Teenager’s brains and their ideas

Teenage brains can’t tell what’s important and what isn’t claims an article in New Scientist. There are lots of articles and books like this one claiming that behaviour X is a result of a person’s brain. This kind of argument is primarily an excuse for denigrating people.

Any human brain is a universal computer – it is capable of computing anything that can be computed. And since the information processing done by a person’s brain can be computed, this means that any human brain is capable of computing anything that another human brain can compute. As such, the difference between the brains of different people is how they are programmed. It is not a hardware difference.

In addition, human beings are capable of creating new explanatory knowledge. Even a person learning stuff that other people know has to recreate that knowledge in his own mind by the same kind of process that somebody creating completely novel knowledge would use. He guesses and criticises those guesses. Saying that there is some knowledge teenagers can’t create implies that there is some limit to what sort of explanations they could guess and criticise short of what an adult could do. No such limit has been explained. Nor does any such limit make sense. A child learns language, which includes all of the explanatory knowledge that is common enough for people to coin words to refer to it. For example, the word “fall” involves the idea of motion, a distinction between higher and lower, the idea of interactions that can raise objects and oppose falling motion, the idea of objects that you can fall off and so on. People had to discover this knowledge and come up with new words to describe it. So there is no hard and fast distinction between knowledge that lots of people happen to know now and knowledge that is not common in terms of the process of creating that knowledge. If you can learn English well enough to communicate at all then you can learn anything. There are examples of young children knowing more than their teachers or other adults, e.g. – Gauss.

A person can look for an explanation of his current ideas and priorities and change them if that explanation has flaws. This is true of all human beings, including teenagers and young children. Both teenagers and children can and do change their ideas and priorities in the light of new information. So if you want to explain the behaviour of any human being, including a child or teenager, you need to understand what explanations that person had adopted.

So trying to explain a person’s behaviour by referring to his brain is irrelevant and unhelpful. It’s like trying to explain why a character in a computer game has particular dialogue by talking about electrons in circuits. The reason why a character has particular dialogue is that somebody wrote that dialogue. The dialogue writer chose particular words in light of his knowledge about the computer game, cultural context etc. The explanation of the dialogue has to refer to the relevant context.

So why do people refer to brains when they talk about behaviour? Part of the explanation may be confusion, but that can’t be the whole explanation. Anyone capable of writing an article can read. Anyone who can read can learn about the theory of computation and the theory of how people create knowledge. So a writer could think about such ideas and refrain from writing false stuff about the brain. People actually write about the behaviour of teenagers in terms of brain because of a reckless disregard for the truth, and a desire to denigrate teenagers.

Consider the first paragraph of the article:

Teenagers may know full well how important final exams are – but that won’t stop some putting in minimal effort. This may be because their brains aren’t developed enough to properly assess how high the stakes are, and adapt their behaviour accordingly.

Some teenagers don’t put a lot of effort into exams. Instead of asking those teenagers about their priorities the writer attributes this behaviour to their brains. So then the writer doesn’t have to ask questions like the following. Do exams actually matter? Why might a person value some other activity over passing an exam?

The article continues:

Catherine Insel, at Harvard University, and her team asked adolescents between the ages of 13 and 20 to play a game while lying in an fMRI brain scanner. In some rounds of the game, participants could earn 20 cents for a correct response, while an incorrect one would cost them 10 cents. But in rounds with higher stakes, correct responses were worth a dollar, and wrong answers lost the participants 50 cents.

The team found that while the older volunteers performed better in the high stakes rounds, the younger ones didn’t – their performance didn’t change in line with whether the stakes were low or high. And the older the volunteers were, the more improved their performance was. “Interestingly, the ability to adjust performance according to the stakes at play emerged gradually across adolescence,” says Insel.

When the team looked at the brain activity of the volunteers, they found that their ability to improve their performance was linked to how developed their brains were. A region called the corticostriatal network seemed to be particularly important. This is known to connect areas involved in reward to those that control behaviour, and continues to develop until we are at least 25 years old.

A person’s priorities and ideas will in general change how he uses his brain and so would change patterns of brain activation. So studies like this don’t imply that a teenager’s brain explains his behaviour and ideas.

There are other explanations to consider. For example, parents will often take property and money away from children and teenagers. So teenagers and children may value money less since they think they won’t be allowed to use it to fulfil their own preferences.

This sort of “study” is careless junk science.

UBI and principles

Sam Altman of Y Combinator wants universal basic income (UBI). UBI is a policy where the government hands out money to people unconditionally.

