Friday, July 30, 2010

What is to be done?

With even my limited, amateur understanding of economics, it's fairly straightforward to understand what we as a society should do economically to respond effectively to the present economic crisis. These measures are not only a required response to the crisis, but the specific nature of the crisis makes these measures especially effective.

Because of lowered inflation and the threat of actual deflation, the government can borrow at long-term interest rates about as low as physically possible. The government should thus borrow boatloads of money and invest in those endeavors that make life better for everyone, but do not provide one private company or another with enough individual advantage for the private sector to pursue. We can:
  • Improve our primary and secondary educational system
  • Send more people to college
  • Research and develop alternative energy systems
  • Build some nuclear power plants (and research long-term nuclear waste disposal)
  • Improve our transportation infrastructure:
    • Improve automobile technology
    • Improve the roads
    • Improve mass transit
  • Research and develop ways of slowing and reversing anthropogenic global warming
And these are just ideas off the top of my head. It's the purpose of government in a liberal capitalist republic to invest in things that will improve the economy as a whole. Just a cursory examination of history shows the overall economic benefits will pay the costs ten times over, even accounting for the inherent inefficiencies of government. Given that inflation will (if our economy does not spiral into depression) rise to nearly the present interest rate on long-term treasuries, borrowing this money now is almost free and serves only to allocate resources presently wasted to socially useful activities.

The above measures will, however, relieve only a portion of the present structural unemployment, and it will directly and immediately relieve structural employment of only those workers and managers with immediately relevant skills in the middle of the lifetime employment cycle. There are three additional components of structural unemployment that we must look at:
  1. Early-career people (teens and 20s) without skills
  2. Middle-career (30s-40s) people with absent or obsolete skills
  3. Late-career (50s-60s) with absent or obsolete skills
We can improve the first two components of structural unemployment with training/retraining and education. Furthermore, most of the direct deficit-based stimulus measures above will directly relieve some of the market saturation for certain skills, especially managerial and executive skills. It's important to note that without creating a demand for skill, it is a waste of resource to create those skills: if there's no demand for computer programmers, it's just as much a waste of time and effort to teach people how to program computers as it is to teach them postmodernist literary criticism.

But stimulus and education will only do so much. Our pace of technological and productivity improvement is so great that entropic externalities — especially pollution and global warming — are starting to become serious problems that threaten the survival of billions. Even with the best controls, the production of commodities always entails some entropy, and we cannot continue to increase production exponentially (even with a small exponent) without eventually drowning in our own shit.

We must remove some people from the productive labor force. We have to do so carefully, of course: we need to still produce food and shelter, televisions and computers, cars and buses, and provide medical care, all of which requires productive labor. The trick is to remove some people from the labor force without creating an incentive for everyone to leave the labor force.

The simplest way is to ship a fraction of the people to the gas chambers or Soylent Green factories. We might use some objective criteria (if you've been unemployed for six months or more, you're on the cart), but we could use arbitrary criteria (left-handed, redheads, etc.) to similar effect. Another slightly more complicated way is to substantially expand the prison population: we currently incarcerate only about 1% of the population, a shamefully small proportion. Imagine the benefits if five or six per cent were incarcerated! Not only do we pull unproductive members out of the labor force, but the construction of prisons, the provision of guards and administrators and other activities would themselves provide considerable economic benefits.

There are of course considerations of sentimentality and morality. If you advocate or tolerate letting people starve and die unnecessarily, your moral position is indistinguishable from sending them to gas chambers. If you advocate or tolerate allowing people to suffer unnecessarily, your moral position is indistinguishable from incarcerating them. Not only can I myself most definitely not live with such positions, I have as much contempt and disgust for those who can as I do for anyone who advocates explicit extermination, genocide and oppression.

(I say "unnecessarily" because there are certain elements of the human condition we are at least presently powerless to ameliorate: despite the most advanced medical technology, for example, everyone must eventually die. If there is not enough actual food to feed everyone, some will starve despite our most elevated and sincere intentions. But beyond our innate mortality and frailty, physical reality no longer wields much of an economic stick. We have plenty of food, plenty of shelter, and plenty of labor to produce what we need and want; our problems today are not of scarcity but abundance.

There are as well those who consciously choose to suffer in certain ways, either as a means to some more compelling happiness or because they actually enjoy experiences most consider to constitute suffering. Such people are sometimes highly weird, but we don't need to construct a political or moral philosophy more complicated than "whatever floats your boat" to deal with them.)

Even though we must as moral beings avoid the stick, we can still make the carrot work.

We can, for example, make it optional to retire at 55. If you can keep working until you're 65, you'll be better off in the short and medium term, but if you can't, well, you won't starve, you won't go homeless, you won't lack reasonable medical care. And you won't have to eat cat food in a roach-infested firetrap either.

If you're early- or mid-career, and you lack the talent or inclination for directly productive activity, we could send you to art school or let you study philosophy. You'll have to put in as much or more effort in these activities as you would if you actually worked for a living, and success even by the internal criteria would not be guaranteed. Some people would find such a life appealing, and if we have to pull some people out of the productive labor pool, it's better to have a bunch of artists, craftspeople, philosophers, or even those as socially useless as theologians and postmodernist literary critics than a bunch of vegetables zonked out on drugs, masturbating to internet pornography and watching vacuous sitcoms. (And what the heck, it's better to have a few zonked-out vegetables than suffering wretches or pissed-off, violent teenagers.)

And, failing "useless" education, there are a lot of low-intensity, low-status, low-skill jobs that need doing. Even if you're a zonked out vegetable, you can pick up a broom and at least pretend to sweep the streets for a few hours a week. (As anyone who has spent any time working at a large corporation knows, we can accomplish quite a lot just by collecting a lot of people and making them pretend to work.)

But here's the crux of the biscuit.

None of these measures require any profound or deep knowledge of economics. I'm not that smart: if I can figure it out, anybody can. They do not require deep changes to human nature: we need not transform ourselves on the instant to become angels and saints.

More importantly, these measures do not require — or they do not seem to require — any fundamental changes to our economic or political systems. We could implement all of these measures and still have a wealthy and privileged capitalist class, an educated and competent professional-managerial middle class, all enjoying more or less of the surplus labor of the working class. We'd still have buyers and sellers in a free market pursuing their individual advantage; we'd still have profit, rent, interest, insurance, and taxation. We'd still have political parties and a professional governing class maneuvering for advantage, campaigns, biannual elections; city councils, corrupt state legislatures, pompous, posturing senators, and a beleaguered president. We could even keep a couple good wars going, if that sort of thing is to your taste.

We must then ask ourselves: why we are not doing what we know we can do and how to do? Why are our governing institutions — I'm not talking about a few isolated, marginalized fanatics but the actual government, the press, academia, and advertising and public relations — not only not doing what manifestly must be done but doing everything in their power short of open violence (and sometimes even that) including outright bald-faced lying about matters of fact trivial to verify to prevent it?

Open your eyes, open your mind, stop complaining, and ask not what we ought to do about the present crisis but why we are not doing what we know we ought to do. When I opened my eyes, stopped complaining about religion and looked for God, I became an atheist. When I opened my eyes, stopped complaining and looked for answers to our economic and political problems — when I stopped whining, "Why can't we have a better press corps?" and started looking for an answer to the question — I became a communist.

Your mileage may vary.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The microeconomics of heath care

Maxine Udall talks about the morality and microeconomics of heath care. Yes, some physicians accustomed to their privileges might leave the profession before health care reform becomes a reality. It's a free country: for every one who leaves there are a hundred who would happily take his place, either as physicians (once we remove the artificial limitations and rent-seeking from medical schools*) or as substitutes such as nurses or physicians assistants who can effectively treat many conditions.

*Not all strictures imposed by medical schools are artificial and pragmatically unjustified. But some clearly are, and serve only to artificially restrict the supply of physicians.

Everyone talks about the iron laws of economics until it's their professional privilege that's on the chopping block. I know whereof I speak: my own middle-class privilege was completely destroyed by economics. When I was young, it happened that I had real talent at computer programming. Then, the demand for people who could just turn the damn things on and make them do something far exceeded the supply, and those of us with demonstrated competence could make quite a bit of money. What we didn't do was artificially restrict the supply; by the time we clued ourselves in to how the capitalist system actually operates and started creating expensive and arbitrarily limited credentialing mechanisms, it was far too late: the invisible hand corrected the imbalance between supply and demand and for all but the most prestigious few, programming became a working class profession with working class wages. (And working class wages today ain't squat.)

Science and metaphysics

It is uncontroversial — or at least correct — to note that scientific naturalism requires some metaphysical structure. It not the case, however, that the specific idea of causality is part of that metaphysical structure. And not only is induction not part of the metaphysical structure of science, it is not even a valid inference rule in scientific naturalism.

Popper* gives us a useful definition of "metaphysical" in the Logic of Scientific Discovery. A metaphysical statement is a meaningful statement that is not in principle falsifiable by experience. Not all unfalsifiable statements are metaphysical — some are simply meaningless — but all metaphysical statements are, by definition, unfalsifiable. Note that this definition is itself metaphysical: the definition is (or at least appears to be) meaningful, but there is in principle no empirical observation we could make that could falsify it.

*I invoke Popper here not to establish authority but to give credit.

Another example of a metaphysical system is the set of rules that define the game of chess. There is no empirical observation that could, for example, falsify the rule that bishops must move diagonally in a straight line. If we observe a player move his bishop horizontally, we can conclude only that either the player has made an error or that she is not playing chess. (Note that the statement that "human beings consider chess to constitute thus-and-such rules" is a scientific statement: we can observe how human beings define chess, and in principle falsify the statement.)

