Critical comments on critical memefulness

Somebody calling himself Hermes of Reason has made a YouTube video called Critical memefulness, which is about memes and mindfulness.

According to Hermes, in his book Waking Up Sam Harris talks about “thinking without knowing you’re thinking” as being “lost in thought”. This isn’t what “lost in thought” means colloquially. “Lost in thought” usually means that you’re ignoring the outside world, not that you’re unaware that you’re thinking. According to Hermes, Harris sez this distracts us from the lives we want to live. According to Hermes, Harris suggests mindfulness meditation cuz it helps us notice when we’re unthinkingly being led astray from living the lives we want to live. I have criticised Harris in the past on economics and moral philosophy and I consider Harris to be a bad thinker. But I haven’t read this particular Harris book, so I don’t know if Hermes has reported its contents accurately. I also have reason to think that Hermes doesn’t know how to read books and report their contents accurately, as I will discuss below, so I consider Hermes’ report of the book’s contents unreliable.

Hermes claims that people binge eat when they know they don’t want to binge eat, but still do it anyway and that this is an example of “thinking without thinking”, but he’s wrong. A binge eater may know he’s binge eating, he may be thinking that he is binge eating, he may know that he’s thinking about binge eating. That binge eater may know that he also has a preference to avoid binge eating and he may be thinking about that preference while he binge eats. So Hermes’ example contradicts his argument.

Hermes claims that “thinking without knowing we’re thinking” isn’t thought because thought involves error correction. No. Lots of thought involves no error correction. For example, justificationist philosophers don’t do error correction on important aspects of their philosophy, but they still think.

Hermes then sez:

What mindfulness can get you to recognise is that you are not the appearances in your mind per se, but you are more like the mind space in which those appearances are coming and going.

No. You aren’t a space in which thoughts come and go. That’s like the bucket theory of mind that was specifically criticised by Karl Popper, see “The bucket and the searchlight: two theories of knowledge” appendix 1 of Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. You invent ideas to try to solve problems, so ideas don’t just float into your mind. Now, if you choose not to pay attention to your problems and criticise them, then you won’t understand your own problems and some or all of your thoughts may appear to just come and go for some unknown reason. But that’s a result of you not understanding and criticising your priorities, it’s not a necessary feature of your life.

I’m now going to quote a transcription I made of a long section of the video:

The whole notion of going from one thing to another and you might say being distracted is actually a necessary feature of our creativity, being able to arrange and combine existing things and solve problems and stuff like that. We have a whole range of things we’re interested in and problems we’re interested in solving, so it’s necessary that we’re able to go from one thing to another in that kind of way. So distraction is only a problem insofar as it relates to not actually thinking.

But the ability to have a wide range of things you’re interested in and just kind of hop from one thing to another and explore all of them in a way is a good thing. I mean if you’re solving problems and having fun and stuff like that you know there’s nothing to worry about. Although given that our minds work in this way the space of potentially moving from one thing to another is the space in which unthinkingness, or you might even call it irrationality, rears its head or takes advantage of and exploits. And there are real things out there that are looking to take advantage of that dynamic capacity of our minds. And those things are what David Deutsch, in his book ‘The Beginning of Infinity’ and in particular his chapter ‘The evolution of culture’ calls anti-rational memes. So a meme is like a behaviour with its corresponding meaning or idea that gets itself replicated in the same way that genes get themselves replicated, namely by just simply out competing their rivals. And the anti-rational memes do this by suppressing creative criticism. While there are rational memes that encourage creative criticism. So especially the anti-rational memes that suppress creative criticism they have to take advantage of this space or potential for doing things unthinkingly because if you were thinking that means you would be error-correcting that means you would be using creative criticism. And as we know this space for doing things unthinkingly comes out of this space where we’re able to be distracted and dynamic going from one thing to another. And so what the anti-rational memes do is they hijack that space and entrench certain patterns of behaviour that we can do unthinkingly and they have to do that otherwise we would be able to recognise them quickly and error correct our way out of doing them.

