Wednesday, 30 May 2012

The Myth of Abiogenesis

     In discussions or debates about the development of life on Earth, I often hear a remark from the evolutionist side that "Evolution doesn't tell us how life began; it just explains how it evolves from simpler to more complex forms," or words to that effect. I suspect this is an attempt to be conciliatory, by leaving room for the creationists to attribute the first living thing to God.

     It's a nice sentiment, I suppose, but flawed in two ways. First, it's not going to satisfy the creationist who takes issue with evolution in the first place, since such creationists generally want to insist on a literal Biblical account. But second, it's just not true. It turns out that Darwin's principle of natural selection actually does account for the origins of life itself. Not the precise molecular details, of course, but a broad outline of the principle involved. 

     To explain, I first need to ask you to set aside a distinction that doesn't really exist: that between living and non-living material. Now, it seems obvious that there is a difference, and on the scale that we interact with the world, it's a practical distinction to make, but on the scale of molecules, there's just molecules, and no difference between a living or a dead one. A water molecule in my blood is no different from one my my coffee, or one in the cloud I see through my kitchen door as I type this. Likewise more complex organic molecules like proteins and DNA: they're just molecules, ordinary, non-living matter.

     I should also make explicit what the theory of natural selection is all about, at its most basic, abstract level. It's about replication of information patterns, and which patterns will tend to become more common over time.  Natural selection is often expressed as a principle governing what happens when three basic assumptions are true. Those assumptions are as follows:

     (1) There is variation among a population, and those variations affect the likelihood of the individual successfully reproducing.
     (2) Offspring tend to resemble their parent(s).
     (3) More offspring are produced than can survive to adulthood and reproduce themselves.

     This is expressed in terms that assume we're already dealing with living creatures (which isn't surprising, because the theory is almost exclusively used for understanding biological phenomena), but as a Law of Nature, natural selection applies all the time to everything everywhere, and makes no distinction whatsoever between "living" and "nonliving" matter. So just bear in mind that the words "parent" and "offspring" should be understood more as "original" and "copy". What's really being copied with each generation is an information pattern, and subsequent generations are simply copies of copies of copies.

     Now, there are also two concepts concerning replication of patterns we need to be aware of: fecundity and fidelity. Fecundity relates to the number of copies made; a highly fecund creature will have lots and lots of babies. Fidelity relates to the accuracy of the copy, how closely it resembles the original. A duplicate with very high fidelity will be almost identical to the original, while one with very low fidelity might not even be recognized as a copy at all.

     Patterns of information exist in everything, although most of the time we'll not recognize them as particularly useful information, just random arrangements of things. Patterns also give rise to subsequent patterns all the time, simply by the operation of the laws of nature. A pattern characterized by lots of water molecules in clouds may lead to a pattern of liquid water droplets falling as rain, leading to a pattern where water molecules are arranged as standing or flowing water on the ground, and so on.
     This process, of patterns producing new patterns, is in fact a kind of replication. It's just that the value for fidelity tends to be very, very low; almost none of the original pattern of information is recognizable in the offspring. But not always. In fact, patterns are duplicated with surprisingly high fidelity quite naturally, and in ways that we don't often think of as replication. For example, a shadow of a mountain is actually a rather high-fidelity replication of the profile of the mountain itself from a particular perspective. Layers of ocean sediments record climate patterns over time, and so on. In most of these cases, the fecundity of the next generation is very low, however; there are few ways for a shadow to copy itself.

     But there are ways for simple, non-biological patterns to duplicate with both fidelity and fecundity. Consider a rock cleaving in two. The two newly exposed surfaces will have all sorts of random bumps and pits, but they will correspond to each other almost exactly so you can fit the two pieces back together perfectly. Each piece contains a very high fidelity copy of the inverse of the contours of the other piece, and if you were to press one half into some clay, the imprint left would be a pretty good copy of the other half. What's more, you'd be able to reuse the stone to make more copies. So both fidelity and fecundity are well above zero for this process. One can easily imagine, without any human intervention at all, scenarios where a pattern like this is duplicated many times. A rock, rolling down a hill, leaving multiple impressions of itself in the soft earth along its path.

