Sunday, 13 July 2014

Leviathan, Inc.: Why We Ought to Pay Taxes

     In the previous post, I argued that law exists for the purpose of increasing the freedom of those bound by it, and I spoke of a liberty dividend, the net gain in liberty that we receive in exchange for the freedoms we surrender. In this post I want to further explore the analogy of the State to a business corporation.

     A corporation is an artificial legal person. It can own property, enter into contracts, and exercise various other legal rights. Unlike natural persons, however, the corporation is owned by its shareholders. Yet it is important to remember that the assets of the corporation itself are the property of the corporation; just because you're a shareholder in the Coca Cola Company doesn't mean you can help yourself to free Cokes at the local bottler. Rather, you own a stake in the enterprise as a whole, which means that you get a say in how it is run. (Which means that if you want free Cokes, you need to elect a board of directors who will implement a policy to give away free Cokes.)
     There are lots of reasons to form a corporation, but most importantly for this discussion, a corporation allows one to undertake large projects beyond the capacity of any individual. If a bunch of entrepreneurs wanted to build a ship to engage in merchant trade, it would be prohibitively unwieldy for each to manage their own portion of the investment, hiring the shipyard and crew and buying materials and cargo and fuel and supplies. It's much easier to simply pool all the money, and appoint someone to coordinate the whole project and delegate responsibilities. And by constituting the enterprise as a separate legal person, the investors can greatly simplify the dealings with customers, contractors and clients.

     Now, the state differs from a typical business corporation in several respects. For one, you don't get much of a choice as to whether or not you invest your liberty with the state. You may have the option to emigrate to a different state, but wherever you go you're going to be subject to the local laws. As I argued in the previous post, it's actually a good investment and you ought to welcome it, even if you're not practically free to refuse.
      For another, you buy shares in a business corporation with money, which means you can own multiple shares, and that entitles you to multiple votes when electing the board of directors. The investment we make in the State for our shares is not money, but the liberty we surrender to its laws, and since each of us in principle surrenders the same individual sovereignty, each of us should have exactly one share; no one's vote should count for more than anyone else's.

     But our liberty need not be the only thing we invest with the state. There are various sorts of things which we can think of as collective assets, valuable finite resources that all of us have moral claim to but which cannot be conveniently divided up into individual shares. It makes sense to manage these resources as a single unit, on behalf of the people collectively. Governments already do this for many resources when they allocate radio bandwidth, establish fishing quotas, and charge royalties for logging and mining.
     It's true that there are some laissez faire ideologues who believe that all collective assets should be divided up and owned privately, and that a robust private law system (i.e. torts and contracts) would be sufficient to resolve the conflicts that would arise. But that would require an ideal world like the one of introductory high school physics, where the absence of friction and air resistance makes almost everything seem possible. In the real world, rivers flow and the wind blows and what I do in my allotment of ocean will unavoidably spill over into yours. In fact, it's a good thing that air and water circulates around the planet, as that's fundamental to keeping our ecosystems functioning. Sorting out who has rights to what would actually call for much more government involvement (in the form of courts hearing private tort/contract cases) than simply managing shared assets as a single unit.
     Some shared resources can be divvied up, of course, but others can't, not just because it would be impractical to do so but because the value of the resource comes from its being unified into a single cohesive system rather than broken up into many competing parts.
     Consider measurement systems, for example. We are so used to everyone knowing what a meter or a kilogram or a second is that we rarely imagine how much more complicated everything would be if we didn't all use a single standard system of measurement. It's only when we have to deal with backward countries that still use inches and ounces that we have some inkling of the confusion, but even there we enjoy the benefit of having fixed conversion rates between standards, rather  than everyone just picking their own poetic description for "This much".
     Think for a moment how insanely complicated our lives would be if we didn't have single unitary standards for standard units. We'd get by, but it'd take up a lot of our time trying to sort out how much rice it should cost to trade for how much cotton thread. Because, after all, the other hugely important unitary standard we all rely on and take for granted is money.

