Archive for the ‘commentary’ Category

Against an Argument for Science as Instrinsically Social

Saturday, 19 January 2019

I have argued that persons outside of any social context can be scientists. Recently, I watched and listened to a recording of an interview of one philosopher by another, in which the two agreed that science is intrinsically social, that persons outside of social contexts cannot be scientists.[1]

Towards explaining what was wrong with their argument, I'll first explain their argument. One of the very most important things that a scientist ought to do is to look for areas of potential vulnerability in theories, and to test those theories against what evidence may practicably be gathered. And any one researcher is imperfect in his or her ability to find such potential vulnerabilites, in knowledge of existing evidence, and in capacity to collect new evidence. It is often particularly difficult for any one researcher to recognize the unconscious presumptions that inform his or her own theories; exposing the work of one researcher to the scrutiny of other researchers may mean that those presumptions are recognized and challenged.

All right; but, just as any one researcher is imperfect, so are jointly any two researchers, or any three researchers, or any n researchers, for all finite values of n. In fact, I am nearly certain that even an infinite number of scientists would be insufficient to overcome weaknesses across the whole body of theories that these scientists could construct; but, in any case, science is not an unattainable limiting case of behavior. One might instead pick a finite n, and insist that one does not have science until one has n participants engaging in behavior of some sort, but the choice of n would seem to be quite arbitrary; and I'd like to know what one should then call the behavior when there are fewer participants.

As a practical matter, it is far from clear that two people each in isolation engaged in that behavior would continue to engage in that behavior when brought together. Social contexts can promote peculiar forms of irrationality. Historically, a great deal of what has been widely taken to be science by participants and by most observers in wider society has often been grossly unscientific behavior resulting exactly from social pressures. A great deal of what passes for science these days is socially required to conform to consensus, which is to say that social mechanisms protect widely shared presumptions from scrutiny.


[1] As it happens both one of those philosophers and I referred to Robinson Crusoe as an individual outside of a social context. It was natural for us each independent of the other to reach for the most famous example within our shared cultural context, but it heightened my sense of annoyance.

l'usage

Thursday, 3 January 2019

In the course of a present investigation of how the main-stream of economics lost sight of the general concept of utility, I looked again at the celebrated article Specimen Theoriæ Novæ de Mensura Sortis by Daniel Bernoulli, in which he proposed to resolve the Saint Petersburg Paradox[1] by revaluing the pay-off in terms of something other than the quantity of money.

The standard translation of his article into English[2] replaces Latin emolument- everywhere with utility, but emolumentum actually meant benefit.[3] Bernoulli's own words in his original paper show no more than that he thought that the actual marginal benefit of money were for some reason diminishing as the quantity of money were increased. However. before Bernoulli arrived at his resolution, Gabriel Cramer arrived at a resolution that had similar characteristics; and, when Bernoulli later learned of this resolution, he quoted Cramer. Cramer declared that money was properly valued à proportion de l' uſage [in proportion to the usage]. The term uſage itself carries exactly the original sense of utility. (Cramer goes on to associate the usefulness of money with plaiſir, but does not make it clear whether he has a purely hedonic notion of usefulness.) Bernoulli did not distinguish his position from that of Cramer on this point, so it is perfectly reasonable to read Bernoulli as having regarded the actual gain from money as measured by its usefulness.

Of course, both Cramer and Bernoulli were presuming that usefulness were a measure, rather than a preördering of some other sort.


[1] The classic version of the Saint Petersburg Paradox imagines a gamble. A coin whose probability of heads is that of tails is to be flipped until it comes-up tails; thus, the chance of the gamble ending on the n-th toss is 1/2n. Initially, the payoff is 2 ducats, but this is doubled after each time that the coin comes-up heads; if the coin first comes up tails on the n-th flip, then the pay-off of the gamble will be 2n ducats. So the expected pay-off of the gamble is ∑[(1/2n)·(2n ducats)] = 1 ducat + 1 ducat + … = ∞ ducats Yet one never sees people buying such contracts for very much; and most people, asked to imagine how much they would pay, say that they wouldn't offer very much.

