Common preferences are possible

There are many situations in which two or more people who intend cooperate on some issue disagree on what to do. The standard approach to this is to conflate two different kinds of situations under the word “compromise”. Compromise is sometimes used to mean that both of the people involved in the disagreement end up adopting an idea they deem worse than their original preference, or an idea that has some features that are worse than the original preference. This is stupid for two reasons. First, it doesn’t solve problems that the people involved have with the new solution. Second, whatever solution they end up adopting is going to be awful on its own terms because it is not optimised to solve any particular problem.

The other kind of deal that people often call a compromise is the situation where the people involved change their preferences so that they agree about what to do and neither of them has any criticism of the new course of action. This does not have either of the problems of the first meaning of compromise given above, so it ought to be called something different. Since it is a preference the people involved have in common let’s call it a common preference (CP).

A criticism may be some explicit idea about something that is wrong with the proposed solution. In that case, you might come up with a new variant of the current idea that addresses the criticism. Or you might find that you have to throw the idea out and try to come up with something different in the light of the knowledge that your previous approach didn’t work.

A person may also criticise a solution by saying he has a feeling he doesn’t like. An emotion is the result of inexplicit traditional knowledge. It’s a bad idea to disregard this knowledge without replacing it. Ways to get past such a problem may include asking questions like “Why do I feel bad about this? Is there a way to modify my actions so you don’t feel bad about them? If I can’t think of a way to modify my actions so I feel good about them why is that the case?” For more see Elliot Temple’s essay about emotions.

The fact that two different people happened to be involved isn’t of any particular significance. A single person can have two priorities that he thinks are in conflict. So a common preference ought to be viewed as reconciling two or more sets of ideas about what to do rather than two people.

You might think this all sounds very grand but you’re a busy person, or you’re lazy or whatever. I can’t find a CP for every problem. But there is no particular reason to think that CPs are hard or impossible to find. If you don’t have to do something immediately you can carefully discuss options and try to come up with new options. If you run out of time you should pick among the uncriticised options in some way that everyone agrees with other than discussing all their merits or problems. For example, if you have two ideas left you might ask if people object to deciding between them by flipping a coin if nobody involved objects to deciding that way. The results may not be very good, but that’s what you should expect if you make decisions sloppily so it would be a bad idea to get upset about it. You can also exclude some options just because you don’t have time to implement them since the criterion for picking the action is that you want to try to implement it.

In 2002, David Deutsch wrote:

[T]he finding of a common preference does not entail finding the solution to any particular problem.
The economy does not require infinite creativity to grow. Particular enterprises fail all the time. Particular inefficiencies may remain unimproved for long periods. The economy as a whole may have brief hitches where mistakes have been made and have to be undone; but if it stagnates to the extent of failing to innovate, there is a reason. It’s not just ‘one of those things’. The reason has nothing to do with there being a glut of nautiluses on the market, but is invariably caused by someone (usually governments, but in primitive societies also parents) forcibly preventing people from responding to market forces. Stagnation is not a natural state in a capitalist economy; it has to be caused by force.
Science does not require infinite creativity to make new discoveries. Particular lines of research fail all the time but where science as a whole has ceased to innovate it is never because the whole scientific community has turned its attention to the nautilus but invariably because someone (governments and/or parents) has forcibly prevented people from behaving according to the canons of scientific rationality.
An individual personality does not require infinite creativity to grow. Particular a priori wants go unmet all the time, and large projects also fail and sometimes a person has a major life setback. But if they get stuck to the extent of failing to innovate it is not because they have spontaneously wandered into a state where their head resembles a nautilus but because someone has forcibly thwarted them once (or usually a thousand times) too often.

[P]roblems can be continually solved without infinite creativity, without perfect rationality, and without relying on any particular problem being solved by any particular time. And that is sufficient for — in fact it is what *constitutes* — economic growth, scientific progress, and human happiness.

I think there’s a little more to be said about this. People are not born knowing standards of rationality. And indeed there isn’t a closed list of such standards. New problems and ideas bring up new opportunities to fool yourself. But if the only problem was that people didn’t know the standards they could just invent and try stuff as they go along. So failures of rationality are a result of some knowledge that blocks the invention and testing of new ideas including standards of rationality.

Some of instances of such knowledge may be inexplicit. Parents coercing their children usually don’t have some explicit idea about why they’re doing it. They just think that little Jimmy should brush his teeth and that the way to get him to do that is to make him brush his teeth. This might prevent the child from finding better ways to deal with his teeth, or ways to enjoy tooth brushing or whatever.

Other instances of progress blocking knowledge are explicit. Witness the millions of words used by philosophers trying to explain how to justify ideas (show they are true, or probably true, or good). Trying to justify an idea can entrench it instead of allowing error correction. Also, since justification doesn’t work the argument that these philosophers give is not true as it is stated. So justificationism makes ideas less clear and harder to criticise since you have to try to reconstruct what the argument should be from what was written. And the justification may hide the absence of any substantive argument.

CPs are possible provided you don’t adopt ideas that prevent error correction.

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.

Moral Conflict and Responsibility 2: Problems and Solutions

I have explained that people sometimes want to pretend that moral conflicts and moral responsibility don’t exist. In Part 3 I will give a few examples of major institutions that are built on such denial. But before I do that I should explain why people like this denial and how their ideas need to change in order to solve it.