     Like standard units of measurement, the existence of a single system of currency improves our lives in countless ways. The time and effort saved by being able evaluate our trades with standard units is truly staggering, but we are so used to to using dollars that we don't even think about how powerful the system is. We take the convenience of money so much for granted, that we don't even think to put a price on it; we assume it should be free.
     But why should it be? Why should anything that makes your life easier be given to you for free? If there's a widget that saves you $10 of effort every day, it doesn't matter how much it costs me to produce that widget; if I can let you have it for less than $10 you still come out ahead, and have no reason to complain.
     So stop and think about how much it's worth to you to have a functioning system of currency. How much does would you pay for the benefits of living in a world where you can use the concept of a dollar to speed up your calculations and negotiations? Where you can buy insurance against risk, or pool your money with others in a joint stock corporation, or buy a house with a mortgage instead of having to save up enough gold to buy land outright? Money's a ridiculously powerful thing that we all benefit from, but the benefits are greater the more you use it. People who use a lot of money, and who therefore have access to the more powerful uses of money, ought to be willing to pay a lot more for the use of the money utility than people for whom it is a mildly more convenient alternative to barter.  It does not matter how much it costs to create and maintain the money utility; the price you are willing to pay for its use should depend on the utility you get from it.

     Now, what makes the money utility useful is the fact that all of us collectively agree to use it as a standard, and that we all agree to accept its promise of value. (Indeed, you could argue that the person who will do an hour's work for $5 contributes much more to maintaining the value of a dollar than someone who bills out at $300.) It therefore is arguably one of those collective assets of the sort the State can and should manage on our behalf, and if it is economically practical for the State to turn a profit by charging a premium for the use of money, then it ought to earn as much profit as it sustainably can for us by doing so. In the case of the money utility, the premium the State charges has a special name: tax.
   
     What I am trying to suggest here is that the way we usually think of taxes is wrong. We have traditionally thought of taxes as a necessary evil at best. Historically, warlords extorted tribute from people they subjugated. In time, they justified it by spending some of that money on public works that benefited their people. We still think of tax as the powerful government confiscating our property, sometimes for our own good to pay for roads and hospitals. But it's a mistake to think that what we're paying for is roads and hospitals, because then we (quite understandably) get angry at having to pay for benefits that other people use and we don't, and we elect politicians who promise to cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes, whether or not that's actually a good idea (sometimes it is, but not always).

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

The Liberty Dividend: Why We Ought to Obey the Law

     I've recently been involved in a number of conversation about the proper use of law and the role of government. Since my thoughts have been coalescing around a general theory of such things which I haven't fully articulated yet, I have decided to attempt to do so in a series of blog posts. The first element I'm going to address is law, which I've touched on before but not quite with the attention I mean to in this essay.

     As I've previously written, I think of law as the weapon of choice for final resolution of disputes in any society that aspires to consider itself civilized. But I haven't yet explained in detail how I think this weapon works, why we should prefer it to guns or swords, and what that means for how it legitimately can and can't be used.

     To begin with, a weapon is a tool which is used to diminish the capacities of a target in some way or other. A gun or sword takes away an opponent's choices mainly through blood loss and the incapacity that results, while the law takes away choices by agreement. (Sure, there may be coercion involved through penalties imposed for breaking the law, but law-abiding citizens generally obey the law because they have agreed to do so.)
     But why would anyone choose to give up choices? All other things being equal, aren't more options better? Isn't it irrational to surrender freedoms that one might conceivably some day wish to exercise? (You might think you would never want to murder someone, so why not give up that freedom? But if no one ever had a reason to murder anyone, we wouldn't need a rule against it.)

     In fact, surrendering freedoms can sometimes be a very smart move. On his way home from the Trojan War, Odysseus had to sail past the Sirens, whose song invariably overcame the willpower of any who heard them, drawing them to sail onto the rocks where they would be shipwrecked and drowned. Clever Odysseus knew that all he had to do to get past this peril was put wax in his ears and the ears of his crew, so they could not hear the Sirens. But Odysseus wanted to hear the song, too, so he had his crew lash him to the mast and ordered them to ignore him until after they had sailed clear of the danger. And so, by deliberately giving up his freedom to control his ship, Odysseus achieved what no one had ever done before: he heard the Sirens' song and lived to tell about it.
     There are lots of non-mythical examples of how surrendering some autonomy can be a smart choice. With respect to the criminal law, we are all better off (more free) if we give up the right to murder each other in exchange for the right not to be murdered, because being murdered extinguishes all freedoms. Perhaps even more significant, though, is the surrender of autonomy through contract law. Seriously, would you do business with me if I said, "I will bring you a bushel of wheat for that piece of silver, but I reserve the right to break all my promises once the silver is in my hand"? The whole point of contract law is to allow us to make (and thus rely on) binding promises. By giving up the ability to break our promises, we gain a greater ability to trade with each other.

