Cut to the Goddamn'd Chase!

15 September 2021

Most prefaces, forewords, introductions, and introductory paragraphs are largely or entirely superfluous; most introductory sentences are wastes of time.[1] In the last few years, my annoyance about entropic rhetoric in general and about blathering preambles in particular has become outrage.

The internal state of affairs in the West is more terrible now than ever previously in my lifetime. A great many people believe themselves to have important insights to convey about this state of affairs, and want our time. Our time is scarce, but many of them want to deliver essays in the form of audio recordings, which deliver words far more slowly than most of us can read. Worse, almost every one of those who offer these recordings prologues for some minutes, usually about the importance of what they will have to say but almost always without the prologues' saying anything important.

I believe that some of these people indeed have important things to say; but, in each case, he or she behaves as if unable to recognize what is important. In each individual case, the probability is especially low that a person not getting to the point will get to an important point. I almost always abandon attention before the prologue ends, possibly well before it ends.


[1]  I acknowledge exceptions. I like to believe that I am responsible for some of them; but, had I always the luxury of being my own editor, some of my work would get more rapidily to its point.

Basic Ontology

2 September 2021

When natural languages first had need to refer to concepts as such, this need was so limited and so vaguely understood that the very same term would refer both to a concept and to that to which the concept pointed. A horse is a mammal. and A horse is on my lawn. seem superficially to be statements of the same sort. Some people, sensing a difference, declare that the first statement is essential, while the second is accidental, but this way of speaking and of writing seems to treat a horse as referring in both cases to the same thing, and embroils us in conflicts over which attributes are essential, which are accidental, and by what methods we all ought to agree on a resolution. The primary difference between the two statements is that in A horse is a mammal. the term a horse typically refers to a concept, whereäs in A horse is on my lawn. the term a horse usually refers to something to which the concept corresponds, which we may call an instantiation of the concept.

I say usually because in theory someone might use a horse only for creatures who were, amongst other things, found on her lawn; but we understand that this practice is not usual, and can find the difference between concept and instantiation by considering usual practice. At the same time, we can see that struggles about essential and accidental attributes are largely rooted in different people simply using related but different concepts.

Even people who are careful to indicate a distinction between some Y and the concept of Y when Y is not itself a concept may fail to do so when it is. But the concept of the concept of X is not the concept of X unless we can find some X which is no more or less than the idea of itself.

From this point, we should see that, to believe that instantiations depend upon their concepts, we must accept an infinite regress. The alternative is not to accept that concepts depend upon that which instantiates them — some concepts are not instantiated — but to understand that concepts must be constructed by employing some thing or things that are not concepts.

In any case, always marking the distinction between concept and instantiation can become a very great burden as we begin to ponder ideas as such, part of which burden would fall upon a reader dealing with compounding of expressions such as the concept of; but, one way or another, we should remember what we are contemplating or discussing.

The confusion in using the same term for concept and instantiation is most acute in existence statements.

The subject in Unicorns do not exist. is the concept of unicorns, not any instantiation of that concept. Grammatically we treat nothing as a something and grammatically we treat non-existence as a property of nothing-as-something. But, underlying this practice, statements about non-existence are really statements that some concepts have no instantiations; if claims about non-existence refer to properties of somethings, then these somethings are concepts. Unicorns do not exist. is not really about unicorns; it is about the idea of unicorns. We can only speak or write of the idea of unicorns.

And, when we speak or write of existence, we are speaking and writing of concepts. The claim Horses exist. is really about the concept, that it is instantiated. Coherent existential claims are no more or less than claims that concepts are instantiated.

That statements of form X exists. unpack to form The concept of X is instantiated. should lead one to recognize that a proper reading of The concept of X exists. unpacks to The concept of the concept of X is instantiated. We don't generally need a concept before we use something that would instantiate it — otherwise the infinite regress of concepts would be needed — but anything that we use is at least potentially an instantiation of multiple concepts. Some might be tempted to conclude that, thus, X exists. needn't refer to the concept of X, and can be unpacked as X is potentially an instantiation of some concept. It may seem doubtful that anyone has ever previously intended such a thing with an existential claim, and certainly existential claims are not usually claims about the ability to find or to construct an idea of a thing said to exist. However, to be potentially an instantiation of some concept is no more or less than to possess properties, so this notion would treat existence as something like a generalization of the concept of property. Still, the formula cannot be adapted to X does not exist. as unpacking it to X is not potentially an instantiation of some concept. is always incoherent when not false, whereäs declarations such as Unicorns do not exist. may be coherent and true. And we are incoherent if by a horse we mean the same thing in A horse has no properties. as in A horse is on the lawn.

