Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Different Look at Philosophy: Plato/Socrates

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.

I want to accomplish something on my birthday (I know, I’m weird), and so I thought I’d start a series I have thought about for a while on the true value (imho) of philosophy.  The trigger for this is a very nice book my son James got as a prize a while back and I found among his leavings when he left home:  Bryan Magee’s The Great Philosophers.  It provides, I think, a nice overview of the way that the “main stream” of philosophy has evolved over the centuries, and some suggestions as to how this should impact us.

I confess that I read it differently from most, as someone who read Plato’s early writings “for fun” as a teenager, and then Aristotle and Locke as part of my undergraduate training in Harvard’s version of political science (Harvard called it Government), as well as having a nodding acquaintance with brief descriptions of pragmatism and the like.  At the same time, I was getting a very quirky view of science from my training in computer hardware, as well as a connection between philosophy and science because of Quine’s formalizations of logic as presented in an undergraduate course – not to mention the connection of both science and philosophy to mathematics in the works of Godel and Turing and their heirs.

Thus, in reading Magee after all these years, I asked myself not the typical question – how can philosophy help me in leading a better life – but rather, how does philosophy still add value in an age where science is indeed providing a firm foundation of understanding of ourselves and the physical and chemical world, and increasingly taking the lead in suggesting how things can be done better.  And it seemed to me, reading Magee, that one theme of the book was that philosophy was needed because science simply had no answers to many questions about the nature of the world and ourselves – an answer I disagree with, based on the many scientific advances in my lifetime on things like what dreaming does, or how our internal clock works.

Setting the Stage

Here’s what I argue:  Along with its role in our internal wrestlings about how to live the good life, philosophy should also be seen as a counterpoint to the slow development of what we now call the scientific method.  Here I note that I am using the term scientific method in a very broad sense:  As not only the techniques of experiment, peer-reviewed publication and verification, and statistical analysis that have come to be accepted as individual practices, but also the broader community and bureaucracy that coordinates and revises the overall model of the physical/chemical world that science is establishing.  Thus, my scientific method is not only an individual guideline but a community-wide, evolving process.

Philosophy can be seen as such a counterpoint because one of the recurring themes of philosophy as per Magee is “thinking about thinking”:  examining such questions as, what can we know for certain, and how can we be sure that what we are thinking is the truth, e.g., the truth of reality, of the physical and chemical world.  And that matters in the history of the development of the scientific method because what is going on, it appears to me, is what we call in computer science “bootstrapping”:  establishing a certain set of facts, then using them to establish others, and so on, until we begin to have a full-fledged, comprehensive model to work with – of a computer, in bootstrapping a computer operating system, or of scientific reality, in science.  And so, in the development of the scientific method, philosophy could serve a useful role by saying, are you sure of these facts?  Are you sure that the next facts follow?  Are you sure that your preliminary model captures reality?  Is your logic solid, and does it reflect what is going on?

I am not sure that I am doing justice to what was a grand and scary project:  To capture reality when you are sure neither of the validity of what you see in front of you nor of your own thoughts.  In this project, from the point at least of Plato in “western civilization”, whatever that is, onwards, philosophy offered at least one lingua franca to the budding scientist, one common way of thinking across the scientific community about establishing and testing validity and models.

But I would also be remiss if I didn’t say what I viewed as a key flaw of philosophy:  its emphasis on this being an individual or small-group endeavor, the “hard internal wrestlings of the soul” of Wedgwood’s Oliver Cromwell, or the symposia of Plato and Julius Caesar.  The development of the scientific method has made it clear that it must be exceptionally broad in all its doings, in order to capture the very different experiences and worldviews that allow us to triangulate an approximation of reality.  And the obvious example of this is the demonstrated enormous value of incorporating fully in the scientific method the female perspective, as has not been done historically in all cultures.  Philosophy simply has by its very individualistic nature failed to adequately detect differences in thinking when it assumes commonality with the thinking of a Plato or a Nietzsche (we all desire “the good”, or we are all innately determined by our origins and our lowest common denominator is pretty pathetic).

So I want to set forth my viewpoint on what role the thinking of those philosophers was playing (and should play now) in the evolution of our understanding of the scientific method – because I feel that in some ways, far more than being a guide to our behavior, that is the value of philosophy to us.  Or, to put it another way, the value of philosophy is potentially much more in reassuring us that scientific truth is indeed truth, than in helping us use that truth to determine what is the good life we want to strive for; because at this point science and common sense are better guides to getting at the good life.  In any case, I want to start with Plato, and Socrates as described by Plato.