Morality vs Sacrifice

The standard view of morality is that it consists of grim commands that demand sacrifice. People don’t often explicitly say this, but it is the consequence of every occasion on which a parent says to a child: “Sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.” This means that some problems can’t be solved so there is no point in trying. Moral conflicts will often lead to suffering and so ignoring them is the best policy, which is what people do in a lot of cases.

What is  the rational alternative? Suppose you are in a situation in which the known options seem grim. The solution to such a problem is to come up with new options that you want to do. The basic technique is to propose solutions to the problem and keep criticising them until there is only one left. There are many ways of doing this, so many that it is impossible to list them, not least because some of them haven’t been invented yet. The ultimate limits to your options are just that you can’t do anything that is forbidden by the laws of nature, i.e. physics, biology, epistemology and that sort of thing. And these laws don’t care about whether you like your life. They will not aid you in finding and doing stuff that interests you, but they won’t stop you either.

One way to solve the problem was suggested by Elliot Temple. You have some problem P and some set of requirements for a solution that seem to contradict one another. You ask “given that these ideas contradict one another what should I do?” There are two options. There may be some set of constraints on how to solve the problem such that the ideas don’t contradict one another given those constraints. For example, Newtonian gravity and general relativity contradict one another, but they both agree that if you are standing on Earth and you throw a stone so that it leaves your hand at a speed of one metre per second upward, it will hit the ground again. Every set of constraints makes the problem simpler until you either reach a solution or find that you can’t reconcile the requirements. At that point you throw one of them out and start again with the new smaller set of requirements.

A slightly more complicated way to deal with the problem is to think about whether you’re misunderstanding the situation in a way that prevents you from considering some viable options. If you have a boring job you might decide that you should acquire a new skill so you can do a more interesting job. For example, you might think about learning about Arduinos, which are very cheap and simple computers which come without a keyboard and monitor and so on. If you buy and Arduino and the appropriate accessories you can use it to make an infrared proximity sensor or you could use it to control motors and make a small robot. By doing such projects you could learn electronics and programming which could help you get a better job. And you might look at your current job in a new way by thinking about whether specific tasks could be automated with a suitable robot. My point isn’t that this specific suggestion will suit you, just there is a lot of stuff you don’t know about that you might find good.

Solving problems involves admitting there is a conflict about what you should do, and then taking steps to solve it yourself. Obscuring moral conflicts and denying personal responsibility is incompatible with doing much problem solving. If you don’t explicitly look for conflicts and try to resolve them then you will only do it very slowly and almost entirely by accident, which is a recipe for disaster.

By contrast, the idea that you have to do stuff you don’t want to implies that some problems can’t be solved and some objections to ideas should be ignored. If you don’t want to do something that is an objection to doing it, the idea that you have to do it even if you don’t want to implies that the objection should be ignored. This is irrational because it involves ignoring flaws in ideas.


Some people might object that some stuff has to be done that nobody likes doing, like cleaning toilets. I think there are several things you can say in reply to this. Suppose that if you don’t particularly mind a toilet that somebody else thinks of as too dirty. Why should you have to clean a toilet when you don’t find it too dirty? If the other person wants the toilet cleaner why doesn’t he clean it?

Also, you can hire people to clean a toilet for you, so even if the toilet is too dirty it doesn’t follow that you have to clean it. But what about the people who are cleaning the toilet for you? Well, if they don’t mind cleaning toilets, in which case it’s all gravy. If they dislike cleaning toilets, then they ought not to offer toilet cleaning services and the fact that they do so isn’t your fault.

And there is no reason to think it would be impossible to invent a toilet cleaning robot. When such a robot becomes cheap nobody will ever have to clean a toilet again.

But what about disadvantaged group X? (Poor people, women, gays, gypsies, midgets, welfare recipients, people with debilitating diseases and so on.) There are a few things to say about this. First, if you want to help some group go offer your help to them. Second, if you don’t want to help them why should you? Is it necessary that you should do stuff you don’t want to because some other people have problems? If so then everybody should be held hostage to the least competent people. Also, what is the standard by which one person should be judged more disadvantaged than another? And why does that determine the order in which their problems should be solved? Shouldn’t you solve a problem when you come up with a solution? And how much help are you going to be to a person if you don’t understand his problems and you aren’t interested in them? Also, this whole “help group X” idea is collectivist, it treats every member of group X as if they are the same. Also, the best solution to some specific problem might be for a person to solve it himself without outside help so he can learn better problem-solving skills.

Next, some examples of conflict and responsibility denial.

Denying Moral Conflict and Responsibility Part 1: The Problem

People often deny the existence of moral conflicts and moral responsibility. If there are genuine moral conflicts and it matters what side you pick then you have a responsibility that you wouldn’t have if no such conflicts exist. Most people hate responsibility like poison and so hate the idea of moral conflicts too. This post is very different from standard positions on morality and moral conflicts so I will start by explaining what I’m writing about before giving examples.

Morality is about how to make decisions. Morality doesn’t dictate exactly what you should do: it restricts your options. So morality may not say that you should study physics, but it does say you shouldn’t commit murder.

People often use the term morality just for making some subset of decisions and say those are the only decisions for which there are restrictions on how you should make decisions. Some people seem to limit it to being about sex or relationship stuff. Others seem to limit it to how to deal with other people. This is a very bad idea. Suppose that we restrict morality to relationship stuff. Then we have a problem. Suppose you’re a scientist working late at night in a lab. You could start a new experiment or you could go home and have a romantic dinner with your girlfriend. If this decision is totally aribtary then really that means there are no objective rules for dealing with your girlfriend because you can always put off or change anything you planned to do to accomodate your research. I could do the same by just combining anything where a person there is objective morality with something else where he claims there are no restrictions on how you should make decisions. Either morality is objective on every issue, or it is not objective at all.

