Sunday, April 27, 2014

Rand and Lenin

Ever since I learned that Ayn Rand developed some of her most enduring aesthetic tastes by attending, with the help of cheap tickets funded by the Bolsheviks, weekly performances of cheesy operettas at the Mikhailovsky state-run theater, I've held Lenin responsible for The Fountainhead.

Corey Robin

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Links April 26 2014

Political Economy

US Is an Oligarchy Not a Democracy, says Scientific Study
What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It? (must read)
The War on Reason
A New War on Speech
Market Corrections (The rise and fall of Lenin's New Economic Policy)


Republicans blast Nevada rancher for failing to use commonly accepted racial code words (h/t to Political Irony)
No, you’re not entitled to your opinion
Life and leadership lessons from Dungeons & Dragons
Time’s Arrow Traced to Quantum Source

The nature of skepticism and humanism

In his otherwise excellent piece, Bigger than Phil: When did faith start to fade?, on the failings of many "Sophisticated Theologians," Adam Gopnick makes a couple of rather large errors describing the nature of skepticism, rationalism, and humanism. Gopnick describes the "thoroughgoing rationalists" as those who categorical deny intuition, and "navigate life by reasoning about it," presumably using only reasoning. Similarly, he describes humanists as simply disguised transcendentalists.
But, just as surely, most noes believe in something like what the Super-Naturalists would call faith—they search for transcendence and epiphany, practice some ritual, live some rite. True rationalists are as rare in life as actual deconstructionists are in university English departments, or true bisexuals in gay bars. In a lifetime spent in hotbeds of secularism, I have known perhaps two thoroughgoing rationalists—people who actually tried to eliminate intuition and navigate life by reasoning about it—and countless humanists, in Comte’s sense, people who don’t go in for God but are enthusiasts for transcendent meaning, for sacred pantheons and private chapels. They have some syncretic mixture of rituals: they polish menorahs or decorate Christmas trees, meditate upon the great beyond, say a silent prayer, light candles to the darkness. They talk without difficulty of souls and weapons of the spirit, and go to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve to hear the Gloria, and though they leave early, they leave fulfilled. You will know them by their faces; they are the weepy ones in the rear.

The former characterization is a straw man, the latter seems mostly disconnected from reality.

It is both unnecessary, undesirable, and probably impossible to be a "thoroughgoing rationalist[]" in Gopnick's sense. The world is far too complex, and our brains far too small, to reason through more than a tiny few, much less every, decision we face. We have good evidence to believe that the world is generalizable, and there is nothing disreputable about learning useful generalizations about the world by loose induction from experience or evolution (i.e. intuition), or even received wisdom. Good enough is good enough, and if intuition or received wisdom is good enough to get one through the day, lacking evidence to the contrary, there is no reason not to use it. For example, I have not made a detailed analysis of the best way to drive to school; instead, I have a route that seems (intuitively) good enough, and I use it. Furthermore, I do not bother to analyze the daily traffic that might suggest a better route for that day; I just stick to my existing route as good enough. A trivial example, to be sure, but an argument that is rebutted by a trivial example cannot be very good. Indeed, the "reason through everything standard is so unattainable that I strongly suspect the two "thoroughgoing rationalists" Gopnick mentions often use intuition and received wisdom. The idea navigating life by some sort of pure reason is nonsensical, so we need a better definition of the thoroughgoing rationalist. I consider a thoroughgoing rationalist, i.e. a skeptic, to be someone who wants to test any belief (stance on the truth or falsity of a proposition) by reason and evidence, is willing to test any belief by reason and evidence, and will in fact change his or her belief on the basis of these tests. We can still use intuition, rules of thumb, even received wisdom, but if there is a reason to subject that intuition to scrutiny, we will do so, and if our intuition is unreasonable, we will abandon it. But as a matter of practicality, if our intuition is good enough, we will use it until we have good reason to examine and possibly change it. Skepticism, therefore, is not a day-to-day methodology, but a meta-cognitive stance. It differentiates between those who are willing and able to subject all their beliefs to the test of reason and evidence, and those who hold back some beliefs from that test. There are plenty of the latter, and enough of the former to make the distinction relevant.

