On Alleged Lamarckism

There are some biologists who claim that non-evolutionary processes explain something or other about biology. Evolution works like this. There are pieces of information instantiated in DNA or RNA called genes. Biological systems such as the cells in you body or bacteria use the information in these genes to solve biological problems, such as extracting energy from the environment, or fighting off infection or whatever. The genes are copied to produce new cells and offspring. Variations are produced on these genes by various mechanisms, such as chemicals changing the DNA copying mistakes and so on. Some variations get copied and others don’t. So evolution involves the production of variations of genes and selection among those variations. The bodies of organisms like animals and plants are emergent results of variation and selection of genes (Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, Chapter 1):

Genes manipulate the world and shape it to assist their replication. It happens that they have ‘chosen’ to do so largely by moulding matter into large multicellular chunks which we call organisms, but this might not have been so. Fundamentally, what is going on is that replicating molecules ensure their survival by means of phenotypic effects on the world. It is only incidentally true that those phenotypic effects happen to be packaged up into units called individual organisms.

What is required for evolution is (1) a means of information storage that can store an unbounded amount of information, (2) a mechanism for copying that information, (3) mechanisms that produce variations of that information and (4) a mechanism that selects among the variations. Whether that information is contained in DNA or RNA isn’t the relevant issue. The logic of the explanation works regardless of how the information is stored. So if we’re going to claim that a non-evolutionary process produces biological complexity there has to be a bit more to it than some minor change in what chemicals do the transmission.

Some biologists think that there are examples of a non-evolutionary kind of process called Lamarckism in which the environment modifies genes directly. So giraffes would have long necks because previous giraffes stretched their necks, this somehow modified their genes and then the modified genes would be passed on.  Lamarckism doesn’t make much sense because the environment doesn’t have the knowledge required to rewrite genes, see The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch, Chapter 4.

Let’s look at some alleged examples of Lamarckism. Epigenetic Change: Lamarck, Wake Up, You’re Wanted in the Conference Room! by Denyse O’Leary claims that horizontal gene transfer refutes Darwinism. Sometimes genes move from one bacterium to another and manage to insert themselves in the genome of the bacterium to which it has moved. Since evolution is fundamentally about variation and selection of genes and this is an example of variation and selection of genes, so horizontal gene transfer doesn’t refute evolution. Note also that horizontal gene transfer involves genes manipulating genetic material, not the environment, so it doesn’t fit the definition of Lamarckism.

Another alleged example of Lamarckism involves epigenesis: changes to gene expression as a result of interactions between genes and the environment. Genes changing how they are expressed is a normal part of development (Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, Glossary): 

epigenesis A word with a long history of controversy in embryology. As opposed to preformationism (q.v.) it is the doctrine that bodily complexity emerges by a developmental process of gene/environment interaction from a relatively simple zygote, rather than being totally mapped out in the egg. In this book it is used for the idea, which I favour, that the genetic code is more like a recipe than a blueprint. It is sometimes said that the epigenesis/preformationism distinction has been made irrelevant by modern molecular biology. I disagree, and have made much of the distinction in Chapter 9, where I claim that epigenesis, but not preformationism, implies that embryonic development is fundamentally, and in principle, irreversible (see central dogma).

This doesn’t count as the environment rewriting genes anymore than setting the temperature on your thermostat is equivalent to changing the design of your boiler. Some of these modifications involve a process called methylation in which a carbon atom bonded to three hydrogen atoms (a methyl group) is attached to a base. Methylating DNA can change how it is expressed. Some researchers have claimed that methylated genes can be passed on from one generation to the next. If this copying continues indefinitely down the generations, then methylation is effectively like a new kind of base in DNA. It is a variation on the information recorded in the non-methylated gene. The methylated gene is selected if it manages to get itself copied and otherwise it is eliminated.

People who want to claim they have examples of Lamarckism and that this somehow refutes evolution will have to do a lot better than the examples above. They should learn about the details of the arguments they’re trying to refute before they claim victory.

Confusion about computation and brains

In The empty brain Robert Epstein claims that the brain isn’t a computer and it doesn’t process information. He is wrong and he is quite badly confused about computation and information and I’m going to explain why.

Epstein writes some stuff about babies and then makes his main argument:

Senses, reflexes and learning mechanisms – this is what we start with, and it is quite a lot, when you think about it. If we lacked any of these capabilities at birth, we would probably have trouble surviving.

But here is what we are not born with: information, data, rules, software, knowledge, lexicons, representations, algorithms, programs, models, memories, images, processors, subroutines, encoders, decoders, symbols, or buffers – design elements that allow digital computers to behave somewhat intelligently. Not only are we not born with such things, we also don’t develop them – ever.

We don’t store words or the rules that tell us how to manipulate them. We don’t create representations of visual stimuli, store them in a short-term memory buffer, and then transfer the representation into a long-term memory device. We don’t retrieve information or images or words from memory registers. Computers do all of these things, but organisms do not.