     I argue, then, that law is something which we ought to obey as rational beings because doing so has the net effect of increasing our practical liberty. We may, on occasion, obey the law out of fear of coercion rather than civic duty, but that need not undermine the legitimacy of the law itself. Odysseus wanted to steer his shop onto the rocks, and was prevented by the brute force of the ropes around him, but his choice to be bound by those ropes in the first place was not invalidated by the fact that he changed his mind under the influence of the Sirens. What matters is that law over all must increase our liberty, regardless of how we may bicker about any particular instance of its constraining our liberty. If law in general makes us freer, than we ought to obey it.
     So, the principle I want to articulate here is that properly constituted law represents an investment of liberty: we surrender some of our liberty to the State, which then uses that liberty capital to generate a profit, a surplus of liberty which is then distributed back to us as a liberty dividend. (A regime whose laws do not generate a net gain in liberty is owed no obedience by its citizens. It may impose its will by force, but it cannot claim to be lawful.)

     And this is where the moral obligation to obey the law comes from. I need know nothing about your personal moral beliefs and what other moral duties you may feel you have, but can assert that a moral duty to obey the law almost certainly follows from your own value system.

  • If freedom itself is a value, this is trivial; you ought to do that which maximizes your freedom, which is what a properly constituted law is meant to do.  
  • If you do not directly value freedom, you probably value something else for which freedom is at least an instrumental good. That is, if you think being nice to puppies is important, then you should want as much freedom as possible in order increase the likelihood that you will be able to find a way to be nice to puppies in any situation that arises. The same logic applies if you think you ought to sacrifice puppies to Cthulhu, or put things on top of other things, or whatever it is that you may value. Ergo, you ought to obey the law in order to maximize your capacity to advance whatever primary values you do have.
  • If you do not value the freedoms that law creates, and prefer the freedoms that it constrains, then and only then do I admit you have no particular internal duty to obey the law. But if you are willing to bear the risk of being murdered or maimed or violated by others, in exchange for your own freedom to murder or assault and violate others, then you can have no principled objection to being imprisoned yourself.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Memetic Pathology of Rape Culture


     People have been talking a lot about rape culture lately, and how to eradicate it. I'm completely and enthusiastically in favour of this project, but I think it's important we understand what we're up against from a memetic pathology perspective. In particular, I want to argue that rape culture is more like cancer than it is to an infectious disease, and so we should tailor our approach to it accordingly.

     Eradicating an infectious disease is, in principle, easy. All you have to is kill off all the virus or bacterium or parasite that causes the disease, and that's that. Infectious pathogens are organisms that have evolved sophisticated tricks to get into the body of the host and use it to reproduce more pathogens. These pathogens aren't simple; they are products of countless generations of natural selection, honing and refining their genome to enable them to overcome the various immunities in hosts that are also the product of countless generations of natural selection. Once the last polio virus is destroyed, no one will ever again contract polio, because a common influenza virus isn't clever enough to just spontaneously re-invent for itself all those neat gadgets polio had to sneak into a cell. In short, it's really hard to start an infectious disease from scratch.
     If rape culture were like an infectious disease, eradicating it would be a simple matter of not teaching boys to rape. Without being taught that rape was okay, goes the theory, they'd never get it into their heads to force themselves on girls without consent.
     But that's kind of silly. I mean, the idea of raping someone is not exactly rocket science. Toddlers quite spontaneously and independently discover the secret of hitting people, so any idiot can come up with the idea of using force to get one's way. And if the way one wants to get is with someone else's body, then it doesn't take a great deal of imaginative genius to devise a scheme to which we would properly attach the label "rape".