     This process of cleaving to produce mirror-image duplicates can happen on a molecular level, as well. In fact, DNA is very much like the cleaving rock. Each side of the double helix is a sort of inverse copy of the other side. We know very little about how the first DNA molecule came to be, but we do not need to know the precise pathway to see that natural selection would be at play every step of the way. Any pattern of information that, when encoded into matter in some way happens to increase the fecundity and fidelity of the subsequent generation of patterns, will tend to become more common over time. It need not be particularly high in fidelity or fecundity to begin with; it merely needs to be slightly better than the other patterns around it. Its own copies will tend to vary as well (a lot, if the fidelity is low), but whichever pattern has the highest fidelity/fecundity will eventually win out.

     So there is, was, and always will be a natural selection pressure operating in the universe on all matter in every form everywhere, tending to select for higher fecundity and fidelity. In most places, there's not a lot of potential for other, but in some places, particularly planets with rich chemistry and just the right temperature range, there will be enough random patterns that some crystal, some organic polymer, or some other chemical reaction will have a fecundity/fidelity advantage. And that's all it takes to get started. The molecule that is just slightly better at preserving its information by copying will become more common than the next, and over time, ever more sophisticated systems of molecules will accumulate more and better ways to improve fidelity and fecundity.
     There is no point at which the spark of life suddenly appears and matter becomes living, no point at which maggots spontaneously appear in rotten flesh. Every organism, every pattern of matter arises as the result of some previous pattern of matter that it resembles in some way, which in turn arose from an earlier arrangement of matter, and so on back to the beginning of time.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Why is Life so Hard?

     The short answer: evolution.

     Natural selection is lazy. It doesn't work to make things the best they can be. It just makes them good enough to have a decent chance of survival. It didn't make cheetahs run 70 m.p.h. just for the fun of it; it did so because that's about how fast you need to run to catch a gazelle. And gazelles only run so fast because cheetahs eat the slower ones. It's a classic arms race. The cheetah can catch its meal, but usually only by really working hard at it, and the gazelle also pretty much has to give its all to escape. Life's not easy at all for either of them; they're both working at their very peak effort just to survive.
     So nature runs on the principle of "good enough" rather than "the best possible". Very rarely does nature equip some species with a trait that is far more than the job of survival calls for. The only reason pronghorn antelope run so much ridiculously faster than any North American predator is because up until a few thousand years ago, there were cheetahs here too. I don't know of any measurements that would confirm this, but I'd be willing to bet that today's population of pronghorns, without cheetahs selecting for his speed, are slower on average than their ancestors. There are more ways for mutations and genetic drift to reduce the efficiency of a runner than there are to improve it.
    At first glance, we humans might appear to be an exception to this general rule. We are so much more linguistically, culturally and technologically powerful than even our closest primate relatives, it's tempting to think our relatively massive brains and corresponding intellect is a freakish anomaly. (I don't want to get into a debate about human vanity in assuming ourselves to be the smartest in the animal kingdom. I'm using "smart" in the fairly narrow technical sense of having bigger and more versatile brains, so please don't read into it any kind of value judgment. Plants are not "smarter" than we are because they "know" how to photosynthesize and we don't, and cockroaches are not "smarter" because they're more likely to survive as a species in the long run. For all their superior survival odds, cockroaches' brains are tiny and support very limited cognitive function. Plants don't even have brains. So that's all I mean by "smarter", and to argue otherwise is, well, not very smart.)
     On a survival level, our brains certainly seem to be disproportionately powerful. They've made us into one of the most effective hunters on the planet, having wiped out virtually all the edible megafauna on most continents within a few centuries of our arrival. We've figured out how to produce food surpluses through agriculture, and our population has exploded to the utterly outrageous figure of 7 billion relatively large mammals. Survival for many of us, at least in the developed world, isn't even a challenge any more; most of us die from cancer and heart disease instead of starvation or being eaten by predators. This is a direct result of our species' unprecedented technological prowess.
     So how does this figure into Nature's "good enough" approach? How come we got so absurdly smarter than we needed to be to survive?
     A big part of it is the arms race principle. We're a social species, but not a eusocial one. That is, while we tend to live together in groups and cooperate for mutual benefit, we're not completely selfless about it the way ants, bees, some wasps, termites and naked mole rats are. We cooperate and compete with each other, and when we compete, it's usually by way of our brains. Of course, it's a lot more complicated than simple competition, and often that competition takes place within a cooperative framework. A group of hunters may be genuinely trying to cooperate to bring down a mastodon, but they may also be competing to establish social dominance. Even the fully cooperative human has to be able to detect attempts to cheat, and the would-be cheater needs to be able to figure out and defeat those detection attempts, and so on. In short, humans with bigger brains than their fellow humans were more likely to pass on their genes, and this arms race has produced a species with way more smarts than we need simply to squeeze food from our environment and avoid getting eaten by bears.
     And there, in our competition with our fellow humans, nature has made us just barely good enough to have a decent chance at figuring out each other's (and even our own) motives and schemes, and not one bit better than we need to be. Sure, getting food might be relatively easy, and we don't even have to think about avoiding hungry wolves or tigers now, but the countless other struggles of social life remain as hard as they've ever been, and our brains pretty much have to work at peak capacity for that.
     In fact, in many ways, our brains are facing much harder problems than they ever evolved to solve. Fact is, as big as our brains are, they're really not that good at solving certain kinds of problems. They're good at forming judgments about the kinds of things we encountered as hunter-gatherers, but they're not so good at things like formal logic and statistics. We are equipped with a whole lot of shortcuts and quick and dirty heuristics that give "good enough" results for basic survival, but aren't always the optimum or rigorously correct solution. We can learn to do calculus or apply Bayes' Theorem, but it takes a lot of effort.