Altman explains what problem he is trying to solve in an interview:

Spectacle: So the idea is that basic income is an answer. But what’s the question that it’s trying to answer?
Sam Altman: The question I’m interested in: How do we unlock maximum human potential? I think resources are distributed incredibly unequally around world. Obviously, there are a lot of people who could do great things that would benefit all of us. Create art, start companies and yet they can’t. I think 50 years from now it will look pretty ridiculous that we motivated people by fear of not being able to eat, not having a place to sleep, to work in jobs they hate for bosses they hate, or not do what they really wanted.
I think YC was an example that I saw firsthand of something like a basic income that allowed people to pursue what they wanted to pursue. Airbnb and Reddit would not exist had they not gotten basic income from YC.
One thing I didn’t realize at the time, but now I do looking back, is that Y Combinator itself is very much like a basic income. When I went through YC, $12,000 got invested in my company. We used that to live on. Buy some servers, do some projects, but mostly to live on. And everybody else got that as well. Some people totally fail. But some people create companies that they never otherwise would’ve been able to start.

He then talks about UBI having a branding problem of being associated with socialism and handouts:

Spectacle: There’s a huge branding problem—especially in the U.S.—of people who will basically say, “These are handouts.”

Sam: “This is socialism…”

Spectacle: Yeah, how do you change their minds?

Sam: What I would propose is a model like a company where you get a share in U.S. Inc. And then, instead of getting a fixed fee, you get a percentage of the GDP every year. As the whole country does better, you do better. I think that is how you align everybody. That message you can get a lot of people behind, even people who traditionally hate welfare, hate socialism.

Spectacle: Profit sharing in the United States?

Sam: Some version of that.

People often have trouble dealing with government policy issues, like UBI. Some people may get more money from UBI and have more stuff at least in the short term. Some of the gainers may be poor and UBI might improve what they can buy a lot. You might expect government deficits to go up or something like that. But who is to say whether all these effects balance out or tend to favour one side or the other?

Worse, lots of unpredictable stuff will happen. People will invent all sorts of clever ways to get as much money out of this system as possible. People will also adapt to whatever the means the government uses to finance UBI.

Faced with all this complexity, people tend to say that these issues should be sorted out by experiments, but this is a bad idea. If you can’t sort out the merits of some complicated set of possible effects of a policy, an experiment will have no clear results. And if there are a load of unanticipated results how are those supposed to be judged good or bad except by whim after the experiment? When somebody sez we need to decide a policy by experiment you should translate that to the following. “I have no argument that could explain to you why you should adopt this policy. But if you try it and people come to depend on it, then I may be able to blackmail you into keeping it, so I want to run an experiment.”

The best way to sort out issues like this is to understand them in terms of principles, not by doing “experiments”. A principle is a guideline about what you shouldn’t do and why you shouldn’t do it. A principle can be clearly understood and criticised and replaced if it is no good. A principle can also help you work out effects of a policy you wouldn’t expect without the principle.

The relevant principle in this case is private property rights. Property should only be transferred between people as a result of a voluntary agreement. If a transfer takes place without such an agreement you have the right to take property from the thief without his consent. If you do transfers without voluntary agreements, then you’re ignoring objections to the transfer, which is irrational.

How will UBI be provided? There are two ways it could be provided. (1) The government could take money from some people and give it to other people. (2) The government could print money or issue credit.

Both (1) and (2) involve taking resources from people by threatening them with force.

In case (1) if you refuse to give the government the money then the government will try to take more money from you (fines), or try to put you in prison and if you resist by force then the government may kill you. If you try to avoid prosecution in the courts, that will cost you a lot of money and your defence may fail even if you haven’t broken the law. So if the government comes after you, the best case scenario is you lose a load of money and property.

In case (2) the value of money will decline relative to other goods, so you may want to use some other medium of exchange that retains its value. You can’t refuse to take government money in settlement of a debt because of legal tender laws.

Whether governments would prosecute people who make their own money is unclear. The US government prosecuted Bernard vonNothaus for minting his own money saying that it could be mistaken for US dollars. Governments haven’t decided to prosecute bitcoin users so far. Bitcoin changes value a lot and I suspect lots of bitcoin owners are speculating that it will rise in value. Most people will not put much of their assets in bitcoin partly because they don’t know much about it and don’t understand it. I suspect governments don’t see bitcoin as a serious threat so they aren’t pursuing those who trade it in any serious way. Bitcoin transactions can often be tracked to the people who made them, so if governments decide bitcoin is a threat they could go after many users.

Western governments provide some useful services with the money they take, like police, courts, roads and national defence. They also hold elections in which the current government can be thrown out of power. So governments aren’t completely useless and have some means of correcting errors. But governments still take money from people without their consent. We shouldn’t want reform in the direction of government doing more stuff.