Popper departs here from the Logical Positivists, the latter assert that all statements neither verifiable nor falsifiable by experience are not meaningful in any sense. Popper in contrast admits that unfalsifiable statements can be meaningful.

Popper departs as well from a common theme in philosophy, the theme of metaphysics as a synonym for ontology. In his demarcation criterion, Popper establishes a metaphysical "rule" of scientific naturalism: unfalsifiable statements are ontologically meaningless. If a statement is empirically unfalsifiable, is is for that reason categorically not a statement about the world. If it can be charitably interpreted only as looking like a statement about the world, then it is nonsense — "not even wrong" — having at best only the appearance of meaning. This principle does not deny all meaning of unfalsifiable statements, only a specific kind of meaning.

In a similar sense, the statement, "The bisectors of two angles of a triangle intersect inside the triangle," is a meaningless statement of Euclidean geometry. It's not true, it's not false. Specifically, the word "inside" is a term without referent anywhere in Euclid's axioms. We have to create a different context — e.g. analytic geometry — to make the statement meaningful and true.

Thus scientific naturalism — being itself metaphysical — is not a statement about the world. It is, in essence, a language game we play. One is free to play any language game one chooses, including religious language games and the language game of calling religious people jackasses whose views on reality and morality are at best ridiculous and at worst malevolent.

Popper's construction gives us a metaphysical framework to rigorously discuss meaningful ontological statements — i.e. statements about the world — that are not directly empirically observable. We cannot, as Hume noted, observe causality: all we can observe is that one event usually or always follows another in time. But we can falsify a causal hypothesis: We can hypothesize that event X causes event Y, i.e. that event Y will always follow event X. If we were ever to empirically observe that event Y did not follow event X, our hypothesis would be proven false; we must change something: the hypothesis itself or something in its theoretical framework.

Scientific naturalism does not deny the meaning or truth of statements that in a sense transcend empirical observation, i.e. statements whose truth or falsity we cannot directly determine by observation. Scientific naturalism not only admits statements that "transcend" empirical observation, but gives us a rigorous way of determining which transcendent statements are meaningful and a rigorous way of at least rejecting meaningful empirically transcendent statements as definitely false.

Of course, scientific naturalism does deny the meaning of statements that transcend empirical observation in a different sense, i.e. statements interpreted as about the world that cannot in principle be falsified by empirical observation.

Intelligent Design is an excellent example. At first, to their credit, cdesign proponentsists ID advocates proposed empirically falsifiable statements: there were structures — the bacterial flagellum, for example, or blood clotting mechanisms* — that could not have evolved (except perhaps through wildly improbable coincidence) through the unintelligent, purposeless and intentionless mechanisms of uncorrelated heritable variation and natural selection. However, as the candidate structures have been shown to have a plausible evolutionary history, ID advocates have retreated to unfalsifiability: perhaps there is an intelligent designer whose work cannot be empirically distinguished in any way from the work of unintelligent mechanisms. To the scientific naturalist, such a statement is not just outside the boundaries of science, it is outside the boundaries of meaning. It cannot be a statement about the world, it is not even wrong, it is no more meaningful than the assertion that all gnorts are kerfibble.

*The triviality of the proposed structures is itself suspicious.

Scientific naturalism excludes some statements as meaningless, statements that appear to have meaning, that are grammatically correct, that do indeed activate our minds in interesting and complicated ways. Perhaps it's the case that scientific naturalism is simply limited, in the same sense that Euclidean geometry is limited and cannot discuss concepts such as "inside" or "outside". There's no way to prove that scientific naturalism is not limited, that statements rejected by scientific naturalism cannot have meaning and truth in some other system.

The best we can say — and it's pretty good — is that scientific naturalism has in a couple of centuries given us a profound understanding of the physical universe from the cosmological to the subatomic, a technological civilization that can feed, clothe and house more than six billion people and has at least the potential for real humanistic justice and universal prosperity, and is beginning to crack the mysteries of consciousness and human behavior. In contrast, after more than two millennia religion has given us nothing but mystical mumbo-jumbo, ridiculous self-serving and self-aggrandizing fairy tales, repression, oppression and the near-constant support of even the most monstrous and abhorrent ruling classes that would maintain the privilege and status of the priesthood.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Economics games

I've played and enjoyed two games where economics play an important role: Global Conquest and Stars!

Global Conquest has a "money" economic model. An infantry unit costs 25 "bucks" to raise; a typical city creates 8 bucks per turn. You can save bucks: If a city produces nothing for four turns, you can create an infantry unit on the fifth turn with 7 bucks left over. In Global Conquest, therefore, money represents real stored-up productivity.

Stars! on the other hand has a "resource" economic model. You have people on your planets, and each person produces "resource" each turn. You can also build factories; although each factory nominally produces additional resources of its own, each factory must be staffed: only as many factories as you have people will produce resources. Therefore, we can say that factories increase the absolute productivity of the people. Most importantly, you cannot store resources in Stars!. If you don't use the resources available in a turn to make something, the resources are wasted. You can't move resources either (you can move people): you can't combine the resources of two planets to produce a battleship in half the time.

One feature makes Stars! economically interesting is that you also need raw materials to make things, and the cost to mine a unit of raw materials is different on different planets. Therefore, a considerable amount of your time is spent moving raw materials from planets where materials are cheap and/or abundant to those where they are expensive and/or scarce. (One small weakness of the game is that you cannot arbitrarily reallocate resources from manufacturing to mining even at lowered efficiency: the supply curve for raw materials has a hard upper bound.)

It seems that while people in some sense know that money is an abstraction, emotionally and viscerally they think of money in the Global Conquest sense: as actual concrete productivity that has been stored up and can be used as needed. We can see this kind of thinking when we talk about the national economy as a whole: in some sense people say we don't have enough money to pay for this, that or the other (Social Security, socialized medicine, the war in Iraq, etc.). Indeed we can confidently infer that any professional economist who advocates reducing government spending during the present depression recession while actual resources stand idle (i.e. millions of people are unemployed) is either conflating money with resources or hoping his audience will do so.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Scientific naturalism

Tim Kowal responds to my criticism of his post chiding atheists' "intellectual procrastination":
We are certain some element or elements of a theory — a set of statements about the world — are false if the theory entails false statements about observation.
There cannot be any "true" statement about reality once one rejects the concept that truth can transcends the empirical world. You are correct that there are as many models of truth and reality as there are religions--more, even. This is a debate for the respective adherents to those models. But to reject any truth that is not empirically observable is to cut oneself off at the knees. At the very least, atheists must posit that objects in the world have causal relationships with one another, that the future will resemble the past, and so on. Religion is simply an organized, systematic way to organize these transcendental truths.

Atheists certainly don't reject causation and induction, but they don't give an account for how they can know it. They simply refuse to acknowledge the transcendental truths they rely upon. This is disingenuous.
I'm never encouraged when readers cannot read and understand simple declarative sentences in the English language. But after blogging for more than 30 months and discussing religion and philosophy on the internet for a decade, I'm rarely surprised. Much as I dislike repeating myself, I will do so. Even if it were true (which it's not) that "Atheists... don't give an account of how they can know" about causation an induction, it is necessary to acknowledge that we do not have such an account before we can begin to create one. Organizing wildly contradictory religious "models" — models that give no account of knowledge more sophisticated than an invisible sky-fairy magically putting ideas into our heads — in some systematic way and leaving the resolution of those contradictions to some vague debate on unspecified grounds just avoids beginning that search for truth. Even if atheism were to bring nothing at all to the philosophical table, it would be rational and sensible to reject religious thought and admit profound ignorance. If after millennia they are unable to give us anything at all better than magical sky-fairies and consensus by the sword, then we are rationally entitled to explicitly acknowledge we are starting from nothing at all.

But of course there is something. There were atheists before scientific naturalism, but it is no surprise that atheism has flourished under scientific naturalism, which does not just recognize the failures and vacuity of what passes for "epistemology" in religion but gives us a powerful way of explaining features of the world both gross and subtle in a more sophisticated way than invoking magic.

Even an inattentive reader should note the glaring contradiction in Kowal's comment: in almost the same breath he complains that atheists "don't give an account" of knowledge while also undermining the account we do give, i.e. empiricism. Just this discrepancy alone forces the reader to choose which of two uncomfortable interpretations is the most charitable: either Kowal is insane, he is simply too stupid to detect this rather obvious contradiction, or he is intentionally trying to deceive his readers. If he does not like the epistemic account that scientific naturalism does in fact give, let him say so: to critique an account he does not acknowledge the existence of too greatly shocks the mind of those unpracticed in religious doublethink and cognitive dissonance.

Worse yet, Kowal must reach decades back to the beginning of the 20th century (or perhaps to the middle of the 18th) to find a natural epistemology he can criticize with cognitive abilities deficient in competence or honesty.

It is simply false that modern scientific naturalism — the sort of naturalism practiced for centuries by actual scientists and explicitly described by at least some philosophers of science for decades — "reject[s] any truth that is not empirically observable." Even the most misguided of the logical positivists and naive empiricists would not have gone so far: even they admitted truths derived from an empirical foundation, even if those derived truths were themselves not empirically observable.

But of course problems with the naive empiricism of the 20th century were anticipated in the 18th by David Hume (objections that Kowal mentions without crediting Hume, an atheist). We cannot directly observe either causality or consistency over time, and much to the dismay of the naive empiricists, we cannot rigorously deduce these features of the world from the directly observable evidence. (There are a lot of other problems with logical positivism and naive empiricism, not the least of which is that the systems themselves are neither observable nor deducible from observation.)