Now, as I’ve noted already this theory is false. It also contradicts The Beginning of Infinity, pp. 413-414:

But how does one discover the wishes and expectations of other people? They might issue commands, but they could never specify every detail of what they expected, let alone every detail of how to achieve it. When one is commanded to do something (or expected to, as a condition for being considered worthy of food or mating, for instance), one might remember seeing an already-respected person doing the same thing, and one might try to emulate that person. To do that effectively, one would have to understand what the point of doing it was, and to try to achieve that as best one could. One would impress one’s chief, priest, parent or potential mate by replicating, and following, their standards of what one should strive for. One would impress the tribe as a whole by replicating their idea (or the ideas of the most influential among them) of what was worthy, and acting accordingly.

Hence, paradoxically, it requires creativity to thrive in a static society – creativity that enables one to be less innovative than other people. And that is how primitive, static societies, which contained pitifully little knowledge and existed only by suppressing innovation, constituted environments that strongly favoured the evolution of an ever-greater ability to innovate.

In other words, anti-rational memes are copied cuz people use creativity to copy them. People don’t copy anti-rational memes unthinkingly: they put effort and thought into copying them. For example, justificationist philosophers put lots of creativity into writing long books about how to do justification. They also put creativity into finding excuses to ignore criticisms of justificationism, like those given by Popper. A binge eater thinks about what he’s going to eat and when and how and why. He puts creativity into his binge eating. Hermes hasn’t reported the contents of “The Beginning of Infinity” accurately, so I think he’s bad at reading books and reporting their contents.

I have one final example of a person using creativity to copy an anti-rational meme. Hermes of reason wants to present himself as a wise philosopher. So he puts creativity into quoting the title of an intellectual book called “The Beginning of Infinity” and having some superficial knowledge of some of the terminology the author uses. Hermes also puts creativity into coming up with a chain of words that sound superficially plausible to somebody without detailed knowledge of what he’s talking about. I think it would be better if Hermes put more creativity into learning rather than presenting himself as a wise philosopher. If you want to be a real philosopher rather than a poseur, there are forums like Fallible Ideas where you can actually discuss philosophy, expose your ideas to criticism and possibly make progress.

Yuill on assisted suicide

In Assisted Suicide: The liberal, humanist case against legalisation, Kevin Yuill tries to make a “humanist” case against assisted suicide. The book has some parts that might have been okay in isolation, like where the author points connections between ideas like environmentalist pessimism and advocacy of assisted suicide (Chapter 3, pp. 73-76). But overall the book is just a muddled compromise that omits a lot of problems with Yuill’s position.

For example on p. 142 Yuill writes:

Why shouldn’t those who feel the need for security of a quick and easy departure have it? A libertarian answer is to make deadly drugs available to the public, albeit with warnings about what ingesting them will do and perhaps even a waiting period.

There is no prospect at all of this reform being adopted without several fundamental changes in many institutions in the West. For example, anyone who attempts to commit suicide and fails can be involuntarily committed by psychiatrists. Involuntary commitment means the patient is “treated” without his consent by being locked up and drugged. This means that committing suicide is treated as a criminal act even though there is no explicit law forbidding it. And saying you want to commit suicide can easily lead to involuntary commitment. So if a person tries to get suicide drugs, why wouldn’t he be involuntarily committed for making such a request? Yuill never sez anything about involuntary commitment in the book.

A psychiatrist with a patient who commits suicide may be sued by the patient’s relatives if the psychiatrist had any indication that the patient might commit suicide. So why wouldn’t people be able to sue a pharmacist who sells drugs explicitly intended to help people commit suicide?