So UBI involves taking money from people by force and giving it to other people. UBI is a violation of property rights and should be opposed.

Let’s be a bit more specific about what’s bad about UBI. The people who are net donors to UBI are more productive than those who are net receivers. Taking stuff from the donors may prevent them from undertaking productive activities. It will also make the donor’s life worse cuz he will have fewer options. So UBI punishes competence and prevents some improvements in how stuff is produced.

The recipients are also harmed by UBI. A person can’t have stuff that isn’t produced, so the production-preventing aspects of UBI mean there is less stuff the recipient could have. Also, a person who is short of money in a free market is bad at making decisions. Hiding his incompetence from him by giving him money taken from other people by force will stop him from realising he should change his ways. If he had to rely on people privately giving him charity he might get some advice and help on how to be more productive. Since people in government get money through threats of violence, they are generally not going to be able to give good advice on how to be more productive. Another problem: since UBI is not given out by any rational standards, there is no reason why the government should continue to give the money. So recipients are making their lives dependent on totally arbitrary whims of government officials.

There is another side to principles. You can ask what principles a policy endorses and then see if they are any good. UBI involves taking money from some people by force and giving it to others. So UBI endorses the principle that hurting people who have done nothing wrong to help others is good and necessary. This is the same as the principle behind other government redistribution schemes. So if you want to understand the principle properly, it’s useful to look at the societies in which it has been taken most seriously. It helps explain the state of Soviet Russia, North Korea, Venezuela etc. This principle pits people against one another in a bitter war for survival. Not a metaphorical war, but an actual war involving guns and bombs and destruction of property and murder. UBI is not just an isolated vague fuzzy warm idea. UBI entails an evil and destructive view of the world and should be rejected as evil garbage.

Net neutrality

There’s a lot of fuss at the moment about net neutrality. Let’s have a look at what some advocates of net neutrality have written.

Battle for the net 

Net neutrality is the principle that Internet providers like Comcast & Verizon should not control what we see and do online.

They don’t control what people see and do online. For example, before the net neutrality rules were passed, they didn’t block access to sites advocating net neutrality.

In 2015, startups, Internet freedom groups, and 3.7 million commenters won strong net neutrality rules from the US Federal Communication Commission (FCC).

So pro-freedom groups are in favour of government regulation of the internet? I smell a rat.

 Cable companies are famous for high prices and poor service.

What is the standard by which the cable companies’ prices are too high? The customers of those companies pay those prices, so they prefer the service they get more to keeping the money they give up for that service.

 Several rank as the most hated companies in America.

This sentence was written as an argument in favour of net neutrality, so this sentence expresses approval of hatred. Net neutrality is a hate movement. The organisations listed as supporters on this page approve of hate. These organisations include Vimeo, Twitter and Netflix.

Now, they’re lobbying the FCC and Congress to end net neutrality. Why? It’s simple: if they win the power to slow sites down, they can bully any site into paying millions to escape the “slow lane.”

This sentence is deliberately and strategically vague. The use of the word “bullying” insinuates physical violence without stating it openly.

If representatives of cable companies are using physical violence, there is a remedy for that in the law already.

Otherwise, the cable companies are just offering a service. You can purchase access to their assets on the terms they offer, or you can buy those services from another company, or you can start a new cable company, or you can do without those services.

In general, a company should charge different prices to different consumers. For example, if Netflix is streaming a lot of data, then an ISP might have to increase the amount of cable it lays to provide that capacity. The ISP might charge Netflix more so that the cost of the extra cable falls on Netflix and its customers instead of falling on other people who don’t use Netflix. If the cable company can’t make such charges, then it has to charge non-Netflix customers more or cut back on the cable it builds. Why should people who don’t use Netflix be forced to pay for Netflix users or put up with shitty internet provision?

This would amount to a tax on every sector of the American economy.

That sentence is false. Taxes are levied by government. If you try to pay some other group instead the government to provide the same services, you be fined, imprisoned or killed. That’s what distinguishes taxation from charges levied by private companies. A private company can’t steal or destroy your property or put you in prison for going to a competitor, unlike the government. Comcast aren’t taxing anybody.

Also, if the advocates of net neutrality are opposed to tax, why are they advocating giving the government more stuff to do? That’s an excuse for the government to increase taxes.

Worse, it would extinguish the startups and independent voices who can’t afford to pay. If we lose net neutrality, the Internet will never be the same.