Gopnick's definition of rationalism is in error, but his depiction of humanism is both insulting and without foundation. It may be true that a few people call themselves humanists yet are still "enthusiasts for transcendent meaning" and the trappings of, and transcendent justification for, religion. Gopnick may have spent a lifetime "in hotbeds of secularism," but so have I, and my experience is different from his: I know absolutely zero of the kind of humanists he describe; I admit to a few only on the general principle that almost every describable behavior applies to at least a few people. In theory, humanism is the most un-transcendental moral philosophy imaginable: the foundation of moral reasoning is the actual well-being of real, living, breathing, concrete, un-transcendental human beings. I know a lot of liberal Christians (and a few liberal Muslims) who implicitly accept humanism but still mouth the platitudes of their religion, but I do not know any humanists who have explicitly renounced moral transcendentalism but still secretly yearn for it. There may be a few, but they are not only not typical, they are extremely rare. I can imagine only that Gopnick believes that everyone must necessarily yearn for transcendentalism, and anyone who explicitly renounces it must be fundamentally insincere. But it is simply untrue. We may still be in the minority with respect to the whole population, but people who call themselves humanists, at least those who I know, have no secret yearning for the transcendental.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Finance and poker

I used to play poker. I don't much play anymore, mostly because I don't have any time or money, but also because people playing poker at casinos are no longer unskilled enough to for me to consistently make money.

Poker is a curious game. It is reasonably well-understood that in theory, "optimal" play in poker guarantees that (absent a rake) you will always break even in the long run, regardless of how well or poorly your opponent plays. Thus, to win at poker, you have to figure out how your opponent is playing non-optimally, and play in the corresponding non-optimal way that will give you positive odds. For example, many inexperienced players play too loosely and passively — they play too many hands that have negative odds, and they don't raise enough when they have positive odds. To take advantage of them, an experienced player will play tightly and aggressively, playing only hands with positive odds and almost always then raising.* Note that the "expert" is playing sub-optimally: "optimal" play requires playing marginally positive hands passively, and bluffing some hands with negative odds. But playing that way will simply break even in the long run, even against sub-optimal play. If the other players understand her tight-aggressive strategy, they will simply fold with mediocre hands whenever she raises.

*One fictional trope that I find amusingly unrealistic is the depiction of the "expert" player as one who can bluff his opponents into folding with better hands. In reality, the real expert will make a lot more money by convincing her opponents to call with worse hands; her bluffs are calculated to fail, to convince opponents to call more. Hence, she will usually show her opponents her (infrequent) successful bluffs and hide her winning hands (and hint they were bluffs).

Another thing that happens all too often in reality is experienced players getting upset with new players for playing poorly. Stupid! You want to
encourage poor play and take advantage of it. Poker is not a game of skill in calculating odds; it is a game of psychological observation and manipulation. If you can't manipulate a newbie, you are not even an intermediate player, much less an expert.

There is one situation in poker when playing correctly has positive odds: when you are no-limit heads-up (you can bet any amount you want, up to your total, and you playing against one opponent), and you have at least double the amount of money he has. Then you just go more or less all in on every hand*, counting on the fact that your opponent has to beat you twice, whereas you have to beat him only once. If the blind (forced opening bet) is large, and it is usually very large near the end of a tournament when the last two players are fighting for first place, your opponent can't wait for a good hand to call you.

*IIRC, the exactly correct strategy is to bet so that if you do lose, you equalize your and your opponent's stacks after the next blind.

If you go to a poker tournament, and you play the optimal strategy, you will lose the tournament. On average, you will neither win nor lose, but there will be a player who figures out the sub-optimal play of other players and takes advantage of them (or who plays sub-optimally, with fatter tails*, and gets lucky), and then beats you by brute force at the end.

*i.e. hey have a higher probability of either going broke quickly or getting rich quickly, with a lower probability of breaking even.

Finance is the same way. The "optimal" strategy is to create a portfolio such that no matter what happens in the economy, your investment earns, in the long run, the same rate as general economic growth (1-4% per year). You'll never* lose with this strategy, but neither can you win: you will never* become relatively wealthier than someone who plays a sub-optimal strategy and either outsmarts other investors, or who just gets lucky. And when any other player gets substantially more than you, he can beat you down by brute force simply by being irrational longer than you can stay solvent.

*Well, rarely; even an optimal strategy has a little room on the tails.

