Checking Szasz quotes

In previous posts I checked Ayn Rand quotes from Robert Mayhew and quotes in a Karl Popper book. In this post I am checking a couple of quotes from Thomas Szasz.

The first quote comes from p. 58 of Cruel Compassion:

Among the major advantages of separate care for the epileptics in colonies are the following: The model colony provides the patient with an environment from which many of the dangers he faces in normal community life, as well as stresses injurious to his mental health, are eliminated. … It relieves society in some measure of a source of potential danger to the public safety, since certain types of epileptic seizures are often accompanied by homicidal impulses. 

The quote comes from p. 383 of the 1949 edition of The Mentally Ill In America by Albert Deutsch. The original quote reads:

Among the major advantages of separate care for the epileptics in colonies are the following: 

1. The model colony provides the patient with an environment from which many of the dangers he faces in normal community life, as well as stresses injurious to his mental health, are eliminated. It is planned as closely as possible along the pattern of normal community life, with features adapted to his individual needs. 

2. It provides him with constant medical care and supervision. 

3. It relieves society in some measure of a source of potential danger to the public safety, since certain types of epileptic seizures are often accompanied by homicidal impulses. 

4. It removes the patient from a general institution where he is forced into close contact with various groups of dependents (the mentally ill and defective, etc.) under conditions highly unsatisfactory to himself and his fellow-patients or fellow-inmates.

Szasz left out the numbers without indicating that he left anything out and squashed all of the quotes into a single paragraph but the quote is correct otherwise.

On p. 124 of Cruel Compassion, Szasz writes the following quote:

This investigation uses the method recently designated as the “psychological.” The name is applied because the theory takes its point of departure from within, from the mind of the economic man. I myself once spoke of economic theory in this sense as applied psychology.

The original quote comes from Social Economics by Friedrich von Wieser and it reads:

This investigation uses the method recently designated as the “psychological.” The name is applied because the theory takes its point of departure from within, from the mind of the economic man. I myself once spoke of economic theory in this sense as applied psychology.

The final quote I will check comes from p. 107 of Coercion as Cure by Thomas Szasz:

In carrying out my general plan of treatment it is my habit to ask the patient to remain in bed from six weeks to two months. At first, and in some cases for four or five weeks, I do not permit the patient to sit up or to sew or write or read. The only action allowed is that needed to clean the teeth. In some instances I have not permitted the patient to turn over without aid, and this I have done because sometimes I think no motion desirable, and because some- times the moral influence of absolute repose is of use. In such cases I arrange to have the bowels and water passed while lying down…Usually, after a fortnight I permit the patient to be read to—one to three hours a day—but I am daily amazed to see how kindly nervous and amemic women take to this absolute rest, and how little they complain of its monotony…All the moral uses of rest and isolation and change of habits are not obtained by merely insisting on the physical conditions needed to effect these ends. If the physician has the force of character required to secure the confidence and respect of his patients he has also much more in his power, and should have the tact to seize the proper occasions to direct the thoughts of his patients to the lapse from duties to others, and to the selfishness which a life of invalidism is apt to bring about. Such moral medication belongs to the higher sphere of the doctor’s duties, and if he means to cure his patient permanently, he cannot afford to neglect them. 

The original quote comes from pp. 43-46 of Fat and Blood by Mitchell Silas Weir and it reads:

I have, of course, made use of every grade of rest for my patients, from insisting upon repose on a lounge for some hours a day up to entire rest in bed. In carrying out my general plan of treatment it is my habit to ask the patient to remain in bed from six weeks to two months. At first, and in some cases for four or five weeks, I do not permit the patient to sit up or to sew or write or read. The only action allowed is that needed to clean the teeth. In some instances I have not permitted the patient to turn over without aid, and this I have done because sometimes I think no motion desirable, and because some- times the moral influence of absolute repose is of use. In such cases I arrange to have the bowels and water passed while lying down, and the patient is lifted on to a lounge at bedtime and sponged, and then lifted back again into the newly-made bed. 

In all cases of weakness, treated by rest, I insist on the patient being fed by the nurse, and, when well enough to sit up in bed, I insist that the meats shall be cut up, so as to make it easier for the patient to feed herself.