To get money, a company has to convince investors or customers to give them money. If a company can’t get enough money to pay for their internet costs that means they haven’t convinced people their services are worth more than the other stuff that could be bought with the same money. So net neutrality forces people to act against their values by sponsoring companies whose services they don’t want.

Save the internet

Yes. After a decade-long battle over the future of the internet, the FCC adopted strong Net Neutrality rules based on Title II of the Communications Act, giving internet users the strongest protections possible.

But ever since then opponents have done everything they can to destroy Net Neutrality. And Chairman Pai — a former Verizon lawyer — is moving fast to destroy the open internet. He must be stopped.

The chairman of the FCC is a former Verizon lawyer. And Save the internet want him to have control over ISPs and so over the internet?

More generally, the people who know most about how the internet works are people involved in maintaining or using it on a large scale, i.e. – ISPs or companies that use lots of bandwidth like Netflix. So whoever is in charge will favour one side or the other, or he’ll be an idiot who knows nothing. None of those options are good. The government should have no control over internet service provision.

The Trump administration is doing everything in its power to clamp down on dissent. If we lose Net Neutrality, it will have succeeded.

The Trump administration is so evil that “Save the internet” want them to control the internet.


These arguments for net neutrality are stupid. Net neutrality itself sounds like people trying to get a free lunch by getting the government to steal other people’s lunch money.

UPDATE I read Elliot’s comment and looked into whether broadband provision is monopolised. In many places there are only one or two choices for broadband provision. I haven’t been able to find a lot of material on why this happens. I suspect the truth is unflattering for both sides in the net neutrality debate since neither side is explaining what’s happening. Some of the problems may be due to bad local government policies that make it expensive to lay a new network.

Hoppe on epistemology

There is a branch of the Austrian school of economics that claims to closely follow the ideas of Ludwig von Mises. They say that they have better ideas about epistemology and methodology than other economists. I’m going to look at a book written by a prominent representative of that school of thought, Economic Science and the Austrian Method by Hans-Hermann Hoppe and see if his ideas are any good.

Most economists think of economics as being similar to the natural sciences like physics. You measure some quantity like the number of employees hired and then look at whether it goes up or down in response to an increase in the minimum wage.

Mises thought that the laws of economics were not subject to such a check. If the price of labour increases people will demand less than they would if the price remained the same. An increase in the minimum wage increases the price of some labour and so decreases the amount of labour demanded. Mises wrote that you couldn’t understand the set of facts non-Austrian economists want to interpret as data without economic laws and so they can’t be tested:

Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts. They are both logically and temporally antecedent to any comprehension of historical facts. They are a necessary requirement of any intellectual grasp of historical events. Without them we should not be able to see in the course of events anything else than kaleidoscopic change and chaotic muddle.

Hoppe wrote his book in defence of Mises’ position (and some other economists Hoppe quotes) and against the positions of his critics. He calls the anti-Mises position “empiricism”. The Misesian position is so unfamiliar to most people that I think it requires extended discussion and quotes from Hoppe to give it a fair assessment.

Hoppe makes a contrast between the natural sciences and economics:

Let us first look briefly at the natural sciences. How do we know what the consequences will be if we subject some nature-given material to specified tests, let’s say, if we mix it with another kind of material? Obviously we do not know before we actually try it and observe what happens. We can make a prediction, of course, but our prediction is only a hypothetical one, and observations are required to find out if we are right or wrong.

Moreover, even if we have observed some definite outcome, let’s say that mixing the two materials leads to an explosion, can we then be sure that such an outcome will invariably occur whenever we mix such materials? Again, the answer is no. Our predictions will still, and permanently, be hypothetical. It is possible that an explosion will only result if certain other conditions—A, B, and C—are fulfilled. We can only find out whether or not this is the case and what these other conditions are by engaging in a never-ending trial and error process. This enables us to improve our knowledge progressively about the range of application for our original hypothetical prediction.

Now let us turn to some typical economic propositions. Consider the validation process of a proposition such as the following: Whenever two people A and B engage in a voluntary exchange, they must both expect to profit from it. And they must have reverse preference orders for the goods and services exchanged so that A values what he receives from B more highly than what he gives to him, and B must evaluate the same things the other way around.

Considering such propositions, is the validation process involved in establishing them as true or false of the same type as that involved in establishing a proposition in the natural sciences? Are these propositions hypothetical in the same sense as a proposition regarding the effects of mixing two types of natural materials? Do we have to test these economic propositions continuously against observations? And does it require a never-ending trial and error process in order to find out the range of application for these propositions and to gradually improve our knowledge, such as we have seen to be the case in the natural sciences?