One charming bit of naivete I see in economists is the idea that economics is fundamentally about the optimal allocation of resources to maximize social production. In some abstract theoretical universe this might be true, but in reality, economics is about power; it is about winning. Hence, people, especially people with a lot of money, are not trying to not lose, they are trying to win. They are trying to defeat their opponents. Hence, they cannot play conservatively, i.e. not to lose; even if their strategy is just naively sub-optimal, there are enough other people that some of them will get lucky and win big. The "conservative" strategy cannot (rarely) win big; the whole point is to balance big losers against big winners, and small losers against small winners. This asymmetry becomes even more pronounced in finance, because the big winners get to actually change the rules. Most notably, the rich socialize their own losses and privatize their gains. This tendency causes the financial market to crash (since the rich have no downside risk, they can make bets with negative long-term odds but the potential for short-term gains). Everyone, even the "conservative" investor, loses everything (or at least all his gains), and then state makes up the losses of the rich. ("Sure got a nice economy there. Be a shame if it were to burn down.")

The typical capitalist apologetic for this system is that it promotes innovation. The apologetic is half right. Unlike poker, real life has not only risk, but uncertainty. We have to make wildly speculative bets to create fundamentally new things. Everyone laughs at, but whoda thunk that a search engine and a discount bookstore would be the primary drivers of internet technology, productivity, and economic growth? The probability of any individual speculation paying off is so low, according to the apologetics, that the payoff must be correspondingly large, and that we cannot punish failure by economic "death." Otherwise, no one would ever take speculative bets, and we would have no (or very little) innovation.

However, there are two flaws in the capitalist apologia. First, the reward for winning speculative bets is not increased consumption (Bill and Melinda Gates and their family could not and have no intention of actually themselves consuming $50 billion of goods and services), but political power: the power to tell people (i.e. the workers) what to do and not to do.* There is no need to reward successful innovators with political power; there are plenty of alternatives, such as social status.

*It you think that power is actually held by our elected representatives in the official government, you are hopelessly naive.

Either people "naturally" (i.e. without special, artificially constructed incentives) want to be innovative, or they do not. (More generally, they might or might not want the fruits of innovation more than they dislike the process of innovation.) If we do not naturally want to be innovative, why should we as a society encourage such behavior? If we naturally do want to be innovative, then instead of creating powerful positive incentives, it is sufficient to only remove negative incentives: do not punish people for trying to innovate and failing.

(The other apologia for capitalism is that most people are stupid, lazy, and irrational; they must be ruled for their own good. "Democracy" is at worst a sham and at best just a check on the most egregious corruption of the elite. As a democrat, I reject this premise, for what I think are good reasons.)

That's why I am coming to believe that finance should be entirely public, run by the government. The government can afford to play conservatively, i.e. to play to not lose. Most of our economy, the economy of food, clothes, houses, electricity, water, cars, gasoline, etc., is a game we want to play to not lose. For the rest, encourage small-scale innovation by removing the negative incentive of losing a year's pay trying to innovate: give everyone a free year to try something innovative (a person would have to prove only that she is not going to sit around for a year watching TV); if they're successful, give them some publicity and another year or two to continue being innovative. If they're unsuccessful, they've lost nothing. For the "big bets," innovations that are beyond the scope of the individual or small group, we should vote; why should a private person individually decide how to innovate with the labor of thousands or millions?

Such a society might not be as innovative as full-throttle innovate-or-die capitalism, but I think it will still have substantial innovation and would definitely be a happier society for everyone.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Belief, disbelief, and/or lack of belief

I saw "What Atheism Really Means" by Mike Dobbins when it came out last month. I chuckled and moved on because Dobbins makes a pointless and irrelevant distinction. But then 3quarksdaily picked it up, so I suppose the editors there are as ignorant as Dobbins about basic philosophy. In his article, Dobbins argues that the definition of atheism as lack of a [positive] belief in God is insufficient, and argues that the stronger definition as disbelief in God is more appropriate. However, Dobbins' objection is irrelevant, because it ignores or conflates different social contexts where various definitions of atheism operate: prosaic, philosophical, and political.

In an prosaic social context, I am happy to use Dobbins' stronger definition: I definitely say that I disbelieve in the existence of god. In this context, I am using the social definition of "god": the sort of being that characters such as Yahweh, Jesus*, Allah, Krishna, the Buddha*, Ngai, etc. purportedly represent. None of these entities actually exist; I believe that these characters are fictional on the basis of evidence and reason. I might be mistaken, of course, but I definitely do believe, and I would rationally defend that belief, that they do not actually exist. In a prosaic context, I agree with Dobbins: the facts warrant a statement of definite disbelief.

*To the extent that explicitly deistic attributes are essential to these characters. In a similar sense, the character of Abraham Lincoln in Benjamin P. Thomas's Abraham Lincoln: A Biography represents a real person, whereas the character of Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) in the film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is fictional.