     So life is hard, and it pretty much always will be, because of the way we evolved and because of how evolution works in general. Our minds, our bodies, our willpower, all are the result of a process that makes things just barely good enough to survive in their environment, and not one bit better. And I'm not at all convinced that's a bad thing.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Paying for Crime

"Fiat justitia, ruat caelum."  

     In a previous post, I criticized the Conservative government's Bill C-10, the omnibus crime bill sold as "getting tough on crime". I find it astonishing that there is any support at all for this, given how well we know that it won't work, from the examples of Texas and California, which are both regretting adopting similarly "tough" approaches. I'm also amazed at the continued push for "abstinence-only" sex education in  certain U.S. states, despite the well-documented consequences of higher teenage pregnancy and STD rates. I just naturally assumed that we all believed that rates of crime, teenage pregnancy and STDs were things we'd want to keep as low as possible. So how can people continue to support such demonstrably ineffective policies with such enthusiasm?
    For a while I just assumed that they didn't understand the problem, and genuinely held to the simplistic belief that these policies would work. To some extent, of course, that is the case; I have heard people argue with great sincerity that tougher penalties are sure to deter crime more effectively, and it's certainly true that abstinence is terribly effective at preventing pregnancy (even if preaching abstinence to teens isn't actually the best way to get them to practice it).
     But lately I've begun to wonder if maybe there isn't something else at play here. One thing I have noticed is that many of the people who advocate these policies tend to be very concerned about sin. They speak in terms of justice, and seem to find it profoundly disturbing that a wrongdoer might get away without appropriate punishment. Which brings me to the legal maxim quoted above:  "Let justice be done, though the heavens fall." 
     The maxim is perhaps most famous for its use in 1772 by Lord Mansfield in Somersett's Case, in which slavery was found to be illegal in England and Wales. Several thousand slaves were in the country at the time, many (like James Somersett himself) accompanying their masters from the American colonies, and Lord Mansfield was urged to consider the mayhem that would ensue from a judgment suddenly and radically changing the legal status of these thousands of slaves. Quite rightly, the judge considered those consequences to be irrelevant; slavery is an unlawful injustice, and cannot be perpetuated just to avoid inconvenience.
     And so it is a noble sentiment, that we should be willing to endure great cost and inconvenience to see to it that justice is finally done. We tend to admire as a hero Inigo Montoya for devoting his life to avenging his father's murder by the six-fingered man, enduring great hardship and sacrifice to bring a killer to justice.
     So I begin to think that perhaps some of those who favor moralistic policies like Bill C-10, abstinence-only education, and many other clearly ineffective but simple approaches, aren't actually concerned with results. What matters to them more is being morally righteous, and if the cost of harshly punished criminals is more crime, well, so be it; we'll just punish them harshly, too. It's almost as if it crime doesn't matter so long as it's "paid for" (and such people very often do speak of "making criminals pay", another unfortunate memetic pathology). If the cost of righteously teaching teenagers to wait until they're married before having sex is that, unfortunately, more of them won't wait, well, too bad; at least we haven't polluted ourselves by implying that premarital sex is okay.

