Questions About A Better Foundation

Ryan suggests a new foundation for moral judgements

Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral. Applying this evaluative criterion to moral decision-making seems to yield consistently good results.

Certain parts of this formulation are left ambiguous, so in the spirit of inquiry, lets kick the tires a bit

  1. Is this fundamentally agent based? Which is to ask, is our hypothetical moral agent working to maximize the total global mental health, the average mental health, or only their own mental health?
  2. If agent based, what advantages do you think Mental Health has over eudamonia in answering giving moral guidance? Is there any circumstance in which self-sacrifice is a virtuous act? Is there any cause or action which you would be justified in taking on behalf of another, even at the expense of your own sanity? To save their life?
  3. If maximizing an external quality, don’t you run into the same Omelas problem?
  4. Are there any moral dilemmas you think Mental Health can answer, which any of the existing big three frameworks cannot?
  5. There are stories of well off, educated classical greeks selling themselves into Roman slavery as a tutor or scribe, so that after a period of time they would be able to buy their freedom, and with it a Roman citizenship.  Was this an immoral act, and if so, why?
  6. Aristotle believed some people, due to circumstance and upbringing, were incapable of virtue. Is a sociopath capable of being a moral agent? If so, is it immoral for a sociopath not to seek to become neurotypical? If not, by what standard should they live?

Elevated Discourse

A: That pundit you like is a fascist.

B: What?! How can you buy into that kind of alarmist rhetoric?

A: Look, here’s a video from a lecture he gave:

Pundit: I would literally round these people up and put them in camps.

B: Ugh, I saw that went viral among his critics. But you can’t take something like that out of context. See this slightly longer clip:

Pundit: I’m going to tell a joke right now. I hate minorities. I would literally round these people up and put them in camps. That was the joke.

A: Who is taking things out of context now? See this just slightly longer than that clip:

Pundit: You can get away with saying anything, even if you literally believe it, if you just preface it by saying it’s a joke. Here’s an example of something I literally believe, but will pretend is a joke. I’m going to tell a joke right now. I hate minorities. I would literally round these people up and put them in camps. That was the joke. See how that is a great way to send coded messages in public for people who share your beliefs?

B: That’s still misleading. See this slightly—

A: Oh, enough already!

B: You’re right. We should just watch the whole lecture and see how it seems then.

A: But it’s two hours long…

B: Ugh, who has the time. And anyway, would the lecture by itself really suffice? We’d have to take into consideration his other works to really get where he’s coming from.

A: But what about the vile background his ideas come from?

B: I think you mean the reaction to the vile ideas, which is what he’s a part of.

A: Let’s just agree not to talk about it until we’ve at least watched the whole lecture.

B: I can’t agree to that, but I can agree to pretend to agree to that.

A: Good enough.

How to Read Books and Become Wise

Two friends, Francis and Paco, sat in leisurely conversation.

Francis: In 2015 I finally met my goal of reading over one hundred books in a single year.

Paco: That is incredible! How could you possibly have the time?

Francis: Well, I’m not entirely satisfied. It was possible in no small part because of a number of short and easy to read books that were in the mix. I think I will have a hard time reading the same number this year. But I don’t want to just hit the same number, I want to exceed it! Yet my reading routine is so thoroughly optimized, I’m not sure how I can squeeze more time in for it. Perhaps I could do audio books in parallel with books I’m reading textually, to fit the former into those moments when I must be concentrating on something and cannot focus on the latter.

Continue reading “How to Read Books and Become Wise”

Can I Possess Knowledge That I Disbelieve?

In a way, my previous post was about the existence of existence. This post might be about the existence of truth. Or, perhaps it is about the illusion of its absence.

Atonal Music

Unlike most music fans, I love serial compositions. They’re not for everyone, but the reason I like them is because they use our implicit knowledge of traditional Western harmony against us. Even if you don’t think you know anything about music, you do. Your mere cultural exposure to music has ingrained you with the understanding of certain rudimentary concepts, certain expectations of harmonic and melodic sequences, even if you aren’t expressly aware of them.