However, things get a lot more complicated when philosophers consider an idea. Many atheists, myself included, have studied a considerable amount of philosophy, and there are many philosophers who have examined and defended atheism at the highest professional academic level. In a philosophical context, the precise meaning of words becomes critically important; the unqualified word, "god," becomes unacceptably ambiguous. The sense noted above, beings like Yahweh, etc., i.e. beings with personality, desires, preferences, and who intervene in the physical world to effect their will, is only one sense. There is also the deistic god, a god who sets the world in motion with a set of physical laws and then does not intervene further. This sort of god is not so much disbelieved as dismissed. While it would be nice to know, even if such a god existed, it would have so little impact on my daily life that in the absence of any evidence (even if such evidence could be adduced) deciding one way or the other is a waste of time. Finally, there are the "gods" of Sophisticated Theology™. For example, Jerry Coyne (who reads Sophisticated Theology™ so I don't have to), quotes David Bentley Hart's book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss:
To speak of “God” properly, then . . . is to speak of the one infinite source of all that is: eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, uncreated, uncaused, perfectly transcendent of all things and for that very reason absolutely immanent to all things. God so understood is not something poised over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all.
It seems clear that Hart's definition of god is not the sort of... concept?... that I can have any belief one way or another regarding existence. To be philosophically rigorous, the stronger, definite statement of disbelief is too narrow to encompass all these different definitions of "god"; the broader, and admittedly weaker, definition of "atheism" as a lack of positive belief succinctly covers all these cases.

In addition to ambiguities in the meaning of "god," there are also ambiguities and subtleties in the word "believe." In a philosophical sense, a person can believe or disbelieve only propositions, i.e. statements that can coherently be either true or false. (Philosopher Theodore Drange explores this concept in some depth in his 1998 article, "Atheism, Agnosticism, Noncognitivism.") If "God exists" is a proposition, then I can definitely disbelieve it. However, if "God exists" is not a proposition, as Hart seems to claim, then I can neither believe nor disbelieve it. In a similar sense, I can neither believe nor disbelieve the statement, "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously," nor can I believe or disbelieve emotitive sentences such as "Yay!" or "Boo hoo!" Again, confronted with a vast range of ways that theists present the propositional status of "God exists," I can be both precise and compact only by asserting that I lack a positive belief about the existence of God.

In addition to senses of god that are not propositions, there are senses that are propositional but cannot be known. To illustrate this principle, consider the statement, "There is [present tense] a ninja hiding in the room." First, this statement is hard to prove: ninjas are, by definition, far more skilled at hiding than I am at detecting them. More importantly, though, even if I discover a ninja in the room, he or she is ipso facto no longer hiding. Neither discovering nor failing to discover a ninja, therefore, is evidence for or against the proposition. While the statement is propositionally, semantically, and even scientifically unproblematic, it is fundamentally unknowable by definition. While I might be able to come to a definite belief on indirect evidence (it seems unlikely that any ninja would want to hide in my office), if I am going to be rigorous (or if I am considering a statement where indirect evidence is unavailable), I have to simply deny any belief.

Another philosophical subtlety comes from the way that scientific naturalists such as myself view knowledge. First, in the scientific naturalist account, without exception, all knowledge — i.e. all propositional statements about reality — is always provisional. All knowledge is conditioned on evidence, and any individual human as well as all human society, has at any time only a small, finite subset of the very large and possibly infinite body of available evidence, and all knowledge, therefore, is subject to revision given new evidence. Because all knowledge is provisional, it's unnecessary to explicitly condition knowledge statements with provisionality. The sentence, "I believe (or know) that two bodies experience an attraction described by general relativity, which can be closely approximated at low densities as a force proportional to the product of the masses divided by the square of the distance," does not gain any additional meaning by adding provisos noting that further evidence might change my opinion. Because there are no statements about reality that are believed non-provisionally, we don't need to distinguish between provisional and non-provisional beliefs, and the linguistic distinction is dropped as redundant. In my own writing, I try to avoid the word, "certainly," replacing it with "definitely," but my vocabulary was shaped by convention, not scientific rigor, so I occasionally err. To the obtuse or unaware, unconditioned statements about knowledge sometimes appear to be stating facts with certainty rather than definiteness. Thus, even towards conceptions of gods that I disbelieve, I definitely disbelieve, i.e. I have made a decision, but I do not certainly disbelieve.