     The trouble with this attitude is that, in the big picture (which is what policymakers are supposed to be considering), it ends up being paradoxically inconsistent with itself. On an individual case basis, we might well praise the diligent prosecutor who spares no expense to bring a particularly nasty wrongdoer to justice. From the perspective of the system as a whole, however, cost-effectiveness needs to be considered; spending the department's entire budget to imprison a single criminal means there are no resources left to go after all the others. At this level, the decision to focus on one criminal is also a decision to let all the others go unpunished.
     It gets worse. The decision to spend a disproportionate amount of resources on punishing a few criminals means fewer resources available to spend on crime prevention. Indeed, for many offenders, we know that rehabilitative programs through conditional sentences have a much better success rate at reducing recidivism than prison terms do; living in prison with hardened criminals is like going to crime school. So an excessive focus on punishment actually leads to higher repeat offender rates.
     Think about what that means. The policymaker who decides to implement a criminal justice system emphasizing punishment is creating a situation in which more crimes are committed than would be under an alternative system. There are people victimized by crime who would not have been so victimized, but for the decision of the policymaker. In other words, the policymaker has chosen a higher crime rate. An argument could be made that the conscious choice to have a higher crime rate makes the policymaker himself morally culpable for that rise in crime. And as one advocating for harsh punishment and against forgiveness, he'd really have little right to expect leniency himself.

     I don't think I'd want to go quite that far. The decision to implement a policy is not the same as the decision to commit an individual crime, and ought not to be assessed on the same moral scale. At the policy level, there will always be individual crimes or other unwanted consequences that follow from a particular policy that might not have followed from a different policy (which would have its own unique unwanted consequences). It's a question of balancing, deciding which policy produces the fewest and lease severe unwanted consequences.

     But in a democracy, it's also a question for us, the people, when we go to the polls. Do we want to be safer from crime, or are we so eager to see criminals punished that we're willing to bear a higher risk of being victimized by crime ourselves?
     I can't imagine how we could sensibly choose the latter. Criminals simply do not "pay for their crimes" by being punished. No amount of suffering inflicted upon a criminal can ever make whole the victim of his crimes, and so the victims of crimes are always worse off than they would have been had the crime never been committed. (Oddly, that's as it should be; we really wouldn't want a world in which people actively sought to be victimized by criminals.) The best thing policymakers can do for victims is ensure they never become victims in the first place.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Sauron et alia v. Baggins et alia


    This remarkably complex case involves a staggering number of parties, all claiming ownership of the One Ring. It may be useful at this stage in the proceedings to briefly outline the positions of the various claimants as I understand them.

     SAURON claims ownership on the ground that he created the ring for his own use, and that it only left his possession through the torts of trespass, assault, battery and conversion allegedly committed against him by the late ISILDUR. Sauron argues that his title to the ring was never surrendered or extinguished, that he at no time abandoned his claim, and that in any event on public policy grounds neither the estate of Isildur nor any of those working in concert with it should be permitted to hold legal or equitable title to the ring, as such would have the effect of allowing tortfeasors to profit from their wrongdoing. Sauron also asks this court for a declaration that the ring is a living creature, possessing an animus revertendi and exhibiting a consistent tendency and desire to return to Sauron as its rightful owner. Further, as certain parties to this action have expressed the intention to destroy the ring if successful in their claims, Sauron submits that the ring should not go to them in any event.

     It is common ground that Sauron did in fact make the ring, and it is conceded by most parties that he did at least own the ring at that time. THE ELVES,  however, assert an IP claim against Sauron for his creation of the ring, which they allege involved unauthorized use of their trade secrets. The Elves seek an order that the ring be destroyed.

     THE HEIR OF ISILDUR, Aragorn, denies Sauron's allegations of assault and other torts, and claims the ring as proper spoils of war. He alleges that any torts committed took place in the context of a war in which Sauron was the clear aggressor, and that possession as well as legal and equitable title passed to Isildur. If that argument fails, Aragorn submits that regardless of who had legal title to the ring when Isildur took possession of it, that title would have been extinguished during the years the ring was lost following Isildur's death. Aragorn has admitted in oral argument that his intention is to give the ring to Frodo Baggins, who intends to destroy it.

     THE STEWARD OF GONDOR, Denethor, contests Aragorn's standing to represent Isildur's estate, and claims that he holds any right to the ring through Isildur. While Denethor has been recognized as the lawful steward of Isildur's estate, his case is hurt somewhat by the fact that not one but two of his agents are alleged to have repudiated his claim to the ring. Denethor disputes that his son Boromir made any repudiation before his death, and while he acknowledges that his son Faramir did permit Frodo to abscond with the ring, he argues that Faramir's actions were unauthorized and should not be binding upon him. Finally, Denethor asks this court to consider the balance of hardships and grant an equitable order that the ring be sent to Gondor to defend its people.