A moral conflict is where an attempt is made to enact two or more incompatible ideas about how to make decisions. These ideas might be enacted by different people, e.g. – before the American Civil War many people in the US wanted to enact slavery and some other wanted to stop them. But a person can also have an internal moral conflict, e.g. – some people prefer homosexual sex but think they ought to prefer heterosexual sex.

Moral responsibility means that you can and should develop a position in any moral conflict in which you are involved. Some people want to spank their children, others do not. (Just to be clear, I think spanking is evil. Below I reproduce some excuses a parent might give for hitting a person who is half her size and totally dependent on her for his survival. I consider these arguments pathetic excuses for barbarism.) If you hang around people who smack their children and you don’t oppose what they are doing they and their child may assume that you approve. The child doesn’t want to be spanked, the parent wants to spank him so there is a moral conflict. You have chosen to get involved in the lives of such people, so you put yourself in the position of participating in that moral conflict. Nobody else can make the decision for you of whether you will approve of spanking or not. And whether you show signs of approval or disapproval may matter. A child might be encouraged to think that the smacking is wrong if you stand up against it. Or a parent may begin to doubt that smacking is a good idea if you explain why you oppose it. You might say that the whole point of spanking is to deliberately inflict pain on the child. This can’t help the child learn because the pain will not give him any way to enact whatever the parent is proposing. And in any case, the parent doesn’t have any way to guarantee that he is right or probably right, so the parent might be preventing the child from enacting a position that is better than the parent’s position.

And if you favour the use of physical violence as a means of dealing with children (i.e. spanking), that, too, is important. Whatever reason you give will have implications beyond those that you want it to have. For example, if you say smacking is necessary because children don’t know a lot then it is legitimate to use assault against any ignorant adult too. If you say it is necessary because children have less well developed brains than adults and can’t learn certain things then you have another problem. For a start, the spanking policy makes absolutely no sense if the child can’t learn because nothing you do to the child will make him change his behaviour. So then you are committed to defending an inconsistent position, i.e. – you are committed to a policy of ignoring criticism and have severely damaged your ability to learn.

Many people do take inconsistent positions and such a position can only be maintained by having a way to disable criticism of that position.

One way of doing this is to deny the existence of moral conflicts. So in the spanking example above, the apologist for spanking might say that there is no moral disagreement involved. the child doesn’t really disagree with the spanking policy, he just seems to be disagreeing. The pro-spanker might say that the child will thank the parent for spanking him later and so really the parent and child agree. This makes no sense since even if the child comes to think later that the spanking was good at the time he didn’t agree and said so. And indeed the whole point of giving the spanking is precisely the child disagrees with it and finds it unpleasant. The idea that he actually agrees later is also dubious. If the child states that he doesn’t agree with the spanking after it is given the parent might spank him again, so the child might just be agreeing to avoid being spanked.

Another way to try to disable criticism is to deny that you are responsible for something you do or say. You might say that you have to hang around with spankers because they are your family, say. And since you have to get along with them you can’t say that you think spanking is bad. But in reality, there is nobody with a gun to your head making you hang around with your family or express approval for spanking. You could decide not to deal with your family, or you could decide to tell them you don’t approve of spanking. If you don’t do either of those things, you are reponsible.

You might hope that this is limited to a few minor faults in some people. But this idea is an evasion in and of itself. An idea or action is either problematic or unproblematic. If it is problematic you should replace it with a better set of ideas or actions.

Part 2 is about why people deny moral conflicts and responsibility and how to solve them. Part 3 is about some common examples of denying moral conflicts and responsibility.

Pigliucci vs Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson said some critical stuff about philosophy on a podcast and philosopher Massimo Pigliucci decided to criticise Tyson’s remarks. I think some philosophy is good but the vast bulk is trash, and Pigliucci’s article is an example of such trash. In the first paragraph we get an example of what is wrong with the article:

But in his case the offense is particularly egregious, for two reasons: first, because he is a highly visible science communicator, and second, because I told him not to, several times.

Pigliucci told him not to say bad stuff about philosophy. So what? Why should the fact that you in particular gave him an order mean he should follow that order? This isn’t an argument, but Pigliucci posts it as if it is an argument. Also, he told Tyson to “respect my philosophah!” several times and it didn’t work but he didn’t figure out that just telling him to shut up was a crap argument. Witness Pigliucci’s awesome philosophical talent!

He quotes Tyson making a number of criticisms of philosophy, most of which are correct criticisms of philosophy as practised by acadamic philosophers. A few of the highlights:

My concern here is that the philosophers believe they are actually asking deep questions about nature. And to the scientist it’s, “What are you doing? Why are you concerning yourself with the meaning of meaning?”

 How do you define “clapping”? All of a sudden it devolves into a discussion of the definition of words. And I’d rather keep the conversation about ideas. 

This is essentialism, which was refuted by Karl Popper, but the vast bulk of philosophers don’t seem to have noticed. I don’t think Tysoon understands this very well but he is right to point out that it’s a bad idea. Tyson makes another point:

And when you do that, don’t derail yourself on questions that you think are important because philosophy class tells you this.