What makes atonal music like Schoenberg’s so much fun for me is that, because they lack the same kind of musical structure traditional music has, my mind races in to fill the void. I’ll hear two notes played at random, and my mind subconsciously creates a harmonic link between them. Then a third “random” note appears, and my mind stretches to create a harmonic link that reconciles all three notes. On and on it goes until my mind can no longer link all the notes together, and I have to start again.

This very process is what makes other people hate serial compositions. Rather than compelling, they find the process stressful. Well, different strokes for different folks – but what’s interesting here is that even if you hate serial music, you can’t stop your brain from attempting to form patterns in the music. Love it or hate it, the music switches on a particular attribute of human thinking: pattern recognition.

If I play all the notes corresponding to, “Twinkle, twinkle, little…” and suddenly stop, then your brain will automatically think, “…star.” To people who spend a lot of time listening to music, like me, all you’d have to do is play, “Twinkle, twink…” – just three notes – and our musical brains would automatically think, “..kle little star.”

If you really want to confuse someone, then try whistling the notes that correspond to: “Twinkle, twinkle little star / Fa la la la la, La la la la!” But if you really want to make them made, make sure the first part is in a different key signature than the second part.

Many great composers have utilized similar tricks to play the listener’s ear against itself, but the serial composers took this fact of human psychology to a whole new level, in the pursuit of new “outside sounds.” The genius of atonal music is that it makes us see patterns even where none exist, i.e. even when the notes arranged, essentially, nonsensically.

Atonal Logic

A few years back, in a post entitled “The Paradox Paradox,” I wrote:

The interesting thing about paradoxes is that they are both a problem of definition and of perception. The definition can never be true, and their existence is in fact only a matter of perception.

A paradox is defined to be a statement that is “seemingly” or “apparently” self-contradictory. But their main problem is that they don’t really exist. No statement can be both true and false at exactly the same time in exactly the same way.

Paradoxes capitalize on the fact that language is more flexible than logic. The “trick” is that self-contradictory sentences can be constructed whose logical or physical properties are impossible, in the same sense that imaginary creatures can be described in books even though their physical existence is otherwise impossible. I can construct the sentence “This statement is false,” but I cannot make it mean anything. While such statements dazzled the ancient Greeks for a time, in the end they are simply nonsense.

Like atonal music, paradoxes adhere to a consistent internal logic, namely, valid linguistic syntax. Also like atonal music, the value of paradoxes is that they are simply entertaining. And, like atonal music, paradoxes contain no outward meaning beyond their internal structure; the composition is the statement, but there is no meaning to be extracted beyond its structure.

Paradoxes aren’t the only statements that work this way. I can also construct a sentence like, “My fertile eyeglasses eat nimble compassion,” which has all its parts of speech in the correct locations, but which conveys no real information. Eyeglasses aren’t fertile and they cannot eat anything; compassion isn’t nimble and it cannot be eaten.

Here, though, our sense of pattern-recognition might kick in and wonder whether there might be a sense in which that statement might be true. Can eyeglasses be fertile in a manner of speaking? Can compassion be allegorically nimble?

It sounds interesting for a moment, but we soon realize that the sentence really is nonsense, and then we move on.

Atonal Knowledge

I thought about my old post on the nonsense of paradoxes when Adam posed his questions the other day.

So here are the questions I promised: if certain ideas are implicit in our practices but we do not believe in them conceptually, is that knowledge? Does our incorrect explicit belief count as ignorance or falsehood or deficiency of knowledge, or error, in some way?

Given that we know of philosophical skeptics throughout history who have professed to disbelieve in just about everything, but clearly did not live as though that were the case, did they really know they were wrong in some meaningful sense?

If my statement is true, then in what sense does Germany border China?