Cramer's resolution did not account for the preëxisting wealth of an individual offered a gamble, and he suggested that the measure of usefulness of money might be measured as a square root of the quantity of money. Bernoulli's resolution did account for preëxisting wealth, and suggested that the actual benefit of money were measurable as a natural logarithm.

I'm amongst those who note that one cannot buy that which is not sold, and who believe that people asked to imagine what they would pay for such a contract instead imagine what they would pay for what were represented as such a contract, which could not possibly deliver astonishingly large amounts of purchasing power.

[2] Exposition of a New Theory on the Measurement of Risk in Econometrica v22 (1954) #1 (January) pp 22–36.

[3] In a footnote, translator Louise Sommer claims that mean utility is a free translation of emolumentum medium and then that the literal translation would be mean utility; I believe that she had meant to offer something else as the literal translation, but lost her train of thought.

On Cruelty and Weakness

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Everyone first becomes aware of suffering in the form of his or her own hurt. Further, each of us discovers that others have a power over us in an ability to injure us. And, from the very early childhoods of most people, pain was often used by those who also routinely exercised various other powers over them. Thus, many people associate infliction of distress not merely with the exercise of power of a particular sort, but with strength more generally.

However, exactly because dispensation of suffering is associated with strength, those who feel vulnerable or ineffectual have an increased propensity to attempt cruelty, as if cruelty would make them less vulnerable and more effectual. Indeed, an active desire to cause distress almost always comes from a felt sense of weakness.

That's not to say that injurious acts are always motivated by a sense of impotence. Hurtful actions — even hurtful actions that are deliberate actions — are not always characterized either by indifference to injury or by drawing satisfaction from that injury. Sometimes the action may be deliberate yet the agent genuinely unaware of the consequent suffering; in other cases, he or she may regard the hurt as a regrettable cost that none-the-less should be paid (as in a case of a painful medical procedure to prevent or to correct a still greater problem). And I don't assert that acts of cruel indifference almost always come from a sense of weakness; indifference does not proceed from felt need. Rather, I refer to acts driven by a desire to inflict suffering as such (including of course cases in which indifference is feigned).

In the sense that one cannot do what one greatly wishes to do, almost everyone will at times feel weak. Many of us will at one interval or another believe ourselves unable to do something that people normally seem able to do. Further, most or all of us will on various occasions regard the contrary choices of some other person or persons as what prevent us from doing what we very much wish. In this last case, that other person or those other people are perceived to be, at the margin, the source of the sense of weakness, and thus an urge to be cruel (and thereby to feel stronger) is likely to be directed at them. But if such people are in some way out of reach, or if the sense of weakness derives from other circumstances, then some other person — a target of opportunity — may be made the contemplated focus of attempted cruelty with some spurious rationalization.

While a desire to be hurtful almost always comes from a sense of weakness, a sense of weakness doesn't always provoke an urge to be hurtful, nor do people who from weakness feel such impulses always choose to act upon those desires. A person may be crushed beyond any action, or may see no opportunity to lash-out. But another person may reject cruelty that he or she could see within reach. It is possible to recognize a sense of weakness behind one's own desire to be cruel. It is possible to realize that cruelty will not make one any stronger; to see that cruelty is a confession of weakness; and to decide that, if a confession should be made, then there would be better ways to make it than through acts of cruelty. It is sometimes possible even to be conscious of a sense of weakness before it produces an urge to be cruel, and to consider what would be a reasonable response to that sense. The more practice that one has in finding rational alternatives to cruelty, the less one feels the impulse to be cruel even at the outset. To some extent, one can grow beyond that urge.

And, when one encounters cruelty from others, one can look for its source in some sense of weakness on their parts. Perhaps their cruelty will be forgiveable; perhaps it will not; but it will almost always be understandable. And any response to cruelty will be more assuredly appropriate if the motivation for the cruelty is understood.