Pigliucci made an argument from authority at the start of the article, but Tyson doesn’t fall into this trap. He doesn’t think students should accept stuff just because philosophy professors tell them to accept it.

Pigliucci quotes more stuff by Tyson:

Up until early 20th century philosophers had material contributions to make to the physical sciences. Pretty much after quantum mechanics, remember the philosopher is the would be scientist but without a laboratory, right? And so what happens is, the 1920s come in, we learn about the expanding universe in the same decade as we learn about quantum physics, each of which falls so far out of what you can deduce from your armchair that the whole community of philosophers that previously had added materially to the thinking of the physical scientists was rendered essentially obsolete, and that point, and I have yet to see a contribution — this will get me in trouble with all manner of philosophers — but call me later and correct me if you think I’ve missed somebody here.

The main role philosophers have played in the history of quantum mechanics is destructive. Neils Bohr interpreted Kant as saying that classical physics was some sort of necessary condition for knowledge and so quantum physics sometimes doesn’t apply, hence the Copenhagen interpretation. Who solved the problem of understanding quantum mechanics properly? The lion’s share of the credit has to go to Hugh Everett, who was a physicist not a philosopher. David Deutsch has elaborated a lot on Everett but he too is a physicist by training not a philosopher. Some philosophers have produced glosses on Everett, such as David Wallace. So Tyson is basically right about this issue.

Then we come to Pigliucci’s apology for philosophy:

You and a number of your colleagues keep asking what philosophy (of science in particular) has done for science lately. There are two answers here: First, much philosophy of science is simply not concerned with advancing science, which means that it is a category mistake (a useful philosophical concept [11]) to ask why it didn’t. The main objective of philosophy of science is to understand how science works and, when it fails to work (which it does occasionally), why this was the case. It is epistemology applied to the scientific enterprise.

The vast bulk of philosophers of science have rejected good epistemology. Karl Popper solved many problems in epistemology and philosophy of science and philosophers have been ignoring or misrepresenting his position. As an example of this I offer you Pigliucci himself. Two years ago I noticed that Pigliucci had posted a video in which he misrepresented Karl Popper. I pointed out his mistake in a video that I posted as a reply to the video containing the misrepresentation, providing detailed descriptions of Popper’s position and the places in his work where he answered all of the objections Pigliucci had in his video. Since I tried to post my video as a reply, Pigliucci is aware of its existence as he would have been notified of it. He hasn’t refuted my points, he hasn’t taken his mistaken video down.

What Tyson has said about philosophy is largely an accurate description of academic philosophers. I am not surprised that Pigliucci has not maged to change his mind about philosophy. There is good philosophy of science, from people like Popper and David Deutsch, who I think Tyson should read.

Pusey and all that jazz

In this post I’m going to present some philosophical dialogues to help explain what’s wrong with some current debates about quantum mechanics.

Philosophical Dialogue 1: The Right Argument

Scene: the living room of John’s house, where John is sitting at his computer. Jane enters.

Jane: This house does not exist.

John looks around, he seems appropriately puzzled.

John: Why do you say that?

Jane: I admit that the idea that this house exists can be used to do calculations of things like air currents, but it doesn’t actually exist, it’s just a rule for computing temperature and air currents.

John: That’s dumb. All you’re doing is taking the idea that the house does exist relabelling part of it as not existing. What you’re saying just makes the explanation of the air currents and temperature more complicated and less clear.

Jane: Oh, this metaphysical fantasy that the house actually exists is just complete hogwash, it’s not the sort of thing with which I, as a practical person, can possibly be expected to believe.

John: Your incredulity is not an argument. Kindly go away you silly person.

Philosophical Dialogue 2: The Wrong Argument

Scene: the living room of John’s house, where John is sitting at his computer. Jane enters.

Jane: This house does not exist.

John looks around, he seems appropriately puzzled.

John: Why do you say that?

Jane: I admit that the idea that this house exists can be used to do calculations of things like air currents, but it doesn’t actually exist, it’s just a rule for computing temperature and air currents.

John: But when I do experiments I find that the house does exist.

Jane: No you don’t. You just find that the air currents and temperature can be predicted with the house formulae, which are just tools for calculation.

John: Oh yeah. Well, I’ll prove it by coming up with a great experiment to test your idea. An experiment that will trash your idea forever.

Jane: So what?


The statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics is the idea that quantum mechanics is just a set of formulae for calculating probability. The appropriate response to this is to say something similar to what John said in the first dialogue. A few years ago, Pusey et al proposed an experiment that they claimed would test the statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics. This is analogous to what John said in the second dialogue. Pusey et al are wrong, not because the statistical interpretation is right but because they give it too much credit. The statistical interpretation is complete garbage and cannot be tested by any conceivable experiment because it says nothing about anything. The statistical interpretation may or may not lead people into making some mistakes when doing calculations, but it is mistaken about physics and epistemology.

Physics is about what exists in reality. It is not about formulae for calculating stuff. The formulae are useful for testing ideas about what exists in reality and they may also have technological applications. But in both applications it is important to keep your eye on the underlying physical reality so you understand what you’re doing with the formulae. If you don’t keep your eyes on the prize you will end up making epistemological and technological mistakes.

To understand better what quantum mechanics says about reality read the structure of the multiverse, The Fabric of Reality and The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.

Sam Harris, Popper and Morality

Sam Harris wrote a book called The Moral Landscape (TML), which is about a secular moral philosophy. It sucks. I’m going to contrast his position with Popper’s, which also has some flaws.