I think it’s possible to listen to that Schoenberg piece I embedded above and to genuinely believe that it has a tonal center, even though it was deliberately written not to have one. I also think it’s possible to genuinely believe that compassion can be nimble. The problem with beliefs is that they can be – and quite often are – simply wrong.

This fact is unpleasant. We don’t like to judge others, and in particular we don’t feel good about judging others’ beliefs. But atonal music is genuinely atonal, and skepticism of consciousness is genuinely impossible. We don’t have to be jerks about it, but when someone claims to reject the existence of consciousness, we can safely discard their statement as a wrong thing, a logical and physical impossibility, that they only think they believe.

This shouldn’t stop us from analyzing the matter. For one thing, just because a particular truth exists doesn’t mean we already possess that knowledge. For another thing, we might only realize our mistaken beliefs after close consideration of the matter.

And, thirdly, thinking about such things is entertaining, just like paradoxes and atonal music.

A Little Manifest Truth Goes A Long Way

In his recent post, Adam Gurri asserts that there is no ultimate difference between persuasion and rational evaluation. Although Gurri defends his position well, reading that post elicited an almost visceral reaction against what he was saying. In what sense could, for example, the collection of field data verifying that the radioactive half-life of strontium-90 is 28.8 years be essentially no different than powerful rhetoric arguing that it is so?

The point of Gurri’s post, of course, is to point out that persuasion, done right, is not unethical. He uses his observation that rational analysis “is first and foremost attempting to discover what conclusion we find persuasive” in order to buttress that case.

I agree with Gurri in the main. I agree that persuasion is not unethical, and that a substantial amount of rational analysis is an attempt to find the most persuasive theory. Still, I think a substantial portion of human knowledge is manifest. This offers us a potential remedy for the politicization of knowledge in general.

Three Kinds Of Knowledge

Before I really get going, I’d like to make a potentially controversial claim: With regard to the present topic at least, there are essentially three kinds of knowledge, which I will (loosely) call “innate knowledge,” “direct observation,” and “retention.” (Bear with me.)

Innate Knowledge

What I call “innate knowledge” is the set of existential facts that are so self-evident that denying them constitutes literal nonsense.

For example, we are all aware of the fact that consciousness exists because consciousness is defined to be every aspect of our sense of awareness. We cannot even deny the existence of consciousness without experiencing it. This knowledge was not acquired through any sort of data collection, analysis, or persuasion. We possessed it as soon as we possessed consciousness itself. Knowledge of our own consciousness is, therefore, innate. At this risk of sounding like Hoppe, to deny this kind of knowledge is to demonstrate it; therefore, it can’t sensibly be denied.

Innate knowledge might also include: knowledge of the existence of knowledge; the conception of concepts themselves; crude logical building blocks such as “difference” and “duality;” logical operands; and so on.

Direct Observation

What I call direct observation is any fact that a person directly observes. If a child burns her finger on a match, that experience is a direct observation. She might extrapolate from her experience that any lit match could potentially burn her finger, but this would not be a direct observation. The knowledge of the initial experience, however, would be.

Our memories and experiences make up our complete set of direct observations. To question this knowledge is to question one’s own sanity – certainly appropriate in some circumstances, but generally dubious. Direct observations constitute knowledge as sure as the existence of consciousness, provided that the observer is genuinely sane. Even so, when questioning our sanity, we question it, not the veracity of our observations. Only after determining the state of our sanity can we go back to questioning our direct observations.

While the observer may never be able to definitively persuade others that the observed was actually observed, the surety of that knowledge is no less unquestionable to the observer than the existence of her own consciousness.


Finally, there is what I’ll call “retention,” or all facts that are neither innate nor directly observed, but that would be virtually insane to question. For example, I have reason to believe that I possess a human heart. I have not directly observed my heart (although I can hear and feel evidence of my heart beat). I cannot prove the existence of my heart to other people. And yet, based on every verifiable fact of human anatomy and personal experience, it would be more or less insane to claim that I do not possess a heart.

