A Persian Cafe, Edward Lord Weeks

Monday, 18 November 2013

External World Realism!

My view on perception of the external world for some time was "The fact that we see the world in a certain way is evidence for it being that way. However, there is no way to actually know we are not being deceived in some way. That said, there's no particular reason to believe that the external world would be some particular way which does not correspond to our perception of it, so it is most rational to act according beliefs based upon what we actually see." To an extent I still believe that, but this morning I was re-listening to Map and Territory when it suddenly occurred to me:

Any theory of how the external world is, must not only explain how the world is, but also why we explain it precisely as we do.

That means that any complete description of the external world must contain within it a complete description of what we perceive to be the external world. Hence, by Occam's Razor based on Solomonoff Induction, a "naive" view of the external world, that it is as we perceive it to be, must be the favoured explanation of how it actually is.

Apologies if this seems either obvious or arcane, but it means a significant amount for my confidence in my ability to know the world.

Romantic Things, Like Music and Art

On Friday, I finally (after more than a year of intending to do so) visited the Lowry Gallery in Salford. It was a fairly long walk, but it was definitely worth it. Salford Quays is a remarkably pleasant place in the sunshine. I got there around noon, had half of my lunch while checking on the current position in the World Chess Championship, and then started wandering around. The gallery itself is - well, not really small per se, but underwhelming as compared to the size of the building housing it. The artworks are an odd bunch - a mixture of urban landscapes, sketches of people, and a handful of miscellaneous other paintings and drawings. On the whole I enjoyed them. Oh, and I'm still a complete sucker for seascapes.

After that, I had a brief look round the Imperial War Museum North. Perhaps other people would find it interesting, but the museum only covers the 20th-21st Centuries and I studied quite enough of that in my History GCSE and A-level. Following this, I meandered around the Quays for a while, failed to find a bus that I was confident would take me to the city centre, caught a tram to Piccadilly Gardens instead, and got the bus back from there.

On Saturday evening, I went to a concert played by a string orchestra and a brass band at the university. It was an interesting assortment of pieces, none of which would have seen the light of day before 1900. Two of the pieces were premiers of pieces written by students of composition at the Uni, one of whom is a friend of mine - hence how I heard about the concert. I believe a recording of the piece should be appearing online at some point, most likely on YouTube, but it isn't there yet. It was a very intense piece entitled Starmaker Ceremonial and was inspired by the passage in Job when God speaks to Job:

31 “Can you bind the chains[b] of the Pleiades?
    Can you loosen Orion’s belt?
32 Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons[c]
    or lead out the Bear[d] with its cubs?
33 Do you know the laws of the heavens?
    Can you set up God’s[e] dominion over the earth?
34 “Can you raise your voice to the clouds
    and cover yourself with a flood of water?
35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way?
    Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?

The strange electronic sound, if memory serves, had something to do with a recording of the sound made by a star. I enjoyed it rather a lot, but it's not the kind of music I'd want to have on in the background. It's very much concert music which demands your attention, as opposed to easy listening or jazz which can easily be listened to while concentrating on something else.

UPDATE: a recording of the piece is now available here. Also, I originally forgot to give this post a title, so it now has one.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

6 Points of Basic Economics and Simple Logic

While browsing a far-left website I came across an article entitled "6 Things Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism". The article was so stupid and so easy to refute that I thought I'd do so quickly here.

#1: The Population Can't Stop Growing under Capitalism
Sure it can. If the relative cost of raising children rises - which one would expect to happen if wages are rising - then the number of babies being born will fall. They even disprove their own point: "And, as a shrinking population ages -as it did in Japan – there is a severe shortage of workers to maintain basic services for the aging population. In the case of Japan, they had to import large amount of workers, but this is clearly not a globally viable strategy."  So the fact that, once migrants are ignored, population falls in certain capitalist countries is supposed to be evidence that population can't stop growing under population?

It is of course possible that I'm misinterpreting them and they mean not that it physically can't, merely that it would be very bad - that the population can't be allowed to stop growing. This is at least supported by what they write, quoting from two other people that "Negative or zero population growth can pose serious problems for a capitalist society always in search of new markets for its goods and requiring a continual expansion of the labor force and of the relative surplus population of the unemployed in order to meet the needs of production and profits." It's still nonsense, though. If people are getting richer, then they can spend more upon goods without requiring a larger population. Furthermore, have they never heard of Creative Destruction? In the free market loads of firms go out of business, and this is a good thing because it frees up resources for the firms which are acting efficiently. That's where new human resources come from.