Harris claims that we should accept the idea that morality is about the well-being of sentient creatures and depends on “events in the world and states in the human brain” (p. 5). He then claims that if we accept this idea philosophers who claim you can’t derive an ought from an is have missed the point.

Chapter 5 of The Open Society and Its Enemies pdf, Kindle is about why Popper considers it impossible to derive values from facts. Different people can see the same facts and come to different moral judgements and so morality can’t be derived from facts. This is correct as it stands but there is more interesting stuff in the notes.

OSE Chapter 5 Note 18

The hope of getting some argument or theory to share our responsibilities is, I believe, one of the basic motives of ‘scientific’ ethics. ‘Scientific’ ethics is in its absolute barrenness one of the most amazing of social phenomena. What does it aim at? At telling us what we ought to do, i.e. at constructing a code of norms upon a scientific basis, so that we need only look up the index of the code if we are faced with a difficult moral decision? This clearly would be absurd; quite apart from the fact that if it could be achieved, it would destroy all personal responsibility and therefore all ethics.

Popper claims scientific ethics is absurd but doesn’t explain why. I think the problem is that if you claimed to have a scientific derivation of morality that wouldn’t get you anywhere because that just raises questions that can’t be answered by your theory. Are you doing the science correctly? And why would it be right to judge this issue using science? And what counts as science in the first place and why? Also progress would be impossible if it were true. Progress involves inventing new ideas that won’t be on the approved list because those ideas and the practices required to criticise and understand them don’t exist yet. So if there is such a list then all progress of any kind will have to end.

Or would it give scientific criteria of the truth and falsity of moral judgements, i.e. of judgements involving such terms as ‘good’ or ‘bad’? But it is clear that moral judgements are absolutely irrelevant. Only a scandalmonger is interested in judging people or their actions; ‘judge not’ appears to some of us one of the fundamental and much too little appreciated laws of humanitarian ethics. (We may have to disarm and to imprison a criminal in order to prevent him from repeating his crimes, but too much of moral judgement and especially of moral indignation is always a sign of hypocrisy and pharisaism.) Thus an ethics of moral judgements would be not only irrelevant but indeed an immoral affair. The all-importance of moral problems rests, of course, on the fact that we can act with intelligent foresight, and that we can ask ourselves what our aims ought to be, i.e. how we ought to act.

This seems a bit muddled. Are we supposed to judge the criminal’s actions or not? I would say if we’re going to lock people up we should have made sure to judge their actions bad enough that we want to prevent him from acting that way by force.

Popper talks of “too much” moral judgement. I think this refers to something like a real problem but the problem is people making moral condemnations without understanding the issues or the situation the person in question faced. In other words, it’s not a problem of moral judgement but a problem of lack of judgement: that is, a lack of carefully considering the problems involved.

An example of not understanding more problems: many people in the UK say the US ought obviously to ban guns to stop mass shootings at cinemas and that sort of thing. Those people fail to understand the context. It is perfectly possible to use a gun properly, i.e. – don’t shoot people, or only shoot them in self defence. So if you ban guns you deprive people of an item that can be used in a legitimate way, including defending people from being shot up at a cinema. This is a bad idea. There are other relevant moral issues too.

Nearly all moral philosophers who have dealt with the problem of how we ought to act (with the possible exception of Kant) have tried to answer it either by reference to ‘human nature’ (as did even Kant, when he referred to human reason) or to the nature of ‘the good’. The first of these ways leads nowhere, since all actions possible to us are founded upon ‘human nature’, so that the problem of ethics could also be put by asking which elements in human nature I ought to approve and to develop, and which sides I ought to suppress or to control. But the second of these ways also leads nowhere; for given an analysis of ‘the good’ in form of a sentence like: ‘The good is such and such’ for ‘such and such is good’), we would always have to ask: What about it? Why should this concern me? Only if the word ‘good’ is used in an ethical sense, i.e. only if it is used to mean ‘that which I ought to do’, could I derive from the information ‘x is good’ the conclusion that I ought to do x. In other words, if the word ‘good’ is to have any ethical significance at all, it must be defined as ‘that which I (or we) ought to do (or to promote)’. But if it is so defined, then its whole meaning is exhausted by the defining phrase, and it can in every context be replaced by this phrase, i.e. the introduction of the term ‘good’ cannot materially contribute to our problem. (Cp. also note 49 (3) to chapter 11.)

Note 49(3) to Chapter 11 of OSE:

Essentialism and the theory of definition have led to an amazing development in Ethics. The development is one of increasing abstraction and loss of touch with the basis of all ethics—the practical moral problems, to be decided by us here and now. It leads first to the general question, ‘What is good?’ or ‘What is the Good?’; next to ‘What does “Good” mean?’ and next to ‘Can the problem “What does ‘Good’ mean?” be answered?’ or ‘Can “good” be defined?’ G. E. Moore, who raised this last problem in his Principia Ethica, was certainly right in insisting that ‘good’ in the moral sense cannot be defined in ‘naturalistic’ terms. For, indeed, if we could, it would mean something like ‘bitter’ or ‘sweet’ or ‘green’ or ‘red’; and it would be utterly irrelevant from the point of view of morality. Just as we need not attain the bitter, or the sweet, etc., there would be no reason to take any moral interest in a naturalistic ‘good’. But although Moore was right in what is perhaps justly considered his main point, it may be held that an analysis of good or of any other concept or essence can in no way contribute to an ethical theory which bears upon the only relevant basis of all ethics, the immediate moral problem that must be solved here and now. Such an analysis can lead only to the substitution of a verbal problem for a moral one.