     SMEAGOL's claim to the ring is complicated. His original submission to this court asserted that he had received the ring as a birthday present from a Deagol, and then claimed he had received it as a donatio mortis causa, but was unwilling to provide supporting details. He has since retained as counsel Mr. Gollum, and his amended statement of claim is ingenious to say the least. If I understand it correctly, he seems to be saying that the ring was found by Deagol, at which point title would have vested in the crown of the River Folk by treasure trove. Smeagol claims title to the ring as the sole surviving member of the River Folk, and in the alternative, he asserts simple adverse possession. Smeagol further argues that regardless of the validity of his own claim to the ring, his possession should have been effective as against all but the rightful owner, and hence Mr. Baggins' taking of the ring from him was unlawful in any event.

     THE GREAT GOBLIN also claims title to the ring by right of treasure trove, in this instance by virtue of Mr. Bilbo Baggins having found the ring while in his territory. Smeagol disputes the Great Goblin's claim, asserting that the area in which the ring was found was in fact outside the de facto and de jure territory of the Goblin kingdom, notwithstanding that the site in question lies within the Misty Mountains which is otherwise recognized as Goblin territory. It appears that there is a triable issue here concerning the status of this real estate, but I am not at this time convinced that such a determination will be necessary to dispose of the present action.

     OAKENSHIELD AND COMPANY have submitted what is essentially a contractual claim, alleging that Bilbo Baggins was in their employ as a burglar at the time he found the ring, and was bound by the terms of a treasure sharing agreement. Oakenshield asserts that the ring was not subjected to the treasure distribution procedure prescribed by the contract, and asks that it be returned to the company for such distribution. Mr. Frodo Baggins argues on his uncle's behalf that Bilbo's possession of the ring was known to the company and implicitly ratified by them.

     THE SACKVILLE BAGGINSES assert a claim to the ring by two rather convoluted theories. The first is very similar to Smeagol's argument by treasure trove on behalf of the River Folk, except for the allegation that the Shire Folk are the successors to the River Folk. This argument seems to me to be subject to some very difficult evidentiary burdens, and I might have granted Frodo's motion to strike for lack of standing but for their second argument, for which they do have standing. The second theory is based upon a contract whereby Frodo allegedly transferred all of Bilbo's chattels as well as the house at Bag End to the Sackville-Bagginses, and that on a proper construction of this contract the ring would have been included with these chattels. In the alternative they seek an order declaring Bilbo incompetent, voiding his will and appointing SARUMAN THE WHITE his trustee. In their submissions, they allege that Gandalf the Grey breached a fiduciary duty to Bilbo by coercing him into giving the ring to Frodo. Counsel for Saruman, Mr. Grima, confirms that Saruman is willing to accept responsibility for Bilbo's affairs.

     FRODO BAGGINS claims to have received the ring as an inter vivos gift from Bilbo, who is his uncle. He asserts that the ring was abandoned property when Bilbo found it, as Smeagol could have had no legal or equitable claim to the ring and in any event was not in proper possession or control of it at the time. He specifically denies the application of the doctrine of treasure trove to the ring on the ground that the ring is not essentially treasure within the ambit of the law, deriving its value from its function of rendering its user invisible rather than from its composition, which is acknowledged to be gold. If the doctrine of treasure trove is held to apply with respect to Deagol's finding of the ring, Frodo contests the Sackville-Bagginses right to speak for the Shire Folk. In the alternative, Frodo asserts that he holds the ring in trust for the Council of Rivendell, having received it as a bailment for the express purpose of destroying it in the fires of Mount Doom. He suggests that, as the Council of Rivendell represented the interests of the Elves, the Heir of Isildur, and the Steward of Gondor. and arguably the Shire, and that any successful claims by any of these parties will ultimately result in his possession of the ring being lawful.

