Misunderstandings are common

It is common for people to misunderstand written material, including material that is apparently written in plain English. Consider, for example, this paragraph from Ayn Rand’s essay “The Argument from Intimidation”:

The essential characteristic of the Argument from Intimidation is its appeal to moral self-doubt and its reliance on the fear, guilt or ignorance of the victim. It is used in the form of an ultimatum demanding that the victim renounce a given idea without discussion, under threat of being considered morally unworthy. The pattern is always: “Only those who are evil (dishonest, heartless, insensitive, ignorant, etc.) can hold such an idea.”

And then look at the mess Adam Lockett made of interpreting it:

Having a conscience is about making moral judgements about your thoughts and behaviour. You may sometimes feel bad as a result of judging that your behaviour or ideas suck, but the key idea behind conscience is the judgement not the emotion. You have moral self doubt if you don’t have confidence in your ability to make moral judgements. So not having moral self doubt is not the same as lacking a conscience. Rand was strongly in favour of judging your own conduct and the conduct of others:

The precept: “Judge not, that ye be not judged” . . . is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.

There is no escape from the fact that men have to make choices; so long as men have to make choices, there is no escape from moral values; so long as moral values are at stake, no moral neutrality is possible. To abstain from condemning a torturer, is to become an accessory to the torture and murder of his victims.

The moral principle to adopt in this issue, is: “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”

In other words, Rand was in favour of a person having a conscience and standing by his ideas unless they are refuted by argument. Rand was also in favour of selfishness in the sense of having regard for your own interests. Adopting a standard that opposes acting in your own self interest means that you sometimes have to act in a way that is immoral by your own standards. And if you can’t consistently act morally by your own standards, then you will have moral self doubt to some extent. So seeing self interest as legitimate and good will help you avoid moral self doubt and have a strong conscience.

Suppose that you avoid moral self doubt and you engage in an argument. It is possible that your initial position will be refuted and you will adopt a new idea. But since your ideas have improved that’s not a loss in any relevant sense. Looking on it as a loss is a bad idea and will lead you to stick to ideas you ought to discard. If you engage in an argument and your position isn’t refuted that’s okay too. You can still learn something about what kinds of mistakes people make and about how to explain your own position. So a selfish person who engages in an argument without moral self doubt wins regardless of whether his position survives the argument.

A person who tries to win using an argument from intimidation loses an opportunity to engage with a different set of ideas than his own. The loss and the fact that the intimidator sees it as a victory are both kinda sad.

Postmodernism debate

Stefan Molyneux and Thaddeus Russell had a debate about postmodernism. The meat of the debate starts at about 25 minutes. Molyneux and Russell have a false idea in common that results in them making bad arguments. I’ll explain enough of their positions to explain their mistakes and point out an alternative that doesn’t have any known problems.

Molyneux is trying to defend the idea that reality is objective and we can know stuff about it. He ends up talking about whether we know for certain that stuff falls down instead of up. He calls this sort of statement “base reality”. He distinguishes this base reality sharply from theories about what is causing the base reality. Molyneux also sez scientists don’t completely repudiate previous scientific theories.

Russell’s position is that any idea can be reinterpreted. So the idea that things fall down depends on your interpretation of the word “down”. For example, if you’re in Australia, “down” is a different direction from “down” in the UK. His least bad argument is that knowledge changes over time, including scientific knowledge. For example, astronomical observations of distant galaxies are not compatible with previous cosmological theories, so cosmologists have been scrambling for about 20 years to come up with better ideas.

Russell also states that people interpret ideas using their values. In particular, scientists use the scientific method to bolster their values. The scientists do observations and draw conclusions from them to label some people as mentally ill. Molyneux’s reply to this sort of point is that scientists are not using the scientific method to do this. Neither of them bother to explain how they imagine science works.

At one point at about 68 minutes Russell states that the world looks flat and Molyneux sez that’s just an interpretation. They’re beginning to sound kinda similar at this point. What’s going on?


Russell and Molyneux share an idea: they both think that the standard by which ideas should be judged is whether they can be shown to be true or probably true or good. This is a common idea in philosophy. The process that allegedly shows an idea is true or probably true or good or whatever is called justification. The position that justification is desirable or necessary in epistemology is called justificationism.

Justificationism sounds superficially reasonable, but it leads to unsolvable problems. Any argument uses assumptions and rules that supposedly lead from those assumptions to conclusions. If the assumptions are true, and the rules are correct, then the conclusion is true. People then assume that we can proceed by showing that the assumptions and rules are correct, so our ideas are correct.

