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.

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.

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. Bu 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.

No Dash for Gas vs progress and the open society

Recently a group called No Dash for Gas (henceforth NDFG) have been protesting near a site where EDF energy are doing shale gas fracking. I think that when you look closely at what NDFG say and do it becomes clear that they are thugs, wannabe tyrants and an impediment to progress.

In one of their “protests” involved NDFG broke into West Burton power station and camped there on some of the power stations chimneys for a week. NDFG pled guilty to the criminal offence of aggravated trespass. This “protest” cost EDF energy £340,000 in labour and £5 million in delays to finishing the site. Note that this protest doesn’t involve discussing ideas or anything like that. After all, if NDFG wanted a discussion they could have written articles or blog posts instead of committing a criminal offence. Rather, the objective was to deprive EDF of the use of their property, just as a mugger tries to deprive you of the use of your wallet.

NDFG do have a website but looking down the list of what they say about gas they seem a lot fonder of dogmatic assertion than actual argument. They appear to have no interest in understanding their opponents’ position and addressing their problems. For example, they say that gas is bad because burning gas causes carbon dioxide emissions which cause global warming and so we shouldn’t burn gas. They don’t address the argument that the warming might have good effects or that we could adapt to it, or that we could do geo-engineering to stop the warming if it is bad. Even if all of these alternatives are wrong, anybody who thinks they are okay will not be convinced otherwise by NDFG.

NDFG also claim that the price of gas will rise. In and of itself this alleged fact, for which we are given no arguments, doesn’t imply anything about whether EDF should frack for gas or make more gas power stations. More expensive gas may be better than no gas. And I’m not surprised that there are no arguments because the future is not predictable. What we will do in the future depends on the knowledge we have in the future. We don’t know what knowledge we will have in the future and so we don’t know what the price of gas will be in the future.

There is something very odd about NDFG’s actions. Let’s suppose they know of a better alternative to gas. Good for them. They should go out and build a power station. So why haven’t they done this? If they build a power station and provide plentiful, cheap energy then people will buy from NDFG rather than EDF. And if they don’t know how to do that, then why are they protesting? They have nothing better to offer so the protest will achieve nothing.

Then we have EDF’s actions. I don’t know why EDF didn’t throw NDFG out on the first day. They even allowed the protesters to have ropes between the chimneys. EDF then tried to sue NDFG for £5 million in damages, then dropped that suit and got an injunction against NDFG to stop further trespass. Perhaps EDF were hamstrung by bad laws. But that doesn’t quite account for them offering NDFG a dialogue. EDF should not be appeasing NDFG in this way. NDFG are criminals. Nobody should be negotiating with NDFG unless they renounce the use of illegal means of pursuing their agenda. And even then it’s a bit of a puzzle how anybody could have a discussion with people who don’t seem to understand that to change another person’s position you actually have to address the substance of that position.

NDFG’s reply to EDF reveals more about their bad ideas. First, there is this astonishing statement:

Objectors like ourselves have gone to great lengths to point out some crucial facts to EDF: for example, that the CO2 from EDF’s UK coal and gas plants cause £5 million of climate change damage every day; that EDF’s attempts to get a guaranteed price for its nuclear electricity represents a massive multi-billion rip-off public subsidy that could be better spent on energy efficiency and renewables or that EDF’s decision to use its huge wealth and power to lobby against Government renewables targets and in favour of more nuclear power and fossil fuels is anti-democratic and completely disgraceful.

EDF should not be allowed to lobby the government? EDF are a group of people. Anything that is legitimate for people to do is also legitimate for EDF. NDFG don’t have any objection to asking the government for stuff per se because they want the government to give lots of money to people doing stuff with renewables. So what they want is for everybody who disagrees with them to shut up and stop trying to influence the government. So NDFG are opposed to freedom of speech and the existence of an open society.

NDFG also say stuff about £5 million in damage per day caused by fossil fuels but no source or argument is given for this alleged fact. By contrast fossil fuels supplied something like 88% (see p. 12) of the energy consumed in the UK. Since electricity is required for cleaning running water, medicine, food production and just about everything else, it is doing a vast amount of good. If we get rid of 88% of our current energy supply and have nothing to replace it, then we’re fucked. People will die in very large numbers. If NDFG have something to replace it they should start building instead of messing about with protesting. And if they don’t then they’re irresponsible.