In many cases I allow the patient to sit up in order to obey the calls of nature, but I am always careful to have the bowels kept reasonably free from costiveness, knowing well how such a state and the efforts it gives rise to enfeeble a sick person. 

Usually, after a fortnight I permit the patient to be read to,—one to three hours a day,—but I am daily amazed to see how kindly nervous and amemic women take to this absolute rest, and how little they complain of its monotony. In fact, the use of massage and the battery, with the frequent comings of the nurse with food and the doctor’s visits, seem so to fill up the day as to make the treatment less tiresome than might be supposed. And, besides this, the sense of comfort which is apt to come about the fifth or sixth day,—the feeling of ease, and the ready capacity to digest food, and the growing hope of final cure, fed as it is by present relief,—all conspire to make most patients contented and tractable. 

The moral uses of enforced rest are readily estimated. From a restless life of irregular hours, and probably endless drugging, from hurtful sympathy and over-zealous care, the patient passes to an atmosphere of quiet, to order and control, to the system and care of a thorough nurse, to an absence of drugs, and to simple diet. The result is always at first, whatever it may be afterwards, a sense of relief, and a remarkable and often a quite abrupt disappearance of many of the nervous symptoms with which we are all of us only too sadly familiar. 

All the moral uses of rest and isolation and change of habits are not obtained by merely insisting on the physical conditions needed to effect these ends. If the physician has the force of character required to secure the confidence and respect of his patients he has also much more in his power, and should have the tact to seize the proper occasions to direct the thoughts of his patients to the lapse from duties to others, and to the selfishness which a life of invalidism is apt to bring about. Such moral medication belongs to the higher sphere of the doctor’s duties, and if he means to cure his patient permanently, he cannot afford to neglect them. 

Szasz’s book squashed material from several pages and paragraphs into one paragraph and changed some of the punctuation in the original from “,-” to “-” but the quote is the same otherwise.

Popper quote checking

Previously I have checked quotes from “Ayn Rand Answers” by Robert Mayhew. In this post I’m checking quotes from Karl Popper’s book The Open Society and Its Enemies Volume II (OSE).

The first quote is the motto of the volume:

To the debacle of liberal science can be traced the moral schism of the modern world which so tragically divides enlightened men. 

—WALTER LIPPMANN.

The original quote can be found in The Good Society Chapter XI, Section 1:

To the debacle of liberal science can be traced the moral schism of the modern world which so tragically divides enlightened men.

This quote is accurate.

The next quote comes from Chapter 11, Section II of OSE:

The chief danger to our philosophy, apart from laziness and woolliness, is scholasticism, .. which is treating what is vague as if it were precise. 

The original quote can be found in Philosophical Papers by F. P. Ramsey, edited by D H Mellor, Chapter 1:

The chief danger to our philosophy, apart from laziness and woolliness, is scholasticism, the essence of which is treating what is vague as if it were precise and trying to fit it into an exact logical category.

Popper has omitted the end of the sentence and put a full stop at the end but the quote is correct otherwise.

In Chapter 11, Section II of OSE Popper writes the following quote from Plato To-Day by R. H. S. Grossman:

‘… if we do not know precisely the meanings of the words we use, we cannot discuss anything profitably. Most of the futile arguments on which we all waste time are largely due to the fact that we each have our own vague meanings for the words we use and assume that our opponents are using them in the same senses. If we defined our terms to start with we could have far more profitable discussions. Again, we have only to read the daily papers to observe that propaganda (the modern counterpart of rhetoric) depends largely for its success on confusing the meaning of the terms. If politicians were compelled by law to define any term they wished to use, they would lose most of their popular appeal, their speeches would be shorter, and many of their disagreements would be found to be purely verbal.’