#2: The Economy Can't Stop Growing under Capitalism
You say that like it's a bad thing! Perhaps they mean that growth implies consuming resources and that resources are limited. However, this is also factually wrong. There are two ways of achieving economic growth, which are a) to use more resources and b) to use the same volume of resources more efficiently. While we have spare resources, as is the case at the moment, we will use both methods of growth. If a resource is being depleted, then supply will fall and therefore the price will rise, which firstly stops growth through greater resource consumption and secondly greatly increases the returns to attempting to grow by increasing efficiency and by finding alternative resources.

As an example: consider the whale. In the 19th Century whales were caught and killed for their oil. They were almost driven to extinction. Thus, they became harder to catch and whaling became less profitable. People were on the lookout for other sources of oil, so when it was discovered in the ground there was a very quick move across to this new oil, and the practice of whaling ended pretty much completely.

#3: Capitalism Can't Plan Ahead
As David Friedman recently pointed out, this is pretty much diametrically wrong. If I have an asset then I will wish to protect it for the long term in order to sell it in the future. This rests on my being assured that I will keep possession of the the asset until the time I sell it, and thus on a secure system of property rights.

They talk of "natural limits" to the size of particular markets and assert that these are ignored. The most obvious limit is simply consumer demand, and that just isn't something which can be planned years in advance, especially for an individual market. Not by businesses, not by the state, not by any mortal who has ever lived or will live. This is something where you want a short-termist, responsive supplier of goods. Like, for example, free market firms whose profitability depends upon their responding correctly. If they mean things like global warming, then this is nothing to do with planning, simply a matter of externalities. Go read some beginner economics.

#4: It's Not in Human Nature
So what? Plenty of things aren't in human nature, this doesn't mean that they're bad (e.g. carpentry, computer programming, understanding and applying Bayes' Theorem). Plenty of things are in human nature, this doesn't mean they're good (e.g. desire for political power, nepotism, promiscuity).

#5: Environmental Degradation Disproportionately Hurts the Poor
What does this have to do with capitalism? This is a (dubious) claim about Environmental Degradation (which I suspect would worst affect major landowners, most of whom are pretty rich), which is a completely separate thing from capitalism. Perhaps you believe there is a link between the two, but you could at least say that then.

#6: The Jevons Paradox: Sustainability isn't Sustainable
The claim here is that increasing efficiency of use of resources actually leads to greater consumption of resources, because the lower cost of consumption induces people to consume more.

This is a matter of basic microeconomics.

This is a basic graph plotting the Price of a good (Y-axis) against the Quantity bought and sold (x-axis) with normal demand (that is, the higher the price, the less people buy of it) and supply (the higher the price, the more of it people are willing to produce and sell) marked by the lines D and S1. Price and quantity are in equilibrium at Q1P1, so that an equal amount of the good is being bought and sold. An increase in efficiency is an decrease in cost of production and hence an increase in supply, from S1 to S2. This leads to a new equilibrium at Q2P2. More of the good is being consumed at a lower price.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the entire cost of the good is in non-renewable resources. (This is a very reasonable assumption for our purposes, since you can always assume that the scale of the P-axis is non-linear and that the labour costs etc are below the line). Then the decrease in resources consumed due to higher efficiency is the area coloured purple, and the increase in resources consumed due to the lower cost is the area marked green. They are claiming that the green area will be larger, apparently in all cases. If they do indeed believe that it is always the case, then this claim is clearly wrong, as this graphs with different equations for supply and demand shows.
The efficiency gains massively outweigh the increased consumption. Alternatively, one can imagine a case where the increased consumption would massively outweigh the increased efficiency. Ultimately this all comes down to what economists call the Price Elasticity of Demand, which measures the relationship between a change in the price of a good and the change in the quantity demanded of that good.

PED = (% change in quantity demanded) / (% change in price)

Thus, a higher PED implies a greater tendency for consumers to increase or reduce consumption of a good in response to a change in price. If PED=-1, then total consumer expenditure on a good will remain constant following a price change; if PED>-1, then a price cut will decrease consumer expenditure, and demand is said to be inelastic; conversely if PED<-1, then a price cut will increase consumer expenditure, and demand is said to be elastic. Hence we can see that the cases where greater efficiency leads to greater consumption of non-renewables will be those where demand is elastic. So their claim that greater efficiency will lead to greater consumption relies on the empirical claim that, in most situations, the PED for goods creating pollution is high.