Policy Paralogism

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Confronted with a real or imagined social problem, most people first grab for an ostensible solution that appeals to their prejudices, and then for an argument (in favor of this policy) that seems plausible to them. That approach is not ideal, but might still result in good policy if people would poke at each such argument, to see whether it were actually logical, and move away from proposed solutions in cases in which none of the arguments withstood examination. Unfortunately, people don't generally test their arguments; words strung together in emotionally satisfying ways are embraced as if any reasonable person would accept them.

I came upon an epitomal example of this behavior, in the wake of a recent mass shooting at a school. Someone posted a graphic macro suggesting how guns might be treated analogously to motor vehicles and and declared

Let’s go through this one more time…maybe they will get it. And yes, people will obtain guns illegally. And yes, people kill people. But doing nothing means more die.

(Underscore mine.) Now, there are various problems with the suggestion that guns should be treated analogously to motor vehicles, and perhaps someday I'll labor all that occur to me. But here I want to focus on that assertion doing nothing means more die. To the poster, it apparently seems that any reasonable person would accept that this assertion is an argument for the policy that he favors. Let's poke at this use, to see whether it is actually logical.

It is surely true that if we do nothing different, then people who have not yet died will die, and in this sense more will die. But, as a matter of logic, that doesn't mean that there is something that we can do such that people would not die, or even that fewer would die. If we somehow had an optimal social policy, and found that people died, we could still say that if we did nothing different then people would die. So, one question that we might ask is of whether a change in social policy would cause fewer or more people to die.

And I'm not simply talking about whether a change in social policy would cause fewer or more people to die at the hands of shooters who are not state officials, or even about the more general question of whether a change in policy would cause fewer or more people to to die at the hands of shooters of all sorts, but about the question of whether the change in policy would result in fewer or in more deaths across all causes. For example, a policy change might lead to greater use of IEDs. (The deadliest mass murder at a school in American history was effected by a bomb.) The answer is not known a priori.

There is also the issue of other costs. For example, some jurisdictions have a lower rate per capita of homicide, but a higher rate of rape. One doesn't want to switch from one set of policies to another simply on the basis that if we do nothing then more will be raped, and likewise one doesn't want to switch from one set of policies to another simply on the basis that if we do nothing then more will die. I don't think that any utilitarian calculus is actually reasonable, but one that simply counts lives is plainly inhumane. And it would be childlike to think and childish to insist that, with some set of policies, the global minimum for each costs could be achieved simultaneous to that for every other, let alone that such a fantastic minimum could be found by first finding the local minimum for one cost and then seeking the local minimum for another.

The poster has presented an example from just one class of policies, and declared doing nothing means more die. Plainly, there are other possible policy responses, so that the relevant comparison is not simply between adopting the policy that he favors and maintaining the status quo.

Moreover, if his argument were adapted to the defense of other policies, he and others might be provoked to examine that argument more carefully. His words might be left essentially unchanged, but the macro replaced with one discussing a policy of a different sort. For example, someone might propose that each person above the age of 10 years old be interned in a mental-health camp, until and unless experts appointed by the state certified that he or she was not a danger to society. I'd like to think that, if the original poster had earlier seen the very same words used in defense of an internment policy, then he would have immediately poked at the argument to find the illogic. I'm quite sure that most people who applauded or would have applauded his words in the context in which he did use them would have found their illogic in the context of an argument for rounding-up American youth and throwing them into camps. Well, they should have poked at the argument where they actually found it.

Meta-Games

Sunday, 19 November 2017

It has famously been argued that the word game cannot be defined in a way that adequately captures the various senses in which it is used. I believe that, in everyday use, the term game most often means a system of contrived challenges properly imposed or undertaken for purposes of amusement. Hence, someone might assert something such as Love is not a game! But, even in lay-use, game can have other meanings. For example, when a person proceeds deceitfully or insincerely, he or she may be said to be making a game of things, without necessarily seeking amusement in proceeding in this way.