It seems quite evident—except to most economists for the last forty years—that the answer to these questions is a clear and unambiguous No. That A and B must expect to profit and have reverse preference orders follows from our understanding of what an exchange is. And the same is the case concerning the consequences of a coerced exchange. It is inconceivable that things could ever be different: It was so a million years ago and it will be so a million years hence. And the range of application for these propositions too is clear once and for all: They are true whenever something is a voluntary exchange or a coerced exchange, and that is all there is to it.

It is true that judging whether voluntary exchanges benefit both parties is not an empirical matter. You can’t experimentally criticise the idea that voluntary exchanges benefit people. Many criticisms involve saying a person could regret the exchange later, which is irrelevant to whether he finds it beneficial now. They are also confused about what sort of actions count as voluntary. Many current transactions happen in part because the government prevents alternatives, so they are not fully voluntary. People don’t look deeply into such issues and so there are cases of coerced transactions that people don’t see as coerced.

Saying that economics is not hypothetical in the same sense as the natural sciences is a mistake. An idea is either hypothetical or not hypothetical, and in either case it is unclear what work the word “sense” is doing here. All ideas are hypothetical for reasons I described in previous posts [1,2] and won’t reproduce here. All knowledge is created by guessing solutions to problems and criticising the guesses. The assessment of ideas should be discussed in terms of how they can be criticised, not in terms of whether or not they are hypothetical since all ideas are hypothetical. The idea that knowledge can be shown to be true or probably true or good or whatever – justificationism – is false.

A theory in the natural sciences can be criticised by finding experimental results that contradict it. An economic theory can’t be criticised in that way. Rather, the economic theory has to be criticised by other kinds of arguments. For example, some people think that an action shouldn’t count as voluntary if you would regret it later, e.g. – a person who spends all his money on booze might regret that decision when he hasn’t got money to pay the rent. This idea blurs the line between voluntary and non-voluntary actions.

Hoppe discusses synthetic a priori ideas – ideas we can know without making observations that aren’t just definitions. Hoppe writes:

Kant, in the course of his critique of classical empiricism, in particular that of David Hume, developed the idea that all our propositions can be classified in a two-fold way: On the one hand they are either analytic or synthetic, and on the other they are either a priori or a posteriori. The meaning of these distinctions is, in short, the following. Propositions are analytic whenever the means of formal logic are sufficient in order to find out whether they are true or not; otherwise propositions are synthetic ones. And propositions are a posteriori whenever observations are necessary in order to establish their truth or at least confirm them. If observations are not necessary, then propositions are a priori.

First, how is the truth of such propositions derived, if formal logic is not sufficient and observations are unnecessary? Kant’s answer is that the truth follows from self-evident material axioms.
What makes these axioms self-evident? Kant answers, it is not because they are evident in a psychological sense, in which case we would be immediately aware of them. On the contrary, Kant insists, it is usually much more painstaking to discover such axioms than it is to discover some empirical truth such as that the leaves of trees are green. They are self-evident because one cannot deny their truth without self-contradiction; that is, in attempting to deny them one would actually, implicitly, admit their truth.

So the way in which we get true synthetic a priori ideas, according to this view, is that we look for ideas where you assert their truth by trying to deny them. If you argue that an idea A is false that is a criticism – criticism B. If by arguing B, you use the idea A, then somebody can make a criticism of your criticism – criticism C. So you guess A, criticise A with B and then criticise B with C. This sounds plausible but actually doesn’t work because an argument either refers to other arguments or doesn’t have the context needed to refute objections. Also, even taken at face value it doesn’t justify anything. All it does is give bad criticisms of a rival view.

Hoppe writes about how we find synthetic a priori ideas:

How do we find such axioms? Kant answers, by reflecting upon ourselves, by understanding ourselves as knowing subjects. And this fact—that the truth of a priori synthetic propositions derives ultimately from inner, reflectively produced experience—also explains why such propositions can possibly have the status of being understood as necessarily true. Observational experience can only reveal things as they happen to be; there is nothing in it that indicates why things must be the way they are. Contrary to this, however, writes Kant, our reason can understand such things as being necessarily the way they are, “which it has itself produced according to its own design.”

It has been a common quarrel with Kantianism that this philosophy seemed to imply some sort of idealism. For if, as Kant sees it, true synthetic a priori propositions are propositions about how our mind works and must of necessity work, how can it be explained that such mental categories fit reality? How can it be explained, for instance, that reality conforms to the principle of causality if this principle has to be understood as one to which the operation of our mind must conform? Don’t we have to make the absurd idealistic assumption that this is possible only because reality was actually created by the mind?