The idea that morality is about “the immediate moral problem that must be solved here and now” is at best a bad formulation. You need moral principles to judge what you should do in a particular situation because otherwise all you have is a pile of competing claims and no way to sort them out. The best construction I can put on what Popper said here is that each situation has some unique aspects and we have to think on our feet to apply moral principles to that situation and no definition of the good could contribute to such thought. Presumably that’s what he meant but he didn’t state it clearly.

In TML Sam Harris claims that morality can be derived from facts about human wellbeing and we can understand those facts by looking at how the brain lights up when a person is happy. This invokes all of the bad ideas Popper criticised above. He defines morality as being about wellbeing but this just evades the question of what counts as wellbeing and why. And why is the way a person’s brain lights up the relevant issue? Harris claims that this is because thought is instantiated in the brain, but by that logic the vast bulk of knowledge is about paper or electronic information storage devices since most knowledge is instantiated in those forms.

At any particular time you’re going to have some areas of your life you find unsatisfactory. To make your life better you have to find out why these aspects of your life are unsatisfactory and solve the relevant problems. That’s an epistemological problem, which has nothing to do with brain chemistry.

Indeed, if a person is solving problems then his brain chemistry has to be explained in terms of the morality of how to solve problems. He will be thinking about what is required by epistemology (and other stuff too, like physics or economics or aesthetics or whatever) and his brain chemistry will instantiate the relevant ideas.

Most of TML is spent discussing moral issues without tying them to brain states or explaining them in terms of brain states in any substantive way. Rather, the discussion of brain states gets in the way of openly discussing moral standards in some cases. For example, on p. 94 he claims that looking at the brains might help us understand whether we should choose to throw one person in the path of a moving train to save five more. If the best thing you can think of to do involves shoving somebody under a train you ought to consider that you don’t actually understand the problem too well and shoving somebody under a train under those circumstances would be stupid or criminal.

And as I noted in discussing Popper’s objection to scientific ethics above, if there was some particular scientific theory that provided the answers to all ethical questions, then progress would be impossible. It’s not clear to me how Sam Harris would avoid this. Once we understand how the brain works do we understand all of morality? If so, then all progress will end when that happens.

Just one final note, I think TML is crap not just because it’s so badly wrong but because there is so much in it that is silly. There are so many points where Harris should have said “okay, there’s something badly wrong here, I’m writing stuff that’s just complete crap.” Take, as an example, the bit on p. 71 where he discusses Parfit. According to Parfit if we were to aggregate utility then it might be better to have one person who is really happy to a world where there are billions of people who are just a little bit happy. But we have to aggregate utility, claims Harris, so we have to think about such “paradoxes”. You don’t have to think about aggregation. You have to think about solving problems. If you solve a problem you make things better. If you don’t solve problems you don’t make things better. End of story. And how could you possibly be put in the position of making a decision between the sorts of scenarios Parfit discusses? How could you be in a position to decide whether there will be one person who is very happy or billions who are slightly less happy? You would either have to be a mass murderer or a tyrant who controls whether people get to have children.

TML is abysmal. Read David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, William Godwin, Karl Popper or Thomas Szasz instead.

UPDATE: What I said above is wrong in an important respect. Ethics doesn’t have a basis in problems or anything else including principles, but both problems and principles are important. Ethics can’t be based on problems because problems only come up in the light of a clash between different pieces of moral knowledge. So the knowledge has to be there before you can have the problem. If you’re going to solve the problem rather than just paper over it then the moral knowledge involved should be made explicit enough to be criticised.

Answers for a statist moralist

In a blog entry on the New York Times website Amia Srinivasan asks some questions for “free market moralists”. She starts by summarising Rawls:

 In 1971 John Rawls published “A Theory of Justice,” the most significant articulation and defense of political liberalism of the 20th century. Rawls proposed that the structure of a just society was the one that a group of rational actors would come up with if they were operating behind a “veil of ignorance” — that is, provided they had no prior knowledge what their gender, age, wealth, talents, ethnicity and education would be in the imagined society. Since no one would know in advance where in society they would end up, rational agents would select a society in which everyone was guaranteed basic rights, including equality of opportunity. Since genuine (rather than “on paper”) equality of opportunity requires substantial access to resources — shelter, medical care, education — Rawls’s rational actors would also make their society a redistributive one, ensuring a decent standard of life for everyone.

There is a very large assumption in this first paragraph smuggled in under the term “equality of opportunity”. Srinivasan doesn’t explain what it consists of or why anybody should be interested in it. Rawls on p.63 of the book she refers to writes (you can get the book in pdf by searching “rawls theory of justice pdf” it’s the first hit):

More specifically, assuming that there is a distribution of natural assets, those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system.

This is unclear and doesn’t make much sense. Let’s suppose that Jim is born into a poor family and he cleans toilets for a living but yearns to be a poet. Note that the mere fact that Jim wants to be a poet doesn’t imply he would be a good poet. So then Jim should make some effort to persuade people to pay him for poetry. And if he can’t persuade people and he is still unhappy with cleaning toilets then there is a problem. It’s not clear what the problem is exactly or how to solve it because if that was clear, Jim wouldn’t be unhappily cleaning toilets: the problem would have been solved. And if you’re going to force people to pay Jim to write poetry then you have no check on whether the poetry is any good.