Philosophers are little better than theologians, and it is unsurprising that anyone who reads only philosophy might think that this naive view constitutes the core of scientific thought. There are intelligent philosophers who have propounded more sophisticated concepts, but their work is buried in a mound of bullshit exceeded in scope and elaboration only by theology. The atheist criticism that finding the diamonds of theological sensibility is simply too difficult to be worth the trouble applies equally to philosophy*. Kowal's misunderstanding of scientific naturalism is excusable and correctable in a way that his "bad food and not enough of it" contradiction about the very existence of a natural epistemology is not.

*I have for various reasons decided to go to college in my old age. Despite my interest, I've rejected philosophy as a subject of academic study: the bullshit to sense ratio is too high for me to have any hope of making a meaningful contribution to anything but the edifice of bullshit itself. There is too little bullshit in science for a person to make a substantial contribution on the basis of only clarity and honesty: science demands competence, competence I lack both the time and alas! natural talent to develop. Economics and political science seem just about right: enough bullshit that an honest man of mediocre competence can make a contribution; enough sense (I hope) that the contribution can be meaningful.

Modern scientific naturalism shares two features of theology. First, both systems make guesses about how the world might be. We do not directly know the world is causal, and we cannot (as we have discovered) deduce the world is causal from what we do directly know. In order to talk about causality, we have to introduce the concept without knowledge or even any real confidence as whether it's actually true. Second, despite their protestations of universal truth, scientific naturalism and theology are dynamic: one way or another, when these systems fail to correspond to the world of experience, both actually change.

But — and this is a very substantial but indeed — from these similarities scientific naturalism departs radically from religious faith. In religious faith, our core guesses about God (and thus God's world) are upheld "come what may". Our articles of faith are utterly immune from change (until an authority changes them). Anything and everything else might change — we might even deny experience itself (who are you going to believe? the Pope God, or your lying eyes?) — but our articles of faith are immune from public criticism.

Under scientific naturalism, however, none of our guesses are immune from criticism. Everything is, at least formally, subject to change. Similarly, no authority can declare any guess as immune from change; no one requires the permission of any authority to change any part of any theory.

More importantly, a theory that predicts more (in a specific sense) is, under scientific naturalism, considered worse than a theory that predicts less. A theory that predicts that we will see an object move is worse than a theory that predicts that we will see an object move in a particular direction at a particular velocity. The first theory predicts more: our theory is consistent with observation if we see the object move up or down, left or right, fast or slow; the second theory predicts less: movement in one direction only and at one velocity only.

In contrast, it is no fault under theology if our core faith predicts more or less. God's love is equally compatible with slavery or abolition; His hatred of homosexuality equally compatible with loving gay marriage as with discord; His contempt of women equally compatible with women's demonstrable competence as with their failure; His divine creation equally compatible with life-friendly physical law as with constant miraculous intervention; His intention to create a race of beings to worship and adore Him equally compatible with a 6,000 year-old universe with the Earth at its center as with a universe of such cosmic scale and scope that all of human history is no more significant than the mold in my shower is to all of terrestrial civilization.

Our scientific naturalistic theories about the world are true because they explain and predict this world; they are valuable because they predict only this world. Theology is compatible with any old world we might find ourselves in: change the laws of physics, remove them altogether, transform billions of light years of galaxies, clusters and superclusters to a uniform distribution of a hundred stars or even lanterns in a quintessential firmament, chop scores of elements from the periodic table and rearrange them with a throw of the dice, and not one word of the vast edifice of theological bullshit created over the last ten thousand years would have to change.

Kowal admits that theology and religion lack any epistemic system. In his own words, all we can do is organize and systematize all the contradictory models and theories about the world: we can do nothing to choose between these theories other than a handwaving mention of some vague debate (a "debate" that throughout history has all too often been conducted through the media of murder, rape, slavery, torture, conquest, oppression and genocide). Indeed scientific naturalism has developed a way to choose between these models and — while Kowal complains in that we have no way to choose — he complains in the same breath that our epistemic system is fatally flawed because it does choose, and it chooses against the arrant superstitions and vacuous bullshit of theology.

When Glendower famously boasted, "I can call spirits from the vasty deep," Hotspur astutely retorted, "Why, so can I, or so can any man; But will they come when you do call for them?" Answers are easy: I can answer any question, or so can any man; but are they true? Theologians can indeed answer any question, but we suffer not from a lack of answers but from a surfeit. We know that scientific materialism can not just answer some questions, but we can know that those answers and only those answers are true. If, by applying some distinction we are left with some questions entirely unanswered, with every candidate so far rejection, that is but a small price to pay for knowing that other answers really are true. Answers are easy: we can always think up more answers and test them out.

It would of course be disingenuous or at least incomplete to extol the virtues of scientific naturalism without mentioning legitimate philosophical objections.

Science is, of course, a human endeavor, and its pursuit susceptible to the ordinary intellectual and moral vices typical of human beings. Our scientific knowledge is dependent on what we choose to study, the kinds of knowledge we choose to pursue, and our answers are dependent on the questions we choose to ask. Science is no universal panacea, a machine we can put questions into and be confident of always or even often get true answers. The best we can say about science is that sometimes it makes some distinctions. But just sometimes is incomparably better than never, and that sometimes is on the basis of ordinary logical thought and the evidence of our senses, not the pronouncements of ridiculous men in silly hats or the elimination of dissent by the sword and the prison cell.

Strictly speaking, scientific naturalism does not separate theories into true and false, it separates theories into definitely false, not definitely false and bullshit: "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." We cannot know the theory of universal gravitation with the certainty we know that "there are infinitely many prime numbers" is a theorem of the axioms of arithmetic. If for this reason you don't want to label scientific naturalism as knowledge, so much worse for your view of knowledge. When you can demonstrate the truth of General Relativity or Quantum Mechanics with deductive certainty, let me know. Until then, I'll happily trade certainty of nothing for confidence in not just something but quite a lot while you play solipsistic games you could pursue without distraction if you put out your eyes and stopped up your ears.

We cannot apply scientific naturalism to scientific naturalism without circularity. But scientific naturalism as a method is not itself a theory about the world; it is simply a language game we play, a game we play not because we can somehow prove it itself is "true" but because we find it useful, a utility that — because we are uninterested in the what appears to be its the sole utility for justifying abominable behavior — that religion has never and apparently cannot provide.

Indeed it is the theologians whom we must accuse of intellectual procrastination. They have, to be sure, been diligent about providing answers, but after ten thousand years we are still waiting for them to give us a way — any way, however imperfect, that appeals not to our prejudice but our reason — to separate the the meaningful answers from the bullshit and the true answers from the false.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Liberalism as as class struggle

I haven't yet come to any firm conclusions, but I'm beginning to think about the political/economic situation over the last 80-90 years as a struggle not between factions of the capitalist ruling class, but a true class struggle between the true capitalist "rentier" class and the professional/managerial class.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Atheism and "intellectual procrastination"

Tim Kowal chides atheists' "intellectual procrastination":
[W]hile one may be an atheist before he can fully “explain how and why the universe came into existence,” he is immediately and continuously under an intellectual duty to engage in providing a cogent answer to these problems. Atheism cannot be merely passive or destructive. It must fill the intellectual gap it creates, not simply revel in sacking others epistemological systems.
Kowal is, of course, wrong. By rejecting notions about gods atheism does not create an intellectual gap: we merely observe that gaps religion fails to fill. We do not know for example how and why — or even if — the universe came into existence, but after examining religious "explanations" we still do not know.

It takes a little experience to detect Kowal's equivocation in the above quotation. An explanation in this context is an ontological statement: it is a description of how the world actually is and how it works. An explanation is not an epistemological statement: it is not a statement about how we know whether one explanation or another is actually true, whether one description or another actually corresponds to reality. When atheists reject religious "explanations" we are sacking not religious epistemology, but religious ontology, and we are sacking their ontology in part because it scientific epistemology rejects it.

Indeed we cannot sack religious epistemology because the religious simply don't have one: none of them ever talk about how we can have a rigorous, determinable and shared method of separating statements into true and false*. Drill down to the fundamentals of any religious "explanation" of the world and its primary justification will be: thus-and-so is what the author happens to believe about God; if you do not already happen to share his beliefs, he will be unable to persuade you.

*If you kill everyone who disagrees, I suppose you will generate a consensus of what people believe — or at least admit — to be true.

One person happens to believe that God is infinitely loving and powerful, and though we rarely understand, everything happens for the best. Another happens to believe that an infinitely loving and powerful God nonetheless respects our autonomy and free will. Another happens to believe that God is indifferent or unconcerned with human affairs. Another happens to believe that God is malevolent. Another happens to believe that God himself is above our parochial notions of good and evil. One happens to believe that Genesis is a literally and factually accurate account of cosmology. Another happens to believe it's more-or-less physically correct but couched in poetic language. Still another happens to believe it's allegory and metaphor having nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of the physical world.

The problem with religion is not that it fails to provide explanations. The problem is that religion provides too many explanations. We want one explanation, we want to know that that particular explanation really is correct, and we want to know it's correct even if it contradicts what we happen to believe.

Atheists don't sack religious epistemology — there isn't one. Atheists use evidentiary and scientific epistemology to sack religious ontology. Indeed that's all that scientific epistemology actually does: it's a fundamentally negative epistemology. We are certain some element or elements of a theory — a set of statements about the world — are false if the theory entails false statements about observation. (And if some theory does not entail any statements about the world that are in principle falsifiable by observation, it is not a theory: it is not about the world.)