     Mr. Baggins' last argument is particularly insightful. There are simply too many parties to this action, and the burden on this court in sorting out all the claims is quite unreasonable. Many of the parties appear to have closely convergent interests, and some parties are submitting their own briefs when they could just as easily appear as witnesses for a party whose ultimate objective is substantially the same. I believe it would be in the interests of all parties if we could simplify the issues here, if for no other reason than that it would substantially reduce the costs. For this reason, I am ordering an adjournment to allow the parties to confer and identify which of them can consolidate their claims.
     Also, in light of the fact that certain parties intend to destroy the ring, which would clearly prejudice the interests of the other parties, I am ordering that pending the final outcome of this litigation, the ring will stay in the custody of this court.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Corporate Slavery

  A corporation is legally a person, able to exercise many (though not all) of the legal rights of a natural person. Corporations can sue and be sued, can own property and enter into contracts, and can even be charged with criminal offenses, although for obvious reasons they cannot actually be imprisoned, even when they are found guilty. 

  This is the basis of a common criticism of corporations and corporate law. Despite the legal fiction that corporations are persons, they lack the frailties of natural persons which help to inform our morality. Imprisonment may be an effective deterrent (or at least a meaningful punishment) to a natural person (including the directors of a corporation), but has no meaning for the corporation itself. Corporations have no need for food, air, water or shelter, they cannot fall in love, have children, or stub their toes. They don’t age, and they don’t feel pain, fear or remorse. Given all this, it should come as no surprise that corporations sometimes (often) act as soulless monsters without any regard for the interests of others beyond the minimum duty of care imposed by law. So, it is sometimes argued that corporations should not be treated at law as persons.

  I am sympathetic to the concern motivating this argument, but something about it remains unsatisfying. Legal rights are not contingent on the specific frailties of mortal human beings. Suppose a person were to reveal, for example, that she was in fact 3,000 years old, and just happened to have a rare mutation that exempted her from the normal process of aging. Would we say that such a person should forfeit any of her legal rights on that basis? Well, we might want to modify the Copyright Act, since a term of life + 50 years is a bit extreme when the author is effectively immortal, but apart from that sort of thing I expect most of us would agree that the basic rights associated with personhood should remain intact.

  But it occurs to me that the problem with corporations is not that we treat them too much like persons, but not enough. That is, there is one critical respect in which a corporation is treated in a fundamentally different manner from natural persons, at least since the abolition of chattel slavery: corporations are owned.

  Now, before I continue, let me first emphasize that I am not calling for the emancipation of the corporation. Far from it. They already enjoy more than enough power and practical freedom. What I want to do, rather, is point out how this simple fact, that corporate “persons” are also at law someone else’s property, makes it almost inevitable that corporations (publicly held ones, at least) will tend to exercise their legal personhood as soulless monsters.

  First, we must note that as an artificial person, a corporation itself has no mind, and can only act through agents. Thus a corporation must have directors to make decisions on its behalf. The corporation is utterly at the mercy of these directors, who are necessarily empowered to affect its interests by entering it into binding agreements, spending its money and so forth. Whenever someone is empowered over a person in this way, the law imposes a strict duty on the empowered one, called a fiduciary duty, to exercise those powers faithfully in the best interests of the other (who is called the beneficiary). Parents owe a fiduciary duty to their children, physicians owe a fiduciary duty to their patients, attorneys owe a fiduciary duty to their clients, and so forth.

  But what does it mean to act in someone’s best interests? That usually depends on context and who that someone is, but will almost always include some reference to the question: “What would the beneficiary choose for himself, if only he were competent to act on his own behalf?” 

  That question has no meaning for a corporation, however. Remember that a corporation is property; it belongs to someone. That means that its best interest are not understood in terms of what it would want for itself, but in terms of its own value as an asset. So a corporation’s directors are thus under a fiduciary duty to maximize the corporation’s bottom line, to increase its market value. However valuable things like clean air, job security and peace and happiness might be to natural persons (including those natural persons who happen to be corporate directors), they are not a part of the best interests of a corporation, and for a director to pursue such goals on behalf of a corporation at the expense of share price is actually unlawful, a breach of fiduciary duty to the poor helpless corporation at their mercy. Essentially, then, the directors of corporations are legally obliged to make their corporations act as soulless monsters.

  I am not sure what to suggest as a remedy. Perhaps we need to rethink the whole notion of equity in corporations, and redefine it more as a kind of debt. Or perhaps we can, by statute, add factors that directors must consider as being in the “best interests” of the corporations they control. (To some extent, that is possible already by way of a Unanimous Shareholders Agreement, but the default position for a corporation is to care only about its bottom line.) That may seem an artificial and forced solution, but on the other hand, corporations are themselves an artificial concept.