A more important consideration, however, requires looking a little more deeply into how scientific naturalism works. Because all knowledge is provisional, it is always statistical, at least conceptually. (I have to egregiously simplify here, but I hope to capture an essential feature about scientific knowledge.) In a statistical model, we create a "null hypothesis," which represents a default belief about the world, and an "alternate hypothesis" which represents the negation of the null hypothesis. For example, I might say that the null hypothesis is that the average height of men in the United States equal to 179 cm, and the alternate hypothesis is that the average height is not equal to 179 cm; on average they are either shorter than or taller than 179 cm. Note that the null hypothesis is probably not precisely correct; even if the average height is very near 179 cm, it is probably not exactly 179.000000000 .. 000 cm (we can measure length very precisely). (This imprecision is not really problematic; close enough is close enough, and if I'm designing a car or a house, for instance, I don't need to know the average height to nanometer precision.) In addition to being not precisely correct, the null hypothesis is usually not directly provable, it is only disprovable. If I measure the height of 300* men, and find that their average height (sample mean) is 180 cm, with a standard deviation of 10 cm, then I know with about 95.8% confidence that the average height of all men is not 179 cm. Note that I do not know that the average height of all men is 180 cm; I have "proven" (provisionally) only the alternate hypothesis, which is that the average height is not 179 cm. The best I can say is that I have good evidence for now considering 180 cm to be the new null hypothesis when talking about the height of American men.

At this sample size, the different between the normal and t distributions is negligible.

This method impels a curious terminology that any competent professor of statistics will impress on her students: you say you reject the null hypothesis or you fail to reject the null hypothesis; you do not, on pain of durance vile, ever say you accept the null hypothesis. Similarly, you say you have sufficient evidence to conclude that the alternate hypothesis is true, or you have insufficient evidence to conclude the alternate hypothesis is true; you never say you conclude that the null hypothesis is true. Strictly (very strictly) speaking, therefore, a scientific naturalist never actually believes the currently specified description of the world, a systematic collection of null hypotheses; she believes, instead, that she has insufficient evidence to conclude that the world is different from this current specification.

Note that "insufficient evidence" applies equally to edge cases as well as to non-edge cases. In the above example, if I had measured the height of only 250 men, I would be only 94.3% confident that I can reject the null and conclude the alternate hypothesis (that the average height was not 179 cm) was true. Because by convention I will reject only if I am 95% confident, I will fail to reject the null and conclude that I have insufficient evidence to conclude that the average height is not 179 cm. Similarly, if I find the average height of my sample to be 179.1 cm, I will be only 56.2% confident that the null is false, but I will still just say that I have insufficient evidence. (If I measured 30,000 men, however, a sample average of 179.1 would give me 95.8% confidence to reject the null.)

In practice when we repeatedly test and fail to reject some specification of the world, especially when our failure to reject is not borderline, we have good reason to believe the world really is at least very close to the specification. Still, when pressed, and in ambiguous or uncertain circumstances, scientific naturalists tend to retreat to "insufficient evidence" semantics.

I hope you'll forgive me, gentle reader, when I tell you we atheists really don't care that much anymore about the philosophical subtleties I have wasted so much of your time describing to you. As far as most atheists are concerned, the philosophical and scientific debate is over, decided. No matter what definition of "god" you choose (that is not intentionally metaphorical nor does unacceptable violence to the meaning of the word, "god"), your definition is meaningless, non-propositional, unknowable, or rejected by the evidence. We make a nod to the philosophical subtleties by making the most general statement — we lack a positive belief about god, which includes disbelief in some definitions of "god" — when concision is more important than detail.

Atheism is not primarily a philosophical position; it is a political position. Our position is that all god talk (that is not intentionally metaphorical) is not just nonsense, but pernicious nonsense. Religion is not just a weird thing that some people do in private; it has profoundly negative effects on our societies, cultures, and nations (and what positive effects it might have would be at least as good, and usually better, if the god talk were eliminated). We define atheism broadly not just as a nod to the philosophical subtleties, but also to be as inclusive as possible to people who reject god talk for a variety of reasons, with various degrees of philosophical sophistication. We want to include as an "atheist" someone who is not particularly interested in philosophy, who just doesn't know whether or not Yahweh and Jesus are real, but who finds offensive and absurd, as we do, the notion that, for example, the leader of an organization of supposedly celibate men, an organization that has gone out of its way to protect and defend men they know have raped children, has anything whatsoever legitimate to say about how consenting adults employ their genitals or women employ, or refuse to employ, their uteruses. If you can say only that you lack a positive belief about god, and that people who say they do have any sort of positive belief thereby gain no moral or scientific authority whatsoever, you're one of us.