Epstein states that the way the brain works is very different from the workings of any computer we can currently construct. For example, I can store a picture of a dollar bill on my computer and it will be exactly the same every time I retrieve it. A person’s memory of a dollar bill doesn’t work the same way. A person will in general interpret and recreate his memories of a dollar bill each time he thinks about a dollar bill. Epstein claims that large regions of the brain light up when any particular memory is recalled and so the information about the memory isn’t stored in a particular place, which he claims makes the brain different to a laptop. And since the brain works in a different way from a laptop it’s not a computer. He also states that talk of the brain as a computer is just an analogy.

Epstein doesn’t understand the theory of computation or the theory of information. He states that the brain doesn’t contain information, but he doesn’t bother to discuss what this would entail. 

A physical system instantiates information about X when there is a correspondence between X and that physical system. For example, if you write a book about how to make jam, there is a correspondence between the book and the physical properties of fruit, sugar and so on that allows you to use the book to gather the ingredients used to make jam and then make it successfully. The instruction manual for a motorcycle doesn’t have much correspondence with the properties of fruit, sugar and so on and reading it will not enable you to make jam, so it contains no information about jam. 

Once you have learned how to make jam you won’t need the book as much as you did when you first learned to make jam and you might not need it at all. Something in your brain corresponds to the properties of fruit, sugar and so on in a way that allows you to make jam. So then your brain instantiates information about making jam. All of your senses, reflexes, learning mechanisms and so on are also information about what is happening in the world or ways of solving problems. So your brain instantiates information.

A physical system processes information if it takes that information and produces new information. For example, the following Clojure function takes two numbers a and b and processes them to produce the sum of those numbers:

(defn add-two-numbers [a b] (+ a b))

The main problem with Epstein’s argument is that the theories of information and computation don’t refer to the physical location of the information or the physical means by which it is processed and there is a good reason for that: it doesn’t matter very much. Once a device can store information and perform some very simple computations on that information can do any information processing that doesn’t involve quantum mechanical effects like entanglement and single particle interference – classical information processing. And not only can such a device produce the same output as any other classical physical system it can process the information by performing the same series of steps. Your brain is a warm wet lump of matter that constantly interacts with its environment and such interactions suppress quantum mechanical effects in the brain so it’s only doing classical information processing. As such a computer can simulate the information processing your brain is doing given enough resources. So unless Epstein can refute the laws of physics, the brain’s information processing can be simulated and understood in terms of classical computation.

There are many reasons why brains haven’t been simulated very successfully. We may not yet have enough resources to do a good job. Also, simulating a human brain requires understanding how people create knowledge. We understand that knowledge is created by evolutionary processes that produce variations on existing knowledge and select among those variations, but the details of how that works aren’t understood. Our understanding of programming – actually writing descriptions of information processing that can be executed by computers – is also bad enough that there are large disagreements among programmers about the best way to do it. We may simulate brains in the future. We may also be able to make knowledge creating programs without understanding how the brain works well enough to simulate it because many of the details of the brain’s activities may be irrelevant to the knowledge creation algorithm.

Roko’s Basilisk

Roko’s basilisk (RB) is a thought experiment proposed on a Less Wrong (LW) discussion forum. The thought experiment uses LW’s attempts to improve decision theory and the idea of super intelligent AIs. 

Decision theory concerns rational agents, that is, physical systems that rank different physical states of affairs on a single scale of value. These agents may be considered as playing games in which each possible consequence of a particular action has some payoff associated with it. The value of a game is the payoff such that the agent is neutral between receiving that payoff and playing the game. 

A superintelligent AI is an artificial intelligence so intelligent that human beings can’t understand what it will do or why.

RB is a superintelligent AI that will, after it is created, torture anyone who knew enough about RB and who didn’t contribute to causes that help bring about its existence. Knowing enough means being able to understand the RB well enough to know that it will follow through on its threats of torture. For example, if a sufficiently large chunk of space rock hits the Earth fast enough the human species might be destroyed and so we wouldn’t create a super intelligent AI. So if RB found out that I didn’t donate to the cause of destroying space rocks, or moving some humans to Mars so they would survive such an event, then it might torture me. RB would act like this to help blackmail people to create it.

Some people found this post very upsetting. Eliezer Yudkowsky (EY) initially responded to this idea by banning Roko and discussion of RB to avoid the creation of RB and to spare people upset. He also said that it wasn’t clear whether anyone could imagine RB in enough detail to give it an incentive to torture people but he didn’t want to take the chance.

I have previously discussed superintelligences and there are some points that are relevant here. First, there is only one process by which knowledge is generated: variations on existing ideas and selections among those variations. There is no intelligence that could operate in a way that people couldn’t understand. So superintelligences as imagined by fantasists such as Nick Bostrom and EY are impossible. The second point is that if an AI wanted to do something immoral like torture people we have institutions for dealing with people who use force. These institutions are flawed and worth improving, but this is hardly an unheard of problem so it’s weird to act as if nobody has ever thought about it before LW.