But if the standard is that ideas have to be justified, then we have to show the assumptions are true and the rules of inference are correct. You might imagine that you could do this with another argument. But that argument uses assumptions and rules, so what do you do next? Do you make another argument: argument 3? What about the assumptions and rules of argument 3? If you want to use arguments for justification, you have to make an infinite series of arguments, which is impossible.

Another way of trying to do justification is to say that some ideas are obviously true, e.g. – Molyneux’s ideas about base reality. You then justify your ideas starting with the obviously true ideas. This means that as far as those ideas are concerned you have given up on argument. This means those ideas can’t be discussed or explained in any way. But ideas you can’t discuss or explain are useless. To use an idea you need an explanation of how it’s connected to other ideas. For example, to understand what you see you need to understand how your eyes work, which involves the laws of optics. And if there is an explanation, it is not justified. So the basic sense experience or whatever you want to call it is either fallible or useless.

These problems lead many people to reject that objective knowledge is possible. Since no knowledge measures up to justificationist standards, none of our knowledge is objective. And if we can’t have objective knowledge of reality, then why should we even think that reality is objective?

Critical rationalism

The only known way to deal with this problem is to reject the idea that justification is required for knowledge. We should replace justification with a different standard: you can separate ideas that should be rejected by criticism. This was explained by Karl Popper who called this idea critical rationalism (CR), see e.g. – “On the sources of knowledge and of ignorance” in Conjectures and Refutations and Chapter I of Realism and the Aim of Science. Other people have improved on Popper’s ideas, such as David Deutsch in his books The Fabric of Reality (Chapters 1,3,7) and The Beginning of Infinity  (Chapters 1,2,10,12) and Elliot Temple: Fallible Ideas and Yes No Philosophy.

Let’s go back to looking at arguments and consider what we can do with them, other than justification. Suppose that you make an argument that if some premise A is true and some set of rules B is correct, then the conclusion C is true. Then you make another argument with premise C, rules D and conclusion E. And suppose that you make another argument that E and C can’t both be true. And suppose you think that all of these arguments are correct. They can’t all be correct, so you should discard one of your arguments. Note that you didn’t have to justify anything to do this. All you have to do is say that they are all true and you have a problem. You don’t have to show that they’re true. You can just guess.

What can you do about a problem? You can guess solutions and then look for problems with the guesses. You keep doing this until you find some guesses with no known problems. This process just requires guesses and criticisms, not justification.

CR requires that you should treat ideas by the objective standard that they should answer criticisms. Ideas that answer criticisms are knowledge. Ideas that fail to do this are not knowledge.

The parts of knowledge that are commonly called science use experimental and observational testing as one of the kinds of criticism used to eliminate bad ideas. People who claim to justify their positions using science have fundamentally misunderstood science and the theory of knowledge more generally.

Russell and Molyneux don’t resolve the issue of the role of values in science and knowledge more generally. Values can play a role in the selection of problems. For example, people do a lot of work on aerodynamics partly to make air travel safer (they value people not being hurt or killed) and more efficient (they value fuel and want to save it). But values aren’t exempt from criticism, so they are not the source of scientific knowledge or any other kind of knowledge.

If you’d like to know more about this, you can read some of the material linked above and discuss it as you go along at the Fallible Ideas group.

The goals misconception

In a tweet directed at David Deutsch, and some other people, a tweeter asks:

What would a decision-making agent base its decisions on if not entrenched goals?

I am going to take it that a goal means some specific fixed objective. A goal involves taking some specific kind of action. ‘Choose the best thing to do today’ is not a goal since it makes no specific claim about what you should do. ‘Go to see a film at a cinema today’ is a goal since it makes a specific claim about what you should do.

The answer to this question is that a rational person making a decision will not base his decision on anything. From a conventional point of view, this sounds ridiculous, but that conventional point of view is wrong.

Making a decision involves creating knowledge about what to do next. As such, before you can understand decision making you have to understand epistemology (the theory of knowledge) more generally. I’m not going to explain the whole of epistemology, but I will outline epistemology, explain how it is relevant and point you to where you can learn more.