The original quote reads:

This method of analysts — the attempt to define precisely the meanings of common words— is the great contribution of Socrates to modem philosophy, for if we do not know precisely the meanings of the words we use, we cannot discuss anything profitably Most of the futile arguments on which we all waste time are largely due to the fact that we each have our own vague meanings for the words we use and assume that our opponents are using them in the same senses If we defined our terms to start with, we could have far more profitable discussions Again, we have only to read the daily papers to observe that propaganda (the modem counterpart of rhetoric) depends largely for its success on confusing the meaning of the terms If politicians were compelled by law to define any term they wished to use, they would lose most of their popular appeal, their speeches would be shorter, and many of their disagreements would be found to be purely verbal.

This quote is also accurate.

Popper quotes accurately in these examples.

Ayn Rand Answers Q and A misquoting example

Elliot Temple has been discussing misquoting recently. People often misquote and this is a problem because if people can’t even quote properly there isn’t much prospect of rationalm discussion. Ayn Rand Answers is a book of questions and answers in talks edited by Robert Mayhew. George Reisman has written that the answers have been edited heavily. I’m going to review a particular example. On pp.102-104, in the book Mayhew writes:

When you consider the cultural genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of blacks, and the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War Two, how can you have such a positive view of America? 

America is the country of individual rights. Should America have tolerated slavery? Certainly not. Why did they? At the time of the Constitutional Convention and the debates about the Constitution, the best theoreticians wanted to abolish slavery right away, and they should have. But they compromised with other members, and that compromise led inevitably to a catastrophe: the Civil War. If you believe in rights, then the institution of slavery is an enormous contradiction. It is to America’s honor, which the haters of this country never mention, that people died to abolish slavery. There was that strong a feeling about it. Slavery was a contradiction, but before you criticize this country, remember that slavery was a remnant of the politics and philosophies of Europe and the rest of the world. Blacks were in many cases sold into slavery by other black tribes. Historically, there was no such concept as the right of the individual; the United States is based on that concept, so that so long as men held to the American political philosophy, they eventually had to eliminate slavery, even at the price of civil war. Incidentally, if you study history, following America’s example, slavery or serfdom was abolished in the whole civilized world in the nineteenth century. What abolished it? Capitalism, not altruism or any kind of collectivism. The world of free trade could not coexist with slave labor. Countries like Russia (which was the most backward) liberated the serfs without any pressure from anyone, but because of economic necessity. No one could compete with America economically so long as they attempted to use slave labor. That was the liberating influence of America. 

Now, I don’t care to discuss the alleged complaints American Indians have against this country. I believe, with good reason, the most unsympathetic Hollywood portrayal of Indians and what they did to the white man. They had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country. And you’re a racist if you object, because it means you believe that certain men are entitled to something because of their race. You believe that if someone is born in a magnificent country and doesn’t know what to do with it, he still has a property right to it. He does not. Since the Indians did not have the concept of property or property rights—they didn’t have a settled society, they had predominantly nomadic tribal “cultures”—they didn’t have rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights that they had not conceived of and were not using. It’s wrong to attack a country that respects (or even tries to respect) individual rights. If you do, you’re an aggressor and are morally wrong. But if a “country” does not protect rights—if a group of tribesmen are the slaves of their tribal chief—why should you respect the “rights” that they don’t have or respect? The same is true for a dictatorship. The citizens in it have individual rights, but the country has no rights and so anyone has the right to invade it, because rights are not recognized in that country; and no individual or country can have its cake and eat it too—that is, you can’t claim one should respect the “rights” of Indians, when they had no concept of rights and no respect for rights. But let’s suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages—which they certainly were not. What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their “right” to keep part of the earth untouched—to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it’s great that some of them did. The racist Indians today—those who condemn America—do not respect individual rights. As for Japanese Americans placed in labor camps in California, that wasn’t done by defenders of capitalism and Americanism, but by the progressive liberal Democrats of Franklin D. Roosevelt. [PWNI 74]

The actual question and answer was from a lecture given in 1974 called “Philosophy Who Needs It“. I have transcribed the relevant answer:

Q: Uh mam, at the risk of [unintelligible], at the risk of stating an unpopular view, when you are speaking of America, I couldn’t help but think of the cultural genocide of native Americans, the enslavement of black men in this country and the relocation of Japanese-Americans during World War II. How do you account for all of this, in your view of America?