Decision theory is also not a good model for making decisions that involve any non-trivial amount of knowledge creation. Knowledge creation will produce possibilities that you can’t know about in advance. You can’t attach payoffs to these new situations and so you can’t use any variant of decision theory to make decisions about them. 

Another problem with RB is that torture and threats distract people from creating knowledge and toward appeasing or undermining the person making the threats. Force undermines the growth of knowledge. It doesn’t promote the growth of knowledge. Since creating new knowledge is required to make an AI, RB would be undermining the conditions required for its own creation. Since LW don’t know this they don’t understand epistemology well enough to create an AI and there is no reason to worry about them creating RB or any AI.

The fact that EY’s first response to RB was to ban discussion of it rather than thoroughly refute it also sez something quite bad about EY and LW in general. LW also banned Elliot Temple for criticising their ideas, so the ban on discussion of RB is an example of a general policy not a one off incident.

Statistics and Bad Epistemology

A statistician called Kareem Carr created a twitter thread on statistics and bias and the epistemology in the tweets is bad. The text sez:

Want to know what kinds of bias are fixable with statistics and how?

Read on…

This is a simple mental map of how different biases affect the process of using algorithms to make changes to the physical world. The way we can fix each bias is as follows…

– Data selection bias: you need an accurate mathematical model of the data creation process

– Statistical bias: you need good statistics

– Bias due to generalization: you need an accurate mathematical model of the observations in the data and in the target population

You need explanations of how your measurements work, of how you’re going to process the measurement results, and of what the measurement results imply for whatever you’re looking at. Carr doesn’t address the issue of how to create the explanations. The data don’t imply any particular explanation since nothing about a set of measurements tells you what the next measurement result will be. Rather, predictions are made using explanations, which are sometimes formalised in mathematical models.

To fix the “bias due to causal assumptions”, we need to fix all 3 smaller biases. At that point, if your model fits the data well then it should be a very close match to the world. In this case, correlation IS causation and we can say the inputs CAUSE the outputs. 

Nothing about the fact that your model fits data implies that you’re right about the causation. The model could agree with reality for 200 years of testing and still fail because your theories about how to do observations was wrong, or because your theory about how the world works is wrong but it happens to agree with your results up to that time. That’s what happened with Newtonian mechanics, which agreed with every observation for 200 years. 

It’s easy to find spurious correlations, there’s a website devoted to them. How do we know the difference between real and spurious correlations? All we know is whether the correlations are consistent with an alleged causal relationship. Statistics don’t imply any particular explanation. The statistics are either consistent with an explanation or not. If they are consistent the idea might be right, otherwise we have a problem. That problem may be solved by rejecting the theory or by rejecting the statistics.

Carr’s next tweet sez:

Because we understand causation in the model, we can investigate the degree to which different variables cause different outcomes and this opens the door to the theoretical investigation of the causal effects of gender and race on the model outcomes.

Causation isn’t the right way to think abut human beings. Human beings act according to their ideas. They then experience the consequences of those ideas. The consequences of the ideas people enact may be different from what they intend. Since a lot of people don’t understand economics, the consequences of their ideas are often very different from what they hope for. Healthcare that is “free” is paid for by taxation and inflation, which both reduce the creation of capital and that makes stuff more expensive. In addition having “free” healthcare is effectively like setting the price to zero by fiat, which increases the demand for healthcare. So “free” healthcare is more expensive and people demand more of it. Whether or not that is what people want when demanding “free” healthcare that is what they get and no amount of wishing otherwise will change what happens in reality.

It is possible that “free” healthcare policies could have different impacts on different groups of people. For example, if women have more health problems on average than men for biological reasons, their treatment might be worse on average by some measure like waiting longer for treatment because there is less capital for healthcare because of taxation and inflation. (I just made this idea up on the spot and I would be surprised if it was correct since I have made no effort to criticise it.) Statistics might be used to test some parts of such an explanation, like looking at rates of illness in women compared to men. But you’re not going to get the explanation from statistics.

For any given statistic that some people interpret as evidence of bias there will be other explanations. Statistics won’t resolve such disagreements only coming up with new explanations and criticisms will do that.

Michael Huemer on Popper

Somebody recommended to me an article by Michael Huemer about Karl Popper. I have previously criticised Huemer who wrote a bad criticism of objectivism so I already thought he was a bad philosopher and he is still a bad philosopher. In the third paragraph Huemer writes:

So, as a public service, I am here to explain to you that no, you probably do not agree with Popper at all — unless you are completely out of your mind.

This sentence isn’t an argument. It doesn’t state a position. All it does is state Huemer’s dislike of the position he attributes to Popper.