Philosophers often say that knowledge is justified true belief. Justification is a process that allegedly shows an idea is good or true or something like that. People who believe in justification might hedge a bit and say it shows an idea is probably a good idea, or probably better than the alternatives. This sounds superficially like a reasonable position: who would want to act on an idea that hasn’t been shown to be true or good? The idea that you need to have a goal to make a decision assumes that it is possible and necessary to justify your decision.

The apparent reasonableness of this position is spoiled by the fact that justification is impossible and unnecessary. The correct alternative is to  focus on solving problems, not on justifying your decisions. Saying you’re going to solve problems puts you in a different position from pursuing a goal. There is no fixed standard by which you judge every decision. Rather, you look for problems with your current options and try to solve the problems. If some goal you thought was good turns out to be problematic, you can discard or modify it and you should.

Problems with justification

To understand the problems with justification, you have to understand something about how arguments work. Some arguments are informal and are not really candidates to prove anything. The fact that people are prepared to make informal arguments, and sometimes to take such arguments seriously, are problems for the idea of justification since such arguments aren’t justified. But even formal arguments don’t allow justification. Any formal argument starts with some assumptions and rules for getting conclusions from those assumptions. If the premises are true, and the rules reflect those that hold in reality, then the conclusion is true.

An example of a formal argument. If I am in the House of Commons and the House of Commons is in London, then I am in London. I am in the House of Commons, so I am in London. The rule being used is that if place A is contained in place B and object C is in place A, then it is also in place B. The assumptions are that I am in the House of Commons and the House of Commons is in London. Now, to show that the conclusion is true you have two options:

  1. Say that the rules and the assumptions are correct by fiat.
  2. Show that the assumptions and rules are correct.

Option 1 has the problem that if you admit it, then anyone can claim to prove anything by saying the assumptions are true by fiat. You can say the Earth was created 6000 years ago by saying the Bible is true by fiat. But surely we can’t just say the Bible is true by fiat because it makes ridiculous claims about some guy turning water into wine and stuff like that, but then you’ve adopted option 2. But you can see whether I’m in the House of Commons but you can’t see a lot of the stuff in the Bible because it’s abstract. There are two problems with this. First, to properly understand whether you can see me in the House of Commons you have to understand the physics of eyes and that involves abstractions. Second, the rule itself is abstraction you can’t see. So if you reject anything you can’t see you must reject the rule and the argument falls apart.

Option 2 leads to a different problem. If you’re going to show the rules and assumptions are correct you need to make another argument that justifies them. And that argument will have assumptions and rules that have to be justified. And then you have to make more arguments to justify the rules and assumptions of your new argument. And you have to keep repeating this process indefinitely, so you can never actually justify anything.

Saying that justification can make do with showing your conclusion is probably correct doesn’t solve this problem. Your conclusion is only probably correct if the assumptions and rules are probably correct, which leads to the same problem. In addition, there is no such thing as a theory that is probably correct. Your ideas are either right or wrong. And probabilities of events not of theories and can only be obtained from theories such as quantum mechanics that are themselves either right or wrong. There are other problems with assigning probabilities to theories, see The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch Chapter 13.

When a person thinks he has justified his ideas, in reality he has made assumptions and used rules that he has not justified. Those rules and assumptions could be wrong. Any viable epistemology has to take account of the fact that any idea you hold could be wrong. That includes ideas that you think are certainly correct. People often think an idea is obviously correct when it turns out to be flawed on closer inspection, such as the idea that justification is necessary and desirable.

The alternative to justification and goals

So if you don’t justify your ideas, including your decisions, how do you create knowledge rationally? You start with a problem. You guess solutions to the problem. You criticise the guessed solutions until only one is left and you don’t know of any criticisms despite looking for them. The surviving idea is the solution to that problem. You then move on to a new problem. This solution was first pointed out by Karl Popper, David Deutsch and Elliot Temple: it’s called critical rationalism.

For more details on critical rationalism, see Objective Knowledge Chapter 1 by Popper, Realism and the Aim of Science Chapter I by Popper, ‘one the sources of knowledge and of ignorance’ inConjectures and Refutations by Popper, chapters 3 and 7 of The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch, most of The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch and Critical preferences and strong arguments by Elliot Temple.

So how do you apply this to making decisions? Your decision making has to start with a problem you’re trying to solve. You might be trying to decide what to have for breakfast. You then look for solutions to the problem. You could have cereal, or boiled eggs or whatever. Then you look for problems with the options. You might not have enough time to make and eat boiled eggs, so you pick cereal. So then you’ve solved the problem by picking cereal.