I don't propose that we try to reshape our speech and writing nor our work-a-day thinking to distinguish overtly-and-always concept from instantiation. I don't even propose to do so in all philosophic discourse. But, when discussion of existence seems troubling or profound or both, then we may need to bring that distinction to bear.


Some people, encountering a discussion such as the foregoing, will not much attend to it, because they feel certain that they clearly see a truth that contradicts it. I'm going to address propositions of two sorts, mistaken for such truth.

One sort, in which X is something like what is meant by a horse in A horse is on the lawn. says X V because it exists. where the variable V takes the value of a verb. For example, A hot stove burns you because it exists. The first thing to note is that specific values of V that supposedly prove existence aren't universally applicable; we don't say A horse burns you because it exists. Generally, existence is intended to be seen as a necessary but not sufficient condition for X to V. But, when we add conditions to achieve sufficiency, we find that the added conditions (eg, being at a temperature at or above 118°F) are by themselves sufficient, without a mysterious complementary property of existence possessed by X; the notion of such a property results from thoughtlessly confusing a way in which a concept of X may be said to have properties with the way in which X has properties. What we call the horn of a unicorn is itself a concept of a horn.

Though I have encountered at least one would-be follower of Ayn Rand who mistook the tack of because it exists for hers, she made a different mistake. She declared the concept of existence to be irreducible but axiomatic, and that we were to see that it were found and proven in-so-far as a self-contradiction would result from denying Existence exists. However, because we can show that a self-contradiction indeed obtains while interpretting existence and its coördinate terms as in the prior discussion, her attempt to prove the existence of some other concept (profound or otherwise) is a failure.

If we unpack Existence exists. as we can, it is The concept of being an instantiated concept is instantiated. The source of self-contradiction in denial of this proposition is that the concept of a concept being instantiated must have been instantiated for the proposition to be formed, though this proposition could not hold before formation of the concept of existence. And its subjects are not of the sort that Rand and her followers imagined or imagine.

For whatever it's worth, if we grab for potential instantiation then the unpacking is to The concept of potential instantiation is potentially instantiated. that is, more simply put, to A concept can be formed of being the subject of a concept. Again, self-contradiction ensues if we attempt to deny the claim, but in neither expression is the subject that for which Rand reached.

Dissimilar Equivalence

28 August 2021

One of the points taught in a great many introductory courses on microeconomics is that a tax-cut can be expected to have the same effect on schedules of supply and of demand, and thence on the resulting equilibrium, as would a subsidy. In this sense, economics shows that a tax-cut is equivalent to a subsidy. And, ignoring differences in administrative costs, the resources possessed by the state given a tax-cut are equivalent to those after dispensation of a subsidy. But it is only in these effects that microeconomics shows an equivalence; and, even if we confine ourselves to the considerations of non-normative microeconomic theory, we would be speaking or writing rather loosely if we simply said that a tax-cut were the same as subsidy.

In the sphere of normative discourse, whether a party's refraining from taking is equivalent to giving is determined by whether that person or group of people is entitled to take. A person who forgives a debt may be said to give;[1] but the person who does not steal that which is yours does not in this way donate to you. The invaders or other thugs who declared themselves to be lords did not give what they merely did not confiscate from the farmers whom they conquered.

To treat a tax-cut as morally equivalent to a subsidy, or to do as so many progressives and left-wing populists — to insist that a failure to increase some tax on some party to a prior or even new level simply is a subsidy — is to insist that the state is morally entitled to tax at the greater level, that the state owns those resources.

This moral claim is certainly not a principle of economics nor a consequence of bringing economic principles to bear on moral theory, and should not be allowed to pass as such nor by insinuation.