NDFG also say that:

The best way for EDF to “ameliorate concerns” and reduce the likelihood of future protest is to take all the above points into account, reduce its prices to a level that people can afford, set a timetable for the closure of all its fossil and nuclear power stations, and release its lobbying stranglehold on Government so that energy efficiency and renewables can be expanded to take their place.

Now I’m puzzled. I thought NDFG were opposed to carbon dioxide emissions, which nuclear power plants don’t produce. So why do they oppose nuclear power?

NDFG might try to excuse their actions by saying that it is urgent that we do something. If that is so, then it is urgent for them to get people on their side, in which case they should be interested in getting good at argument. They should also be trying to build power stations rather than committing criminal acts if they’re serious. Groups like NDFG are a useless impediment to progress.

Against Censorship

Censorship is a bad idea. It is the use of force or confiscation of property or money or threats thereof to stop the expression of an idea.

Censorship is a bad idea regardless of the content of the idea for a couple of reasons.

If the idea is bad, by censoring it you prevent people who know better from answering it. This, too, prevents the improvement of ideas.

Sometimes a person will think an idea is bad even though it is good. If you censor such an idea you prevent the improvement of ideas. There is no infallible way to distinguish when you are right about an idea being bad from when you’re wrong, so this is always possible.

Traditionally, there have been many objections to free speech.

First, there is the question of whether you can shout fire in the crowded theatre when there is no fire and you’re not an actor on stage. If you shout fire in a theatre then you are doing a wrong to the people who came to watch the play, and possibly also to the theatre owner. What you are saying is not the problem, the wrong that you are doing in that context is the problem.

Second, shouldn’t people be able to control the content of their blog or YouTube account? Should they not be able to prevent you from posting comments that they dislike? Yes, they should but that’s not censorship. You can start your own blog or YouTube channel or whatever. And in any case, like the theatre owner the blog or channel owner has no obligation to use his property to support your speech. If you feel bad about this that’s your responsibility, not his.

Third, what if somebody is inciting people to violence, should we not censor him? In this case, the problem isn’t the ideas the speaker is expressing, rather he is participating in a criminal conspiracy to commit assault or murder or something like that. If the police get a tip that somebody is planning an armed robbery and raid the robbers’ hideout and stop them from making further plans, they are not interested in stopping the robbers’ speech per se, but the robbery.

Recently, the British government has proposed a plan to make internet service providers require people to block porn websites unless their customer asks them not to.

Some people have said this is a bad idea, but many of them have given the wrong argument. They say: “We agree that it is laudable to deny children (under 18s) access to porn, but this is a bad way to do it.” These people are wrong, it is not at all laudable to deny children access to porn.

“But people under 18 can’t deal with porn because they don’t have the appropriate context to deal with it,” I hear you cry. This is puzzling. Whatever the appropriate interpretation of porn might be if the child can look for porn when he’s interested in it, that will give parents an opportunity to help the child the appropriate interpretation.

The people who use the “context” excuse for censorship may not understand how porn should be interpreted. They say things like: “porn should be used as a way for people in loving relationships to spice up their sex.” Many people in romantic relationships and marriages end up suffering, so at minimum there is something wrong with the way people enact such relationships. So given that people are bad at relationships perhaps they should question the idea that they’re right about all of the issues concerned, including how to use porn.

“But people under 18 can’t understand porn,” the critic objects. If a child looks at porn and doesn’t have any understanding of what he’s seeing at all then he’ll get bored and go do something else.

But what if more teenagers get pregnant as a result of watching porn? People under the age of 18 can find out about sex in ways other than looking at porn. People under 18 found out about sex even before the internet was invented. Also, people often use porn for masturbation so why would more porn lead to more teen pregnancy?

But porn degrades women doesn’t it? If that is true, that is not just a problem for people under 18 and so can’t be a reason for preventing them specifically from getting access to porn. And in any case, the stuff women do in porn is also done by men and transexuals and midgets. While it might be a good idea to have debates about porn, we should have an open debate featuring serious arguments both for and against porn.

I think an unstated reason for the opposition to people under 18 watching porn is precisely that some of them might enjoy it. They should be working hard in school and becoming badminton champions and stuff like that. In other words, people under 18 should be doing what other people want them to do, not using their own judgement. It is disgraceful that the same adults who often chide children for not using their initiative are so keen to deprive them of opportunities to exercise their own judgement about what they should think. Anybody who wants a more rational world should be appalled by the British government’s attempt at thought control.