Huemer then attempts to describe Popper’s position:

You probably associate Popper with these ideas: It’s impossible to verify a theory, with any number of observations. Yet a single observation can refute a theory. Also, science is mainly about trying to refute theories. The way science proceeds is that you start with a hypothesis, deduce some observational predictions, and then see whether those predictions are correct. You start with the ones that you think are most likely to be wrong, because you’re trying to falsify the theory. 

This claim is false. As Popper writes in The Logic Of Scientific Discovery (LScD), Chapter 3, Section 18:

This may happen if a well-corroborated theory, and one which continues to be further corroborated, has been deductively explained by a new hypothesis of a higher level. The attempt will have to be made to test this new hypothesis by means of some of its consequences which have not yet been tested. 

What matters is whether the test will help us make a decision between theories, not whether it is likely to be false. Huemer continues:

Theories that can’t in principle be falsified are bad. 

This is another false claim about Popper, which Popper specifically disagrees with in LScD Section 4:

The fact that value judgments influence my proposals does not mean that I am making the mistake of which I have accused the positivists— that of trying to kill metaphysics by calling it names. I do not even go so far as to assert that metaphysics has no value for empirical science. For it cannot be denied that along with metaphysical ideas which have obstructed the advance of science there have been others—such as speculative atomism—which have aided it. And looking at the matter from the psychological angle, I am inclined to think that scientific discovery is impossible without faith in ideas which are of a purely speculative kind, and sometimes even quite hazy; a faith which is completely unwarranted from the point of view of science, and which, to that extent, is ‘metaphysical’. 

Huemer continues:

Theories that could have been falsified but have survived lots of attempts to falsify them are good.

I wrote that vaguely enough that it’s kind of what Popper said. And you might basically agree with the above, without being insane. But the above paragraph is vague and ambiguous, and it leaves out the insane basics of Popper’s philosophy. If you know a little bit about him, there is a good chance that you completely missed the insane part.

The insane part starts with “deductivism”: the view that the only legitimate kind of reasoning is deduction. Induction is completely worthless; probabilistic reasoning is worthless.

Huemer provides no quotes by Popper saying that the only legitimate kind of reasoning is deduction and I don’t think Popper ever made such a claim. Popper’s position isn’t that induction is worthless. Rather, Popper explains that inductive reasoning is impossible. No series of observations implies that a theory is correct or probable or anything like that because any given set of observations is compatible with an infinite number of other theories. For example, if I have a sequence of numbers 1,2,3 as observations the next number might be 4 or pi or -206754. Popper explains this position at much greater length and with much greater thoroughness and provides an alternative to inductivism: knowledge is created by guessing solutions to problems and eliminating those guesses using criticism.

The rest of the article continues in a similar way. Huemer quotes some of Popper’s conclusions without explaining of any of his arguments or his position. He also states positions that Popper refuted at length in his published writings, while stating problems that Popper solved and claiming they are decisive objections to Popper. Huemer’s article is a dishonest, unscholarly smear. If you want to understand Popper, read the selections by Karl Popper and David Deutsch in the Fallible Ideas reading list and Elliot Temple’s writings on yes or no philosophy.

Pinker vs Popper

Steven Pinker has instructed twitter that Karl Popper is no good:

Most scientists cling to Karl Popper’s account of how science should work, but his falsification criterion isn’t so accurate (most papers don’t say “The data fail to falsify this theory”) and the Bayesian model of science is more general and accurate.

He links to a short blog post about Bayesian epistemology. Popper’s epistemology sez that scientific knowledge is created by conjecture and criticism. Scientists guess solutions to problems and eliminate those guesses by critical discussion that may include experiments. A theory is either right or wrong. If a scientist does an experiment and that experiment doesn’t contradict his theory, then  the theory may be right. If the scientist does the experiment and the result contradicts his theory then he has a problem: either the experiment is wrong or theory is wrong or both are wrong. And we decide whether to reject the theory or the experiment as a result of critical discussion as pointed by Popper in The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Section 29:

Every test of a theory, whether resulting in its corroboration or falsification, must stop at some basic statement or other which we decide to accept. If we do not come to any decision, and do not accept some basic statement or other, then the test will have led nowhere. But considered from a logical point of view, the situation is never such that it compels us to stop at this particular basic statement rather than at that, or else give up the test altogether. For any basic statement can again in its turn be subjected to tests, using as a touchstone any of the basic statements which can be deduced from it with the help of some theory, either the one under test, or another. This procedure has no natural end. Thus if the test is to lead us anywhere, nothing remains but to stop at some point or other and say that we are satisfied, for the time being. 