[1] A creditor who forgives a debt has given her rights as surely as if she had assigned them to a third party.

Checked against What?

4 July 2021

Recently, I encountered a bizarre claim about deaths from two different causes, and a link to a supposèd fact-check at Lead Stories, which unequivocally called the claim false. However, when I read the rest of the report, the alleged fact-checker had only failed to find substantiation for the claim. So I sent an inquiry to Alan Duke, the Editor-in-Chief:

Date: Sun, 27 Jun 2021 05:12:03 -0700
To: alan@leadstories.com
Subject: Method?

How do you get from your not knowing of any substantiation of a claim to a declaration that the claim is false?

Merely not knowing that a claim is true is equivalent to merely not know that it is false. Declaring it to be unproven would be perfectly reasonable, but that's not always what you do (though it may sometimes be what you do).

When declaring an unproven claim to be false, or its unproven contradiction to be false, do you flip a coin? or do you decide by some other method?

I've not received a reply.

Now, some people will declare You can't prove a negative! But the mathematic form of the claim being checked was x > y . Accepting that x and y correspond to real numbers, the contradiction of the claim is yx . I don't know that one of these claims should be regarded as positive and the other as negative.

Of course, all but the most terribly gullible understand that what is now-a-days called fact-checking is primarily concerned to protect some narrative or to attack some narrative, and will disregard even basic logic if that concern seems best served by doing so.

Rôles of Prescriptive Models in Economics

30 May 2021

In introductory treatments of economics, one often encounters a distinction drawn between what is called positive economics and what is called normative economics. In these names — and in typical discussion — there are problems.

The meaning of positive here is restricted to fact, as opposed to speculation. Now, on the one hand, supposedly positive economics, like all attempts by human beings to understand the world, is permeated by speculations, which in scientific effort are hypotheses. (The philosophic movement called positivism arose with incompetent aspirations.) On the other hand, contrasting the normative with something called positive entails an implication, insinuation, or declaration that the normative cannot be placed on as solid a foundation as the rest of our understanding. Sometimes a lack of present agreement is treated as if proof that there is no objective ethical truth; sometimes the question is just begged. In any case, the distinction is irrational.

Instead using the terms descriptive and prescriptive steps away from the worst aspect of using positive, though it would be less corrosive to refer to non-prescriptive economics as, well, non-prescriptive or as non-normative.

However, in behavioral science, elements drawn from prescriptive theory are often useful non-prescriptively, either as approximations or as bounding cases. Economic rationality and expected-utility maximization (the latter sometimes conflated with the former) are such elements.

Some economists would not even recognize economic rationality or expected-utility maximization as prescriptive in any case, because they are meta-preferential — they express a preference for structures of preference that have ordering properties such as transitivity and acyclicity, but say nothing about ultimate objectives and thus, in themselves, say nothing about whether one should prefer tomatoes to apples or life over death.

The prescriptive arguments for economic rationality and for expected-utility maximization are to the effect that those who conform realize more of their objectives — regardless of what those objectives might be — than those who do not, with it usually treated as tautologic that one desires such maximization.[1]

The non-prescriptive arguments for economic rationality and for expected-utility maximization as approximations note that these are relatively tractable models of behavior for which evolutionary dynamics will select. Because the models are taken from prescriptive work, some people mistake or misrepresent any use of them as necessarily prescriptive, but the claim is neither that social or other biologic evolution ought to select for something approximated by such behavior nor that agents ought to engage in the behavior for which evolution selects. (If anything, what is illuminated is that evolution selects for a propensity to such prescriptions!)

I endorse use of these models as tractable approximations in many cases, but I also embrace use of a weaker notion of economic rationality as a bounding case. A boundary of economic outcomes is given by considering what those outcomes would be were agents economically rational.