Mises provides the solution to this challenge. It is true, as Kant says, that true synthetic a priori propositions are grounded in self-evident axioms and that these axioms have to be understood by reflection upon ourselves rather than being in any meaningful sense “observable.” Yet we have to go one step further. We must recognize that such necessary truths are not simply categories of our mind, but that our mind is one of acting persons. Our mental categories have to be understood as ultimately grounded in categories of action. And as soon as this is recognized, all idealistic suggestions immediately disappear. Instead, an epistemology claiming the existence of true synthetic a priori propositions becomes a realistic epistemology. Since it is understood as ultimately grounded in categories of action, the gulf between the mental and the real, outside, physical world is bridged. As categories of action, they must be mental things as much as they are characteristics of reality. For it is through actions that the mind and reality make contact.

This sounds plausible, but it doesn’t work. People often deny ideas like the idea that humans act. A person may have a story about his actions being determined or influenced by biology, e.g. – a person might say he has ADHD. According to how own ideas, this person doesn’t act or make choices. His brain does stuff without his control. This issue arises because the argument is divorced from the context needed to explain how action works. Why is the ADHD argument wrong in Hoppe’s view? To understand that issue properly, you have to understand the theory of evolution and epistemology: there is no room for that sort of argument in Hoppe’s ideas.

Hoppe discusses a Misesian idea called the ‘action axiom’:

Mises not only recognizes that epistemology indirectly rests on our reflective knowledge of action and can thereby claim to state something a priori true about reality but that economics does so too and does so in a much more direct way. Economic propositions flow directly from our reflectively gained knowledge of action; and the status of these propositions as a priori true statements about something real is derived from our understanding of what Mises terms “the axiom of action.”
This axiom, the proposition that humans act, fulfills the requirements precisely for a true synthetic a priori proposition. It cannot be denied that this proposition is true, since the denial would have to be categorized as an action—and so the truth of the statement literally cannot be undone. And the axiom is also not derived from observation—there are only bodily movements to be observed but no such things as actions—but stems instead from reflective understanding.

Hoppe doesn’t discuss any substantive objections to his ideas. Some people will dismiss Hoppe’s ideas out of hand. Others will dismiss it without knowing exactly why because it involves a subtle epistemological issue.

Hoppe’s comments on Popper

Hoppe has commented on Popper in this paper.

On p. 191, Hoppe writes:

Popper would have us throw out any theory that is contradicted by any
fact, which, if at all possible, would leave us virtually empty-handed, going nowhere. In recognizing the insoluble connection between theoretical knowledge (language) and actions, rationalism would instead deem such falsificationism, even if possible, as completely irrational. There is no situation conceivable in which it would be reasonable to throw away any theory—conceived of as a cognitive instrument of action—that had been successfully applied in a past situation but proves unsuccessful in a new application—unless one already had a more successful theory at hand.

This is a false statement about Popper’s positioning at least two respects. First, Popper requires that a supposed refutation of a theory should be reproducible otherwise it could just be due to some mistake in the observation that allegedly refuted the theory, see Section 8 of “Logic of Scientific Discovery”.

Second, criticising an explanation as an account of reality is not the same as criticising it as a way of explaining what action you should take. For example, as a description of reality Newton’s theories of motion are false. But those same laws might still be used in some circumstances to predict the weight a bridge will bear or something like that because Newton’s equations are sufficiently accurate for that purpose. Since Popper’s epistemology sez we should be able to use any idea not refuted by criticism the same goes for predicting the load a bridge can take with Newton’s laws.

On p.188, Hoppe notes that scientists could choose to immunise their theories from criticism by reinterpreting them. On p. 209 he tries to reply to Popper’s solution to that problem:

Empiricists such as Blaug (note 19), p. 17ff., argue that Popper actually realized the possibility of “immunizing stratagems” yet “solved” this problem and thus escaped relativism and skepticism. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is correct that Popper has always been aware of the possibility of immunizing one’s hypotheses from falsification. (See his Logik der Forschung, Tubingen: Mohr, 1969, chapter 4, sections 19,20.) His answer to such a threat to his falsificationism, however, can hardly be accepted as a solution. For he actually admits that he cannot show such “conventionalism” to be wrong. He simply proposes to overcome it by adopting the methodological convention of not behaving as conventionalists do. Yet how can such methodolical conventionalism (i.e., a methodology without epistemological foundation) claim to establish science as a rational enterprise and to stimulate scientific progress?

The idea that a foundation is necessary for progress is false as Popper explained. You can make progress by noticing flaws in ideas and replacing them with ideas that don’t have such flaws. Hoppe doesn’t address Popper’s arguments on that point.

