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Category Archives: Philosophy

Narrative art–film, TV, books, etc.–is a useful tool for analyzing ethical questions.  When watching stories unfold, we see characters make decisions, we evaluate their choices, and we assign value to characters based on our feelings about their behavior.  The stories’ authors (writers, director, actors, etc.) are somewhat able to manipulate our judgments through artistic choice: what information and perspective do they provided to the audience? what music is playing a character acts? which characters have nefarious-looking facial hair? but ultimately we own our evaluations, and they define us, and help us to grow as people.

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Amidst a poker game last night, I posited the following:

Every poker player has worse than average luck.

Call it the anti-Lake Wobegon Effect (aLWE).

This claim, at first glance, is entirely absurd.  Treating poker as a zero-sum game, one player’s good luck must be offset by another player’s bad luck, such that not all players can possibly have below average luck.  We learn this in kindergarten, and then again in advanced college mathematics.  So why am I trying to argue something that is patently absurd?  Below I will argue both why it is wise to believe aLWE, and also reasons why it may be true.

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David Henderson has a good post on how studying economics led him to combat his emotional feelings and adopt a more libertarian viewpoint:

I started to understand that the vast majority of income in a relatively free society is earned. It’s true that a small number of wealthy people did get their money by fraud or dishonesty. More common, especially in societies with lots of government controls, were people who got wealthy by using political pull. But I started to see that the typical high-income person in a relatively free society gets his or her income the old-fashioned way–by earning it.

What interests me about the post has less to do with the intellectual underpinnings of Henderson’s argument and more to do with the relationship between reasoning and emotion.  Even after adjusting his intellectual framework, Henderson retained the emotional effects of a prior framework:

Even though this was a full four years after I had realized that the vast majority of “the rich” get their money relatively honestly, I felt the old resentment at these people who had what I could not imagine myself ever being able to afford. I looked down at my fists and saw that I had clenched them in anger.

It’s fundamentally difficult to confront one’s own emotional intuitions, and if you surround yourself with like-minded thinkers (or include only the most extreme and moronic opponents) you never have to do so, because you’ll never have to change your views.  This is, in my humble opinion, a very bad thing.  It turns you into a fundamentally unthinking person.  Instead, I strongly advocate a deliberate attempt to seek out the most intelligent opposing voices you can tolerate, to engage with them in argument, and when tension arises between your emotions and reason, acknowledge and address the tension, no matter how difficult or painful.

Arnold Kling cites William Byers’ book The Blind Spot:

Until recently, the conventional scientific view was that mind could be reduced to brain, that the physical brain was primary phenomenon and the mind was merely an epiphenomenon. Yet, in recent years, evidence has emerged that the physical configuration of the brain is malleable and can change as a result of learning, thinking, and other mental activities–in short, that the mind can influence the brain…

The underlying question here seems to be whether mind consists of more than just the particles of the brain.  What’s at stake is whether minds can be fully understood, modeled, and replicated.  Particles of the brain, being particles, are somewhat predictable, whereas any non-particle metaphysical component of the mind might not be.  In other words, can the mind be modeled accurately, or not?  I consider this an open question.

Kling continues:

Byers afflicts the comfortable by emphasizing the role of ambiguity in science. Most people want science to play the role of resolving ambiguity. Byers argues that scientific progress comes from confronting and sometimes even embracing ambiguity–for example, the theory that an electron is both a wave and a particle. Thus, the role of ambiguity in science is….ambiguous.

Indeed, ambiguity results from accepting multiple conflicting models.

Earlier I posted about my preference for simultaneously accepting multiple models that conflict with each other, and applying them to different situations.  One reason to do so is that one model may be more accurate in particular applications.  This occurs in both cosmology and social science.  A second reason to do so is that, independent of accuracy, some models have greater pragmatic value in particular applications–that is, they’re more useful even if less accurate.

Consider two theories of basketball.  Theory A says that in any basketball game, the better team–the team that has better talent, strategy, and work-ethic–will always win.  Theory B says that while talent, strategy and work-ethic are important, luck is also a factor; thus the best team usually wins, but sometimes loses, at no fault of their own.  Both theories are internally consistent, and consistent with observed phenomena, though they conflict with each other.  In deciding which model to use, I find I prefer Theory A when I’m playing basketball, and Theory B when I’m gambling on basketball, regardless of which model I believe to be more accurate.  I consider the ability to accept the viability both models, given their dissonance, and to casually switch between them, to be a fairly useful skill.  Even though I know that one theory must be wrong, Theory A makes me a better baller, and Theory B makes me a better gambler, so I benefit from applying both at different times.

I had similar thoughts when reading Why I am Not’s post on charity.  The author finds something fishy with the economics of charity auctions, and proposes they may less than perfectly altruistic.  So there are two models: first, that charity auctions are highly altruistic, and that attendees ought to celebrate themselves; second, that charity auction attendees are stuck-up self-congratulating jerks.  Regardless of the accuracy of these models, I’d recommend using the second in pithy blog posts, while begrudgingly sticking to the first while attending charity auctions.  Even if you believe charity auctions are wasteful, hiding your true feelings has social utility, and will keep you from coming across as weird.

In academia, and particularly the humanities, ideas gain a lot of credit when they’re attributed to others, especially if they’re dead, white and male.  I score 2/3 when I note that William C. Wimsatt is a major influence on my views about epistemology.  Here’s a summary and review of his major work, Re-Engineering Philosophy for Limited Beings.

I’m having issues with the comments section at Philosophy Bro, so I’ll post this here instead.  In a discussion of empiricism and rationalism, the author writes:

You are definitely over-committing yourself if you mean that everything we can know is mediated through the senses – I mean, mathematics? Logical tautologies?

As with my earlier discussion of science, the key missing idea here is that of the map/territory relation.  If scientists and philosophers would realize that they’re building models/maps to explain the world, and not defining rules that govern how the world/territory works, our understanding of these issues would improve drastically.

Frankly, I find it preposterous to suggest that mathematics can be known without relying on sensory perception. Show me a way to teach a child addition that doesn’t rely on sensory perception–no blocks, no pictures, no counting on your fingers.  Then, and only then, will I grant that mathematics can be intuited without sensory perception.  Yes, armchair philosophers can understand math without reference to specific measurements.  But only because they’ve previously perceived an enormous number of examples of mathematical theory working.

Based on observation, we create a model; we test it; it works; over time we accept it as very strong theory.  That’s our inductive process, for science, for math, for logic.  After we have our model, we extrapolate, interpolate, and infer–deductive processes.  So we can figure out that 9823+2349=12172 without measuring. But only because we’ve previously seen so many other applications of our addition theory work, without ever seeing one fail.  We trust that we don’t need to test it, based on the enormity of evidence supporting the model.  But our trust doesn’t make the theory true.

(Editorial note: Philosophy Bro writes casually about interesting issues in philosophy.  In a previous post about Free Will, the author used a word I found offensive, and I said so in the comments.  The word remains in that post, and as such I won’t link to it.  However, I like the blog, and am wiling to write off one isolated case of bad judgment in linking to the site.)