  I dunno. Maybe I’m hoping for some good ideas to show up in the comments thread...

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

An Infallible Proof of My Fallibility

     I tend to follow Rene Descartes' skepticism. If you've even heard of Descartes, you're probably familiar with his famous "Cogito, ergo sum," usually translated as "I think, therefore I am." There was very little Descartes felt we could know with certainty, since all of our sensory experience could be an illusion, but he could infer from the mere fact that he was questioning that, at the very least, the questioner must exist.

     I've come up with a similar proof of something Descartes took for granted: the capacity to be mistaken. The proof goes something like this:

    Premise 1: Anyone who believes something to be true that is in fact false is fallible.
    Premise 2: I believe I am fallible.
    I am either fallible or infallible.
    If I am fallible, then my belief in Premise 2 is correct.
    If I am infallible, then by believing myself to be fallible I believe something false, and am therefore by Premise 1 fallible.
    I therefore must be fallible.

     (Of course, this only proves my fallibility if Premise 2 is true. If you happen to believe you are infallible, well, you are probably mistaken about that, but this proof cannot prove it to you.)

     Now, this seems like a trivial and obvious thing to prove. Of course I can be mistaken. Why would I even entertain the possibility that I might not be? Most of us, if we think about it at all, take our fallibility for granted and then promptly forget about it, adopting beliefs with unwarranted confidence at the drop of a hat. But we sometimes forget that absolutely any idea or thought we entertain, regardless of its original source, remains subject to our own fallibility.

     I mention this because it comes up a lot in the religious context, particularly with the fundamentalist crowd. Fundamentalists and scriptural literalists seem to feel that their own fallibility doesn't need to apply, since it's not their ideas but the literal text of the Bible, the very Word of God, which is the belief in question. In a way, it's an attempt to abrogate cognitive responsibility: "Hey, don't blame me! It's God's truth, not mine! I'm just following orders!" Yet there really is no way to escape the fact that whatever you believe, even if it happens to be true, is written on the flawed paper of your own brain; your knowledge and beliefs are tainted with your fallibility; it's only as reliable as you are.

     This is one of the objections I raise when people try to convert me to their fundamentalist religion. They ask me to accept a set of propositions with a level of certainty that my fallible human brain simply cannot support: I can be wrong, and the thing about being wrong is it feels exactly like being right. I don't care how strongly, how intensely, how confidently I may believe something; the magnitude of my fervour has little bearing on my likelihood of being correct. And so, indelibly tainted with this doubt in my ability to know something with certainty, I simply cannot embrace a set of beliefs which promise to make everything make sense if only I believe them.

     Now, there's an interesting argument that came up in some of these comment threads. If God is truly omnipotent, could He not imbue me with certainty about some truth or other? Well, an omnipotent God by definition could do that, I suppose. And being fallible, of course, I'm in no position to state with complete confidence that I could never be certain of any divinely revealed knowledge. Maybe I could. But it seems to me evident that whatever such a God could do, He hasn't. I remain uncertain about pretty much everything. And more, since I grasp this notion of fallibility and how being wrong feels subjectively just like being right, there seems to be no way for a True Believer to convince me that his knowledge of God's reality is somehow privileged and Really, Truly, Knowledge, and not just another of the countless mistaken beliefs we humans flock to. Sure, they feel like you know, but why should I trust the magnitude of their fervour, when I don't even trust my own?
     They tell me, just believe and I'll see. Okay, I believe that much is true; if I believe the way they do, well, yeah, I'll believe the way they do. Big deal. But then both of us might be believing something false, and they can offer no assurance against that, other than simply reaffirming that I'll "know" (read: strongly believe) we're both right.

     As far as I can tell, the problem is logically insurmountable. And sure, God might have the power to help me overcome it, I'll grant that. But so might Flying Spaghetti Monster. Indeed, any belief that God or FSM or my Lucky Astrology Mood Watch can give certain knowledge can have the same effect. In short, all I have to do to overcome the proof of my fallibility is to deny Premise 2: stop believing I am fallible.

     That's really what they're asking me to do, when you get right down to it. Buy into a belief that asserts my own infallibility with respect to some privileged set of beliefs, to assert that I cannot be wrong about such things. And I'm just not prepared to do that. Oddly enough, I feel it would be terribly impious of me; God (if He exists) gets to know things with certainty, but that's not for us to pretend to.