On p. 210, Hoppe criticises Popper’s claim that he solved the problem of induction:

Alas, this is simply an illusion. For how can it be possible to relate two or more observational experiences, even if they concern the relations between things that are perceived to be the same or similar, as falsifying (or confirming) each other, rather than merely neutrally record them as one experience here and one experience there, one repetitive of another or not, and leaving it at that (i.e., regarding them as logically incommensurable) unless one presupposed the existence of time-invariantly operating causes? Only if the existence of such time-invariantly operating causes could be assumed would there by any logically compelling reason to regard them as commensurable and as falsifying or confirming each other.

This is a terrible muddle. Saying that there are time-invariant causes is totally irrelevant to the problem of induction. Induction is supposed to explain how people get scientific theories and then justify them. You get them by doing observations and justify them with more observations. Suppose that there are such causes. And suppose that you do an experiment that is consistent with some particular theory about those causes. The result is also compatible with many other causal theories, so it doesn’t justify them. Saying there are time-invariant causes and using some particular theory of those causes to explain the workings of an experiment doesn’t pose any problem for Popper, but it also does nothing to solve the problem of induction.

However, Popper, like all empiricists, denies that any such assumption can be given an a priori defense (there are for him no such things as a priori true propositions about reality such as the causality principle would have to be) and is itself merely hypothetical. Yet clearly, if the possibility of constantly operating causes as such is only a hypothetical one, then it can hardly be claimed, as Popper does, that any particular predictive hypothesis could ever be falsified or confirmed. For then the falsification (or confirmation) would have to be considered a hypothetical one: any predictive hypothesis would only undergo tests whose status as tests were themselves hypothetical. And hence one would be right back in the muddy midst of skepticism. Only if the causality principle as such could be unconditionally established as true, could any particular causalhypothesis ever be testable, and the outcome of a test provide rational grounds for deciding whether or not to uphold a given hypothesis.

Popper holds all knowledge is conjectural and can make progress by guessing and criticism. Skepticism sez we can’t have knowledge and that we can’t make progress in understanding the world. So Popper’s position isn’t skepticism.

More thoughts on problem solving

Elliot Temple asked some questions about my postmodernism blog post:

 “You keep doing this until you find some guesses with no known problems.”

what if that takes 500 years?

Under some circumstances you might be willing to wait 500 years to solve a problem. For example, if there is a star 250 light years away and you want to send a probe there to gather some data and send it back to you, then you would have to wait 500 years to get the results.

That sort of problem doesn’t come up in the lives of most people at present for various reasons. If you’ve been working on a problem for a longer time than you expected without solving it, then you may be doing something wrong in your strategy for solving it. The way to deal with this is to ask for criticism of what you’re doing and why. Sometimes another person will see a problem with what you’re doing that you don’t see. You could also ask for criticism before starting so you don’t waste time on something when somebody else knows it won’t work.

what if there’s a disagreement (in your own mind or with another person, doesn’t matter) about whether an answer to a criticism works?

If somebody disagrees with the answer, that’s a criticism of the answer. The critic has some objection you haven’t addressed. You should come up with a new variant of the idea that meets any objection the critic explains, or find a better idea that isn’t a close variant. If the critic doesn’t explain his objection in a way you understand that is a criticism of the objection. You can have an open invitation for the critic to continue trying to explain his objection as long as he is interested in doing so, but you needn’t change your position.

Postmodernism debate

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Critical rationalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yudkowsky on Popper

In Rationality From AI to Zombies Eliezer Yudkowsky writes some stuff about Popper. He does a bad job of discussing Popper’s ideas. On pp. 820-821 he writes:

Previously, the most popular philosophy of science was probably Karl Popper’s falsificationism—this is the old philosophy that the Bayesian revolution is currently dethroning. Karl Popper’s idea that theories can be definitely falsified, but never definitely confirmed, is yet another special case of the Bayesian rules; if P(X|A) ≈ 1—if the theory makes a definite prediction—then observing ¬X very strongly falsifies A. On the other hand, if P(X|A) ≈ 1, and we observe X, this doesn’t definitely confirm the theory; there might be some other condition B such that P (X|B) ≈ 1, in which case observing X doesn’t favor A over B. For observing X to definitely confirm A, we would have to know, not that P(X|A) ≈ 1, but that P(X|¬A) ≈ 0, which is something that we can’t know because we can’t range over all possible alternative explanations. For example, when Einstein’s theory of General Relativity toppled Newton’s incredibly well-confirmed theory of gravity, it turned out that all of Newton’s predictions were just a special case of Einstein’s predictions.