Yuill’s omission of these problems makes no sense since he cites Thomas Szasz, who has pointed out these problems. For example, Yuill writes the following:

Most insightful for its unique perspective on suicide is Thomas S. Szasz’s Fatal Freedom: The Ethics and Politics of Suicide (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999). In a characteristically brilliant but flawed book, Szasz argues against medicalization and in favour of personal responsibility for one’s actions. See also Battin and Ryan Spellecy’s reply to some (certainly not all) of Szasz’s points in ‘What Kind of Freedom? Szasz’s Misleading Perception of Physician-assisted Suicide’, in Jeffrey A. Schaler (ed.), Szasz Under Fire: The Psychiatric Abolitionist Faces His Critics (New York: Open Court, 2004), pp. 277–290.

Yuill doesn’t describe the flaws in “Fatal Freedom”, he just points to criticisms made by Battin and Spellecy that were refuted in Szasz’s reply in the book Szasz Under Fire.

If you want to read good books about suicide in general, including assisted suicide, the best books available are Szasz’s books Fatal Freedom and Suicide Prohibition: The Shame of Medicine.

Compulsory National Service

Rory Stewart who is one of the candidates for leadership of the conservative party in the UK has proposed that the UK should adopt compulsory national service (CNS). Some people are defending CNS:

CNS involves the government using force to make people do its bidding. In short, CNS is slavery by another name. For this reason alone I am completely and unconditionally opposed to CNS.

Goodwin claims CNS will reduce polarisation and division, but this claim has several problems.

The first is that CNS will divide the people who get to order the state’s slaves around from those who must take the orders. Anyone with a spine will despise the people giving the orders. Likewise the order givers will have to punish anyone with a brain and will grow to hate anyone who has initiative and creativity.

The second issue is that polarisation and division is a vague term. People disagree about stuff. This is more noticeable over the past couple of decades because of the internet. The internet has also enabled the development of new ideas and so increased the possible scope of disagreements. Some people dislike the existence of critics who disagree with them, and want critics to die in poverty and agony. It’s better to know who these haters are than to live under the illusion that there are no scumbags in the world. It’s also good to know who is willing to sponsor scumbags. The fact that disagreements and hatreds can now more easily be aired opens up the possibility of resolving them by discussion. And since a wider range of positions is available, a wider range of issues can be discussed and understood.

The third problem is that the government already forces most people to associate with others they dislike in school. If the government can’t make everyone link hands and sing kum ba ya in 10 or more years of compulsory education why would more compulsory association help?

If you want to actually reduce conflict in the UK there are ways to do that. One way is to reduce government intervention in the economy. The government uses force to impose its wishes on people. Its policies favour some people and hurt others. So every controversy over government policy is a controversy about hurting people and breaking stuff. Involving the government in any controversy that is not directly about force introduces the use of force and pits people against one another, as pointed out by Ludwig von Mises.

Government policies are also mostly destructive. Using force to hurt people and break stuff for any purpose other than defence against the initiation of force prevents people from engaging in activities that would benefit them. This means that the government slows economic progress and people suffer more problems than they would if the government hadn’t stuck its nose into their business. People misinterpret this slowing of progress as being the fault of institutions other than government. For example, the financial crisis was blamed on banks, but it was caused by the government. CNS will have the same kind of result. People will be forced to undertake work and learn skills that nobody will voluntarily pay for, which wastes their time as well as wasting taxpayer’s money. So if you want to reduce conflict, start reducing government interference.

The government also deliberately promotes division and conflict in the name of tolerance and equality. For example, the US government encourages conflict between homosexuals and religious people who dislike homosexuality by forcing the latter to makes cakes for the former.

The main government policy to help promote tolerance and curb prejudice is to stop interfering in people’s lives in way that directly or indirectly promote intolerance and prejudice. CNS would be a step in the wrong direction.