Pinker sez that scientists don’t write “The data fail to falsify this theory”. Earlier in the same tweet he sez that Popper’s ideas are about how science should work. Perhaps if scientists followed Popper’s advice they would make more progress. Pinker doesn’t make any argument against this possibility. His argument is like claiming that the existence of many obese persons refutes the notion that obesity is bad. Pinker himself hasn’t followed Popper’s advice to look for criticisms of his ideas. For example, Pinker accepts the results of twin experiments (The Blank Slate, Chapter 3):

The importance of genes in organizing the normal brain is underscored by the many ways in which nonstandard genes can give rise to nonstandard minds. When I was an undergraduate an exam question in Abnormal Psychology asked, “What is the best predictor that a person will become schizophrenic?” The answer was, “Having an identical twin who is schizophrenic.” At the time it was a trick question, because the reigning theories of schizophrenia pointed to societal stress, “schizophrenogenic mothers,” double binds, and other life experiences (none of which turned out to have much, if any, importance); hardly anyone thought about genes as a possible cause. But even then the evidence was there: schizophrenia is highly concordant within pairs of identical twins, who share all their DNA and most of their environment, but far less concordant within pairs of fraternal twins, who share only half their DNA (of the DNA that varies in the population) and most of their environment. The trick question could be asked—and would have the same answer—for virtually every cognitive and emotional disorder or difference ever observed. Autism, dyslexia, language delay, language impairment, learning disability, left-handedness, major depressions, bipolar illness, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sexual orientation, and many other conditions run in families, are more concordant in identical than in fraternal twins, are better predicted by people’s biological relatives than by their adoptive relatives, and are poorly predicted by any measurable feature of the environment.

Such experiments have been criticised and the criticisms haven’t been answered. Perhaps if Pinker spent more time looking for flaws in his ideas he wouldn’t be advocating falsehoods.

As for the page Pinker links, it is notable that the page, like Pinker, never bothers to provide any quotes from or even references to the material they claim to criticise. This is unscholarly and anti-rational behaviour. Popper criticised probaiblistic induction and subjective probability, both of which are part of Bayesian epistemology, see for example, Part II, Chapters I and II of Realism and the Aim of Science. Further criticisms can be found in The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch, especially Chapter 13.

“The Primal Prescription” by Murphy and McGuff

The Primal Prescription by Murphy and McGuff is a book about how the US healthcare system works and provides some health advice. The parts of the book I like are those about how the US healthcare system works. I am wary of health advice since most of it is faddish and difficult to evaluate.

Chapters 1-7 are about the history and economics of the US medical system. This history provides an illustration of how government controls cause problems and politicians respond to those problems with more controls that lead to more problems. For example, in chapter 1 the authors describe how price controls on medicine led to a reduction in the number of inpatient beds in hospitals and fewer doctors. The government responded to this by funding graduate medical training. This led to indigent patients being dumped in teaching hospitals. The Reagan Administration then passed a law called Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA):

EMTALA imposes three distinct duties on hospitals. First, ERs must provide a medical screening exam (MSE) on anyone who presents requesting care and determine whether an emergency medical condition (EMC) exists. This must be done regardless of the patient’s ability or intention of paying for care. Second, if an EMC exists, the hospital staff must either stabilize that condition or arrange transfer to another hospital that can. Third, if a hospital possesses specialized capabilities or facilities, they are required to accept transfer of patients in need of their specialized services (again, regardless of capability or intent of paying for these services).

Immediately after passage, critics warned that the law would be crippling for physicians and hospitals because of its vague definitions of an emergency condition, medical screening exams, and what constitutes “stabilization,” which the Act defined as “no medical deterioration should occur from or during the transfer.” As the law took effect and cases started to accumulate, it became evident that the courts interpreted these terms so strictly that nearly any patient could be considered unstable. This is because almost any complaint from an ER patient could conceivably be attached to a dangerous diagnosis that the originating hospital, per the statute, had to rule out before transferring the patient. For example, a complaint of a sore throat could be a retropharyngeal abscess or epiglottitis, and the complaint of a crick in the neck could be a vertebral artery dissection.

So the problem starts with price controls and ends up with doctors potentially ending up in court for anything bad that happens to a patient. Every step in this process spreads the problems caused by price controls to more hospitals instead of fixing the problem.

Chapters 8-13 provides advice about how to stay healthy and deal with doctors and hospitals and stuff like that. These chapters include some food fad diet stuff that I don’t think is much good. Chapter 14 is about free market reforms of the medical system and it looks okay.

“Economic Theory of the Leisure Class” by Nicolai Bukharin

A socialist on Twitter wrote that Economic Theory of the Leisure Class (ETLC) by Nicolai Bukharin is a criticism of Austrian economics that he is willing to defend.

I read the first chapter of ETLC and it is bad enough that I’m not going to read any more of it. Bukharin attacks methodological individualism but his criticism is wrong. In Section 1.1 he writes:

The starting point of the analysis is evidently not the individual member of a given society, in his social relations with his fellow men, but the isolated “atom”, the economic Robinson Crusoe. 