     Now think about cancer. Although it may be triggered by a virus or some environmental factor, cancer starts out as something going haywire in the finely-tuned instructions that control when and how a cell divides. (Most cells aren't supposed to divide at all, once they become specialized for a particular function as a nerve cell, muscle cell, blood cell, etc.) The cell replicates when it's not supposed to, often growing into a tumour that interferes with the proper functioning of the tissue it's in. Now, cell replication is still a remarkably complex process, and there's an awful lot of biochemistry involved, including genes that perform vitally important functions in a healthy cell. But in a cancer, these otherwise healthy genes and sugars and lipids are put to work supporting the out-of-control cancerous replication. The basic mistake that turns the whole process cancerous is just a dumb mistake, not some fiendishly clever set of genes from a highly evolved virus. Any idiot can toss a monkey wrench into the machinery and make it start malfunctioning.
     The same is true, I think, of rape culture. Any idiot can come up with the idea of forcing sex on someone else. Most of the time when that happens, the person immediately recognizes why it would be morally wrong, and it stops there. (Likewise, most potentially cancerous mutations never develop into tumours.) But occasionally, the idea will get past the immune-response of that morality meme, often because we human beings are just so diabolically clever at rationalizing justifications for why we deserve what we want and what we propose to do about it isn't really that bad, after all, and in fact maybe she really wants it and just needs to be given the opportunity to admit it and... etc. etc. etc. 
     I think, then, that rape culture is best understood as consisting of the kinds of cognitive tools that facilitate such rationalization. There are a few truly pathological memes in this complex, such as the moral concept of the slut (which I'd love to see eradicated from our vocabulary), but I suspect that most of the ideas that contribute to facilitating rape-thinking may actually perform useful cultural functions, just as most of the genes that allow a cancer cell to grow also perform important roles in healthy cells. But they likely could benefit from some refinement, to make them less susceptible to excusing rape.
     For example, consider the idea of consent, the absence of which turns sex into rape. But notice how closely the concept of  "consent" is to "permission", and thus how it ties into our way of thinking about sex as something done by men to women, rather than something two do together. Patients consent to treatment by surgeons who often work while the patient is unconscious. So even when we take pains to talk about the importance of consent, we are still unwittingly using and reinforcing a conception of sex where the verbs are all transitive ones, with active subjects and passive objects who are screwed with or without consent. 
     We could, instead, talk about consensus instead of consent. They both mean the same thing, actually, but "consensus" emphasizes the agency of all parties to an agreement, rather than implying a passive permission-granter. In fact, it goes farther than that, because our talk of men requiring the consent of women tends to reinforce a blindness to the role of male volition here. We blame women for implying their consent; we don't even think about men's consent because we just presume that a Manly Man must always be willing. And that, of course, is an idea that is central to rape culture.

     So my point here is that it isn't enough to say we need to stop teaching boys that rape is okay. It isn't even enough to say we need to start teaching them not to rape. Rape culture is a cancer that metastasized ages ago, and has become thoroughly integrated into even the tissues we're using to try to fight it. We need aggressive meme therapy, to replace even apparently helpful memes like "consent" with alleles like "consensus" that are more resistant to facilitating and rationalizing rape-thinking. That means we need to be a lot more conscious and reflective about how we think and talk about sex and sex roles generally. It's going to be tiresome, and we're going to be sick of the cure long before we're well. It's going to be especially tiresome and draining on those men who take pains to remind us that #notallmen are rapists, because those of us who aren't rapists are prone to think we're cured and don't need any treatment. 
     Sorry, guys. It really is just like cancer that way.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Abortion, Miscarriage and Differences of Belief

     Last week I happened to be in Ottawa with my wife as she attended a conference, and I was looking forward to touring Parliament. I did finally get to see it on the last day we were there, but the first day it was closed, so after a visit to the Supreme Court, I walked to the Canadian Museum of Nature instead. On the way back, my path was blocked by a rather large parade that explained the reason the houses of Parliament were closed: a major anti-abortion rally was taking place. Fortunately, I was in no hurry, so I stopped into a bookstore on the corner and had a chat with the clerks there while watching the protesters.