Plato and Socrates

As presented by Magee, Plato has three “periods”: an initial period of trying to present the thoughts and of Socrates (e.g., Symposium), a second period of elaborating on those thoughts to present positive answers to the questions that Socrates raised (e.g., Republic), and finally a period of “academically” analyzing and challenging the results of periods 1 and 2 (e.g., Timaeus).  Magee summarizes by saying “Platonism is a philosophy you can use … if you want to see how scientific and spiritual values can be reconciled.”  He says this because, fundamentally, Plato is an “anti-materialistic” philosopher who believes that truth goes beyond what can be captured by the scientific method.  Specifically, in his “theory of Forms”, as interpreted by later generations, Plato argues that in some sense the general concept of “chairness” or “virtue” exists independent of us.  This, in turn, in theology leads to the requirement the Greeks appear to have imposed on the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions that God be “perfect”, not flawed by human imperfections, and thus to things like angels, djinns, and “the Word.”

At the same time, the program laid out in Plato’s Republic is a program for eliciting the mathematical symmetries and “order” that Plato believed were inherent in Nature, and is therefore the fountainhead of Plato’s school, which led to Aristotle and an attempt at a systematized model of physical reality as corresponding to those symmetries.

To me, however, the most lasting contribution of that philosophy in the area of “thinking about thinking” and the scientific method is the inculcation in the scientific method of “Socratic questioning”.

The Socratic Method

The Socratic method, still used afaik in law schools as in the Constitutional Law taught by my father or possibly as shown in the Paper Chase TV series, seems now effectively to be a way of shaking up college graduates’ thinking by showing how easy generalizations can lead one astray.  Or, as Magee puts it, “They try to think about it; they produce an answer.  Socrates shows the inadequacy of the answer.  You end up not with a firm answer, but with a greater grasp of the problem than before.”
There is a striking analogy here to the programmer’s practice of debugging one’s own or another’s code.  Effectively, you know there is a bug, but you also know that you will probably not be able to understand the code fully and objectively enough to see the flaw immediately.  Instead, you argue backwards from a wrong output to a point in the software’s logic that your experience with code and bugs tells you is a likely reason for the problem, and then try a different approach at that point.  In the same way, Socrates says, we don’t need to examine in detail your idea, instead, let’s look at something that doesn’t fit your generalization or model of reality (causes the wrong output); now let’s examine your logic to see what the problem might be, and try a new approach.

Following the analogy with programming further, I would suggest that Socrates is introducing the notion of “design-time debugging” – which, programming practice shows, is often more effective at producing relatively bugless logic than debugging after the program is run through the compiler (pre-testing) or used at runtime (testing in the real world).  But note that this tests not the inputs to the program or scientific theory (it doesn’t test the validity of the data from the real world); rather, it tests the logical steps by which that input is turned into a testable output.  Thus, iirc, Socrates combats the notion that slaves may be incapable of rational thought by adducing the example of a slave taught to mimic Greek by imitation of the sounds of a flute; but since no one is communicating in the slave’s native tongue or considering the possibility that another language is equally productive of rational thought, the whole exercise is scientifically useless.  You have a greater grasp of the problem; but in this case you have no better grasp of the solution.

And this, I would argue, is why the Platonic/Socratic approach is at once a major advance in and a major limitation on the scientific method.  One the one hand, debugging the logic of a model of reality as an approach to testing its validity is, even in our day, an underemphasized skill – hence the usefulness of the “causality debugging” in Judea Pearl’s work.  On the other hand, focusing on this aspect of the task and ignoring the importance of materialism, i.e., the problem of the validity of real-world data and our ability to apprehend it, takes us away from the sort of experimental carefulness that we now know to be vital to establishing scientific truth.  Moreover, the process of like-minded individual challenge rather than peer review, attractive though it is to thinkers in all ages, still fails to achieve the quality goals of scientific research because it fails to bring in a broad enough spectrum of experience.  Or, to put it another way, the rogue scientist must present his (yes, in those days, pretty much universally his) finding of a fossil as a question about whether this fits under earth, air, fire, or water rather than as a new category calling for a fundamentally new model.