But your breakfast decision could go very differently. You might find that when you wake up you’re not hungry. So then you might think eating is pointless and you decide not to have breakfast at all. So you had a goal when you started the problem: the goal of having breakfast. And you ditched that goal because you had a criticism of it. If you had looked on having breakfast as a goal you must fulfil, you would have missed the option of not eating breakfast. So thinking of decision making in terms of goals is an obstacle to making rational decisions.

The misconception that you need to have goals is one of many misconceptions that can get in the way of making rational decisions. And you can’t expect to get rid of all your misconceptions without rational discussion, so you may want to read Fallible Ideas and contribute to the e-mail list linked on that page.

Denying Moral Conflict and Responsibility Part 3: Examples

In part 1, I discussed the idea of denying moral conflict and moral responsibility. Morality is about how to make decisions. Moral conflict is where people want to enact moral ideas that are incompatible with one another. Moral responsibility meas that a person can and should exercise his judgement about what he will do and in particular about dumping bad ideas and developing better ideas. Denying moral conflict means denying that there is a moral disagreement in situations where such a disagreement exists. Denying moral responsibility means denying that you can and should change your bad ideas and actions. There are many institutions and ideologies in the West that seem dedicated to helping people to deny moral conflict and moral responsibility, as I shall now explain.

Theism and Atheism

Both theists and atheists often say that the existence of god is required for objective morality. In reality, the existence of god is incompatible with morality being objective and does nothing at all to explain right and wrong.

There are two possibilities, both of which are fatal to theistic explanations of morality. (1) God invented morality on a whim, in which case we might as well just say that shit happens and dispense with god. (2) God invented morality for some reason, e.g. – because acting in some ways is better for us medically than acting in other ways. (I am not advocating this standard, just using it as an illustration.) But then we might as well just say that we should act morally because of that reason, e.g. – we should act morally because doing so will be better for us medically than acting otherwise.

There is another weakness of the typical theistic explanation of morality. Morality has been laid down once and for all by god, so then how can it be the case that some people are getting it wrong? There can’t actually be dispute about what’s and what’s bad because god has told us what’s good and what’s bad. So there can be no moral conflicts since there cannot be any competing moral ideas. Likewise you’re not really responsible for anything bad you do because all your misdeeds are a result of god making some mistake in morality itself or in conveying morality to you.

Many atheists agree with theists that there can’t be objective morality without god and just think that morality isn’t objective. in this case, there are no moral conflicts nor any moral responsibility. You can’t have conflicts about how to harvest all the green cheese on the moon because there is no green cheese on the moon. Likewise, amoral atheists don’t think there can be substantive disagreement about morality. Nor can you be responsible for breaking moral standard when no such standards exist.

Many atheists who like to talk about morality have a moral theory that is identical in substance to the theistic moral theory. Instead of god dictating morality, evolution dictates it, or it is somehow derived from observation of what makes people happy. The important point is that morality is just a set of rules dictated by some authority which you are bound to follow no matter how painful or boring it makes your life. This pain and boredom is not a result of conflicting moral standards, nor could it be resolved by critical discussion. Rather, it is just a result of your pathetic primate brain failing to work properly or something like that. And since your pathetic primate brain is at fault, you are not responsible for the results.


One of the worst and one of the most pervasive ways to evade moral conflict and moral responsibility is psychiatry. Almost everybody seems to regard psychiatry and the idea of mental illness as benevolent. The idea of mental illness is to blame behaviour you don’t like on an illness instead of ideas. This means the person with the ideas isn’t reponsible for them and he doesn’t really disagree with you, he’s just ill. But the idea of mental illness is wrong.

The most straightforward version of the idea is that some behaviours are a result of some subtle injury or physiological problem in the brain. These illnesses are described in terms of behaviour and their diagnostic criteria specifically rule out any known change in the structure or chemistry of the brain as a cause.

The idea that some specific behaviour can be caused by a brain injury or physiological problem makes no sense. An injury just damages or destroys tissue, a physiological problem just makes the tissue function in a substandard way. To say that this causes particular behaviour suggests that brain injuries regularly fiddle about with the details of a person’s brain in such a way as to make it do unwelcome stuff. But no injury and no chemical contains knowledge about what people consider right and wrong or polite or impolite or welcome or unwelcome. So the idea that bad behaviour is caused by a brain injury is like saying your computer must be faulty because you don’t like one of the games installed on it.