The problem with this is that there are plenty of polluting goods with low PEDs. For example, fuel to heat houses (when prices of essentials rise, people tend to just grin and bear it rather than freeze) and to power cars (the car itself is a very large part of the cost of driving, and road taxes are at least noticeable. Both are (almost) fixed costs, which remain constant regardless of how much driving you're doing; hence, by the time people decide that driving isn't worth the costs for the benefit it brings, the benefits are probably fairly small). Indeed, most transport has fairly large fixed costs - aircraft, ships, etc - so a rising cost of fuel is unlikely to massively affect the use of transport.

What about their empirical example? Well, this was in the middle of the industrial revolution, so it's hardly surprising that coal usage was increasing. Really, an intelligent lower-sixth economics student could have worked out all of this.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

By faith and not by sight?

There's a song called By Faith which we frequently sing at Church. It's a great fun song, with an upbeat tune and a very catchy chorus. You can see the original version here, although I'm personally more keen on the live version at church. The chorus goes:

We will stand as children of the promise,
We will fix our eyes on you our souls' reward,
'Til the race is finished and the work is done
We'll walk be faith and not by sight.

Not by sight? We're going to believe without evidence? That's ridiculous. Evidence is precisely what makes it reasonable to hold a belief. There is no virtue to be gained by holding specific beliefs unless they are true, and if they are true then there should be plenty of evidence for them. I highly recommend C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, and in particular this chapter to any Christian who thinks that "faith" is enough for a belief in our God.

What about the song? I've taken to singing "by faith, not just by sight." which is good enough for myself but I don't think it's good enough in general. People are going to be influenced by what they are singing with the Church's fervent endorsement, and if they're learning anti-epistemological habits from it then in the long run that's not good for either truth or for the church. The less Christians feel the need to justify our beliefs, the less effort we will put into investigating our beliefs. If we conclude that Christianity is probably false, then we should shrug, say "Any belief which can be destroyed by truth, should be." and move on. If we conclude that it is probably true, then hallelujah! Let's go out and convert everyone, surer and better-equipped than ever we were before!

Response to Huemer on Free Will

Michael Huemer has an interesting article claiming to prove the existence of free will. His argument runs roughly as follows:

  1. We should refrain from believing falsehoods. (Premise)
  2. Whatever should be done, can be done. (Premise)
  3. If hard determinism is true, then whatever can be done, is done. (Premise)
  4. I believe that Free Will exists. (Premise)
  5. We can refrain from believing falsehoods. (From 1,2)
  6. If hard determinism is true, then we refrain from believing falsehoods. (From 3,5)
  7. If hard determinism is true, then Free Will exists. (From 4,6)
  8. Free Will exists. (7 implies that hard determinism is false)
Premise 1 shall examine in a moment.
Premise 2 is the "should implies can" principle, the idea that one cannot be expected to do anything which they are incapable of doing.
Premise 3 is, like 2, undeniably true. Determinism is the idea that things could only have gone as they have gone, and can only go in one way.
Premise 4 is something we'll have to take his word for. However, as it so happens I (on balance, it's far from something I'm certain of) also believe in free will, so we'll take it as given.
The remaining steps follow through naturally.

Premise 1, however, I believe, contains an assumption of free will. Why? Because if free will does not exist, then we have severe reason to doubt the existence of moral responsibility for our actions. If so, it is hard to see how we "should" do things. The claim that we "should" refrain from believing falsehoods therefore seems to contain the implicit assumption that we have free will. Huemer's argument therefore relies upon circular logic.

However, this does not make the argument useless. It provides a very strong case against the compatibility of determinism and moral responsibility.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Where I stand on ethics


There are two ways in which we use the words "should" and "ought":

"You want to write a 50,000 word novel in one month? You should use Scrivenor."

"You found a wallet lying in the street? You should find its owner and give it back to them."

In the first case, "should" indicates "it would be instrumentally rational for you to do this". In the second case, "should" indicates "it would be moral for you to do this". I feel that this distinction, which I shall term the instrumental-moral distinction, is something we overlook far more often than we should (in the instrumental sense).


It feels intuitive to me that good morality ought to have generally good consequences (in the moral sense). However, this does not feel to me like what morality actually is. It should be the morality causing the consequences, as opposed to (the fact of the consequences being good causing the original behaviour to be good).