Hannah Arendt is bad on economics

I recently started reading The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt. I don’t think I’m going to finish it cuz the book is sloppy and anti-capitalist. As an example of Arendt’s writing I’ll give the following short quote from pp.174-175 Chapter 5, Section II:

What imperialists actually wanted was expansion of political power without the foundation of a body politic. Imperialist expansion had been touched off by a curious kind of economic crisis, the overproduction of capital and the emergence of ‘superfluous’ money, the result of oversaving, which could no longer find productive investment within the national borders.

Arendt hasn’t explained the meaning of the following terms anywhere: ‘capital’, ‘overproduction of capital’, ‘oversaving’ and ‘productive investment’. She doesn’t refer to any of the economic literature on capital. Since the book was published in 1951 and a lot of literature on capital was written before 1951, there was nothing to stop her from referring to it, either to understand what she was writing about or to refute economist’s theories about capital. For example, Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk wrote The Positive Theory of Capital in 1888 in German and it was translated into English in 1891. Arendt could write both German and English, so why doesn’t she refer to this book or to any other book on the subject?

Arendt’s claims also don’t seem compatible with economics. Is she claiming that in the 19th century the UK had too much capital? British people in the 19th century were all so well off that they couldn’t benefit from being able to make more stuff more cheaply? That’s not true even now. Nor will it ever be true. There is always a way to benefit from being able to make more stuff more cheaply. Sometimes people overproduce some particular good, e.g. – housing before the 2008 housing crash. But that’s not the same as having too much capital. Also, there are different kinds of capital. A machine for slicing loaves of bread can’t easily be used as a component in a car factory.

I don’t recommend Arendt’s book. I also don’t think I’ll be reading any more of her writings.

Lulie Tanett vs Critical Rationalism

Lulie Tanett is posting false ideas about critical rationalism. In this tweet, she shows a set of slides about critical rationalism she posted on Instagram: they all include serious errors. I’m going to discuss problems with the slides, point out that her actions are not compatible with taking critical rationalism seriously as a guide to action and that these slides may damage critical rationalism rather than promote it.

First slide:


 ideas must be justified to be knowledge

The core part of the classical view of knowledge which Karl Popper criticised.

“How do we know our ideas are really true?” Classical theory of knowledge

“How do we correct errors?” Karl Popper (Paraphrase)

Compare to: critical rationalism

This attempt at a summary raises many questions that it doesn’t answer and is also misleading. Justificationism is the standard way of understanding epistemology, but this slide doesn’t explain the alternative and why you can do without justification. A list of references to explanations of these issues can be found at the Fallible Ideas books page.

Second slide:

justified true belief

Knowledge is belief that is true and justified.


Justification has an infinite regress.

Saying that justification has an infinite regress is misleading. In reality, there is no explanation of how you could make even a single step in the alleged process of justification. If some fact X is true, then there are many explanations that are compatible with X being true. So X just divides explanations into two classes: explanations incompatible with X and explanations compatible with X. Saying X is true is a criticism of ideas that are incompatible with X, but has no effect on any other ideas. So X can only be used to criticise ideas, not to justify them.

More content from the second slide:

Theories are never perfectly true.

The phrase “theories are never perfectly true” is misleading. Some theories are true: 1+1=2. You can’t justify those ideas, but that has nothing to do with whether they are actually correct.

Also the idea that theories aren’t perfectly true can easily be misunderstood as the idea that there is some way of measuring truth that a theory can partially fulfil to a greater or lesser extent. This is not true. All ideas are either true or false and should be judged as refuted or non-refuted and not given any other status – see yes no philosophy.

An idea may solve some problem despite being false, e.g. Newtonian mechanics. That idea may constitute knowledge, so knowledge doesn’t require truth.

Scientists needn’t believe their theories to make correct predictions.

This is true and it follows from critical rationalism that scientists wouldn’t have to believe ideas to make predictions with them since belief isn’t required for knowledge. Tanett doesn’t explain why this would matter. The reason this is important is that you can consider, discuss or use an idea without believing it. You can be critical of the idea instead and you need not be invested in it. This makes rapid turnover of ideas easier and so makes knowledge creation easier since you can get through ideas that are easy to refute quickly. This is a useful option to have that many people don’t understand.