Popper didn’t call his position falsificationism. He explicitly rejected that label, see the introduction to ‘Realism and the aim of science’.

Popper called his position critical rationalism. Popper said that all knowledge creation proceeds by guessing and criticism. First, you spot a problem with your current ideas, then you guess solutions to the problem, then you criticise the guesses.

Falsifying an idea by experimental testing is just one of the possible ways of criticising an idea: it’s not central to Popper’s ideas.

You can even formalize Popper’s philosophy mathematically. The likelihood ratio for X, the quantity P(X|A)/P(X|¬A), determines how much observing X slides the probability for A; the likelihood ratio is what says how strong X is as evidence. Well, in your theory A, you can predict X with probability 1, if you like; but you can’t control the denominator of the likelihood ratio, P(X|¬A)—there will always be some alternative theories that also predict X, and while we go with the simplest theory that fits the current evidence, you may someday encounter some evidence that an alternative theory predicts but your theory does not.

It is possible to formalise reasoning, but not using the rules of probability. Reasoning is a form of information processing: you use information and the knowledge you already have to find new and better ideas. Any physically possible information processing can be simulated by a computer. This simulation can simulate both the results and the process by which they were created. So reasoning can be formalised. Nobody knows how to do this, but it is possible.

Back to Yudowsky:

That’s the hidden gotcha that toppled Newton’s theory of gravity. So there’s a limit on how much mileage you can get from successful predictions; there’s a limit on how high the likelihood ratio goes for confirmatory evidence.

The idea that Newton’s theory was replaced cuz it was incompatible with evidence is misleading. Newton’s theory of gravity got into trouble because it is incompatible with the special theory of relativity.

One problem is that Newton’s theory implies that changes in the mass distribution instantly change gravitational forces everywhere. Special relativity sez that the maximum speed at which one system can influence another is the speed of light.

Another problem is that special relativity sez that mass and energy are tied together as parts of a single conserved quantity. So what should take the place of mass in a relativistic theory of gravitation?

Einstein thought about how to solve those problems and others and came up with the general theory of relativity. Newton’s theory of gravity was replaced because it was a bad explanation. The experimental evidence that Newton’s theory was wrong was mostly found after general relativity was invented. Until then, nobody knew where to look for experimental evidence against Newton’s theory.

There’s a lot of historical discussion of the origin of general relativity, e.g. – ‘The genesis of general relativity’ vols 1-4 edited by Jurgen Renn (I’d link to it on Amazon but it’s super expensive). If Yudkowsky is going to use historical examples, he should look them up.

On the other hand, if you encounter some piece of evidence Y that is definitely not predicted by your theory, this is enormously strong evidence against your theory. If P (Y |A) is infinitesimal, then the likelihood ratio will also be infinitesimal. For example, if P (Y |A) is 0.0001%, and P (Y |¬A) is 1%, then the likelihood ratio P (Y |A)/P (Y |¬A) will be 1:10,000. at’s −40 decibels of evidence! Or, flipping the likelihood ratio, if P (Y |A) is very small, then P (Y |¬A)/P (Y |A) will be very large, meaning that observing Y greatly favors ¬A over A. Falsification is much stronger than confirmation. It is is a consequence of the earlier point that very strong evidence is not the product of a very high probability that A leads to X, but the product of a very low probability that not-A could have led to X. This is the precise Bayesian rule that underlies the heuristic value of Popper’s falsificationism.

Similarly, Popper’s dictum that an idea must be falsifiable can be interpreted as a manifestation of the Bayesian conservation-of-probability rule; if a result X is positive evidence for the theory, then the result ¬X would have disconfirmed the theory to some extent. If you try to interpret both X and ¬X as “confirming” the theory, the Bayesian rules say this is impossible! To increase the probability of a theory you must expose it to tests that can potentially decrease its probability; this is not just a rule for detecting would-be cheaters in the social process of science, but a consequence of Bayesian probability theory. On the other hand, Popper’s idea that there is only falsification and no such thing as confirmation turns out to be incorrect. Bayes’s theorem shows that falsification is very strong evidence compared to confirmation, but falsification is still probabilistic in nature; it is not governed by fundamentally different rules from confirmation, as Popper argued.


Popper made many arguments against the idea of inductive probability, see Realism and the aim of science, part II, chapter II. For example, in Section 13 of that chapter Popper points out that we must have an explanation of what counts as repeating the same experiment to do induction, but induction provides us with no means to get that explanation. Yudkowksy shows no sign of being aware of any of these arguments.

The only Popper book Yudkowsky cites is LScD and he doesn’t seem to have understood it.