     I've written before about how I am torn by the debate over abortion. On the one hand, I think that objectively, morally relevant functional personhood doesn't emerge until some time after a baby has been born. At the same time, I recognize how vitally important it is for parents and others to bond early with babies, and treat them as if they are persons in order to help guide their development into real persons. In short, it's good that so many people believe and act upon something that isn't actually true. So I don't really want to be telling pro-lifers that their babies aren't actually people yet. I want them to talk to and cuddle and interact with their babies as if they were, so I am very reluctant to upset the belief that they are.
     And yet, I strong resist promoting that belief, not only because I believe it to be objectively wrong, but because such a belief can also create a great deal of unnecessary grief. If the fetus is a person and abortion is murder, after all, then miscarriage is the tragic death of a child. And while I do not mean to minimize the very real grief of parents who equate a miscarriage to the loss of a child, I think the author of this article is asking a little too much. She is right to ask us to acknowledge and validate her grief -- it is real -- but in asking us to talk about her miscarriage as the loss of an actual rather than a potential child, she wants to invalidate the feelings of people like myself and my wife, who have suffered miscarriages as disappointments rather than tragedies. One doesn't usually think of an absence of grief as something that needs validation, and to be sure we don't need to be consoled or comforted the way a grieving person does, but that isn't an excuse to dismiss our feelings as inauthentic or worse, heartless. We honestly don't feel like grieving parents of dead children, and I'm not sure there's any good reason why we ought to.

     Yet I'm still not comfortable with this as an answer. The same structure of argument could be applied to something like slavery. If I were a slave owner who genuinely, sincerely believed that slaves are not legally or morally persons, lack souls and don't feel pain or suffer in any meaningful way, then would my failure to feel guilty over whipping them be worthy of validation and respect by people who believe otherwise? I wouldn't think so. Moreover, I wouldn't want to say that slavery should be tolerated because people who believe slaves are persons aren't obliged to keep them, but have no right to impose that belief on others who do want to keep slaves. I categorically reject that argument, so I'm not satisfied with an argument of the same structure with respect to abortion. Someone who genuinely believe slaves are persons is morally obliged to oppose slavery everywhere, not just abstain from keeping slaves, and so someone who believe a fetus is a moral person is similarly obliged to oppose abortion everywhere, not merely decline to abort her own fetus.
     Of course, that is not the end of it. Let's consider, instead of slavery (where we all pretty much agree that slaves really are persons), something else. Suppose you genuinely and sincerely believed that blades of grass were persons, could feel pain and think and had a right not to be mowed, stepped on, or eaten. If you really believed that, you'd of course be morally obliged to act so as to protect grass from such mistreatment, ideally by persuading other people of the personhood of grass so that they too would cease harming grass, and eventually you could enact legislation to impose the consequences of this belief on everyone. But of course, persuading people that grass has the attributes of personhood is no small matter, because there's no evidence whatsoever for this ridiculous idea.
     So which of these two cases is that of the fetus more like? Is a fetus so obviously a person that those of us who doubt it are plainly delusional? I don't think one can fairly say that. Is a fetus so obviously not a person that those who believe it is are plainly delusional? I wouldn't say that, either; even though I've come to the conclusion that a fetus isn't a person, it took me an awful lot of brain-time. Moreover, as I've said before, I think the belief in the personhood of the fetus is in some ways beneficial even if untrue.
     Both beliefs are reasonable. That's what makes this a tragedy in the classical sense; reasonable and well-intentioned people are on the losing side of the conflict, whoever wins. At present and for the foreseeable future in Canada, my side has won and abortion is legal. But I think we all need to be gracious in victory, and honourable in defeat.
     On the pro-choice side, we need to be better at acknowledging and validating the feelings of people who genuinely and reasonably believe millions of helpless children are dying, whether through abortion or miscarriage. We need to better communicate that we want abortion to be legal not because we like it but because while we wish it were never needed, sometimes it is and it should be available. And we should be open to the possibility of being convinced that maybe we were wrong, and the fetus really is a person after all and we should change sides.
     On the pro-life side, you need to recognize that reasonable people have come to a different conclusion from about the fetus, and that they might be right. Open your mind to that possibility, consider it fairly, and even if you still ultimately reject it, remember that in seeking to restrict our access to safe abortion you are seeking to impose the consequences of your belief on sincere and well-intentioned people who genuinely and reasonably do not share it.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Invisible Hand is not your friend, either.

