific inquiry each and every time we act to determine the best course of action, but simply because we have faith, trust, and the social commitment to act in that particular way, because that's just the way things are done. Thus, the only way to differentiate religion from any other social institution has something to do with God. But what? The authors are silent on this crucial point. They cannot mean just slapping the word "God" on things willy nilly; as the joke goes, "calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one." And they talk about true religion, genuine spirituality, which entails they must believe there is such a thing as false religion, i.e. illegitimate uses of the "God" label, but what distinguishes them? The authors explicitly disclaim an epistemic distinction: "it is an extremely naive interpretation to think that religious ‘beliefs’ map to the ‘justified true belief’ standards of modern epistemology . . .; it is naive to examine the supernatural aspect of religion as anything but epiphenomenal." But they do not offer any meaningful analytic distinction.

The authors argue for a pragmatic distinction, survivability. But relying on this distinction contains a fundamental contradiction. The whole point of Taleb's larger argument is that black swan events are rare, which means any social institution, religious or secular, can survive a long time without a black swan event. Indeed, Reed and Taleb explicitly condemn historicism: "[R]isk is not really in the visible past but rather in the future: the past is just a proxy. . . . Further, these silent risks [black swan events], when they hit, are produced most likely by some largely unknown class of distributions."* Moreover, their position depends on an epistemic critique of modern science and economics (i.e. in many ways, science and especially economics are making determinable epistemic errors), and depends on the correctness and power of that critique. (and not just in this paper but in Taleb's work in general, the critique is indeed correct and powerful). Because the authors admit to some true religion, we can conclude that both true and false religion have both survived; we need an analytical way to distinguish the two. And, of course, we need a way to evaluate change, which by definition has not survived at all.

*The elided sentence refers to the "recent past", but the visible past is broader, and not just the recent but also the distant past are distinct from where the authors assert risk lies: in the future.

The authors bury an interesting analytical definition in a footnote:
These heuristics belong to the class called “convex heuristics,” mathematically defined in Taleb (2014) [Silent Risk: Lectures on Fat Tails, (Anti)Fragility, Precaution, and Asymmetric Exposures]. Their aim is not to be ‘right’ and avoid errors, but to ensure that errors remain small. A convex heuristic has the following properties: (1) Compactness: It is easy to remember, implement, use, and transmit. (2) Consequences, not truth: It is about what it helps you do, not whether it is true or false. It should be judged not in ‘truth space’ but in ‘consequence space.’ (3) Antifragility: It is required to have a benefit when it is helpful larger than the loss when it is harmful. Thus it will eventually deliver gains from disorder. (4) Robustness: It satisfies the fragility-based precautionary principle. (5) Opacity: You do not need to understand how it works. (6) Survivability of populations: Such a heuristic should not be judged solely on its intelligibility (how understandable it is), but on its survivability, or on a combination of intelligibility and survivability. Thus a long-surviving heuristic is less fragile than a newly emerging one. But ultimately it should never be assessed in its survival against other ideas, rather on the survival advantage it gave the populations who used it.
These criteria are perhaps useful, but curious. If some heuristic is opaque (5) or unintelligible, how do we know it ensures errors remain small or has a desirable cost-benefit ratio? Especially if, as the authors assert, risk lies in the future and is produced by unknown distributions.

The authors, especially Taleb, have correctly identified a problem: a degree of epistemic arrogance in perhaps the sciences, definitely in economics, and blatantly in Western political economy. However, they fail to demonstrate the value of their proposed solution, religion, they fail to mention how religion might solve this problem, and they even fail to adequately define what their solution is. The authors' insistence that the epistemic and truth status of ideas underlying social institutions such a religion seems deeply anti-rational. We don't have a perfect epistemic basis for anything; we cannot know if anything is true with absolute certainty, but to argue that we can simply dispense with (analytic) knowledge and truth is just the fallacy of perfectionism. Indeed, such a position contradicts Taleb's larger work, which is explicitly epistemic: we know, or we want to know, how to improve our epistemology to prevent rare, catastrophic errors. It is important to examine the epistemology and truth underlying any social institution, religious or secular. They may not be perfect tools, but they're the best we have.
Author: "Larry, The Barefoot Bum (noreply@blogger.com)" Tags: "religion"
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