Later he continues with a quote from Bastiat:

We here find the standpoint once so neatly formulated by Bastiat, the “sweetest” of all economists. In his Economic Harmonies, Bastiat says: “The economic laws operate in a uniform manner, whether we are dealing with a totality of lonely persons or with only two persons, or with a single individual, obliged by circumstances to live in isolation. If the individual could live for a period in isolation, this individual would simultaneously be a capitalist, an entrepreneur, a worker, a producer, and a consumer. The entire economic evolution would be realized in him. By reason of his opportunity to observe every step in this evolution, namely: the need, the effort, the satisfaction of the need, enjoying the free use of profit of labor, he would be able to form an idea of the entire mechanism, even though it might be in its simplest form”. (Frederic Bastiat,Harmonies ́economiques, Bruxelles, 1850, p.213.) 

Later in the same section the author writes:

However venerable this point of view may have become by reason of its age, it is nevertheless entirely fallacious. Society (as is consciously or unconsciously assumed) is not an arithmetical aggregate of isolated individuals; on the contrary, the economic activity of each specific individual pre-supposes a definite social environment in which the social relation of the individual economies finds its expression. The motives of the individual living in isolation are entirely different from those of the “social animal” (zoon politikon). The former lives in an environment consisting of nature, of things in their pristine simplicity; the latter is surrounded not only by “matter” but also by a peculiar social milieu. The transition from the isolated human to society is possible only by way of the social milieu. And indeed, if we were dealing only with an aggregate of individual economies, without any points of contact between them, if the specific milieu which Rodbertus has so appropriately termed the “economic community” should be absent, there would be no society. Of course, it is theoretically quite possible to embrace a number of isolated and remote economies in a single conception, to force them into a “totality” as it were. But this totality or aggregate would not be a society, a system of economies closely connected with each other with constant interaction between them. While the former aggregate would be one we had artificially constructed, the second is one that is truly present. Therefore the individual economic subject may be regarded only as a member of a social economic system, not as an isolated atom. The economic subject, in its actions, adapts itself to the given condition of the social phenomena; the latter impose barriers upon his individual motives, or, to use Sombart’s words, “limit them”. This holds true not only of the “economic structure of society”, i.e., of the production conditions, but also of the social-economic phenomena arising on the basis of a given structure. Thus, for example, the individual estimates of price always start with prices that have already been fixed; the desire to invest capital in a bank depends on the interest rate at the time; the investment of capital in this industry or that is determined by the profit yielded by the industry; the estimate of the value of a plot of land depends on its rent and on the rate of interest, etc. No doubt, individual motives have their “opposite effects”; but it must be emphasized that these motives from the start are permeated with a social content, and therefore no “social laws” can be derived from the motives of the isolated subject. But if we do not begin with the isolated individual in our investigation, but consider the social factor in his motives as given, we shall find ourselves involved in a vicious circle: in our attempt to derive the “social”, i.e., the “objective”, from the “individual”, i.e., the “subjective”, we are actually deriving it from the “social”, or doing somewhat worse than robbing Peter to pay Paul. 

I looked up the quote from Bastiat in The Bastiat Collection, which I recommend. In the same chapter (Chapter 7 of “Economic Harmonies”) as the quote provided by Bukharin, Bastiat writes (pp. 632-634):

Let us now vary the hypothesis, and place ourselves in the midst of the social order. Capital is still composed of instruments of labor, materials, and provisions, without which no enterprise of any magnitude can be undertaken, either in a state of isolation or in the social state. Those who are possessed of capital have been put in possession of it only by their labor, or by their privations; and they would not have undergone that labor (which has no connection with present wants), they would not have imposed on themselves those privations, but with the view of obtaining ulterior advantages—with the view, for example, of procuring in larger measure the future co-operation of natural agents. On their part, to give away this capital would be to deprive themselves of the special advantage they have in view; it would be to transfer this advantage to others; it would be to render others a service. We cannot, then, without abandoning the most simple principles of reason and justice, fail to see that the owners of capital have a perfect right to refuse to make this transfer unless in exchange for another service, freely bargained for and voluntarily agreed to. No man in the world, I believe, will dispute the equity of the mutuality of services, for mutuality of services is, in other words, equity. Will it be said that the transaction cannot be free and voluntary, because the man who is in possession of capital is in a position to lay down the law to the man who has none? But how is a bargain to be made? In what way are we to discover the equivalence of services if it be not in the case of an exchange voluntarily effected on both sides? Do you not perceive, moreover, that the man who borrows capital, being free either to borrow it or not, will refuse to do so unless he sees it to be for his advantage, and that the loan cannot make his situation worse? The question he asks himself is evidently this: Will the employment of this capital afford me advantages that are more than sufficient to make up for the conditions that are demanded of me? Or this: Is the effort I am now obliged to make, in order to obtain a given satisfaction greater or less than the sum of the efforts the loan will entail upon me—first of all in rendering the services that are demanded of me by the lender, and afterwards in procuring the special satisfaction I have in view with the aid of the capital borrowed? If, taking all things into account, there be no advantage to be got, he will not borrow, he will remain as he is, and what injury is done him? He may be mistaken, you will say. Undoubtedly he may. One may be mistaken in all imaginable transactions. Are we then to abandon our liberty? If you go that length, tell us what we are to substitute for free will and free consent. Constraint? for if we give up liberty, what remains but constraint? No, you say—the judgment of a third party. Granted, on these conditions: First, that the decision of this third party, whatever name you give him, shall not be put in force by constraint. Second, that he be infallible, for to substitute one fallible man for another would be to no purpose; and the parties whose judgment I should least distrust in such a matter are the parties who are interested in the result. The third and last condition is that this arbitrator shall not be paid for his services; for it would be a singular way of manifesting his sympathy for the borrower, first of all to take away from him his liberty, and then to lay on his shoulders an additional burden as the recompense of this philanthropical service. But let us leave the question of right, and return to Political Economy.