Some psychiatrists seem to sense that this is a bit of a reach. So they vague their position up to evade criticism. The brain problem doesn’t cause bad behaviour, it just influences people to behave badly. This idea has the same problem as the idea that the brain problem simply causes unwelcome behaviour. How does the injury know about cultural standards? A brain problem might cause a problem in a person’s life that he interprets and tries to solve in a way other people don’t like. For example, he might lose the ability to speak as a result of a stroke. He might then interpret situations in which people don’t provide him with what he wants as a deliberate attempt to annoy him or harm him and get angry. But his bad behaviour is not caused by the brain injury. He engages in that behaviour because he acts on an idea about what other people are doing and how he should act toward them.

So then why do people believe in mental illness?

The behaviours that result in a person being diagnosed as mentally ill are invariably behaviours that somebody finds unpleasant or distressing or inconvenient in some other way. If a young woman tries to starve herself to death, this may distress her parents who call for psychiatrist who diagnoses her with anorexia nervosa. If a person does not socialise as his parents want him to, they may get him diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. If a person lives on the streets and finds that he no longer likes that lifestyle, he may draw the attention of the authorities by acting crazy, making threats to random people on the street or talking nonsense, say. He might then get diagnosed with schizophrenia. The authorities might hospitalise him for a while, in a building with lighting, heating and free food. This place may also have some bad features like forced drugging, but he might prefer forced drugging to being cold. Or they might give him benefits provided that he agrees to take particular drugs to control his “condition”.

In and of itself bad behaviour doesn’t explain the mental illness idea. If somebody steals a car we may not like his behaviour but few people would say he is mentally ill. We would just lock up a car thief or stop associating with him or something like that. But in the examples above the people who push for a mental illness diagnosis have a moral conflict. The parents of an anorexic teen don’t want her to starve but they also don’t want to end their association with her. They also don’t want to explicitly say that they want to punish her. Rather, they want to stop her behaviour although they don’t understand her reasons and don’t want to understand them. Psychiatrists help them to solve that problem. She’s mentally ill and so there is nothing to understand. The treatment consists of the patient being made to listen to advice and take drugs. This treatment can be imposed without her consent and so if she stubbornly refuses to acknowledge her illness then she will be punished by being forced into treatment.

A homeless person may pose a different problem. Namely, the welfare state is based on the idea that nobody should be allowed to fail, or to live in a way that a middle class person would dislike. So if a person who lives on the streets draws attention to himself then he may be able to get some housing for a while. But this person may have habits the state finds unwelcome in which case he must be made to give up those habits. The government doesn’t want to be seen to punish him and mental illness provides a handy excuse for imprisonment and/or forced drugging without calling it punishment.

The welfare state

The welfare state is another institution that obscures and denigrates moral conflict and moral responsibility.

The welfare state involves the government interfering in the lives of individuals to make sure they get what they supposedly need. Money is taken from taxpayers without asking for their consent and given to others to whom they may not want to give it. Welfare benefits may go to drug addicts, or people have made stupid choices like having five children before they are twenty. A person can get to be an adult without being able to persuade anybody to pay him for anything he is willing to tolerate doing and such a person may end up on welfare. Since tax money goes to any given welfare recipient regardless of whether any taxpayer would choose to pay that person, disagreements about who should be given money are not easily addressed.

The idea behind the welfare state also negates moral responsibility. The idea is that a person should not actually pay the price for any damn fool thing he does. And if you something that harms somebody else then the government may pay for it. So for a wide range of stupid things you do you’re not responsible for harming anybody.

The result of this is that once in a while the government does something it calls welfare reform. The politicians think people are sick of paying for those on welfare and so do something to clear some of them from the welfare rolls. Such people are often on the rolls as a result of a long series of mistakes and have never had any feedback from reality that might have prompted them to decide to change for the better.


What can we do about all of these bad ideas and institutions? Ultimately, all of these ideas or institutions should be discarded. I don’t know how to do this. Nor does anybody else or they wouldn’t exist. The first step towards a solution is to stop denying the problem and try to explain good philosophy to people. The second step is that the people involved have to do something about these problems for themselves. They have to come up with better ways of living that don’t involve sabotaging their ability to solve problems.

Russell Brand

Russell Brand is literally a socialist revolutionary. He wants high taxes on corporations to redistribute money from the rich to the poor, he claims corporations are destroying the environment and he thinks profit is a dirty word.