Economists and mathematicians applying themselves to problems of economics or proximate to those of economics can use the term so very broadly as to refer to any problem of optimization. But, most often, they mean a system in which multiple parties interact with the potential for one or more parties to advance an interest or something that is treated as an interest (such as reproduction). It is in this sense that I here use the term game.

The rules of games are often subject to to change, and those changes may be affected or effected by players of the governed game. There is thus a meta-game — a system in which multiple parties interact with the potential for one or more of them to advance an interest by changing the rules of the game; or, in the context of others trying to changing the rules, by preserving the rules. The concept of meta-games is hugely important for understanding social processes.

Of course, a meta-game might have its own meta-game — a meta-meta-game. For example, the determination of a legal frame-work might be the meta-game of the social processes that the frame-work governs, and a struggle over social values might be the meta-game of the determination of the frame-work and thus the meta-meta-game of those social processes. But it can be difficult — without necessarily being useful — to work-out an actual hierarchy.

Sometimes, all that we really need to recognize is that some activity is a meta-game of some other game, without concerning ourselves as to whether the other game is itself a meta-game. People might readily recognize meta-gaming in activities such as political lobbying, but they generally don't recognize it when it's effected by psychologists, by teachers, or by screen-writers.

I want to draw upon this notion of meta-games for at least one 'blog entry, but I will probably want to draw upon it for multiple entries, so I will leave this entry as infrastructure. And I may later and without notice rework it, in an attempt to improve it as infrastructure.

Hyper-Vigilance and Feedback

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Psychologists vary in precisely what they mean when using the term vigilant or hyper[-]vigilant to describe a personality type. What is common across notions and here relevant is an acute concern about — and sensitivity to — behavior by others that may carry information about intention, about propensity, or about capacity. Hyper-vigilance typically arises as an attempted adaptation in response to seriously hurtful experience; it is in any case a self-defense behavior more focussed on identifying hostile or otherwise threatening intentions, propensities, or capacities, and should be expected to be associated with other defensive behaviors and more generally with personality attributes that arise from injury.

Hyper-vigilance itself is not the same thing as paranoia. When there is an element of irrationality to hyper-vigilance as such, it is in an over-commitment of resources to the tasks of awareness or of interpretation. The hyper-vigilant may otherwise be for the most part rational in their interpretations of behavior. (And one cannot reasonably infer that there is an over-commitment of resources simply from the fact that a hyper-vigilant person is seeking greater awareness.) A paranoid systematically makes important inferences that are themselves unreasonable.

The skills of the hyper-vigilant (and, for that matter, the unreasonable inferential practices of the paranoid) aren't always employed for purposes of self-defense. People may be identified as well-intentioned or peculiarly talented, and cultivated as friends; people may be perceived as having concealed vulnerabilities, and quietly given protection.

When two people interact — whether either is hyper-vigilant or not and so long as they are at all social — they consciously or unconsciously each size-up the other. The behavior of each usually adjusts to anything learned in the present encounter, and that adjustment of behavior may then communicate something new to the other, causing a counter-adjustment on his or her part. When two people have complementary emotional responses each to the other, a feedback loop is creäted, and the responses amplify to some extent. These feedback loops can cause people to take relatively quick and markèd likings or dislikings each to the other.

When hyper-vigilant people interact, complementarity has a still more pronounced effect. They can move to attack or become friends or come to love or indeed fall in love with a speed that startles everyone — including the two people in the feedback loop if they've never considered the dynamic or if they haven't each discerned that the other is not merely ill- or good-willed but also hyper-vigilant. Because hyper-vigilance is a behavior of self-defense, it is likely to be accompanied by a suppression or masking of behaviors that would otherwise expose emotions or reveal defensive abilities or propensities, and hyper-vigilance itself would be one of those behaviors; additionally, a hyper-vigilant person may conceal vigilance to avoid censure (especially as hyper-vigilance is widely equated with paranoia). Thus one or both of two hyper-vigilant people may miss this important insight in the implicit challenge of reading the other, especially when vigilance is operating largely at an unconscious level.