I call this knowledge rather than theory because skepticism of things such as the existence of one’s own unobserved heart, or the fact that one’s spouse is a tangible person and not a complex delusion, or etc., constitutes a direct contradiction of every other piece of innate knowledge and direct observation a person has. It is not merelyas Paul Crider writes – “the willingness to put skepticism aside for the sake of rational thought” (although it is that, too). It is also the functional ability to keep all other knowledge in one’s head, and use it. One cannot constantly and perpetually observe that matches burn one’s finger. The ability to recall that a match burned one’s finger without having to verify the same observation all the time is the ability to retain knowledge. This, in a nutshell, is what I’m calling “retention.”

Conviction and Persuasion

Note that none of the knowledge I have discussed above requires that we be persuaded of its existence. We need only our sanity.

The existence of this knowledge is important because it establishes that there is at least some knowledge that is not subject to persuasion. That is, contra Gurri, some knowledge is apolitical. In fact, we can draw a straight line from sentience, to observation, to extrapolation. We only arrive at a politics of knowledge when confronted with the fact that no one person can directly observe or logically prove every piece of knowledge that he needs in life. He must be willing to accept that his fellows have made useful observations of their own.

Regarding knowledge shared with others, we face a new dynamic: the choice of what claims to accept rather than directly observe, the choice of whose claims to accept compared to others, the choice of which claims to deem credible and why, etc. Here we must confront the biases that color our thinking; here we must confront our human tendency toward motivated reasoning. In this realm, we find that Gurri is absolutely correct.

Then why would I be so pedantic as to differentiate between political and apolitical knowledge when, as must be clear enough by now, Gurri’s posts have been specifically about the trust we place on the knowledge we gain from others?

One reason is that doing so provides us with a potential remedy for the problems he has identified. Knowing that an honest truth-seeker can, in highly politicized moments, step back, out of the realm of political knowledge, and into the more reliable world of direct observation provides us with an important check on the undue influence of politics and motivated reasoning.

Taking too much for granted, placing too much trust in the work of those who came before us places us in an unacceptably vulnerable position. This is particularly true now that politicized knowledge is so ubiquitous in this day and age. There is a reason, after all, that math teachers force us to replicate proofs of mathematical phenomena. There is a reason why statisticians must first learn the foundations of their craft before applying themselves to real-world data science problems. And, yes, there is a reason students of economics are forced to begin with principles courses and construct logical proofs of economic phenomena. We need to be able to de-politicize knowledge and verify things for ourselves. We need to be able to fact-check.

Because of this, I stop short of calling all knowledge political. However impractical it is to personally verify every fact one comes across, it is ultimately most practical, most reliable, most sensible, and most apolitical to remember that some knowledge is, in fact, manifest. At least as manifest as our consciousness, anyway.

My Framework

Cameron Harwick has a great write up of his macroscopic framework for thinking about the world. Not only is it insightful and well written, I agree with 90% of it.

Still, that 10% contains some major caveats. I’ll elaborate on our points of disagreement below. But please read his post first.

10. Social norms are generally not rationally justifiable

I disagree.

I think of norms as valid types of reasons that we give to or ask from interlocutors to justify behavior. That makes them inherently rational. When this point is missed, the tendency is to demand for there to be a “why” behind the norm, when the role of norms is to be the “why” behind the action.

Maybe this is what Cameron means when he writes that norms “must be accepted either tout court or on the basis of a mythology.” But you can see why, if norms are rational at their core, this phrasing is misleading.

I have written on this point in a post called Sacred and Profane Reasons. In short, I think the notion that desires, preferences, values, and norms are non-rational or even irrational is not only mistaken, but has perverse consequences. Namely, it makes us instrumentalize imperatives, leading to pareto-inferior social orders.

Nonetheless, I was disposed to this view for most of my thinking life, but after reading the exception book Following the Rules by Joseph Heath I now see that view as untenable. I’ve blogged many excerpts from that book, but a key one on this topic is available here.