According to Brand, profit means that somebody has a deficit: see around 4:30ish in the video. This is false. If I give a person or group some money in exchange for a good or service then one of two things must be true. (1) I prefer the good or service to the money, in which case we both end up in a situation we prefer to our original position. (2) I have two or more competing ideas about whether I ought to buy the product or service. If the former is the case I and my trading partner both gain from trade. If the latter, I can’t expect to gain until I sort out my priorities, which is not my trading partner’s responsibility since he doesn’t control my thoughts.

Profit is the result of people trading for mutual benefit. To oppose profit is to say that it is wrong for people to cooperate for mutual benefit. This is the creed of somebody who expects people to sacrifice themselves, and like all ideologies based on human sacrifice it can only result in destruction and death. To quote Ayn Rand:

Such is the secret core of your creed, the other half of your double standard: it is immoral to live by your own effort, but moral to live by the effort of others—it is immoral to consume your own product, but moral to consume the products of others—it is immoral to earn, but moral to mooch—it is the parasites who are the moral justification for the existence of the producers, but the existence of the parasites is an end in itself—it is evil to profit by achievement, but good to profit by sacrifice—it is evil to create your own happiness, but good to enjoy it at the price of the blood of others.

Why are some people poor? Because they practise what Brand preaches. Why did governments bail out banks? Because they don’t a free market in money and banking, which would prevent them from running a welfare state based on the principle of human sacrifice that Brand advocates. If the government can’t print money whenever it wants to then it can’t pay for lots of people who do no productive work. And what about the planet? Won’t somebody please think of the planet? The planet is getting better by the standard of supporting human life thanks to the productivity enabled by industrial progress.

What about Paxman’s dismal performance in this interview? He first asks about Brand’s authority. This is the creed of a man who believes in witch doctors who can relieve him of the responsibility to think for himself. Oh, holy expert, tell me the answer so that I don’t actually have to think. This is a cop out. He has to pick the expert so if he’s not willing to think he will just consider whoever he finds most comforting an expert and discard anybody else as an amateur.

What about voting? Western liberal democracy is better than Russell Brand’s brand of tyranny. It could be improved if people didn’t want the terrible stuff that Russell Brand advocates. We could reform toward more stuff being done by cooperation for mutual benefit, which would be better than what we have now.

The problems of induction socialist calculation and altruism

The problem of induction is a philosophical problem about how knowledge is created. The socialist calculation problem is a problem in economics: it is impossible to do economic calculation without a free market. They may sound very different but they are actually very closely related to one another.

The problem of induction

Philosophers like to think that scientific knowledge is created by a process called induction that involves doing observations, using them to come up with an idea about how the world works and then showing that idea is true or probable with more observations. The problem is that induction is impossible.

Observations don’t imply any particular idea about how the world works. Any such idea implies a lot about stuff we don’t observe. Our best idea about how the sun works implies stuff about the core of the sun, which we can’t observe. Nobody has ever observed a dinosaur, only a dinosaur skeleton, but those theories are not primarily about skeletons. As a result of this it is impossible to invent an idea or to prove it is true or probably true.

In addition, it is impossible to do an observation without having some explanation of what you want to observe and why. So ideas are required for observations and cannot be created by doing observations.

Rather, knowledge is created by a process that does not resemble induction in any important respect. First, you look for problems with your current ideas. A problem is just anything that seems worth changing. You then propose guesses about how to solve these problems. You look for criticisms of the proposed solutions and eliminate criticised solutions until only one is left. You then look for new problems with your new set of ideas.

Note that there is no step of trying to show your ideas are good or probable. This is just not possible because all of your ideas about how to solve your problems are guesses. And since all of your ideas about how to test stuff are solutions to problems, all of them are guesses too. So all of your knowledge is guesswork. It is not confirmed or shown to be true or anything like that. Rather, you try to get rid of bad ideas through criticism. This means, in particular, that all of your ideas may be flawed and you should be willing to reconsider any idea.

Another important issue is that it could hardly be the case that your proposals for how to solve problems could be anything other than guesses. If you knew in advance how to solve a problem, then you wouldn’t have that problem in the first place. Sometimes people make the right guess about a problem the first time they say something about it but that must be a result of them having tried and discarded ideas before they said anything about it.

There is nothing about this discussion that limits its conclusions to science. Any process that creates any kind of knowledge (useful or explanatory information) has to proceed by variation of current knowledge and selection among those variations.