A: To begin with there is much more to America than the issue of racism. I do not believe that the issue of racism, or even the persecution of a particular race, is as important as the persecution of individuals, because when you deprive individuals of rights, if you deprive any small group of individuals of their rights therefore look at this fundamentally if you are concerned with minorities the smallest minority on Earth is an individual. If you do not respect individual rights you will sacrifice or persecute all minorities and then you just get the same treatment given to a majority which can be observed today in Soviet Russia.

But if you ask me “Well now, should America have tolerated slavery?” I would say certainly not. And why did they? Well, at the time of the constitutional convention, or the debates about the constitution, the best theoreticians at the time wanted to abolish slavery right then and there and they should have. that is a big compromise with other members of the debate and that compromise has caused this country a dreadful catastrophe which had to happen and that is the civil war. You could not have slavery existing in a country which proclaims the inalienable rights of man. if you believe in the rights and in the institution of slavery it is an enormous contradiction. It is to the honour of this country which the haters of this country never mention that people died giving their life in order to abolish slavery there were that much strong sorts of feelings about it. Certainly slavery was a contradiction but before you criticise this country remember that that is a remnant of the politics and the philosophy of Europe and of the rest of the world. The black slaves were sold into slavery by in many cases by other black tribes. Slavery is something which only the United States of America abolished. Historically, there was no such concept as the right of the individual. The United States is based on that concept. For that so long as man here the American beliefs or philosophy they had to come to the point even of a civil war but of eliminating the contradiction with which they could not live: namely the institution of slavery.

Incidentally, by following America’s example, slavery or serfdom was abolished in the whole civilised world during the 19th century. What abolished it? Not altruism. Not any kind of collectivism. Capitalism. The world of free trade could not coexist with slave labour. And countries like Russia which were the most backward and have had serfs liberated them without any pressure from anyone by economic necessity. Nobody could compete with America economically so long as they attempted to use slave labour. Now that was the liberating influence of America. 

That’s in regard to the slavery of black people, but as to the example of the Japanese people, you mean the labour camps in California? Well, that was certainly not put over by any sort of defender of capitalism or Americanism. That was done by the left wing progressive liberal democrats of Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

[here I omit some utterances that aren’t very clear]

Q: Did you mention the American Indians in your question as one of the groups? Okay do you want to address yourself to that also?

Yes, because if you study reliable history and not liberal racist newspapers, racism didn’t exist in this country until the liberal brought it up. Racism in the sense of self consciousness about separation of races. Yes, slavery existed as a very evil institution and there certainly was prejudice against some minorities including the negroes after they were liberated. But those prejudices were dying out under the pressure of free economics because racism in the prejudicial sense doesn’t pay. Then if anyone wants to be a racist he suffers the workings of the system is against him. Today it is to everyone’s advantage to form some kind of ethnic collective. the people who share your view or from whose philosophy those catchphrases come are the ones who are institutionalising racism today. What about the quotas in employment, the quotas in education? And I hope to god from not religion but just to express my feeling that the Supreme Court will rule against those quotas. But if you can understand the vicious contradiction and injustice of establishing racism by law, whether it’s in favour of a majority or a minority doesn’t matter, it’s more offensive when it’s in the name of a minority because it can only be done in order to disarm and destroy the majority. in the whole country. It can only create more racist division and backlashes and racist feelings. If you’re opposed to racism you should support individualism. You cannot oppose racism on one hand and want collectivism on the other.

But now as to the Indians, I don’t even care to discuss that kind of alleged complaints that they have against this country. I do believe, with serious scientific reasons, the worst kind of movie that you have probably seen – worse from the Indian viewpoint – as to what they did to the white men. I do not think that they had any right to live in a country merely because they were born here and acted and lived like savages. Americans didn’t conquer, Americans did not conquer this country… Whoever is making sounds there, I think it’s [unintelligible],  he’s right, but please be consistent, you are a racist if you object to that.

You are that because you believe that anything can be given to men by his biological birth or for biological reasons. If you are born in a magnificent country which you don’t know what to do with, you believe that that’s a property right. It is not. And since the Indians did not have any property rights – they didn’t have the concept of property – they didn’t even have a settled society, they were predominantly nomadic tribes. They were a primitive tribal… culture, if you want to call it that.