It feels intuitive to me that, if we wish to form accurate moral judgement, then the intention behind an act ought (instrumental sense) to affect our moral assessment of the situation. Consider a situation in which some terrorists have cunningly disguised a grenade as a tennis ball. It is lying next to a park full of kids, where a man notices it and throws it in, causing it to explode with unpleasant consequences. In case (i) the man had no knowledge of what his throwing the ball would do, in case (ii) he was in league with the terrorists. Cases (i) and (ii) are clearly morally different, and there are two ways I see in which we can recognise this.

A consequentialist view is to say that, while the morality of throwing the ball was identical between the cases, in case (i) the man lacks moral responsibility.

A non-consequentialist view is to say that in case (i) it was not immoral for the man to throw what he reasonably believed to be a tennis ball, but his reasonable action had unfortunate consequences; in case (ii), what he did was clearly immoral.


Many actions may be regarded as good because they promote good consequences, even when the link is not obvious. Moreover, they may in themselves have bad consequences, but promote a social atmosphere which has good consequences. For example, suppose a hungry child steals some sweets from Tesco. Tesco won't notice the loss, the child will notice the sweets. And yet this would generally be regarded as wrong, even by those who do not hold to Natural Rights based moralities. What's more, we hold the child morally responsible for the theft, even if they have done a utility calculation and honestly concluded that they will get more from it than the supermarket.

This seems inconsistent with the consequentialist judgement of the grenade thrower in (i). Both the man and the child mistakenly believed they were doing good, but were wrong in ways which they could not have foreseen.

What about the intentions? On first glance one could suggest they both meant well, so this fails to explain the difference. But I think that in the case of the child there is good reason to question their motives, even if they have done a utility calculation. Note that the result is very beneficial to themselves; had the child been stealing bread and giving it to the homeless, I suspect we would be a lot more sympathetic to them.

Hence I lean towards the second, non-consequentialist account of morality given in II: that intentions have a real part to play in determining the morality of an action. Obviously they are not the whole story: someone who imposes a minimum wage in a misguided attempt to help the poor does wrong just as surely as one who does it to drive competing businesses out of the market; however, I shall argue, the moral wrong is different.


Providing I exist, I am happy to assert that I possess a deontological right of self-ownership. I am just as happy to assert the same rights for other people, and consider it somewhere between "unlikely but plausible" and "very likely" that the same rights exist for animals and for unborn babies in the womb. (Hence I oppose abortion, and have recently taken up vegetarianism). In short, I believe in the Lockean system of natural rights. I have misgivings about his homesteading principle, but I've looked at the alternatives and it seems to be the theory most likely to be correct.

The real problem with natural rights is that it really doesn't get you very far. I happen to believe that those who are well-off ought to help those in need (note that this is NOT a justification for a third party to force the well-off to provide this help) but there is nothing in the theory of natural rights to suggest that this is the case.

Essentially, natural rights works fine as a system for determining what is morally permissible and obligatory, but we need a second system in order to work out what it would be morally good to do.


My problem with virtue ethics is that I fail to see how one determines what is virtuous. Talk of promoting "human flourishing" sounds rather like we're back to consequentialism. Appeals to divine authority lead us to ask a) how does God declaring something to be good make it good, and b) does the phrase "God is good" then really mean anything more than "God says he is good" or perhaps "God is not a hypocrite"?

Ultimately, though, virtue ethics does such a good job of explaining my intuitions about morality that I overlook this issue. Obviously I search for a justificatory metaethic or a better theory, but the idea that morality is less about what you do than about who you are resolves one of my fundamental worries about morality and free will, and what's more it suggests a solution to my feeling that good morality should have good consequences, with the causal link running that way. Why? Because two of the key characteristics I consider to be virtuous are benevolence and instrumental rationality. Put these together, and the moral agent

  • [morally] should want good consequences for others, and therefore
  • [instrumentally] should pursue actions which lead to those consequences
Hence we "should" take actions which have good consequences, but it is not a moral "should". Which means that the example I gave at the beginning, that you [morally] should return the lost wallet to its rightful owner, was wrong. More precisely, you [morally] should want to be the kind of person who returns lost wallets to their rightful owners, and so therefore you [instrumentally] should return the wallet to its rightful owner.

Returning to our legislator who imposes a minimum wage, causing unemployment among the worst off people under her influence: if she meant well, then this stems from a failure of instrumental rationality and indicates a lack of that particular virtue. If she imposed it in order to drive competitors out of the market, then this is due to a lack of benevolence.