What we need is to set up institutions to make it easy for people to change how they spend their time and money. That way, if you want people to spend their time and money on what you’re doing they can choose not to and give you some information about whether you’re doing stuff badly. If you don’t get time and money from people you’re doing something that’s not persuasive.

She then summarises Nozick:

In 1974, Robert Nozick countered with “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” He argued that a just society was simply one that resulted from an unfettered free market — and that the only legitimate function of the state was to ensure the workings of the free market by enforcing contracts and protecting citizens against violence, theft and fraud. (The seemingly redistributive policy of making people pay for such a “night watchman” state, Nozick argued, was in fact non-redistributive, since such a state would arise naturally through free bargaining.) If one person — Nozick uses the example of Wilt Chamberlain, the great basketball player — is able to produce a good or service that is in high demand, and others freely pay him for that good or service, then he deserves to get rich. And, once rich, he doesn’t owe anyone anything, since his wealth was accumulated through voluntary exchange in return for the goods and services he produced. Any attempt to “redistribute” his wealth, so long as it is earned through free market exchange, is, Nozick says, “forced labor.”

I’m not going to defend Nozick specifically partly because I don’t remember much about him so he might suck.

Wilt Chamberlain “deserves” to get rich? “Deserve” is the moral equivalent of “justify”. That is, if Wilt Chamberlain deserves the money that means he can show that it is true he should have it or he should probably have it or something like that. But justification is impossible, so it is impossible to show that somebody deserves something. So if that was the only free market position it would be wrong.

The real reason Wilt Chamberlain should get to keep his money is just that you haven’t offered an alternative other people consider better. A contract in a free market is a means of testing whether a person consents to be legally bound to the terms of a particular exchange. See Randy Barnett’s papers and books on contract law for a detailed discussion. The enforceability of laws required for the operation of a free market has nothing to do with whether they arise through free bargaining. Rather, it has to do with whether the law in question is required to deal with other people consentually. See Randy Barnett’s The Structure of Liberty.

I’m going to skip a bit because there’s a lot of boring stuff and get on to the bit where she demands that free market people answer a load of questions:

 1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

If you say yes, then you think that people can never be coerced into action by circumstances that do not involve the direct physical compulsion of another person. Suppose a woman and her children are starving, and the only way she can feed her family, apart from theft, is to prostitute herself or to sell her organs. Since she undertakes these acts of exchange not because of direct physical coercion by another, but only because she is compelled by hunger and a lack of alternatives, they are free.

We have a welfare state and people do engage in prostitution and sell organs. The welfare state doesn’t solve that problem. So why is Srinivasan brining up flaws in her own position?

If a person doesn’t want to fuck or sell her organs she can ask for charity. That charity should come with strings attached. That is, if you’re going to get a charity’s money they should require you to gain skills of some sort so that you’re not stuck on their roles permanently. And the charity should be free to turn people down who are a bad risk.

Let’s suppose that every charity decides a particular person is a bad risk. She has chosen to have children. That is her responsibility. If she can’t raise them she should offer them up for adoption. The knowledge already exists to get children adopted by people who have better options than selling sex unwillingly.

Would I prefer to see a world in which the only people who engage in the sex trade are people who want to do that? Yes. But that requires the creation of better knowledge to help people avoid that. The government hasn’t done that and I don’t think it can since taxation makes it difficult for people to stop supporting bad government institutions that help create such problems. Also, it’s not my responsibility to do that unless I take on that responsibility and I shouldn’t do that unless I have a really kickass idea about how to do it and can raise money for it voluntarily.

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

If you say yes, then you think that any free exchange can’t be exploitative and thus immoral. Suppose that I inherited from my rich parents a large plot of vacant land, and that you are my poor, landless neighbor. I offer you the following deal. You can work the land, doing all the hard labor of tilling, sowing, irrigating and harvesting. I’ll pay you $1 a day for a year. After that, I’ll sell the crop for $50,000. You decide this is your best available option, and so take the deal. Since you consent to this exchange, there’s nothing morally problematic about it.

If we’re talking about a free market you have other options and can point this out to get a better deal. “Give me more than $1 a day or your crops will rot in the field and you get nothing.”

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

I’ve pointed out the flaw in the idea of desert above but let’s see what she has to say anyway.

If you say yes, you think that what people deserve is largely a matter of luck. Why? First, because only a tiny minority of the population is lucky enough to inherit wealth from their parents. (A fact lost on Mitt Romney, who famously advised America’s youth to “take a shot, go for it, take a risk … borrow money if you have to from your parents, start a business.”) Since giving money to your kids is just another example of free exchange, there’s nothing wrong with the accumulation of wealth and privilege in the hands of the few.

You don’t have to get money from your parents. If you have a good business idea you can persuade people to loan you the money.

Second, people’s capacities to produce goods and services in demand on the market is largely a function of the lottery of their birth: their genetic predispositions, their parents’ education, the amount of race- and sex-based discrimination to which they’re subjected, their access to health care and good education.

It’s also a function of what the market happens to value at a particular time. Van Gogh, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Vermeer, Melville and Schubert all died broke. If you’re a good Nozickian, you think that’s what they deserved.

If somebody hasn’t produced a good or service in demand on the market all you know is that there is some unsolved problem that prevents them from doing this. Srinivasan hasn’t got anywhere near to producing an explanation of why a monopolistic institution that threatens to imprison people who don’t give it money is a good solution to these problems.