Behavioral economics concerns itself with when-and-how people actually behave, and especially with failures of the aforementioned models. Although this research is not what I do, I acknowledge its value. However, a great deal of what passes for behavioral economics involves an inferential leap from identifying a real or apparent deviation of behavior from one of these models to a conclusion that this-or-that result could be obtained by state intervention, with the researcher looking away from any proper examination of the behavior of agents determining practices of the state. Behavioral economics is thus used as the motte for a statist bailey. Additionally, even behavioral researchers with no apparent statist agenda often fail to recognize when behavior that seems at odds with these models is or may be instead at odds with some presumption of the researcher.[2]


[1] The main-stream of economic theory treats completeness of preferences as a feature of economic rationality but I've never seen a prescriptive argument even attempted for this feature. The prescriptive cases for transitivity and for acyclicity seem to presume an absence of conflicting, prior meta-preferences. The prescriptive argument for expected-utility maximization is especially problematic.

[2] While I have problems with some of the work and with much of the rhetoric of Gerd Gigerenzer, he has ably identified important cases of such failure on the part of researchers.

On Taking the Law into One's Own Hands

17 May 2021

In almost every instance in which the admonition Don't take the law into your own hands! is used, the intention is that one should defer to some other party. But there are various parties to whom one could defer, some of them rival. A choice to defer at all is itself a choice about what is the law and implicitly about how it should be applied. In choosing to defer to one of these parties, rather than to another, one has already taken the law into one's own hands, if only then to let it go. A person is always responsible for such choices. Sometimes, deference is a very appropriate choice, and perhaps even the only appropriate choice, but one is responsible for choosing when and to whom to defer. The only way that a person could perhaps not at all take the law into his-or-her own hands would be in utter passivity — not even acting to draw some other party into the situation as giver or enforcer of law. And, still, to choose passivity would be a choice, and sometimes a morally unacceptable choice.

Those who insist that we should not take the law into our own hands almost always intend that we should defer to those with the most social power concerning law. Various concerns might motivate that intention, but most often the admonition comes from members of that group (state officials), or from people who take it that the social power somehow arises from virtue of some sort, or from those who believe that the only alternative to deferring to those with the most social power is so obviously barbarism that no argument need be made. If a reader believes that I need to critique any of these cases, then he-or-she should comment below to that effect.

As a man thinketh

3 May 2021

Assuming something that is not necessarily believed by oneself or by one's audience or by either is a regular practice in various intellectual pursuits.

In discussion of policy, appropriateness of the set objectives of a real or imagined audience will often be assumed by economists who are either attempting to proceed in a wertfrei[1] manner or to argue for or against some ostensible means of accomplishing that set of objectives because of how those means would affect other matters about which the economist has a normative position. Thus, an economist who does not believe that an objective is right and proper may none-the-less assume that it is, to explain

  • that some policy will not accomplish the objective; or
  • that some policy will be most effective at accomplishing the objective; or
  • that some policy might be very effective at accomplishing the objective, but would, will, or does come at unacknowledged costs of importance to some in the audience; or
  • that some policy will be very effective in accomplishing the objective, and would, will, or does bring unrecognized benefits of importance to some in the audience.

One of the various things that I find uncomfortable about engaging in discussion of policy is that some people lose or never catch sight of the point that my assumption of objectives is not an endorsement of those objectives. However, I think that repeatedly assuming objectives in the context of being socially surrounded by people with those objectives will indeed lead some analysts to fall into the habit of presuming those objectives — of implicitly embracing those objectives — and may eventually lead them to endorsing those objectives overtly.

Unhappiness prevails amongst various libertarians and near-libertarians, concerning the comportment of what are called beltway libertarians, who are scholars, intellectuals, and professional political operatives located in or near the District of Columbia, and who self-identify with libertarian yet who have been silent about some of the most illiberal[2] policies of our day, or contort themselves to argue that these policies are actually libertarian, or even assert that circumstances warrant policies that they acknowledge to be illiberal. For the most part, the liberal community elsewhere simply takes it that the beltway libertarians have been corrupted by their context; I am here suggesting part of the mechanism of corruption.


[1]  Normatively neutral.

[2] I use liberal and illiberal in their original and proper senses.