     Something I've been stewing about for a long time (and written about before) is the central myth of free market ideology. I've been meaning to write more about it for a long time, but as often happens it took a quote-meme to provoke me to action. Here's the quote:
Depressions and mass unemployment are not caused by the free market but by government interference in the economy.
     The quote is attributed to Ludwig von Mises, and it suffers from the same problem I've encountered trying to confirm other dubious quote-memes in that it doesn't bother to identify which work the quote comes from or what occasion the supposed author uttered it. And of course, the first several pages of hits I get googling for it are all instances of the same forwarded meme, which doesn't help at all. I don't know if Ludwig von Mises ever uttered exactly that sentence, but it is consistent with his other writings, and in any event, since the idea is so widely accepted (and so destructive), I'm more interested in refuting this absurdity than confirming its provenance.

     What's both funny and tragic about this myth is that it tends to be held by people who think of themselves as hard-headed realists, who see everything government does with a kind of pessimism that handily dismisses anyone who proposes government might actually be good for something as hopelessly naive. As I've written before, though, such cynical pessimism is particularly crippling because nothing closes one's mind to the truth more effectively than the belief that one already knows it. Yet the belief that we would be spared economic calamity if the government just disappeared is every bit as naive -- and in almost exactly the same way -- as the romanticized view of Mother Nature some tree huggers and most three-year-olds seem to have. Compare:
Starvation and mass extinction are not caused by nature, but by human intervention in the ecology.
     It even sounds superficially plausible, because of course we are in the middle of a mass-extinction that almost certainly is caused by human "intervention". But nature, in the absence of nasty smelly habitat-destroying humans, is not in fact always a cheerful place where carefree animals frolic in harmony. Animals kill and eat each other, even in the most sustainable ecological balance, which is never permanent; natural history is full of extinctions. While we are to blame for the dodo, the moa and the passenger pigeon, we have a pretty solid alibi for the trilobites and dinosaurs; humanity wasn't here to interfere with Permian and Cretaceous ecosystems. So yes, humans are responsible for some extinctions, but it's pure fantasy to suggest there'd be no extinctions without humans.
     Similarly, it's certainly true that governments can seriously screw up an economy, and there are lots and lots of historical and contemporary examples of this happening. But it does not follow from that trite observation that all economic strife is attributable to government intervention, and that economies would hum along with prosperity and plenty for all if the government would just back off.

     There is a strong parallel between ecologies and economies, of course, and it's no coincidence that the two words are so similar. Analogous feedback processes tend to drive both systems back towards a stable balance after most upsets. And it may well be appropriate, when looking at a natural ecosystem, to adopt a kind of heartlessness about what happens there, to accept that the rabbit must die to feed the coyote, because it's all part of Nature's Way. Likewise, cycles of boom and bust (and the poverty and hardship that go with them) are a natural part of how economies self-regulate.
     But while this kind of Prime Directive is sensible from the perspective of an ecologist studying a system, it's not something you can expect the rabbit to embrace. Indeed, from the rabbit's perspective, it's entitled to do whatever it can to try to avoid being eaten, and is perfectly within its rights to ignore the ecologist's tidy model and kill the coyote.
     In the same way, while I have sympathy for the economist who tries to avoid influencing the system he's studying, it's inappropriate for him to expect the people who suffer from unemployment or disenfranchisement to shrug and meekly accept their fate because it's Nature's Way. The human being, and the rabbit, have no obligation to respect that as normative.
     It gets worse. The very act of telling governments not to "interfere" is itself an interference, as it deprives the less powerful of the only legitimate means they might have had to level the playing field. There was a time, after all, when police called to the scene of a domestic disturbance would be reluctant to interfere with a "private dispute", but now we recognize that treating domestic violence this way actually legitimizes and endorses it; it amounts to siding with the wife-beater. Government's declining to get involved with economic exploitation of the powerless isn't simply "not interfering"; it's siding with the powerful.

     There is nothing unnatural about humans collectively making and enforcing rules about how they are to deal with each other. That's just what government is. Now, like anything else, it can be done well or done badly, and I certainly agree that it's better in practice to be sparing with the rule-making. But declining to make a rule is not a way to avoid "interfering" with the economy; government absolutely cannot avoid that. The decision to make a rule affects things, and the decision not to make a rule affects things. Either way, a government is responsible for the consequences of that decision.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

More Misquoting Plato

     I just came across the following quote, pasted over a photograph of a Greek-looking sculpture and attributed to Plato.
"Strange times are these in which we live when old and young are taught falsehoods in school. And the person that dares to tell the truth is called at once a lunatic and fool."