We are not certain that those theories that survive are true, but we are astonished (in a philosophical sense) that any theories about the world survive this filter, and that usually only one theory (or a family of theories with a single identifiable essential character) survives this process: the process itself does not by definition guarantee a single result. Furthermore, we are philosophically astonished that entirely different people — with different upbringing, local culture, habits, outlook and biases — almost always come to the same conclusion.

Scientific epistemology does not quite do the job philosophers expect: they would like to see a method that, like deduction, separates individual statements into certainly true and certainly false. Scientific epistemology only separates theories-as-a-whole into definitely false and not definitely false. But half a loaf is better than none, and neither philosophy nor theology gives us anything but arbitrary Just-So stories, separating statements into what we do or do not already happen to believe, a job we do not need any epistemology at all to achieve.

Worse yet, religious "explanations" are not explanations. All they do is relabel mysteries about the world as mysteries about God.
Theist: Why is the world the way it is instead of somehow different?

Atheist: I dunno. The world just happens to be the way it is.

T: That's no explanation at all!

A: Perhaps not. Do you have something better?

T: Of course! The world is the way it is because God wanted it this way.

A: Why did God want the world to be the way it is instead of somehow different?

T: I dunno. God just happens to want what He wants.

Of course, the theist will rarely be quite so honest in his last reply. The usual response is to point to some hefty volume of incomprehensible mystical blather. It is the rare atheist who will actually read this blather, but some do, and they invariably find that the tome does not actually explain why God happens to want the world to be the way it is. There are more tricks, and a clever theist can keep a naive and gullible atheist running around in circles for decades, but it all boils down to the same thing. All of theology consists of inferring what God wants from occasionally observing how the world actually is, or more frequently from how the author wishes the world to be.

Atheism by itself is merely the position that religion and theology have themselves failed to provide satisfying explanations, and failed to provide anything bearing even a passing resemblance to a system of knowledge. They have covered their abject failures under the most immense and rococo edifice of bullshit ever conceived by the mind of man (and thus deserving a certain measure of horrified fascination). If we want to know, and not merely comfort ourselves with self-serving fantasies, we must first admit we simply do not know, and set forth on a voyage of discovery, a voyage we are by no means certain to complete or even survive.

Religion demands that we burn the ships in the harbor because we cannot complete the journey before we set out.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Evolution is hard!

A really good article on evolution by the inestimable PZ Myers: It's more than genes, it's networks and systems:
What's left out in the 101 story, and in creationist tales, is that: evolution is about populations, so many changes go on in parallel; selectable traits are usually the product of networks of genes, so there are rarely single alleles that can be categorized as the effector of change; and genes and gene networks are plastic or responsive to the environment. All of these complications make the actual story more complicated and interesting, and also, perhaps to your surprise, make evolutionary change faster and more powerful.
If biologists can figure out this:

and hundreds of other pathways like it, then there's simply no excuse for economists to complain about complexity.

The race to the bottom and the struggle for the top

A reader alerts me to the following article: Factory Defies Sweatshop Label, but Can It Thrive?:
The factory is a high-minded experiment, a response to appeals from myriad university officials and student activists that the garment industry stop using poverty-wage sweatshops. It has 120 employees and is owned by Knights Apparel, a privately held company based in Spartanburg, S.C., that is the leading supplier of college-logo apparel to American universities, according to the Collegiate Licensing Company.

As a communist, I'm not really impressed.

Communism has a moral dimension, but communism is not fundamentally about morality. Egregious and obvious mistreatment of the workers by the capitalists is definitely bad, but communism does not exist primarily to ameliorate or even eliminate these abuses. Even if the worst abuses were to disappear entirely, the case for communism would still exist. (Fewer abuses would make communism a much tougher to sell, but I'd happily make that trade-off; I just don't think it's in the cards.)

The recent financial collapse and world-wide recession that still threatens to fall into outright depression (by capitalist standards) is not the result of individual companies treating their workers poorly, and the misery the present economic circumstances are causing today to tens of millions in the US and billions around the world are not because capitalists have increase the active and intentional mistreatment of their workers.

The fundamental problems with capitalism — the problems that communism purports to address — are its economic limitations and inherent positive-feedback instabilities. These fundamental economic problems cause far more misery, suffering and death than any petty sadism encouraged by the inequalities of the capitalist system.

The argument for communism vs. capitalism is similar in tone to the argument for scientific medicine vs. shamanism or faith healing. In the latter case, it fundamentally doesn't matter that faith healing sometimes works (which it does). It fundamentally doesn't matter even that most faith healers know they're charlatans and frauds and many actually make people worse: we don't want to get rid of the worst of the faith healers, we want to get rid of all of them. With both cases, the point is that we could have immeasurably better lives by making deep changes rather than simply tweaking a system flawed at its roots.

Or, similarly, there were some slave-owners who treated their slaves with a measure of relative dignity and respect, but that didn't excuse slavery as an institution.

So, OK, some guys in the DR are paying $2.83 instead of $0.80 per hour. Yippie. Good for them, and I mean that sincerely. But that's still just a subsistence wage: it's still a wage that still keeps the working class subordinated to the capitalist class. The owners and bankers are still using their privileged access to capital to make a profit and pay themselves enough not just to live, not even just to enjoy luxuries, but to accumulate even more economic power and privilege. They themselves are not paying the additional wages out of their own profit and interest, they are asking us, the working class customers, to pay. (And pay we should, with a good will.)

And how sustainable is it? Remember: social change happens by selection, which is selection against. The only way a setup like this could create lasting social change is if it were to force marginal producers who didn't pay a living wage out of business, and I don't see how they could do that. If anything, it will encourage some competitors to focus even more on price competition, now that their access to the high-end market has been diminished.

There's a big difference between the race to the bottom and the struggle for the top.

The science of economics

Metres, kilograms, seconds. These scientific units are, of course, socially constructed abstractions. There are no metres in nature, no kilograms, no seconds: there is only length, mass and time; even more precisely, there are objects that have length, mass and time as properties and relations. Still, we have darn good evidence that length, mass, and time are real properties, and our scientific units correspond closely and uniformly to these real properties. We socially construct these abstractions in a very careful and uniform way.

If Johann Schmitz measures the height of an oak tree in Bavaria in 1914 as 7.23 metres, and John Smith measures the height of a flagpole in Oregon in 2009 at 5.42 meters, we can know with confidence that the oak tree in Bavaria really was taller in 1914 than the flagpole in Oregon was in 2009*. We could even make these measurements in different nominal units across time and space: I know that 15.81 cubits is taller than 26.94x10-2 furlongs.

*Yes, I know about Special and General Relativity. But relativity doesn't complicate the relationship between observed units of measure and the underlying physical reality all that much. And even between observers of significantly varying velocity and/or acceleration, we can very precisely determine important characteristics of physical reality from their measurements in unqualified units.

Dollars, lira, deutchmarks. These economic units are also socially constructed abstractions. There are no dollars in nature. But, more importantly, a dollar by itself does not even correspond to anything real. If Juan Ferrari measures the Gross National Product of Italy in 1922 at 7.32x1012 lire, and Jean Lefèvre measures the privately held debt in France in 1989 at 3.768 francs, I know absolutely nothing. We have no way of knowing even whether or not the underlying reality differs by several orders of magnitude either way! Even if we measure the same quantity in the same nominal units at different times (e.g. the GDP of the United States in dollars in 1932 and 2009) or the same quantity at the same time with different nominal units (e.g. GDP of Germany and France in 1945) we still can't directly compare the quantities. A dollar is different in 1932 than 2009.

Not only are nominal economic units different, they are different in ambiguously defined ways. It's not that we absolutely cannot compare dollars in time or different currencies in space, it's that there are many different methods of making comparisons, and each method depends on a number of assumptions that are difficult to empirically justify. For example, when we compare dollars across time, economists usually adjust for inflation. But inflation itself is impossible to measure directly; we have to make a number of actual observations (the price of a loaf of bread, a pound of coal or oil) and apply fairly complicated — and controversial — models to compute the relative inflation.

There's nothing wrong with complicated models per se. However, I don't think any competent scientist would endorse using a complicated model to establish her primary units of measure.

Most economists are very smart, and I'm certainly not the first person to notice this issue. The problem is that there is no really good way to establish consistent economic units across time and space. Currency units at least afford precision and accuracy: I can go to the grocery store and precisely and accurately measure the price of a loaf of Hostess Wonder Bread™... even though I don't immediately know what that measurement means.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

William Lane Craig on intellectual integrity

William Lane Craig on intellectual honesty:
You don’t have to have any brains to tell someone, “Have you seen the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology? Before you say there are no intelligent theists and no good reasons to believe in God, maybe you’d better look at that book first. Otherwise, you’re not really informed.” You don’t need to have read these books yourself if you’re so pressed for time. All you have to do is know a few titles. ... Shame the unbeliever for his ignorance of the literature. ...

[L]earn to drop the names of some Christian scholars. ... Name-dropping is distasteful when someone is trying to show off, but in a case like this, you’re simply offering counter-examples to the sweeping claim that all Christians are ignoramuses, a view that is itself rooted in ignorance. [emphasis added]
A honest skeptic would say, "If you're going to argue a position, there's no substitute for learning about it. Read X, Y, and Z." I honestly believe that Dr. Craig is simply too stupid to understand his own profound intellectual dishonesty... and he's the best Christianity has to offer.

The problem is that if you actually read all the books and authors that Craig cites, you will soon realize their arguments are not just weak, they're total and complete bullshit.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The pundit delusion

The Pundit Delusion:
What I expect, instead, if and when the midterms go badly, is that the usual suspects will say that it was because Mr. Obama was too liberal — when his real mistake was doing too little to create jobs.
If? Ha! I called this two years ago.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Atheism in modern society

Any Fark thread on atheism, such as this thread shows the importance of a vigorous anti-religious atheist movement. Fark commenters are comparatively intelligent and sensible, but mention atheism and the inanity and stupidity goes off the charts.