Two steps forward, one step back.  Let’s go on, next time, to consider the next development:  Aristotle.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

CO2, 2018 – And Its Sad Implications

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
The results are in for CO2 measured at Mauna Loa (more or less the real measure of how we’re doing vs. climate change) – and the answer (no surprise) is, our best efforts are not clearly making a dent in “business as usual”.  Add that to recent research suggesting that another 50 years of “business as usual” may lead to the ultimate “hell and high water”, by wiping out key cloud types shielding us from the sun (at about 1200 ppm of CO2) and thus adding another 8 or so degrees C on top of the 6 or 7 degrees we would achieve at 1200 ppm, and our task becomes ever more urgent.

The figure for 2018 is 2.86 ppm increase in atmospheric CO2.  This is the third increase above 2.6 ppm in the last four years, and the fourth (out of 5 in history) such increase in the last 7 years.  In other words, not only is the amount of rise increasing, but the percentage of rise is, as well – telling us that we are in fact accelerating our carbon “pollution.”

Nor is this year showing signs of being better than 2018.  This February is up by 3.4 ppm over last February, and March has seen several readings above 414 ppm (the “moving average” of CO2 Mauna Loa readings is now a hair’s breadth below 411 ppm).  Basically, this is a rate at which readings above 420 ppm are two years away, above 430 ppm 5 or 6 years away, and we will have almost doubled our atmospheric CO2 by 2050 from its level in the 1800s.  That in turn, could mean perhaps double or triple the rise in temperature (2 – 4 degrees C) that we have seen thus far (thus far, 1.2-1.3 degrees C).

About the only good news is that Arctic sea ice decrease seems to be taking a breather.  Ice maximum seems to be leveling off and despite the underlying ocean heat-up, melt season is cloudier and therefore ice minimum seems to be leveling off as well.

Here in New England, nothing about our unprecedented winter has surprised me, neither the lack of snow that stuck until Feb. 12th nor the windiness nor the rapid onset of storms.  And another extremely hot, humid summer will not surprise me either.  There’s a reason they call it the “new abnormal.”

Once, when I was growing up, there was weather you could count on.  Now, our carbon pollution has put a stake in its heart.  And lit its pyre.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

It’s Localized Supra-National Organizations via the United Nations That’s Working, Not the Free Market

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.

I have many things I should be doing rather than writing this, and many things I’d rather be doing.  I’m writing this because I think it needs to be said.
There is a debate going on between, essentially, Steven Pinker on the one hand and Jason Hickel the anthropologist on the other about the nature and extent of poverty, and to what we should ascribe its effects.  To support the case for, essentially, “enlightenment” plus today’s economic system, Pinker points to a chart showing that extreme poverty has decreased from 95% of the world’s population to 10% over the 200 years from 1820 to now.  Hickel challenges that rosy view by pointing out that (a) extreme poverty is not the right metric, since people in “poverty” are also struggling to survive, and there the picture is much more mixed, (b) that because of population growth, while the percentage of people in extreme poverty has gone down drastically, the actual number of people in extreme poverty is increasing, and (c) the metric itself (money) is flawed, since a pre-monetary society may actually become worse off when switching to money, wiping out the gains accrued once the monetary society is established..
To my mind, the key takeaway from the chart is none of the above.  What it shows (and other related charts here and in Sachs’ Age of Sustainability also show) is that there is a sharp break around 1950.  Before, extreme poverty was headed towards a reduction to about 60% of the world being extremely poor by now.  Beyond that inflection point, extreme poverty, vaccinations, education, literacy, and health take a sharp dip or start climbing much more rapidly.  
So what’s causing this?  We can eliminate Pinker’s main suspect right off the bat.  It’s not the Industrial Revolution.  It’s not the free market, because that has not resulted in any faster rise in global productivity and hence GDP from 1950 to 2019 than from 1870 to 1950 – in fact, since the late 1970s productivity improvement rates in developed economies have been decreasing.  And “Unruly Waters” makes it clear that the positive effect of the Green Revolution on India’s and China’s well-being – India and China are responsible for a major chunk of the improvement in extreme poverty percentage, partially because of their population sizes – was much less than is typically portrayed.

Sachs and “Unruly Waters”, among other sources, paint a picture in which better health, more education, and potentially empowerment of women (two of which slow the growth rate of population that can undercut improvements in individual living standards) directly impact extreme poverty.  These seem to be far more persuasive immediate reasons for the dip.  But where do these improvements come from?  There have certainly been efforts at improved literacy and better global health before 1950, and free-market products that promised both, and even individual and government efforts in the same direction.