     Again, alarm bells go off in my head. It's some years since university, but I did read a fair bit of Plato in those days, and something doesn't quite sound very Platonic about this quote. That is, while I'm sure Plato would have agreed with the observation that falsehoods are taught, it seems a little out of character for him to describe it as "strange"; I sort of get the impression that he took it for granted that there were and perhaps always would be people authoritatively professing nonsense.
      I mean, the character of Socrates is absolutely central to almost all of Plato's dialogues, and the whole story of Socrates (the historical figure as well as Plato's version) is all about how rare and subversive genuine wisdom is. Famously, Socrates was said by the Oracle to be the wisest of men, which Socrates could only explain as meaning that while all men were ignorant, all but Socrates were  unaware even of their own ignorance. Throughout Plato's writing, it never seems as if he thinks his moment in history is peculiar in this regard, that most people are ignorant and think themselves wise. So it would be surprising indeed for Plato to describe this state of affairs as "strange times".

     Another suspicious stylistic detail: the lines rhyme. They don't scan particularly well, so it doesn't come across as verse, but the writing is a little bit stilted, as if the author took pains to end with "school" and "fool". The construction "at once a lunatic and fool" is contrived versification. Plato's dialogues (at least in translation) always come across as a much more natural, conversational style, with more regard for precision of meaning rather than poetic beauty.

     So I searched for the phrase directly on Google. Lots of hits, just blandly crediting Plato, but (also suspiciously) never mentioning which work it was taken from. That in itself is suspicious; one would expect that if it was actually from Plato, somebody might have cited chapter and verse, but no.

I've just searched through all of the Platonic dialogues on Project Gutenberg, without success. The phrase "strange times" doesn't seem to occur at all, and no instance of "school" turns up anything remotely like the alleged quote. I'm therefore pretty confident when I say that this quote isn't actually from Plato. Dunno who it is from, but it ain't Plato.

Friday, 18 April 2014

An Experiment for Intelligent Design Theorists

     For a while, there was an attempt to push "Intelligent Design" as a purely scientific (and not at all religious) alternative theory to evolution through natural selection. That effort seems to have declined after the ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, which found ID to be a transparent attempt to disguise religious teachings as Sciantificness. Which, of course, it was, but could there be a genuinely scientific inquiry about the concept of Intelligent Design? I'd like to suggest one approach that could work.

     To begin with, we need to define what we mean by "intelligent design". I think it's fair to say that the concept is derived from analogy to human intelligence and purpose. In the classic example, when we see an object like a pocket watch, that seems to have been put together to perform a very specific function, we infer that some deliberate action -- by a watchmaker -- explains why these bits of matter happen to be arranged in just the right way to perform that function. Therefore, goes the argument, when we see matter organized into eyes to perform highly complex functions like vision, it makes sense to infer an eye-maker.  (I have a lot to say to criticize the assumptions of this argument, but I'm not going to do it in this post, because I want to talk instead about how we might try to apply it as an actual scientific theory. I may eventually do so in a subsequent post.)
     Now, the mere existence of objects with apparent purpose in the universe like eyes and legs and DNA does not necessarily show that ID is right, because after all, Darwin's theory also explains that. (Indeed, if there weren't such amazing complexity and highly-tuned function in the biological world, there'd be nothing for Darwin to explain.) What we need is for something that ID predicts that Darwin doesn't.