The atheist critique of organized religion is not that the religious do silly things. Civilized people do a lot of stuff that is in some sense "objectively" silly. We are fortunate to have developed a level of material prosperity such that a lot of people can spend a fair fraction of their time doing things for no better reason than that they like doing them. There's nothing objectively sillier about magic underpants or incense and funny hats than there is about Dungeons and Dragons or any professional sport. If you don't care for something something that doesn't have an immediate material reward, anyone who does like it is going to look silly to you.

The atheist critique of religion is that they claim social, political, economic and philosophical privilege because of their silly activities. Religion is not just something that religious people enjoy doing; mastery of the details of religious silliness gives people an inordinate influence over the material workings of our society. Atheists therefore point out the silliness of religion not because we're against silliness per se, but because we want to undermine that privilege. We don't care that Mormons wear magic underwear; we are outraged, however, that one's diligence in wearing magic underwear is at all helpful in Utah politics. We don't care that the Pope wears a funny hat; we're gobsmacked that people actually listen to him about important matters of medicine, ethics, and law because he wears a funny hat.

There's no reason atheists shouldn't hang out together, and create more-or-less organized social scenes. When I moved to my present undisclosed location, the local atheist organizations gave me a foot in the door into a social scene and acquaintances I could spend time with. I knew I would share some common interests and values with most of the members, such as enjoyment of science and philosophy, disdain of religion and New-Age woo woo bullshit, humanist ethical values, open-minded intellectual discussion, etc. I wasn't going to walk in and get a job, a place to live and a girlfriend, but just hanging out with the groups does 90% of the chore of superficial filtering of potential acquaintances.

Why shouldn't we? Atheism just means (depending on how you like to phrase it) believing there's no god or not believing there is a god. It's an attitude about one specific family of propositions in an ocean of the beliefs, attitudes, opinions, knowledge and philosophy of human beings. We don't think people shouldn't be social, we don't think people shouldn't hang around with other people with common interests and values. And we have no objection per se to religious people hanging out together and doing the weird things they do.

There's nothing wrong per se with religious people proselytizing. As a social species, human beings are constantly interacting with each other to persuade each other to social, political and ethical values. There's nothing any more wrong in itself with religious people going door to door to talk about Jesus than there is with Greenpeace, Amnesty International or your local congressional candidate doing the same thing. Our argument is (or ought to be) with the content of the message, not that they are engaged in the ordinary human activity of discussing their beliefs and values with others. We don't object that they're knocking on our doors, we object that they're knocking on our doors to try and sell us something ridiculous. We object that they prey on the troubled, the ignorant, the poorly educated and the mentally ill. We don't object that they hand out pamphlets and tracts, we object that they hand out pamphlets and tracts of breathtaking stupidity.

To the extent that some atheists object to religious proselytization, we object on the same grounds that people object to email spam, telemarketing and junk mail: the specific method annoys almost everyone while appealing to a tiny few, and we object because the method is unusually susceptible to abuse by frauds, charlatans and con-artists.

We do not object to literature, mythology, fiction, art, beauty, happiness, ethics, love, emotion, preference, enjoyment and value. We embrace them, they are fully and completely human, fully and completely natural. They do not come from, they do not depend on, they are in no way about the supernatural, the "divine", or an invisible man in the sky. They are of and about the unimaginably complex task of a naturally evolved intelligent species trying to find its way in an un-sentient, unfeeling, uncaring and mostly inhospitable universe.

The New Atheists (u.e. modern anti-religious politically-oriented atheists) do not have a dogma; our common beliefs and values are not privileged by some supernatural or human authority, and dissent from those beliefs and values is not prima facie evidence of evil or corruption. But we do have common beliefs, a "doctrine" or "ideology" if you will, beliefs that are widely shared:
  1. Religion — specifically the sort of religion that holds a supernatural authority who grants some sort of social privilege, especially ethical privilege — is not just not to our taste, not just something that an individual should have the freedom to deny. Religion is itself actively bad.
  2. As bad as we believe religion to be, we should never employ violence or physical coercion of any sort, state-sanctioned or vigilante, to suppress religion.
  3. We should employ only lawful means to suppress religion; we should completely refrain from unlawful but non-violent means such as vandalism or harassment.*
  4. We should never employ lies or bullshit to suppress religion. The factual truth and our sincere ethical opinions are sufficient to the job.
  5. Because we do believe that religion is bad, we will use every truthful, legal, non-violent means at our disposal to suppress and deprecate religion, including philosophical criticism, mockery, shame, and outrage. We will use political action to ensure the government does not establish any religion** and to promote humanist, civilized values in our legal and political system.
*I'm not particularly enthralled with the capitalist pseudo-democratic legal process. Still, a bad legal process is (usually) better than no process at all, and I go to considerable lengths to fit my personal conduct to existing law. Indeed, I believe a violent revolution is both possible and warranted only after the capitalist ruling class itself decisively and openly abandons the Constitution, and either the law itself becomes openly tyrannical or the capitalist ruling class abandons the rule of law in general.

**We are just as opposed, at least in principle, to the government prohibiting the free exercise of religion. We typically lack standing to contribute meaningfully to the government's attempts to limit the free exercise of minority religions, so free exercise is typically not a high priority.

We are sometimes accused of being "intolerant" and attempting to "shut up" our opponents. It is a matter of some philosophical controversy* whether criticism and mockery are legitimate tools of suppression — of course, one cannot help employing criticism and mockery to suppress those who would use criticism and mockery as tools of suppression. We are unapologetic that we aim to suppress religion by peaceful, legal and honest means, and we object to the suppression of any mere belief, opinion, attitude or value — even religion — by violence, illegality, dishonesty or insincerity.

*Keep in mind that there is some philosophical controversy about whether there is a real world, and whether things fall when you drop them. There is even philosophical controversy over whether the phrase "philosophical controversy" is meaningful. After a decade of study, I've come to the conclusion that philosophy is mostly theology without the discipline and intellectual integrity provided by an anchor to scripture. "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

In principle, I don't object to criticism or mockery of atheism or anti-religion. However, after being deeply involved in the atheist community for more than a decade, I have never seen a criticism of atheism or anti-religion that was not just flawed, but obviously and ridiculously intellectually vacuous. I have never seen mockery of the actual beliefs and values prevalent in the atheist community, only mockery of beliefs and values that even a cursory examination of atheist thought and writing would quickly reveal are absent or completely marginalized.

We're here, we don't believe your ridiculous superstitions, we aren't going to sit down, shut up and allow the religious to impose their authoritarian, misogynist, homophobic, oppressive, exploitative, rapist-protecting, heretic burning crap on our society. Get used to it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


[Last updated 8 Sep. 2012]

I've decided to restore comments.

As before, spam, pr0n, threats, commercial advertising, completely off-topic comments, batshit insanity (that means you, David Mabus) and outright lies about matters of fact (yes, you, Rob Singleton) will not be published. Otherwise, I'll publish most everything else. I don't care about profanity. Feel free to call me a fucktard. You don't need a "hard" identity (Google account, email address, etc.); you may use a handle. Word verification is on to keep spambots from making too much extra work for me.

I will rarely respond directly to comments. I will usually respond only to provide additional evidence or in rare cases clarification of points I myself consider unclear. I might create another post generally based on questions or criticism in comments, but don't hold your breath. Usually I've said what I have to say; 90% of criticism is from those who apparently cannot read and understand simple declarative sentences in the English language; it's usually a waste of time repeating my arguments. If you want a specific response, or you want to debate or argue with me in any sense, you can email me. I won't promise anything, but you at least have a shot.

When commenting, you must address me, not other commenters, in a similar fashion as addressing the Chair in parliamentary procedure. If you want to address another commenter directly, do it by email, their blog or your own, or find a message board. In general, I'm not interested in hosting debates between commenters. If I feel a debate is brewing, I may close comments for the post.

I cannot edit comments, and would not if I could. I myself cannot (and would not if I could) keep any records regarding the origin of comments or the locations, IP address and any other identifying information about commenters. I cannot speak for Google.

Occasionally I moderate comments. I do so only when I am being overwhelmed with spam or when a hostile or abusive commenter is harassing me. If moderation is turned on, be patient; I will approve most comments as soon as I can.

Pick a handle or moniker for your comment. With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to purely anonymous comments. I may delete anonymous comments. If I have comment moderation turned on, I am far more likely to reject a comment if it is anonymous.

I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of a comment I have rejected or deleted, feel free to email me and I'll send it to you.

Finally, I retain the unconditional privilege of publishing, rejecting, or deleting comments at my arbitrary discretion.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

How facts backfire

How facts backfire:
Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger. ...

[I]f you harbor the notion — popular on both sides of the aisle — that the solution is more education and a higher level of political sophistication in voters overall, well, that’s a start, but not the solution. A 2006 study by Charles Taber and Milton Lodge at Stony Brook University showed that politically sophisticated thinkers were even less open to new information than less sophisticated types. These people may be factually right about 90 percent of things, but their confidence makes it nearly impossible to correct the 10 percent on which they’re totally wrong. Taber and Lodge found this alarming, because engaged, sophisticated thinkers are “the very folks on whom democratic theory relies most heavily.”