It’s the UN, NGOs, and Local Governments Working Together, Stupid

The history especially of U.S. foreign aid is very clear on this point.  US foreign aid has typically been driven both by local political considerations and by the needs of US corporations.  Its ideas, typically born of scant knowledge of local considerations, have failed far more than not.  International economic investment mechanisms, such as the IMF and the World Bank, have a very poor record at enabling economic takeoff.  Economic self-interest in places ranging from Puerto Rico to Indonesia has resulted in over-dependence in many developing countries on commodities like coffee, which over the years has resulted in wild swings in country economic performance and hence living standards.  And, of course, the aid that is targeted at education and health has typically come with prescriptions such as “force everyone to plant this way” or “teach abstinence in sex education” that fly in the face of the evidence.  
To succeed in causing such a dip, an approach must be (a) global, (b) coordinated, (c) evidence-based and not just technology-based, and (d) able to get buy-in from a wide variety of governments and localities.  The only plausible set of actors that meet these criteria are the UN and certain NGOs.  Since 1950, but not very much before that, they have been acting on a world-wide basis to tackle these problems, and the metrics that the UN has adopted starting before 2000 are evidence of just how evidence-based these interventions are.  The UN’s modus operandi emphasizes local “driving” and modification of global prescriptions, and many NGOs have learned to follow suit.

And the contrast is especially marked in the poorest countries of all, Africa and Southeast Asia – where despite all the handicaps there really is clear improvement in extreme poverty and all the other criteria at least since 2000, where there wasn’t before.  It is wrong to ascribe this to cell phones, because first you have to get the cell phones to people, and even local businesses and microlending can only do so much.  The extension of these services to beyond the easy targets and the smoothing of the path with local and national governments can only be done via mechanisms like the UN-NGO alliance.  
I don’t mean to overemphasize this.  It is certainly true that in both India and China, national-government efforts to pursue certain types of “directed” free markets also played a major role.  I simply want to emphasize that the evidence I see suggests that even in those cases, the positive effect of both the national-government efforts and the free market is much less than we tend to think, and the effect of non-market, non-national-government efforts aimed at health, education, and poverty much greater, partly because they were more effective.  And they were more effective because they communicated to all parties good metrics and effective strategies.
The ”stupid” here, I think, is aimed more at Pinker than Hickel.  I think Hickel is oblivious to the possibility that the population growth he appears to be worrying about can be effectively targeted, and is being targeted, not by coercive “colonialist” programs, but by empowering women financially to make their own reproductive choices and by removing the ever-present worry in extreme poverty that the next generation will not survive to adulthood, hence the added births “in case”.   But Pinker gives the impression that he does not see the role of the UN and NGOs at all, since they don’t fit neatly into his paradigm of “enlightenment” such as is exemplified by scientific organizations and market forces.

It’s Not About Crises, It’s About Long-Term Efforts

And one final point.  We emphasize too much in looking at long-term effectiveness war, crises, and particular “bad” governments.  I believe that what the graph referenced above, and many others, shows is that what matters in making a big positive change is the ability to target the right factors and then globally change one’s tactics and goals based on the evidence.  National governments and even global firms are almost universally bad at this, the governments because they do not “mark to market” frequently enough without input from the rest of the world, global firms because they are often too small to leverage the kind of global resources to make a dent and because they continually veer off the right factors into “making money.”  I view what is happening in climate change, with the UN and the IPCC taking the lead in sounding the alarm and most countries lagging behind their metrics, is another example of this, where we overemphasize our concerns with the UN’s effectiveness in handling wars and bad governments, and fail to adequately appreciate or support its coordinating efforts.
Let’s stop the poor economic and political theorizing that fails to realize there is a shining example of the long-term effectiveness of organizations that fit neither “economics rules all” or “politics rules all.”  No, I’m not recommending global government; but I am certainly not recommending today’s underestimation of the effectiveness of supra-national authorities by the likes not only of Pinker but just about everyone I hear commenting about these matters.  On the contrary.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Climate Change: Being the Smart Change

Disclaimer:  I am now retired, and am therefore no longer an expert on anything.  This blog post presents only my opinions, and anything in it should not be relied on.
Increasingly, personal efforts to combat climate change by changing one’s lifestyle are in the news.  “Being the Change”, Peter Kalmus’ 2017 book, is probably the most detailed book about the subject, but others ranging from Canada’s David Suzuki to are also weighing in.  If we just restrict the suggestions to those impacting the carbon emissions caused by one individual’s actions, suggestions include:
·         Reducing or eliminating air travel;

·         A vegetarian or almost-meat-free diet;

·         Growing one’s own food in particular ways, or just buying local, and composting;

·         Living car-free or using transportation fueled by renewable-energy-based sources (e.g., a solar/wind-based grid);

·         Implementing large gains in home efficiency, including all-LED lighting, recent advances in such areas as vacuum cleaners and washer/dryers, insulating, and unplugging appliances;

·         Supplying home electricity and heat via solar panels or utility-supplied renewable energy;

·         If you really want to get drastic, moving to a place that is likely to have the least impact on carbon emissions over the next 60 years, such as a place away from a seacoast and marshland, not in an arboreal forest or one prone to wildfires, and probably in a city or large town.
The one that comes up frequently as having by far the “biggest bang for the buck” is air travel.  But is it, really?