      I spend quite a lot of time thinking about intelligence, and my wife is a speech-language pathologist who works with young children and their language development, so we often find ourselves talking about how minds work and learn, and yesterday she was telling me about a little boy who she had manage to help memorize the alphabet a couple of months ago, and who now is actually reading. She could tell he was actually trying to decode the letters on the page, instead of simply reciting the nursery rhymes from memory, because he had started to make the right kinds of mistakes. In other words, she could tell he was making real progress, actually applying his intelligence to the problem, because she could see where that intelligence was making the kind of characteristic errors that only intelligence can make.
     So what kinds of mistakes are characteristic of intelligence, as distinct from just random error? This is a very difficult question, but I think we can make a couple of observations about some of them. For example, you may be aware of the horrifying Virgin Cleansing Myth in areas where HIV is common. The idea is that if an infected man has sex with a virgin, he will be cured. The Wikipedia article I linked to there quotes Cati Vawda of the Children's Rights Center in South Africa as saying, "We have no idea where this idea has come from..."  but I think I have an explanation, and it has to do with a fairly simple misunderstanding or misparsing of a true statement.
     How do you get HIV? Generally by exchanging bodily fluids with an infected person, usually by sex. So, obviously, you can't get it by exchanging bodily fluids with an UNinfected person, right, and (if you assume that you only can get the virus through sex) a virgin is probably going to be uninfected? Well, that's true, but consider very carefully the grammar of how this fact can be expressed in English (and presumably most other languages): "If you have sex with a virgin, you won't get HIV." The sentence (and many other formulations) is literally true on the reading that you won't catch HIV from a virgin, but it is shockingly dangerously false on the reading that sex with virgins protects against infection from other sources.
     I don't think the Virgin Cleansing Myth just popped into someone's head and spread like an urban legend. I think that it arises again and again when someone partially hears an explanation of how people get infected, misunderstands it (through a perfectly natural alternate parsing), and shares or reinforces the mistaken understanding among others. It is a mutation, therefore, of a beneficially true existing meme, rather than a wholly new spontaneous meme.

     I have seen other characteristically human errors, in my study of chain letters. The Four Reports pyramid chain (Tetralogia vulgaris) is a good example. The basic idea behind this chain is that you order a copy of each of four "business reports"from the four people on the chain letter for $5 each, and then you modify the letter by adding your name and address in position 4, moving everyone else up one position, and removing person in position 1. If all goes as described, you will get $50 from people ordering report #4, and then $500 from people ordering report #3 once your name is moved to position #3, $5000 in orders for report #2 and finally $50000 from people ordering report #1. (By the way, it almost never goes as described. You should consider yourself lucky if you get back the same money you put into it. Minus postage.)
    At one time, I had a collection of about 150 unique specimens of this chain letter (lost them in a hard drive crash, alas), and each specimen had its own list of the last four hosts. By comparing the lists of names, I was able to reconstruct the lineage of a majority of my specimens, connecting most of them into a single tree that spanned 10 generations.
     But I also an interesting anomaly. While most specimens that included "John Doe" of "123 Main Street, Anytown USA" in any of positions 2 through 4 had "Richard Roe" of "456 Elm Avenue, Blackacre" as the recipient before him, occasionally I would find a specimen that had John Doe in position 2 and someone else (whose name happened to resemble the email address from which I'd received the specimen) in position 1. What I think happened was this: someone misunderstood the way the chain letter is supposed to work, assumed that being in position 1 meant more orders and more money, and decided to put themselves in position 1 sooner in order to make that money faster, not realizing that it just meant they'd be eliminated from the list in the very next generation.
     I saw this in four or five instances, and while it's possible they just misread the instructions and mixed up where they were supposed to put their names, I suspect at least a few of them made the specific error I described, given the basic psychology of the kind of person who falls for an easy money scam.

     If Intelligent Design is true, that is, if the order in the universe around us is the result of some intelligent being acting with a purpose, one way we might be able to distinguish a designed universe from an evolved one would be if we could find some kind of artifact of the kinds of characteristic errors that intelligent beings typically make. Now, I'm aware of lots of "design flaws" in various living things, but all of the ones I know about are consistent with evolved solutions, so what we'd be looking for is some kind of error that stands out as the kind of error that could only be made by someone, based on some misapprehension about purpose or method, rather than something that can be explained by a Darwinian model.
     Of course, any intelligence great enough to create the world around us is going to be far smarter than we are, at least in the relevant ways, so it's going to be hard to find this sort of error. Even so, errors are usually easier to spot in hindsight, after they're made, so it shouldn't be a completely hopeless task. It's only hopeless if we also postulate that this intelligence is perfect and never makes any errors, but that postulate pretty much cuts off any possibility of experimental investigation, doesn't it?