Fundamentally, skepticism is a moral and ethical position, not a specifically intellectual position. If you don't actively cultivate the idea that it's good to be wrong, that it's good to be corrected, that it's good to change your mind, then you'll fall into mental habits that make changing your mind almost impossibly difficult. In much the same sense, we have to actively cultivate — at the individual, social and institutional levels — all the ideas that make civilization possible: cooperation, respect and concern for others' well-being and mutual benefit; without this ethical and cognitive discipline, we risk falling back into low-level conflict to everyone's detriment.


What is the skeptic’s option? The author asserts,
Skepticism is looking something directly in the eye and stating for everyone to hear that you don’t believe it.

The author has an excellent point: The internet is indeed set up to make skepticism vastly more difficult, more difficult than it already is. But skepticism is not just open disbelief. Were that so, then we should consider evolution and global warming deniers skeptics in good standing.

Skepticism is believing or disbelieving on the basis of evidence and evidence alone. When a skeptic says that she's skeptical about this or that, she is not saying she doesn't believe it, she's saying, "Show me the evidence." I will abandon my most cherished belief if the evidence is against it, but more importantly I will adopt the most bizarre believe if the evidence supports it: if I'll believe quantum mechanics, I'll believe anything.

(Skepticism is not a belief formation mechanism; it is a filter, and an expensive filter at that. It is impractical to hold only those beliefs that have survived a rigorous skeptical filter; even the best skeptic holds a huge number of beliefs just because everyone else believes them. But when a belief becomes controversial or untenable, a skeptic is someone who exercises the discipline and will to look to the evidence and adopt, reject or suspend belief on the basis of the evidence and only the evidence.)

I was talking to an atheist the other day about economics (my favorite hobbyhorse). He's trying to be skeptical about economics: he says (paraphrasing from memory) that he looks at what both sides have to say, and believes the side that's more plausible. At least he's looking, and good for him, but that still isn't skepticism. The whole point of skepticism is believing ideas that sound intuitively implausible because the evidence supports them.

The idea that fundamental particles are in a near-infinitely dimensional superposition of states and in a sense aren't even there when no one is looking ought to boggle the mind. That the complexity of organisms and ecosystems evolved over hundreds of millions of years by mechanisms no more complicated than random variation and natural selection is ridiculous. That the "rock solid" Earth is whizzing and whirling around space at unimaginable speeds is ludicrous.

Without the massive amounts of evidence and enough methodological knowledge to evaluate that evidence, all of modern science is completely unbelievable. I personally know that quantum mechanics, evolution and heliocentricity are true because I do have enough methodological knowledge and I can evaluate the evidence more or less directly. I know that much of modern economic theory is complete bullshit because I've studied the subject directly and I can look at the evidence.

You don't need enough knowledge to do original work in a field: you just need enough knowledge to evaluate claims on their own merits. But even this limited knowledge takes discipline, hard work and most of all time to acquire. But the work is indispensable: without it, you cannot have an informed opinion.

I myself am suspicious of evolutionary psychology, but I cannot be skeptical of it: I haven't done the work to evaluate the claims directly. It sounds like bullshit (and I think I have a pretty good intuitive bullshit detector), but I don't know it's bullshit. All I can really say is that there are scientists I respect, scientists who could evaluate the evidence directly, who are indeed skeptical. Experts' controversy a little bit of evidence, albeit indirect, that I can evaluate myself, but it's just not enough: every new idea, good and bad, justly faces the skepticism of established experts: that's their job. The best I can do is acknowledge my suspicions and suspend judgment.

The author is correct: The internet — especially "social media" — is not conducive to skeptical examination: it is not conducive to the evaluation of beliefs on the basis of evidence and evidence alone. On the other hand, the internet makes the fundamental process of learning enough of the fundamentals of any science and discovering the evidence on which to base a skeptical decision easier than ever before. You can, if you are so inclined, learn enough about just about anything to make an informed judgment, and learn it for no more than the cost of a computer and broadband connection... plus your time.

Abortion and birth control

The Coming Birth Control Battle
Could prescription birth control—whether the pill, an IUD, or a diaphragm—soon be free of cost for most American women?

Polls suggest the majority of Americans would support such a policy. But the Daily Beast has learned that many conservative activists, who spent most of their energies during the health-care reform fight battling to win abortion restrictions and abstinence-education funding, are just waking up to the possibility that the new health care law could require employers and insurance companies to offer contraceptives, along with other commonly prescribed medications, without charging any co-pay. Now the Heritage Foundation and the National Abstinence Education Association say that, like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, they oppose implementation of the new provisions.
(via Brad DeLong)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

I hate it when they're right

Maxine Udall says, "I pretty much hate it when Marxists make sense. ... I was relieved that no (Marxist) solution was offered [in the linked video]..."

This is a Very Bad Attitude. I suppose we should give Ms. Udall some credit for at least listening, and admitting (however grudgingly) that David Harvey has correctly identified a problem. But no honest seeker after the truth should ever "hate it" when anyone makes sense or is correct about anything. And even if one does hate it, it's not the sort of thing that one should admit; it should be a shameful secret that one does one's best to hide and ostensibly pretend doesn't exist.

I'm a militant atheist, but I don't "hate it" when the religious are right, and I'm never "relieved" when they don't offer a solution to a problem they correctly identify. Similarly, I'm a revolutionary communist, but I don't "hate it" when capitalists, reformist socialists or anyone else is right about anything... even revolutionary communism. If they're right, they're right, and I'm positively grateful for learning a new truth. And, if they offer a capitalist or reformist solution for some problem, good for them.

I'm not critical of religion because I'm an atheist, and I'm not critical of capitalism because I'm a communist. If that was the case (and I were willing to admit that was the case) even a little I would feel obligated to simply hang up my skeptical credentials and become a wholehearted ideological partisan.

I am, rather, an atheist because I'm critical of religion, a communist because I'm critical of capitalism. I've looked as carefully and honestly as I can at both systems of thought, and found them false at their core. They can be and usually are — to a certain extent — "fixed up" — their fundamental flaws mitigated — but it seems to me to be more sensible to correct the fundamental flaws directly.

Yes, you can create a humanist ethical system on top of belief in a God, but there is no God. Why "fix up" theology when you can dispense with it altogether, and build a humanist ethical system on top of nothing more controversial or supernatural than that people do in fact value the well-being of others?

Yes, you can create a more-or-less efficient and just economic system on top of the private ownership of capital, but the private ownership of capital — especially finance capital — introduces a fundamental inefficiency and injustice. Take out these fundamental problems and there is nothing to "fix up".

The "militant" atheist argument against moderate religions is very much related to the revolutionary communist argument against reformism and liberal capitalism. Yes of course liberal capitalism is better than laissez faire capitalism, but liberal capitalism implicitly affirms a fundamental tenet of laissez faire capitalism — that capitalism should be privately owned — while simultaneously compromising that principle by advocating regulation of "privately" owned capital for purposes that in no way enhance the benefit of the owners. (Note that regulation for some mutual benefit that includes a benefit to owners enhances and does does not compromise ownership.)

Crises of capitalism

(via Maxine Udall)

Saturday, July 10, 2010


I believe that no god exists; I believe that those who hold the opposite opinion are mistaken.

I believe that only communism — the social ownership of capital — can be the basis of a fair, just and most of all efficient economic system; I believe that those who hold the opposite opinion are mistaken.

I believe that acts of violence against abortion doctors is illegal; I believe that those who assert they should escape legal consequences for such actions are mistaken.

I believe that the Earth (by and large) orbits the sun; that terrestrial life evolved over billions of years; that the average temperature of the Earth is rising, and is rising due to human activity; that (under ordinary circumstances) objects attract each other in proportion to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of their distance. Again, I believe those who hold the opposite opinions are mistaken.

Do these attitudes make me "arrogant"? More importantly, since the "correct" definition of a word is to some extent arbitrary, does anyone have a legitimate basis for objecting to these opinions? Is it somehow objectionable or wrong for me to believe I am correct and believe that those who disagree are mistaken?

Whether or not I'm actually correct is not at issue. If I'm mistaken, I'll change my opinion, but I would do so only in the face of argument or evidence presented by someone who believed her opinion was correct and mine mistaken. The issue is whether anyone should have any beliefs about the correctness of one's own beliefs and the mistakenness of others' contrary beliefs. Alternatively, the question is what sort of beliefs should one have opinions about correctness and mistake?

In a similar sense, I disapprove of establishing religion, and I believe those who approve of it are in some sense bad. I disapprove of rape, murder, arson, assault, etc. and I believe those who approve of these are also in some sense bad. I believe we have positive obligations to help each other be happy, productive and satisfied, and I believe those who deny these obligations are bad. They're not specifically mistaken — I don't believe there's any actual objective truth to any ethical belief — but I do make definite judgments about them. Similarly, I don't believe that people who hold mistaken opinions are for that reason alone to be bad in any sense. (Perversity, obtusity, and the unwillingness to change one's opinion in the face of overwhelming evidence are different issues.)

We can perhaps extract a good pejorative sense of "arrogance" from this distinction: to believe that those who hold a contrary opinion about some matter of truth for that reason alone somehow bad, and similarly to believe that those who hold an contrary ethical truth are somehow mistaken.

Being mistaken is necessary but not sufficient to being perverse, obtuse or willfully ignorant (or at least for me to judge someone as being perverse; I'm ordinarily unlikely to inquire deeply about someone's reasons for having the same opinion as mine). Obviously no one ever considers himself to be perverse, etc. so it is natural to assume that judgments are being made about the opinion itself, rather than one's means of evaluating it.