I believe coming around to the rationality of norms has made my framework more coherent. To illustrate, consider Cameron’s three opening points:

  1. The universe is intelligible.
  2. The language faculty is the decisive difference between human and animal consciousness.
  3. The fact-value distinction is irreducible.

I fully agree with all of this. But moreover, I think these points, taken together, imply the rationality of norms—especially once norms are conceptualized as [cognitive] moves in a language game. As Cameron writes below point 3:

Perception is filtered and structured by pre-conscious judgements about the significance of various aspects. This judgement (“theory”) is not essentially different from value judgements which operate on the conscious level.

Thus if Cameron really views value judgments as non-rational, then he’s committed to all judgments being non-rational, which contradicts the intelligibility of the universe.

I have also written that calling an imperative or norm a “myth” (as Cameron does for liberal norms and natural rights) amounts to a category error. Assertions and imperatives stake very different types of validity claims. For example, I can assert the non-existence of God while still holding on to the imperative of ritual. Imperatives don’t carry an intrinsic epistemic burden.

The confusion arises because ethical vocabularies using words like “ought to” and “rights” transform imperatives into assertions. But this doesn’t change the fact that the concept of “rights” is at core about expressing certain imperatives. It simply lets us express imperatives in a more flexible, natural way,

In Theory and Practice Reconciled I went so far as to define progress as any process whereby our theoretical assertions come into alignment with our practical imperatives. In other words, progress equals cooperation without the assistance of pious fictions.

This brings us to point 4:

Variation and selection are necessary and sufficient to explain complex order.

Necessary, yes, but not sufficient. This one goes to the importance of language, and its role in normative / cultural reproduction. As communicative animals our societies are subject to much more directionality than can be explained by purely Darwinian types of selection. I came to this view from reading Joseph Heath, as well: The second and final chapters in Following the Rules; and his synopsis / defense of Habermas’ theory of discourse ethics.

Combining Cameron’s points 1 through 3, and amending points 10 and 4, we have basically arrived at the precepts of Hegel’s German Idealism. Or, as Robert Brandom prefers to call it, American Pragmatism.

Which brings me full circle to Cameron’s first point: The universe is intelligible. And yes, “on its face, this is a statement about the mind, not about the universe.”

When No Argument Can Save You

This week I had the pleasure of listening to my friend Noah appear on EconTalk to discuss the status of economics as science with my former professor in that discipline, Russ Roberts.

I would characterize neither of them as epistemologists or philosophers of science, but perennial practitioners. The chief difference between them, other than age or Noah’s ability to draw on a knowledge of physics as well as economics, is one of faith.

Noah himself brought this up: all science requires a leap of faith somewhere, as he put it. The example he used was Galileo’s experiment demonstrating that two balls of different mass will fall at the same rate. There’s only so far you can go to prove that this represents a universal law, or even a very general one. What if it only applies in our part of the universe? What if it only applies when there is a human observer?

Noah isn’t saying this makes us helpless or that we have to willfully ignore such thought experiments—nor should we.

The arc that Russ Roberts has gone through on this subject since I took his class during the crash in 2008 to the present can be characterized as a loss of faith—rather than the embrace of a given intellectual framework.

Russ has become unwilling to make that leap of faith when it comes to economic methods and arguments. But more importantly, he has lost faith in the sense of trust—trust in his fellow economists. Most importantly of all, he has lost faith in his own judgment.

The questions that he seems to come to again and again—why economists can’t agree on the effect of the 2009 stimulus, whether any study has ever completely won over people whose perspective was at odds with its conclusions—are attempts to establish, or prove once and for all the absence of, the credibility of economics as a field.

I’m not sure there’s an answer that could satisfy him. There’s a certain self-fulfillingness to losing trust in this way, much as widespread generosity in granting trust seems to perpetuate itself. How such trust can get established in the first place is a mystery, one that I’m certainly not going to get to the bottom of in a blog post.