Responsible Voting

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

It was once socially accepted that people were not responsible for acts of a wide variety if the persons engaged in them while intoxicated, even if the intoxication were quite voluntary and the engagement active. Over time that attitude has eroded. After all, a person who chooses to be intoxicated chooses to engage in increased probability that he or she will effect those acts. If a person who chose to drink passes-out on the front lawn, drives his vehicle into a pedestrian, or beats his domestic partner, few people would insist that he didn't choose to do such a thing. And, should we meet one of those few people, we rightly suspect that they cannot be trusted to use intoxicants responsibly.

In response to the campaign of Bernard (Bernie) Sanders, a great many people embraced things that they called democratic socialism. They didn't actually agree amongst themselves as to what this term meant. Many of them insisted that democratic socialism weren't socialism, which insistence did not provoke as often as it should a question as to why then its name should contain socialism. The answer simply was that Sanders had long referred to what he advocated with this term; they were stuck with socialism if they held onto Sanders. Whether they admitted that democratic socialism referred to socialism or not, all of the folk calling for something by that name sought to neutralize the dire associations of socialism with various outcomes that had been observed when regimes had been identified by that label. And all of these folk, whether or not they acknowledged that they were referring to socialism, agreed that what they called democratic socialism would indeed be democratic.

That insistence has afforded them a rhetorical ploy for dealing not only with socialistic regimes that were never democratic, but with socialistic regimes that have lost popular support, such as that in Venezuela. Absenting that support, these regimes are said not to be democratic, and hence plainly not to represent whatever might properly be called democratic socialism. But when a socialistic regime is brought to power by democratic means, in a framework of law that was effected by democratic means, and then uses that law to take unpopular actions, to insist that the regime is undemocratic begins to resemble claiming that the neighbors passed-out on the lawn, driving their cars into pedestrians, or beating their domestic partners did not choose to do such things. Oh yes they did. And anyone who insists otherwise is to be regarded as dangerous with the relevant intoxicants, including ballots.

Indeed, for most of recent history, popular opinion was not treated as particularly important in application to America by most Americans who came to call for democratic socialism. They had earlier thought it perfectly democratic when the Democratic Party, democratically elected to majority control of both Chambers of Congress and to the Presidency, effected various measures that were in fact widely unpopular with the more general population. President Obama advised the Republicans to win some elections. When they did, so that the Democrats lost first the House of Representatives and then the Senate, he and most of these folk for democratic socialism held to the idea that his democratic election to the Presidency legitimized his actions in defiance both of the votes of the Congress and of popular opinion amongst the wider population. Popular opinion in Venezuela and elsewhere has emerged as ostensibly relevant to democratic socialism exactly and only because, once again, socialism — even socialism within a framework democratically effected — has devolved as it always will if allowed to persist. There is no magic in democracy.

The state is a terrible institution, to be checked by an institutional framework that resists its growth, instead of enabled to grow by fantasies that amateurs or experts can use it expansively to bring about a more humane world.

A Passing Anniversary

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

I used occasionally to mention a girl-friend in unfiltered entries to this 'blog, but stopped doing so in 2013. The relationship had problems that I didn't and don't care to discuss here publicly — for her sake.

On 30 August 2013, without warning, she hanged our relationship, strangling, at the end of a rope. I don't know exactly when the relationship should be deemed to have died. I can say, to the day, when I reached acceptance of its death, but I don't imagine that, on the previous day, it might actually have been saved.

Vocal Cues

Monday, 26 June 2017

Many animals, across different classes, have two distinct sounds that may be classified as growls or as whines, respectively. The growls signal threat; the whines signal friendship or appeasement.

The bark of a dog is actually a combination of a growl with a whine; it is thus not a pure signal of aggression, as many take it to be; it is literally a mixed signal, perhaps indicating confusion on the part of the dog, perhaps signalling both that the dog is prepared to fight and that the dog would consider a peaceful interaction.