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

If you say yes, then you think the only moral requirements are the ones we freely bring on ourselves — say, by making promises or contracts. Suppose I’m walking to the library and see a man drowning in the river. I decide that the pleasure I would get from saving his life wouldn’t exceed the cost of getting wet and the delay. So I walk on by. Since I made no contract with the man, I am under no obligation to save him.

I’m not entirely sure what obligation means in this context. Does it mean that if I walk past a man drawing in a river I might be prosecuted for not saving him? That would be a bad idea. Perhaps I don’t know how to swim. Or maybe I have done any swimming for a long time and I think I would drown trying to save him. Or maybe I’m really tired that morning and fear I would drown trying to save him as a result of exhaustion.

If it means people who knew about the drowning would think worse of me that might be fair enough if I could easily have raised the alarm and got somebody else to come save him. Both I and other people are better off having another creative problem-solving person in the world than letting him drown.

If it means that in the case where I couldn’t easily raise the alarm I should take a large risk of killing myself to save him, then you can fuck off. I don’t know much about him so taking a large risk of killing myself trying to save him would be a bad idea since I have no idea whether it’s worth the risk.

Most of us, I suspect, will find it difficult to say yes to all four of these questions.

The rest of us, who know the questions are ill-formed, think that this illustrates the peril of taking bad questions for granted.

Freedom and employment

Anarchopac who is an anarchist/socialist thinks that wage labour is incompatible with freedom. His argument is that workers must work to earn a living. And even if a worker wants to start his own business he must work for a wage to save up money to start the business and so has to work for a wage. Since he has no choice but to work for a wage he isn’t free since he has no alternative. I don’t think it does much good to argue about whether this or that action is compatible with freedom because it frames the debate in a misleading way. If you go along with discussing the issue in this way you’re going to end up talking about the definition of freedom.

Such discussions tend to go nowhere because of a general philosophical problem: discussing definitions is a bad idea. If somebody wants to argue about the definition of a word the best thing to do is just to concede the definition and move on to discussing a substantive issue. A word is just a label for an idea. If you disagree with me about an idea then we need to discuss the idea, not the label. For more criticisms of discussing definitions see Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies Volume 2, Chapter 11, Section II. Specifically when we want to discuss a pattern of behaviour, such as wage labour, we should discuss what problem it solves, whether the pattern is problematic. If it is problematic is there some variant that would be better? Or is the pattern in question so bad it should be abolished, like slavery?

Some people who work for a wage dislike their job and wish they didn’t have to do it. But a person can dislike doing something because he has bad ideas, so this doesn’t tell us much. Nor does disagreement tell us which party to the disagreement, if either, is correct.  So if an employer and employee disagree about what the employee should do we can’t say which of them is right without knowing more.

Socialists say that the way to solve this problem is for the employers to give up their property rights in the plant they own to the workers. The workers are better suited to run the plant because they actually use the machines and know how they perform in practise. But there is a problem with this argument. Why did the employer own the machines in the first place?

The employer had an idea about some good or service. He thought that people would want that good or service and he thought about the best way to provide it. He then got the money to buy the plant, the premises in which to install it and so on. And he makes decisions about how to use the plant for as long he owns it. If not enough people buy his product or service then his business will fail. He pays the employees money in advance of knowing whether their labour will make him a profit or not. Doing anything novel involves risk. The employer takes that risk and the employees don’t. If the employees genuinely have a better idea about what risk should be taken then they could try to raise the money to buy the employer out.

Some socialists might say there isn’t really that much risk. You can just produce stuff that people know they want. This idea is problematic: it presupposes that people know the best way of making stuff and just have to tell other people to go do it. But figuring out how to do stuff well is hard. It requires trial and the correction of error. This is equally true of producing new technology and continuing to produce stuff that was produced before under changing conditions. The way the market does this is that if the good is being supplied badly enough by the lights of the people who might buy it the people supplying it won’t make a profit and will have to stop.

Somebody has to take the risky decisions and those people should get the profit or take the hit. If they don’t then they will not be able to make decisions about whether to continue making a product or service or not. That is, they will not be able to decide whether they prefer to make the product under current conditions or not, nor will they have any guidance on whether other ways of making it might work.

What the socialists propose amounts to saying that nobody should want to make the tradeoff of getting money now, and taking a lot less risk, rather than taking a large risk and getting money later. But what about the worker who needs the money right now and has no choice but to make that tradeoff? If he has no idea how to produce goods and services better then there is no reason for anybody to give him stuff when he doesn’t know how to use it. If he does have a great idea then he should want to put in the time and effort needed to persuade other people to give him money to try it, or he should save the required money. To say anything else entails that people should give him stuff when they don’t think it’s a good idea. It requires people to act irrationally: that is, to ignore criticisms of their actions.

But the worker might be unhappy I hear you cry. If somebody can’t convince other people to give him stuff or money to try some great idea he should be interested in working out why they aren’t convinced. So he has an opportunity to learn. If he doesn’t have good ideas for a business but wants to have good ideas about that then he should be interested in learning about how to have such ideas. And if he wants neither of those things, that’s fine but he shouldn’t want people to give him stuff when he doesn’t know how to use it and has no intention of learning. And when I say it’s fine not to want those things I really mean it. Some people want to do philosophy or poetry or draw or whatever and don’t want to run a business. All I’m saying is that if that’s what you want to do and you’re not willing to persuade other people to sponsor you to do it you shouldn’t expect to get stuff for doing it.

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.