A Capital which is composed of materials, provisions, and instruments presents two aspects—Utility and Value. I must have failed in my exposition of the theory of value if the reader does not understand that the man who transfers capital is paid only for its value, that is to say, for the service rendered in creating that capital; in other words, for the pains taken by the cedant combined with the pains saved to the recipient. Capital consists of commodities or products. It assumes the name of capital only by reason of its ulterior destination. It is a great mistake to suppose that capital, as such, is a thing having an independent existence. A sack of wheat is still a sack of wheat, although one man sells it for revenue, and another buys it for capital. Exchange takes place on the invariable principle of value for value, service for service; and the portion of gratuitous utility that enters into the commodity is so much into the bargain. At the same time, the portion that is gratuitous has no value, and value is the only thing regarded in bargains. In this respect, transactions that have reference to capital are in no respect different from others. 

This consideration opens up some admirable views with reference to the social order, but which I cannot do more than indicate here. Man, in a state of isolation, is possessed of capital only when he has brought together materials, provisions, and tools. The same thing does not hold true of man in the social state. It is enough for the latter to have rendered services, and to have thus the power of drawing upon society, by means of the mechanism of exchange for equivalent services. I mean by the mechanism of exchange money, bills, bank notes, and even bankers themselves. Whoever has rendered a service, and has not yet received the corresponding satisfaction is the bearer of a warrant, either possessed of value, as money, or fiduciary, like bank notes, which warrant gives him the power of receiving back from society, when he will, where he will, and in what form he will, an equivalent service. This impairs neither in principle nor in effect, nor in an equitable point of view, the great law I seek to elucidate, that services are exchanged for services. It is still the embryo barter, which has been developed, enlarged, and rendered more complex, but without losing its identity.

Bastiat has considered the effect of living in a society with other people and even has a discussion of whether freedom of trade should be restricted by politicians to help those without much capital. Since this discussion is in the very chapter as the quote Bukharin used he cherry picked a particular quote without mentioning the context, which means he is either dishonest or incompetent and I don’t see any reason to consider his criticisms further.

Restrictions on speech versus reach

Many people in positions of authority want to restrict speech. One of the problems with trying to impose such restrictions is that ideas have reach – they have implications for issues they weren’t invented to address as explained in The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. So even if an authority picks a subject he thinks is safe he may end up discussing an idea he wants to restrict. This story from an interview by a sex worker provides an example:

Lydia: Do you remember when you first became aware that sex work existed?

Ramona: Sort of. I have two memories I can think of. One was when I was in school, I think in reception or year one (Kindergarten) we were learning a story from the bible about a man who spent all of his money on food and — I don’t want to say the word.

Prostitute? You can say it.

Okay, I guess. He spent his money on prostitutes, and a boy asked the teacher what a prostitute was and she wouldn’t tell him.

It’s also interesting that the teacher didn’t think that a bible story would have prostitution in it when the bible is full of sex and violence. If the teacher had been raised with the idea that discussing sex and violence is bad and the bible is good then he would have to avoid learning too much about the bible to avoid facing that problem.

Reisman and Praxeology

George Reisman’s book Capitalism is the best economics book available. Other books I have read on economics are less clearly written and include worse ideas. One particular example of this greater clarity is how Reisman explains what economics is about.

In Chapter 1 , Section 1 Reisman writes:

I define economics as the science that studies the production of wealth under a system of division of labor, that is, under a system in which the individual lives by producing, or helping to produce, just one thing or at most a very few things, and is supplied by the labor of others for the far greater part of his needs.

In Chapter 2, Section 2 he discusses some objections to this position on what economics is about:

The second challenge to economics’ focus on wealth is the mistaken claim that economics is a science of choices rather than a science of wealth—a science which studies the “allocation of scarce means among competing ends.” 