The socialist calculation problem

Socialists like the idea that people who are able to produce should give stuff to people who are not able to produce. This idea is morally bad for reasons I will explain later, but let’s leave that aside for the moment and think about whether you could actually run the world like this.

Let’s consider the problem of whether we should make flour and if so how we should make it, and how we should distribute it. According to socialism we’re supposed to do this by considering need, so let’s try to do that.

Let’s start with somebody who is hungry: let’s call him Jack. If you give Jack a bag of flour he might eat it. How much flour should you give Jack? If you drive a dump truck up to his house with a ton of flour and dump it in his grade, then he might not like that too much. He might not be able to eat it before it starts going off and it might attract vermin. So you should give him less than a ton and he won’t want you to dump it in his garden. But exactly how much should you give him? And how should the flour be packaged?

And the problem is worse than that. Jack might want to use the flour to make bread. So then he needs to have the other ingredients of bread and without those ingredients he might not want the flour at all.

But there is more complexity to come. If you sent the flour to a baker who makes bread and the baker gave Jack the bread, Jack would also eat the bread. So should you give any flour to Jack? Maybe you should just give him bread.

Another problem: whether we give Jack flour directly or give it to the baker to make bread the flour has to be made somewhere. In the place where you make it you can’t make many other things. You can’t have a factory that makes computer chips and a flour factory in the same place.

Indeed, you might even want to start making a factory for a product that doesn’t exist yet. You might have an idea for something you could invent that lots of people would want and maybe you should get some space to make it now.

This is starting to look very complicated. It looks like you have to take into account lots of knowledge you can’t have. Is this starting to sound familiar? Doesn’t it sound a bit like trying to come up with a scientific idea that covers lots of stuff you haven’t seen? If you want to make stuff for other people then you need to have lots of knowledge about how those other people will respond to what you’re doing, which is an emergent consequence of the laws of physics, biology chemistry, epistemology and other stuff. The solution to this problem has to be created by variation and selection of current knowledge.

So let’s suppose you know how to make flour. To make the flour you need certain items, like corn, say. So if you’re going to keep making flour you have to get a new supply of the stuff required to make if you want to continue. Unless the person who wants the flour happens to have exactly what you need to make it then he has to give me something you can exchange for stuff you can use to make flour. Now you might imagine he could give you stuff that a particular person wants if that person could supply the stuff you need to make the flour. But all sorts of things could go wrong with that. The person who makes the stuff I need might decide to do something else instead. Or he might have a change of circumstances that means he needs slightly different stuff. So what is really needed is something that he can exchange with other people to get what he wants. What is needed, in short, is a good that can be exchanged for anything – a medium of exchange. We have a name for that good: it is called money.

If you get more money by selling your flour to a baker than to Jack you can make more flour. If you make more money by making the flour in a different way, or with a different variety of corn or whatever then you can make more flour. You can also do other stuff with the money, like buying yourself food or an iPhone or whatever. So if different ways of making flour seem equally attractive in other respects you can choose among them by how much money they make. So the free market solves economic problems, not socialism.

Just like when we’re creating scientific knowledge, economic knowledge has to be created by looking for problems, guessing solutions, selecting among those solutions and then looking for more problems.

A moral flaw of socialism

To create knowledge you have to find problems. Socialism recommends looking at problems other people have and then trying to solve those problems. This is a bad idea shared by many other ideologies: let’s call it altruism. To solve a problem you have to try to understand it. So if you are trying to solve Jack’s problems then who is going to work on the problems that you know more about than anyone else? Nobody. So those problems won’t be solved.

And since you have to spend all of your time catching up to the other person’s problems, you are going to be interfering in that other person’s life in a ham fisted way.

The problems you should try to solve are the problems you know about, the problems you are interested in. You shouldn’t be trying to solve another person’s problems. You can help other people when cooperating with them helps you to solve your problems but that is very different from making it your aim to solve their problems.

Similar problems arise with many other political and moral ideologies that aim at solving another person’s problems. Some conservatives like to think they can solve the problems of poor people by encouraging them to get married. Some libertarians like to claim they can solve everybody else’s problems. Walter Block claims that Nazis can be libertarians if only they are willing to use persuasion rather than force to get Jews into gas chambers. Walter Block ought to have realised that gross irrationality like wanting to murder Jews is incompatible with liberty but he was paying too much attention to their problems and not enough to problems with his own knowledge.