Additional criticisms: Gettier cases

The Gettier problem is a bad problem and shouldn’t be considered a good account of what’s wrong with justificationism.

Alternative: critical rationalism

Tanett just sez critical rationalism is an alternative but doesn’t explain it, or link to an explanation or give a reference.

Third slide:


All valid ideas must be falsifiable by experimental testing.

A misconceived version of Karl Popper’s philosophy, based on mistaking his *falsifiability criterion* for an entire philosophy.

Tanett doesn’t explain falsification or falsifiability, so anybody who doesn’t know about it already won’t know what the post is about.

Falsifiability is a subtle issue. For example, any observation is itself a guess about what happened in a particular region of space and time. How can we deal with the fact that our observations are conjectures? Also many people don’t understand that observations are conjectures, so lots of people will misunderstand critical rationalism cuz Tanett didn’t bring up this issue. Tanett doesn’t explain it or link or refer to any explanation, such as Chapters 3 and 7 of “The Fabric of Reality” by David Deutsch, Chapters 1 and 2 of “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch or Chapters 1,2,4 and 5 of “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” by Popper.




Compare to: falsifiability

Falsification occurs when an experiment or observation contradicts a theory and points out that the theory is in error. So falsification is a variety of error correction. So saying “error correction, not falsifiability” is misleading. In addition, a scientific theory can be rejected for reasons other than failing an experimental test, e.g. –  cuz there is no explanation of how it would work. In The Fabric of Reality pp. 5-7, David Deutsch gives the example of rejecting the idea that eating grass cures cancer cuz there is no explanation of how eating grass would cure cancer.

So overall the slides do not contain adequate explanations, nor do they link or refer to adequate explanations. Tanett could have made the readers’ lives a lot easier, but she chose not to. Tanett knows of many people who understand critical rationalism quite well and she could have asked them for feedback on the slides, but she didn’t.

In addition, she posted the slides on Instagram. Instagram is not a forum for intellectual discussion. If you look at how the site is designed on one of Tanett’s posts, there are several problems. The space for discussion is very small compared the the size of the slide. Instagram also doesn’t have threading or decent facilities for quoting. The slides themselves are hard to quote. I had to type out their content again in this post to comment on them. Twitter also has bad threading and facilities for quoting. So none of the platforms Tanett is posting on are optimised for discussion. Both platforms are optimised for social signalling at the expense of intellectual content. The best you can do on either platform is to link or refer to intellectual content, but Tanett doesn’t do that.

Any person who acts like this is playing at being an intellectual and an authority on whatever topic she posts about. She can post about stuff with no mechanism for feedback because she is pretending she knows so much that she needs no feedback. She is also preventing the back and forth discussion required to have several rounds of conjecture and criticism. All of these features of Tanett’s content contradict critical rationalism, which refutes the idea of intellectual authority and sez critical discussion is required for knowledge creation.

Tanett’s actions make CR look like just another source of vapid ‘inspirational’ quotes and she offers no way to correct this impression. If I wanted to corrupt and destroy the CR community I couldn’t do much better than to adopt the tactics that Tanett is following.

There are forums such as the fallible ideas list where Tanett could get criticism of her ideas, but she has chosen not to do so. So Tanett is not correcting her own errors, which is required by critical rationalism.

UPDATE – Some other criticisms were pointed out in a comment by Elliot Temple.

School strike for climate

There has been a lot of fuss recently about the school strike for climate. People on the left say these children are The Future and we must Listen to the Children. People on the right are mostly saying that children should shut their fucking faces and stay in school.