If so, they didn’t have any rights to the land, and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights, which they had not conceived and were not using. It would be wrong to attack any country which does respect, or try for that matter, that respects individual rights. Because if they do, you are an aggressor and you are morally wrong if you attack them. But if a country does not protect rights, if a given tribe is the slave of its own tribal chief, why should you respect the right they do not have? Or any country which has a dictatorship. Government… the citizens still have individual rights, but the country does not have any rights, anyone has the right to invade it, because rights are not recognized in this country; and neither you, nor a country nor anyone can have your cake and eat it too – in other words want respect for the rights of Indians, who incidentally, for most cases, of their tribal history, made agreements with the white man. And then when they had used up whichever they got through the agreement of giving, selling certain territory, then came back and broke the agreements and attacked white settlements.

I would go further, lets say this, lets suppose they were all beautifully innocent savages, which they certainly were not, what was it that they were fighting for? If they opposed white men on this continent. For their whish to continue a primitive existence? Their right to keep part of the earth untouched, unused, and not even have property but just keep everybody out, so that you have to live, practically like an animal or maybe a few caves above it? Any white person who brings the element of civilisation, has the right to take over this country. And it is great that some people did, and discovered here, what they couldn’t do anywhere else in the world and what the Indians, if there are any racist Indians today, do not believe to this day: In respect for individual rights.

I am, incidentally, in favour of Israel and against the Arabs for the very same reason. there you have the same reason in reverse. Israel is not a good country politically it leans strongly it’s a mix of communist, it leans strongly toward socialism. But why do the Arabs resent it? Because it is a wedge of civilisation an industrial wedge in part of a country which is totally primitive and nomadic. Israel is being attacked for being civilised and being specifically a technological society. It is for that very reason that they should be supported that they are morally right because they represent the progress of man’s mind just as the white settlers of America represented the progress of the mind not centuries of brute stagnation and superstition. They represented the banner of the mind and they were in the right. 

Mayhew has very heavily edited the answer and left out a lot of material while changing the order so that the material about FDR appears after the material about the Indians for no apparent reason. And the editing makes the answer worse in some respects like omitting Rand’s explanation that you can’t be given property for biological reasons and that thinking otherwise is racism. This is a very serious misquote and if the other answers have been edited in the same way they’ll have a lot of missing content and arguments.

Comments about Steele on lying

Many people think that lying means saying something that you know to be false or something along those lines. Elliot Temple has explained that this position is wrong: lying is about misrepresenting reality rather than just being about saying something you know to be false. David Ramsay Steele has disagreed with Elliot in a couple of comments on this blog and I’m going to point out some problems with his comments.

Steele writes:

The word “lie” has a definition in English. It means asserting what you believe to be false. The piece you refer me to strikes me as muddled. If you assert what you believe to be the case, you are not lying.

One dictionary definition of lie reads:

lie

noun

1 a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood.

2 something intended or serving to convey a false impression; imposture:

His flashy car was a lie that deceived no one.

3 an inaccurate or false statement; a falsehood.

verb (used without object), lied, ly·ing.

1 to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.

2 to express what is false; convey a false impression.

verb (used with object), lied, ly·ing.

1 to bring about or affect by lying (often used reflexively):

2 to lie oneself out of a difficulty; accustomed to lying his way out of difficulties.

The second noun definition of lie isn’t equivalent to an assertion that you believe to be false. It includes a lie by omission involves omitting information in such a way that you know people will misunderstand what you’re saying rather than making a statement that one knows to be false. Nathan Phillips, the Indian involved in the Covington high school controversy claimed he was a Vietnam era veteran and many media outlets reported that he was a Vietnam veteran. In reality Phillips became a marine in the last year of the war and probably never went to Vietnam. Phillips left out information about his military in such a way as to give the impression that he was a Vietnam veteran. This is a good example of a lie by omission. Lying by omission is common and Steele pretends that it doesn’t exist.