To create knowledge about science or how to live better or anything else you have to start with problems you know something about: problems you are interested in. You propose solutions to those problems, select among the solutions by looking for criticisms and then look for new problems with the surviving solution.

Further reading

On induction: Realism and the Aim of Science and Objective Knowledge by Karl Popper. The Beginning of Infinity and The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch.

On the socialist calculation problem: Socialism and Human Action by Ludwig von Mises.

On the moral problems of altruism more generally: Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.

Nicholas Maxwell’s Bad Epistemology

Nicholas Maxwell has promoted bad epistemology. As an example of this I will use his paper Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Aim-Oriented Empiricism.

Maxwell criticises Popper by saying he doesn’t take account of the use of metaphysical assumptions in science. Maxwell claims that science assumes that the real laws of science are unified and not ad hoc – let’s call this the unification principle. Popper, Maxwell claims, does not build this into his epistemology. As a result Popper’s epistemological claims are not justified. Popper has criticised justification and Maxwell doesn’t answer those criticisms so why does he keep going on about justification? Justification is not a minor theme, Maxwell bangs on about it incessantly. He doesn’t explain in what sense he is using the term or why anybody should care in the light of Popper’s refutation of the ideal of justification.

Maxwell claims that his unification principle is substantive and problematic because it constrains the laws of physics. But he provides no examples where it produces problems and so he solves no problems.

Maxwell claims that falsificationism does not account for the fact that scientists look for unified theories because it only justifies unification insofar as it is testable. But in The Logic of Scientific Discovery Popper discusses looking for universal theories at length in chapter III. This includes a discussion of universal terms and so on that explains that the whole of language except for proper names refers to things that are the same everywhere: water boils at 100 celsius at atmospheric pressure in containers of the right shape and so on.

He also explains why theories should not be ad hoc and Maxwell doesn’t really discuss this in detail. He provides a single example in which he claims that there is an ad hoc theory that Popper wouldn’t discard. But he doesn’t discuss how Popper’s prohibitions against ad hoc theories explained in chapter IV of LScD fail to exclude it. It is not good enough that a theory should just make correct and unambiguous predictions where it has been tested it has to to this in all the situations where it could be tested in principle. I doubt that there are any ad hoc propsosals that would satisfy this test. It’s hard enough to come up with any theory that matches reality never mind an ad hoc one.

For example, you couldn’t just say, as many physicists do, that quantum mechanics applies only to microscopic objects. You would have to specify the exact situations where it fails to apply and what happens in the transition from the regime where it does and the regime where it does not. They often apply the theory of decoherence to do this and then claim it shows that quantum mechanics doesn’t apply to macroscopic objects despite the fact that it is a consequence of quantum mechanics and so can hardly imply that quantum mechanics is false. Quantum mechanics actually applies to macroscopic objects too.

Maxwell also claims to synthesise the ideas of Popper, Kuhn and Lakatos. This is impossible because Popper refuted the claims of Kuhn and Lakatos: see Popper’s chapter in Criticism and the Growth of KnowledgeRealism and the Aim of Science and Popper’s discussion of Lakatos in Philosophy of Karl Popper. Kuhn and Lakatos both claimed that Popper thought it was possible to prove a theory wrong and that refutation played very little role in the history of science. Popper never claimed that it is possible to prove a theory wrong and pointed out that all refutations are conjecture from starting in LScD Chapter IV. Rather a refutation is treated like any other conjecture and can be conjecturally refuted. Popper also provided many historical instances in which theories have been discarded in the light of experimental evidence against them. To claim to mix a bunch of bad, refuted ideas with Popper’s ideas without refuting Popper’s criticisms is to mix philosophical food and philosophical  poison.

There may be some work to do on why the real laws of science allow the existence of criticism and why they seem to be comprehensible, matters that have discussed by David Deutsch in The Fabric of Reality, The Beginning of Infinity and his paper on constructor theory. Maxwell doesn’t shed any light on these problems.

Maxwell’s paper is full of bad arguments. In the next post I will refute Maxwell’s bad moral ideas.

UPDATE In this paper, Maxwell provides an example of a supposedly successful ad hoc theory: the standard laws of physics hold until a particular time like 8pm tonight after which gold spheres of mass greater than 1000 tons less than 1000 miles apart obey an Gm1m2/d^4 law rather than inverse square. This is outrageously ad hoc by Popper’s standards and is very problematic in the light of existing ideas about the laws of physics. Quite aside from anything else he doesn’t explain how to do relativistic corrections.