This contention rests on a logical fallacy. It does not see that what gives rise to economics’ study of choices and its concern with the allocation of scarce means among competing ends is the fact that people have a virtually limitless need for wealth but only a limited capability of satisfying that need at any given time. Thus, people must choose which aspects of their need for wealth are to be satisfied and which are not. Economics studies the determinants of human choice only insofar as they concern choices of how to spend incomes that are of necessity limited, and only insofar as they affect the attraction of capital and labor to the production of some goods rather than other goods. In other words, it studies the issue of choices for no other reason than that it is necessary to do so as part of its study of the production of wealth under a system of division of labor. To claim that economics is on this account a science of human choices rather than of wealth is to confuse an aspect of the science with its totality. To adopt this view is to be led to ignore all the really crucial matters that economics deals with and to seek esoteric extensions of the subject that have nothing whatever to do with its actual nature. Fortunately, those who adopt this view are highly inconsistent in its application and generally continue to devote most of their attention to the serious business of economics and leave the alleged necessity of extending the subject beyond the domain of wealth as a task to be carried out in the indefinite future.12

Reisman continues in note 12:

Regrettably, this criticism applies to the great von Mises and his efforts to portray economics as merely the “hitherto best developed part” of an allegedly wider science of human action known as praxeology. See Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, 3d ed. rev. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1966), pp. 1–10 passim. I wish to note, indeed to stress, however, that even when I have ultimately come to disagree with some position of von Mises, as in this case, I do not recall ever having read so much as a single paragraph of his writings that did not serve as the most powerful stimulus to my own thinking. Therefore, I urge everyone to give the most serious consideration to every portion of his writings.

So Reisman is criticising praxeology. In Section 1 of the Introduction to Human Action, Mises writes:

For a long time men failed to realize that the transition from the classical theory of value to the subjective theory of value was much more than the substitution of a more satisfactory theory of market exchange for a less satisfactory one. The general theory of choice and preference goes far beyond the horizon which encompassed the scope of economic problems as circumscribed by the economists from Cantillon, Hume, and Adam Smith down to John Stuart Mill. It is much more than merely a theory of the “economic side” of human endeavors and of man’s striving for commodities and an improvement in his material well-being. It is the science of every kind of human action. Choosing determines all human decisions. In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services. All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference. The modern theory of value widens the scientific horizon and enlarges the field of economic studies. Out of the political economy of the classical school emerges the general theory of human action, praxeology. The economic or catallactic problems are embedded in a more general science, and can no longer be severed from this connection. No treatment of economic problems proper can avoid starting from acts of choice; economics becomes a part, although the hitherto best elaborated part, of a more universal science, praxeology.

In Section 2 of Chapter I Mises writes:

Praxeology is indifferent to the ultimate goals of action. Its findings are valid for all kinds of action irrespective of the ends aimed at. It is a science of means, not of ends. It applies the term happiness in a purely formal sense. In the praxeological terminology the proposition: man’s unique aim is to attain happiness, is tautological. It does not imply any statement about the state of affairs from which man expects happiness.

In Section 4 he writes:

The teachings of praxeology and economics are valid for every human action without regard to its underlying motives, causes, and goals. The ultimate judgments of value and the ultimate ends of human action are given for any kind of scientific inquiry; they are not open to any further analysis. Praxeology deals with the ways and means chosen for the attainment of such ultimate ends. Its object is means, not ends.

I think Reisman’s criticism of praxeology is correct. 

Mises’ ideas about praxeology are esoteric extensions of economics and they’re also wrong. A person can have many different incompatible ends. Some socialists like the idea of hurting rich people, but this isn’t compatible with their stated desire to help the poor. Rich people get rich by providing goods that people want, and his customers often include many poor people. And if a business makes more profit it may be able to hire more people, including some poor people so more poor people would have the means to buy stuff they want. And there are other economic advantages to the government leaving rich people alone. So it is possible to criticise a person’s ends in terms of economics. A person can have many different goals and there is no guarantee of their compatibility so there are no ultimate goals.

Economics doesn’t require having a completely general theory of human action. Explaining the operation of a division of labour society is necessary for progress and a lot of progress has been made on that project. As Reisman points out later in Chapter 2, Section 3:

The fact that both the need and the desire for additional wealth are limitless for all practical purposes does not mean, however, that people automatically act to satisfy that need and desire. It is certainly possible for the need and desire for additional wealth to fail to result in the production of additional wealth, let alone in continuous economic progress. Indeed, history and most of the world around us are characterized by stagnation and poverty. The mere possession of a need or desire is never sufficient to ensure that the need or desire will be satisfied. In the absence of the influence of a rational philosophy establishing limited government and economic freedom and inculcating such convictions as that the material world has both reality and primacy, that it is intelligible, and that hard work pays, man is not able to devote himself sufficiently to the production of wealth.

It would be better to concentrate on more thoroughly explaining the good ideas of economics rather than working on bad philosophy in the name of praxeology.