Steele’s position often leads to problems with saying a person is lying. For example, Bill Clinton claimed he didn’t have “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky and claimed that the term “sexual relations” didn’t include getting a blow job. Was Clinton lying by Steele’s definition or not? If Clinton was thinking about his special definition of “sexual relations” when he was making the statement then he wasn’t knowingly making a false statement, so Steele would say he wasn’t lying. But if Clinton wasn’t thinking about that definition then he wasn’t lying. And there is no way to tell the difference so Steele can’t say Clinton was lying. And any person at any time could claim he was thinking about non-standard terminology so anyone can easily avoid a claim of lying by Steele’s standards.

Steele continues:

Of course, you can’t lie to yourself (not without bringing in multiple personality disorder, which I think is a myth).

Elliot explains what lying to yourself means in the essay:

Lying has to do with pretending, misrepresenting or faking. You can do those things with yourself or others. If you know something is false, and you say it, that’s lying. And if you choose not to consider whether it’s true or false, and then hide your ignorance (from yourself or others), then you’re pretending to have a more reality-based approach to life than you do, and lying about that when you falsely present yourself as knowing more than you do.

Steele ignored this explanation of Elliot’s position. Lying to yourself in this view doesn’t require multiple personalities. It requires that you deliberately or negligently misrepresent reality. Doing that with your own beliefs just requires that you decide not to pay attention to problems with your beliefs. This does require having inconsistent ideas but there is nothing particularly surprising about that because comparing ideas for inconsistency isn’t automatic: it requires some effort. Steele either didn’t read the essay closely or he did read it and decided not to engage with the argument. In either case he is trying to give a misleading impression about the lying article being stupid: he is lying.

In another comment, Steele writes:

Lying to oneself is not possible, because to lie is to deliberately mis-state what one believes to be the facts, in order to mislead. How can anyone say to themselves “The moon is made of green cheese. I know it is not, and so therefore you do too, but I am going to deceive you, that is myself, by saying it to you (myself).”

That isn’t how people lie to themselves as Elliot pointed this out in his lying essay:

People lie to themselves because they don’t like some aspect of reality and don’t want to face it. They see a problem, and don’t expect to solve it, and don’t want to live with an unsolved problem.

This sort of behaviour is common: let’s consider a realistic example of a person lying to himself. Jim has recently noticed that one of his testicles is larger than it used to be. Jim thinks he might be ill and there are multiple possible causes, including testicular cancer. He’s in the process of moving for a new job so he thinks he doesn’t have time to go to the doctor and possibly end up getting surgery or chemotherapy. Instead of facing up to this issue he decides to ignore the change in his testicle and hope it goes away. He’s lying to himself about the fact that he’s ill and that it might be a serious problem. Has Steele never come across examples like this?

In an earlier comment I wrote:

Psychiatrists’ position is that mental illness legitimises involuntary commitment. That claim is commonly accepted as the basis for involuntary commitment. Accepting that this is the way people commonly talk about this issue doesn’t require accepting that their framing of the issue is correct, but stating psychiatrists’ position accurately requires stating their position in that way. Szasz is stating his opponents’ position to refute it, not accepting their framing of the issue.

Szasz states their position is a lie as illustrated by the quotes I gave in the post. It would be odd for Szasz to say that psychiatrists’ position is a lie if he accepts part of it.

Steele replied:

Well, saying someone’s position is a “lie” involves the claim that they don’t believe it. I think it’s a stretch to say that all psychiatrists are insisting on claims they secretly believe to be false. I think some of them do believe what they say, in which case they are not lying.

Steele’s position depends on the tenability of his view of lying and it isn’t tenable. Szasz and many others have criticised psychiatry as coercive and pseudoscientific. It also doesn’t take much thought to see that if a person is behaving oddly that doesn’t imply that he’s ill. So the idea that psychiatrists don’t know their profession has a lot of flaws doesn’t hold water now and didn’t hold water even before Szasz came along. The only way Steele can claim psychiatrists aren’t liars is to adopt a restrictive definition of lying and ignore counterarguments. Trying to get away with a claim that can be refuted by looking up a dictionary definition using a search engine is at best negligently giving a false impression: it is a lie. By that standard Steele is lying.

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.