When women talk with men whom they find attractive, women tend to raise the pitches of their voices. Men tend to do something different when talking with women whom they find attractive; they mix deeper tones than they would normally use with higher tones than they would normally use. The deep tones are signals of masculinity, of being able to do what men are expected to do. The higher tones of men carry much the same significance as do the higher tones of women — with the additional point in contrast to the deep tones that the man does not mean to threaten the woman.

It amused me to reälize consciously that this behavior by men is at least something like barking. Then I grimly considered that some men are actually barking, telling the woman that he can be nice to her if she is nice to him, but will actively make things unpleasant if she is not. But at least it should typically be possible to disambiguate the threatening behavior, based upon where the low notes are used, and of course the choice of words.

Failing to Recognize an Inner Life

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

In its issue of 19 January 1924, Collier's published The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Edward Connell jr. This now quite famous story — repeatedly anthologized and adapted for film,[1] for radio, and for television — is of Sanger Rainsford, a big-game hunter.

At the start of the story, Rainsford and company are on a yacht, moving through foggy darkness in the Caribbean. In reference to their planned destination, a companion asserts Great sport, hunting.

The best sport in the world, agreed Rainsford.

For the hunter, amended Whitney. Not for the jaguar.

Don't talk rot, Whitney, said Rainsford. You're a big-game hunter, not a philosopher. Who cares how a jaguar feels?

Perhaps the jaguar does, observed Whitney.

Bah! They've no understanding.

Even so, I rather think they understand one thing — fear. The fear of pain and the fear of death.

Rainsford dismisses this. The world is made up of two classes — the hunters and the huntees. Luckily, you and I are hunters. On this score, his luck does not hold.

Shortly after this conversation, he falls from the yacht as he goes to the railing to listen, having heard shots in the distance. He decides that his best chances for survival are in swimming in the direction of those shots. As he does so, he hears a cry from an animal that he does not recognize, except in-so-far as it is at the extremes of anguish and of terror. Then he hears yet another shot. Continuing to swim in that direction, he finds his way to an island. Thence, he makes his way to the hunter, General Zaroff.

Zaroff recognizes Rainsford by name, and expresses himself as pleased to think that he might now have a hunting companion. But Zaroff hunts men; as game; as the most dangerous game. The resulting argument between Rainsford and Zaroff is rather like the earlier argument between Whitney and Rainsford, with a terrible amplification. And, because Rainsford refuses to become a hunter of men, he is made the game. He is forced into a life-or-death contest that he never sought, against someone whose skills as a hunter are greater, and who additionally has assistance and weapons that Rainsford does not.

Hearing a sound that he has known — the howls and barks of a dog pack when on the hunt — Rainsford learns the fear of which Whitney had spoken; Rainsford comes to know how an animal at bay feels, because he is now an animal at bay.

I don't imagine any of you learning anything from this story about the perspective of the hunted. But there are as well the perspectives of hunters — the perspective of Zaroff, of course; but also the earlier perspective of Rainsford. Those of us who recoil at killing for sport find it easy to imagine Rainsford as a changed man, who has learned an important lesson, in a terrifying way. But Rainsford was capable of such change, because he is not a psychopath, not a sadist, nor too great a fool to learn. He was simply a man who was very mistaken. Perhaps better men would be better creatures of the same time and of the same place, but he was not truly a bad man.


Theunis Botha was guiding hunters who stumbled into a group of elephants. A female grabbed and lifted him by her trunk; she was shot, and fell, crushing him. My reäction to the story wasn't one of regret. But someone about whom I care (rather a lot) has written

I hope he suffered. I hope he felt every crush and the same sense of helpless panic animals feel when being chased, trapped and shot to death by well-armed hunters.

And I think — my God! — why? What good would such suffering do? It is unlikely that Mr Botha rejoiced in the fear and in the pain that he caused; rather, it is far more likely that, as with Rainsford before he met Zaroff, the fear and pain of the hunted did not register with him. If Botha were a man rather like Rainsford, here he had no time to learn from suffering. Can we recognize the inner life of Theunis Botha and still wish terrible punishment upon him for failing to recognize the inner lives of beasts?


[1] See especially the classic movie version of 1932.