Nick Hudson on SARS-CoV-2 and the Policy Response

1 April 2021

Alphabet has removed this video from YouTube:

The Paradox of Shadows

5 March 2021

For many years, one of the projects on a back-burner in my mind has been the writing of a novel, A Paradox of Shadows, in which the principal character is attempting to reconstruct or to otherwise recover an ancient work, the title of which might have been περὶ τοῦ ἀτόπου τοῦ τῶν σκιῶν, or De [Anomalia de] Obumbratio, or perhaps something else.

Everything about the work is a matter of doubt or of conjecture, including its author and the era and language in which it were originally composed; even that there ever were such a work is uncertain. Its existence is primarily inferred from how parts of it seem to be esoterically embedded in other works; sometimes these passages can be made to fit together like bits of a jigsaw, but different ways of fitting are possible, especially allowing for lacunæ, interpolations, and unintended errors in translation or in transcription. In ancient art and literature are found what may be other references to the work, but these apparent references are subject to alternate interpretation, especially as many of them would be quite oblique if indeed they refer to the work. The search is largely a matter of poring over old manuscripts and documents.

No rational person would look at any one piece of evidence known to the main character and conclude that the work must have existed or just probably existed. Few would take the evidence as jointly establishing such a probability. There is both too much and too little information, so that bold intellectual leaps must be made in chaos or in darkness. A searcher may encounter unscalable cliffs or unbridgable chasms; and, if forced to stop at any point, one is likely to look pathetic. But the evidence, taken jointly, associates a relative plausibility of recovery with each of various possibilities as to the nature of the work. In that context, the possible profundity is enough to drive the search by the principal character, even with likely failure.

Obscured Tautology and the Persistence of Socialism

28 January 2021

Since sometime in my childhood, I have repeatedly encountered arguments of the form

If X were Y enough, then X would be able to Z.

For example

If you were smart enough, then you'd be able to fix that widget.

The enough makes this claim a tautology; it really just unpacks to

If X were Y enough to Z, then X would be able to Z.

But the tautology is vacuous and useless in cases in which

Y enough to Z

is not possible, as in

pretty enough to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem

It is true that

If Madeline were pretty enough to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem, then Madeline would be able to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem.

It just isn't true that

Someone could be pretty enough to solve Hilbert's Fifteenth Problem.

Outside of pædogogic exercises, when someone makes a declaration of form

If X were Y enough, then X would be able to Z.

he or she is presuming or insinuating that

At the margin, there is some level of Y that is sufficient to be able to Z.

but this proposition may not be true, and certainly ought to be examined before accepting

If X were Y enough, then X would be able to Z.

as part of an argument that

X ought to be more Y

or that

Z can be accomplished.

The reason that I write about this issue of logic now is that is seems to me that a great many people essentially believe that

All that is necessary for socialism to work is for us to take control and to be sufficiently virtuous; thus, when socialism fails it is either because we are not in control or are not sufficiently virtuous; and thus, no matter how much or how often attempts at socialism fail, we must struggle to take control and to be virtuous — perhaps by finding ways to incentivize virtuousness — until socialism succeeds.

Some critics would perhaps want to ask the genuinely important question of to just whom this we and us refer, but for my purpose here they can be left as a variable to be assigned whatever value the political left might want. My objection is that lurking in the argument is

If X were virtuous enough, then X would be able to make socialism work.

And, in this context, even a genuine failure of socialism will not be seen as a reason to quit trying. The socialists can always tell themselves We can succeed next time, or at least fail better.

The typical opponent of socialism argues that socialism will fail because people will not be motivated to expend sufficient effort. Not only can this been seen as a problem of virtue by the political left; it has been seen as a problem of virtue by the political right, who sometimes ascribe the impossibility of well functioning socialism to Original Sin.

But a motivation to work with sufficient intensity is not the deepest practical problem of socialism. The problem of knowing at what to workthe Problem of Economic Calculation — is the deepest problem. We can presume that, somehow, everyone conforms utterly to a left-wing notion of virtue, and still the Problem of Economic Calculation will abide.

At the margin, there is no level of virtue on the part of any us or of any them that is sufficient to be able to make socialism work.

But, hidden behind an obscured and misapplied tautology, the presumption that such a level exists can keep socialists banging their heads against the wall indefinitely and putting other people against the wall indefinitely.