Kantian moral sense and social evolution

A social "game" such as driving is a Prisoner's Dilemma game: If everyone drives safely, everyone is better off, but if everyone else is driving safely then there is an additional benefit to driving dangerously (and the costs of driving dangerously are externalized to the other drivers). Even if they prefer to drive safely, and even if they drive safely because that's supposedly the "right thing to do" in a Kantian sense, the negative consequences of driving safely while others are driving dangerously with no immediate consequences tend to select against safe driving.

Adding surveillance and enforcement (traffic tickets, governors on cars) changes the driving game to a win-win game: even those who would prefer to drive dangerously drive safely to avoid the immediate negative consequences, which should outweigh the positive benefits (e.g. getting to one's destination more quickly).

On the one hand, adding surveillance and enforcement would seem to undermine developing a Kantian moral sense, i.e. driving safely because it's the "right thing to do" rather than because it's beneficial, or driving safely because one directly prefers the mutual benefit to an exploitative benefit. Once we implement surveillance and enforcement, we cannot determine if any individual is driving safely for the "right" reasons (duty or mutual benefit) or the "wrong" reasons (avoidance of immediate consequences). In one sense, we simply don't care why anyone is driving safely; we'd rather have people driving safely for the "wrong" reasons than not driving safely at all. But in another sense, a surveillance and enforcement mechanism tends to develop a Kantian moral sense by selection.

Assume that one's preferences about driving exhibit heritable variation. Therefore, there will be three "memes" present in the population with some distribution:
  1. Directly prefers to drive safely (Kantian good)
  2. Directly prefers to drive unsafely, but indirectly prefers to drive safely because of enforcement (selfish good)
  3. Directly prefers to and actually does drive unsafely (bad)

It should be clear that variation in these memes is step-wise: It takes one "variation" to move from 1 to 2, 2 to 3 (or the reverse direction); it takes two "variations" to move from 1 to 3 or 3 to 1.

Without enforcement, there is of course no case 2, and thus there is no direct selection pressure against preferring to drive dangerously. Furthermore, since there is no direct selection pressure against driving dangerously, there will be selection pressure against driving safely: if there are enough people driving dangerously, driving safely just slows you down without reducing the risk of accident or injury. (Driving dangerously externalizes the risk of accident to all the drivers, not just oneself; accident or injury thus does not differentially select against driving dangerously.) Since there's a differential selection pressure against safe driving, we could expect that without enforcement almost everyone will drive dangerously. Anyone who'd driven in a country without strict traffic enforcement will immediately empirically confirm this prediction.

Adding enforcement, then, creates an immediate selection pressure against actually driving dangerously (assuming that traffic tickets exert a mimetic selection pressure), and one must of course first prefer to drive dangerously to actually drive dangerously. Therefore, the meme for preferring to and actually driving dangerously will be selected against.

Directly preferring to but not actually driving dangerously will not, of course, be selected against. However, this meme will vary in two directions: directly preferring to drive safely, and preferring to and actually driving dangerously. Assuming that variation is uniform (the probabilities of each meme varying to either adjacent meme is the same), then we will end up with an equal number of Kantian and selfish good drivers, with a smaller number of bad drivers.

If the variation is even a little bit non-uniform (i.e. selfish good drivers are more likely to become Kantian good drivers than bad drivers, and Kantian good drivers are less likely to become selfish good drivers) then the prevalence of Kantian good drivers becomes proportionally higher. We can expect non-uniform variation, because internal rational consideration itself acts as a selection mechanism.

In a non-Prisoner's Dilemma type game, however, selection pressures do not act so obviously.

In win-win games (where there's no tension between mutual and selfish benefit) we cannot distinguish between a Kantian and selfish moral good; everyone will do the right thing, and we can't determine if they do so because it's because "the right thing to do" or because it's in their immediate "selfish" benefit. In lose-lose games, a preference for mutual benefit does not apply, and it's difficult to make the case that everyone always losing should ever be a Kantian moral duty.

(Consider, for example, a proposed Kantian moral duty to express one's sexuality only by heterosexual intercourse. The detriment to some homosexual person who suppresses his natural sexuality to conform to this Kantian ideal seems obvious, and not only is there no benefit to me — I don't care how or with whom some stranger has sex — but because I value other people's happiness, this ideal poses a loss to me. The game is lose-lose; the opposite game — have safe, sane and consensual sex in any manner and with anyone you desire — is win-win. One reason I dislike Kantian ethics (even though it can be "fixed up" by reinterpreting a Kantian moral duty as preferring a mutual benefit over an unstable exploitative benefit) is precisely that the discourse of the "right thing to do" independent of any benefit lends some credence to the establishment of lose-lose games as Kantian duties. Indeed if the "right thing to do" really were independent of any sense of benefit, then there must be at least one moral duty beneficial to no one.)

Where we get into some complexity in a evolution/selection analysis is where — as in academic ethics, or professional football — we have a more abstract game which decides between two different zero-sum games. In this case, we must not just select against those who play the "wrong" game, but also not select as strongly against those who play the "right" zero-sum game and lose. Or, better yet, transform the game into one of mutual benefit, or create a more abstract game where the mutual benefits outweigh the losses from the less abstract game.

Surveillance and moral development

Bruce Schneier directs us to Emrys Westacott's Philosophy Now article: Does Surveillance Make Us Morally Better?. Westacott's article displays the usual confusion and problems with a Kantian approach to morality.

Westacott describes his interpretation of Kantian morality:
According to Kant, our actions are right when they conform to the moral rules dictated to us by our reason, and they have moral worth insofar as they are motivated by respect for that moral law. In other words, my actions have moral worth if I do what is right because I want to do the right thing. If I don’t steal someone’s iPod (just another kind of Apple, really) because I think it would be wrong to do so, then I get a moral pat on the back and am entitled to polish my halo. If I don’t steal the iPod because I’m afraid of getting caught, then I may be doing the right thing, and I may be applauded for being prudent, but I shouldn’t be given any moral credit.
On this account, becoming morally better does not entail learning to do the right thing (whatever that might happen to be) but learning to have the correct motivation for doing the right thing.

Westacott gives us two scenarios to compare and contrast the value of surveillance. First, he presents an elaborate scenario escalating surveillance of driving habits, ending with practically indefeasible surveillance and enforcement of traffic laws. He finds the outcome amenable,
At the end of the process, there are no more tearaways or drunk drivers endangering innocent road users. Driving is more relaxing. There are fewer accidents, less pain, less grief, less guilt, reduced demands on the health care system, lower insurance premiums, fewer days lost at work, a surging stock market, [not to mention whiter teeth and relief from the heartbreak of psoriasis] and so on.

Westacott, however, worries that while "increased surveillance may carry certain utilitarian benefits, but the price we pay is a diminution of our moral character. ... [S]urveillance... stunts our growth as moral individuals." "We give up pursuing the holy grail of Kant’s ideal, and settle for a functional but uninspiring pewter mug." He realizes, however, that these worries are, at least in this case, probably misguided: The "inconceivability of most kinds of wrongdoing is a platform we want to be able to take for granted, and surveillance is a legitimate and effective means of building it. So, far from undermining the saintly ideal, surveillance offers a fast track to it."

Westacott wants to dig deeper, though, and presents an alternative scenario where the pragmatic outcome is not so clear, comparing two colleges with different responses to academic cheating:
For instance, imagine you are visiting two colleges. At Scrutiny College, the guide proudly points out that each examination room is equipped with several cameras, all linked to a central monitoring station. Electronic jammers can be activated to prevent examinees from using cell phones or Blackberries. The IT department writes its own cutting-edge plagiarism-detection software. And there is zero tolerance for academic dishonesty: one strike and you’re out on your ear. As a result, says the guide, there is less cheating at Scrutiny than on any other campus in the country. Students quickly see that cheating is a mug’s game, and after a while no-one even considers it.

By contrast, Probity College operates on a straightforward honour system. Students sign an integrity pledge at the beginning of each academic year. At Probity, professors commonly assign take-home exams, and leave rooms full of test takers unproctored. Nor does anyone bother with plagiarism-detecting software such as The default assumption is that students can be trusted not to cheat.

Which college would you prefer to attend? Which would you recommend to your own kids?
Presumably, Westacott believes we would endorse Probity College. He offers two additional scenarios — surveillance at work and surveillance of one's children — which make the same point: we intuitively believe that there are situations where that inculcating the right "moral" attitude is much more important than actually enforcing the correct behavior.

As long-time readers will know, I've discussed some deep problems with this Kantian account of morality.

In what sense is the right thing to do different from the beneficial (at least in some sense of "beneficial") thing to do? If these two accounts really were different, then there must be something that is right without being beneficial in any sense, an attitude I flatly reject on humanist grounds: the humanist good by definition is what is in some sense beneficial to human beings. If the right thing to do is equivalent to some sense of benefit, then how can we determine whether anyone us acting because it's the right thing to do rather than because of the benefit? And even if someone were to do the do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, there must be some subjective benefit: they are satisfying their desire to do the right thing because it is right.

Of course, a bit of charity can fix some problems in the Kantian view. Specifically, one could interpret the view as deprecating certain kinds of benefits, such as short-term, individualistic benefits and the avoidance of negative consequences, while promoting other kinds of benefits, such as long-term mutual benefit and the emotional benefit of adherence to duty. Neither Kant nor his interpreters are completely stupid (Kant himself made an important contribution to scientific cosmology). The problem is that it's just as much work constructing an exegesis that makes Kant accurate as it would be to construct a more accurate moral philosophy (while still acknowledging Kant's contributions as important groundwork).