Children should be free to leave school to go to climate protests if they want. They should also be free to leave school to do anything else: watch a film, play computer games, play frisbee, masturbate, learn differential geometry, read the complete set of Sherlock Holmes stories, go surfing etc. School is an institution where people who have committed no crime are imprisoned without trial. School children are forced on pain of punishment to change what they want to think about at the ring of a bell, otherwise they are guilty of a thought crime. And children are sometimes even forced to defecate in their own underwear rather than letting them go to the toilet. School is an evil institution. And just in case anyone is under any illusions, so-called private schools are also evil. They all benefit from the enforcement of truancy laws. Fuck all schools and all teachers.

A teacher is in a position to make the life of any child under his care miserable. That means a teacher can force a child to say anything. He can force a child to say that fossil fuels must be abandoned in favour of solar panels and wind farms. This whole climate strike idea should be treated as exactly what it is – a disgusting, pathetic and transparent attempt at propaganda. To the extent that this strike works, it will be because nobody wants to look closely or think carefully about what schools are, because admitting that they are prisons where children are treated like shit would be painful.

Most teachers are lefties cuz lefties are sentimental and statist, so they idolise schools as being wonderful places of instruction and fun, rather than seeing them accurately as Room 101 with bright decoration. So most teachers are happy to go along with the idea that an increase in average global temperature over several decades is an emergency that requires destroying the market economy and introducing central planning for energy – they are wrong.

The right likes school cuz it is tradition. The problem with their attitude is that some traditions just suck and should be dismantled, and school is one of those traditions. How should this be done? I’m fucked if I know, but it would be nice if we could start by not lying constantly about school and admit that it is one of the worst institutions that exists in the West today.

UPDATE – Elliot Temple made some good suggestions for reform in a comment.

Stephen Hicks on Popper

Stephen Hicks’ book Explaining Postmodernism has been endorsed by Jordan Peterson and is popular among many of his followers. I’m not going to address most of the book. I’m going to stick to addressing what Hicks claims about Popper (Hicks, Stephen R. C.. Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Kindle Locations 1417-1424). Kindle Edition):

By the middle of the century, the dominant conclusion about perception was that it is theory-laden. The biggest names in the philosophy of science—Otto Neurath, Karl Popper, Norwood Hanson, Paul Feyerabend, Thomas Kuhn, and W. V. O. Quine—despite wide variations in their versions of analytic philosophy—all argued that our theories largely dictate what we will see. [97] Putting their point in Kant’s original language, our perceptual intuitions do not conform to objects but rather our intuition conforms to what our faculty of knowledge supplies from itself. This conclusion about perception is devastating for science: If our percepts are theory-laden, then perception is hardly a neutral and independent check upon our theorizing. If our conceptual structures shape our observations as much as vice versa, then we are stuck inside a subjective system with no direct access to reality.

Hicks cites “Objective Knowledge” by Popper, p. 68 n. 31, p. 72 and p. 145. In the note Hicks cites Popper writes:

The epistemological realist is right, in my view, in insisting that all knowledge, and the growth of knowledge – the genesis of the mutation of our ideas – stem from ourselves, and that without these self-begotten ideas there would be no knowledge. He is wrong in failing to see that without elimination of these mutations through our clashing with the environment there would not only be no incitement to new ideas, but no knowledge of anything. (Cp. Conjectures and Refutations, especially p. 117.) Thus Kant was right that it is our intellect – its ideas, its rules – upon the inarticulate mass of our ‘sensations’ and thereby brings order to them. Where he was wrong was that he did not see that we rarely succeed with our imposition, that we try and err again and again, and that the result – our knowledge of the world – owes as much to resisting reality as to our self-produced ideas.

So Popper’s position is that we can have knowledge of the world because our attempts to impose interpretations on it fail and we can learn from the failures. Hicks’ ideas about Popper are contradicted by the first paragraph he quotes from Popper. He doesn’t discuss Popper further anywhere else in the book. Hicks doesn’t understand Popper and ignores information in sources he cites that contradict his ideas. RIP.