Flying the Uncompetitive Skies

If the effect of your stopping flying one time is that the airlines make, say, 1/30th of a flight in fewer flights (assuming an average of 30 people per flight), then, according to Kalmus and others, the answer is a resounding yes.  Kalmus estimated that he personally was causing 10 times the amount of carbon emissions that he could achieve by implementing all the major personal carbon-reduction measures that he could bring about.  Under my assumption about the effects of stopping air travel, his cessation of air travel meant he was only causing 2 times the amount of emissions that he could achieve.  In other words, almost 90% of his personal carbon-emissions savings came about simply by quitting air travel.
The flaw in this reasoning comes when we examine the actual effect if you, the reader, stopped air travel altogether.  If you did so, and you’d been flying 30 times a year, would the airlines respond by flying one less flight?  No.  They are typically overbooked, and the loss of you as a customer would be overwhelmed over the course of a year by yearly increases in demand.  Granted, if a few more like you did so, then there might have been less of an increase in the number of flights in that year, but as long as demand from non-abstainers is increasing faster than the number of air-travel dropouts, you are not accomplishing any reductions in global carbon emissions at all – and that’s the bottom line.
Let’s try analyzing this according to economic theory and real-world implications of that theory.  Suppose that, all over the world, one-half of the individual consumers of air travel on one day suddenly stopped flying.  When the dust settled, would we see one-half the number of flights, and hence one-half the number of carbon emissions?  Clearly, demand from non-obstainers is not going to double in the next year after the market crash.
And yet, the impact is likely to be far less than we expect.  There are two key economic principles involved, it seems to me.  First, the global air-travel market is made up of hundreds of regional and national markets.  Each of these is typically effectively a monopoly or duopoly.  And so, they are charging higher prices and taking fewer customers than they could.  When the market is cut in half, they can cut prices (and they have a lot of room to do so).  Meanwhile, demand from non-abstainers rises, because in the regional markets that are the bulk of air travel (think:  New York to Washington DC) there is high cross-elasticity of demand (the second economic principle).  Lower prices means that consumer demand switches from trains to planes.
Practically speaking, of course, such a change would not happen at once.  And that means that non-abstainer demand increases more nearly match rates of abstention, so when the dust settles we may well see a 20% rather than an almost 90% decrease in carbon emissions from personal abstentions.  This is simply one of those cases where accomplishing carbon-emissions reductions by government regulation is realistically the only effective alternative.

Being the Smart Change

So, does this mean that I think the person seeking to “be the change” should give up on giving up air travel?  By no means.  Personal choices do have some effects on markets, and the more individuals do this, the more it goes viral and becomes an unstoppable trend.  I suggest two things:
1.       Go ahead and cut air travel, at least the air travel you really don’t care that much about.  But mentally, don’t think that you’ve had as great an effect as you would from all the other tactics, like energy savings or uses of renewable energy, you carry out.

2.       In choosing what to cut out, consider cutting out long-distance and overseas travel first.  Yeah, I hate to say this.  But the economics says that this is one area where airline companies’ price-cutting power and ability to attract new demand is least, and therefore it is most likely that scheduled flights (not to mention charter flights) will indeed be cut sharply with decreases in demand.  


Let me call two books related to climate change that I am reading to your attention.  Rising, by Elizabeth Rush, adds the loss of marshlands with rapid sea-level rise as one more key, potentially irreversible net source of carbon emissions.  Plus, it has a superb writing style.  In Search of the Canary Tree, by Lauren Oakes, lets you inside the mind and experiences of an environmental scientist as she chronicles the ongoing destruction of yet another vital tree, and also considers to what extent we are capable of long-term adaptation to climate change.  So far, I find it riveting, although I have quirky tastes.
p.s. I have been away from this blog for a few weeks and will not be paying as much attention for a few weeks more, partly because I am posting a series of old writings about JRR Tolkien over at Daily Kos (, check the diaries).  Those who care, be warned!