Westacott commits an intellectual sin all too common in philosophy: he presents a dichotomy without giving us much of a framework for resolving that dichotomy. Indeed he draws only the conclusion that "not just that Kant may have a point, but that most of us implicitly recognize this point." But why does academic surveillance intuitively retard our moral development, while traffic surveillance not only fail to retard our "moral development" but actually promote it? As Hamlet noted,
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gets a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either curb the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency.
Why should it be good to assume the virtue of safe driving while bad to assume the virtue of academic probity?

One approach is (unsurprisingly) game theory. Safe/Dangerous driving is a true Prisoner's Dilemma/Snowdrift/Chicken game. If everyone drives safely, then everyone is better off: we have laminar traffic flow and a low risk of death or injury from accidents. If everyone drives dangerously, everyone is worse off: we have turbulent traffic flow and a relatively higher risk of death and injury. If everyone else is driving dangerously, there's little benefit to driving safely: other drivers' habits still make traffic turbulent, and one is typically at risk from other drivers' behavior than one's own. (One may furthermore even suffer a net loss: time is valuable, and driving safely in a dangerous environment can slow one down considerably.) If everyone else is driving safely, there's an individual benefit to driving dangerously: one can exploit the overall laminar traffic flow to one's own time benefit. Since other drivers' behavior determines risk, the additional risk is mostly externalized to others.

Furthermore, the benefits of everyone driving safely are clear and nearly universal. Even those who would prefer to drive dangerously while everyone else drives safely know that they are better off driving safely than they would be if everyone drove dangerously.

Kant does indeed have at least the beginning of a point: I would approve more of a person who drives safely because they value the mutual benefit of a safe and efficient traffic system than I do of a person who doesn't care about the mutual benefit and merely drives safely to avoid the penalties of enforcement. On the other hand, I have the pragmatic problem of trusting other people to actually drive safely, and convincing them to trust me to drive safely. I'd like to know that people are virtuous, but I can't expect them to be suckers; I can't expect them to allow their feelings of virtue to make them targets of exploitation. I can't trust someone who claims, however strenuously, only that they do indeed have a Kantian motive — a person who does not have a Kantian motive would certainly lie about having one. Paradoxically, I can effectively persuade people that I have a Kantian motive by supporting a non-Kantian enforcement mechanism: only someone with a Kantian motive has nothing to lose by enforcement, and I'm happy if someone without a Kantian motive "insincerely" supports enforcement. Contrawise, if there is no enforcement, I won't drive safely even if I do have a Kantian motive — at least in the sense of valuing the mutual benefit — because the mutual benefit will not occur just because I personally drive safely.

Compare and contrast the driving scenario with the academic ethics scenario. From the perspective of the individual students, academic ethics is not a Prisoner's Dilemma/Snowdrift game, it is a zero-sum game. Some students will get A's at the expense of those who get B's, at the expense of those who get C's, D's and F's. Those who who get lower grades will have a lower economic, academic and social reward, and those who actually fail will incur sometimes enormous economic expense (pass or fail, tuition is non refunded and one still has to pay back one's student loans). All cheating does is change the distribution of the benefits and expenses, not their overall magnitude. Of course there are larger social benefits to having an honest academia, but these social benefits are cold comfort to a failed student repaying twenty thousand of dollars in student loans with a low-wage, low-status job.

Furthermore, I would speculate that cheating or the desire to cheat is more prevalent at the lower end of the spectrum of academic performance. People who would otherwise fail are tempted to cheat their way to a C; those who would normally get A's and B's would seem less interested in cheating. A and B students seem inclined to go into professions where actual competence matters. A C student who cheats his way to an A would be quickly found out when his competence fails; he is better off in a selfish, non-Kantian sense with an honest C than a dishonest A. Similarly, even if someone who could honestly earn a B cheats his way to an A, he might still fail to develop even B-level competence; his dishonest A will be worse than his honest B. If there's rampant cheating among the D and F students, only the honest C students have a perverse incentive to cheat to get the C they honestly deserve.

The difference between C students and D/F students (and those who don't go to college) is primarily an arbitrary status difference: graduates had the financial and social wherewithal to actually pay for college and spend four years not working. The actual competence gained by just passing — primarily self-discipline and basic literacy — can be more easily and more inexpensively gained and demonstrated in other ways. Likewise, the difference between A and B students is primarily a status difference: both — if honest — are adequately competent, and I doubt (but I might be mistaken) that there is little empirical distinction between the post-academic performance of A and B students.

If the distinction is primarily arbitrary status, not actual competence, then there is little immediate reason to prefer those who gain status by one means or another; being a high status graduate through cheating is just as good (in an immediate sense) as being a "honestly" high status graduate; since status is not correlated with competence, we could just as easily use height or hair color. Insofar as immediate competence matters, academic honesty is self-enforcing (or has external enforcement); we do not need to appeal to a Kantian moral sense just as we do not need to appeal to a Kantian moral sense to not drop bowling balls on our feet.

It's notable that individual performance-simulating cheating in the private workplace is nearly non-existent; "cheating" there is mostly using work time for non-work-related activities. In the workplace, performance is directly measurable; if the job gets done, it's done, and employers are typically unconcerned with how it got done. If you have a task that has already been done elsewhere, it is perfectly acceptable to simply pay for and import the fully-complete task in toto. Likewise, collaboration — usually a big "no-no" in academia — is actively encouraged in the workplace: the point is not to measure the individual's performance, but to get the job done.

Westacott presents honor codes as somehow more Kantian, but this position is suspect. Honor codes do entail some surveillance, and entail consequences if cheating is somehow discovered. Indeed, honor codes simply move some of the surveillance to the student body itself, and rely on the superior students immediate self-interest in reporting cheating: an A student has nothing to gain by even tolerating others' cheating, much less assisting it. We can no more determine under an honor code than strict surveillance whether the motivation for compliance is due to to a Kantian moral sense or avoidance of the immediate consequences of cheating. We're inculcating a Kantian moral sense — in the sense of doing something by sheer duty — by making the student body responsible not for compliance but implementation.

As I mentioned earlier, there are larger social considerations to inculcating a sense of honesty in not only college students, but also the general population. But simply expecting a Kantian moral sense — in either the sense of preferring mutual benefit or acting from a sense of duty — without taking any direct, immediate steps to physically inculcate that sense seems to rely on magical thinking; when effective, a Kantian moral sense always relies on some method, which might be covert, of direct enforcement.

There's another dimension to the issue specifically of surveillance and enforcement that Westacott's additional examples put in a sharper light.
Or compare two workplaces. At Scrutiny Inc., all computer activity is monitored, with regular random audits to detect and discourage any inappropriate use of company time and equipment, such as playing games, emailing friends, listening to music, or visiting internet sites that cause blood to flow rapidly from the brain to other parts of the body. At Probity Inc., on the other hand, employees are simply trusted to get their work done. Scrutiny Inc. claims to have the lowest rate of time-theft and the highest productivity of any company in its field. But where would you choose to work?

One last example. In the age of cell phones and GPS technology, it is possible for a parent to monitor their child’s whereabouts at all times. They have cogent reasons for doing so. It slightly reduces certain kinds of risk to the teenager, and significantly reduces parental anxiety. It doesn’t scar the youngster’s psyche – after all, they were probably first placed under electronic surveillance in their crib when they were five days old! Most pertinently, it keeps them on the straight and narrow. If they go somewhere other than where they’ve said they’ll go, or if they lie afterwards about where they’ve been, they’ll be found out, and suffer the penalties – like, their cell phone plan will be downgraded from platinum to regular (assuming they have real hard-ass parents). But how many parents really think that this sort of surveillance of their teenage kids is a good idea?
The overriding issue here has nothing whatsoever to do with inculcating any sort of Kantian moral sense. The issue, rather, is whether or not employers and parents can be trusted to use surveillance and enforcement only for a mutual benefit including their employees and children. Neither employees nor children are the slaves of their employers or parents, and excessive surveillance compromises their primary benefits of autonomy and privacy.

It is not at all clear too whether strict surveillance in the workplace — despite claims to the contrary — actually improves actual productivity, which is difficult to measure directly; I know from direct experience that strict workplace surveillance is often used to reinforce status distinctions and social dominance relations between management and workers; workplaces with strict social hierarchies are not necessarily more productive than those with a more collaborative and equalitarian atmosphere.

Rather than objecting to surveillance because it fails to develop or hinders development of a Kantian moral sense, we object to surveillance in these examples because it's just bad in itself.

We can draw the larger conclusion that when strict surveillance and enforcement of some behavior appears intuitively objectionable, we have not fully understood the game in which the surveillance and enforcement is taking place.

In the case of traffic enforcement, driving safely itself has clear and unambiguous instrumental utility, and the surveillance and enforcement acts predominantly to create a mutually beneficial outcome that would be impossible or unstable without the surveillance and enforcement. The surveillance and enforcement do not act to inculcate a Kantian moral sense, they act rather to protect those who (somehow) develop a Kantian moral sense — in the sense of directly preferring a mutual benefit to exploiting others — and ensure they are not exploited or made suckers.

In the case of academic honesty, among the students there is not a Prisoner's Dilemma situation: academic honesty enforces one particular zero-sum game over another, and the larger social benefit of the "honesty" game does not (under present circumstances) outweigh the direct negative consequences for those students who lose that game. Surveillance and enforcement do not protect those who develop any sort of Kantian moral sense, since honest failures suffer negative consequences just as severe as detected cheaters.

Once we understand what social "game" is being played and how it is being played, we can construct systems of surveillance and enforcement that use immediate self-interest to select against truly undesired outcomes; where the desired outcome is of mutual benefit to all parties, a Kantian moral sense will develop automatically. Where a Kantian moral sense does not develop automatically, there is not Kantian moral sense to develop — no mutual benefit — or the game has been set up or played irrationally or for covert purposes.