Saturday, 25 August 2018

Just When It Seemed Socialism Couldn't Get Any Stupider...

According to Bernie Sanders' office, he's keen to introduce a new legislation that would:

"Create a 100-percent tax on large employers equal to the amount of federal benefits that the employers’ low-wage workers receive. For instance, if an Amazon employee gets $300 in food stamps, Amazon would be taxed $300."

In the mind of raving simpletons like Bernie Sanders, nothing could be more rational than this idea. Those nasty billionaires like Jeff Bezos get richer and richer, while ordinary workers rely on taxpayer-funded programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and subsidised housing - so the obvious solution is to force the likes of Bezos to pick up the bill for this disparity.

Like most socialist ideas, it suffers from the stupidity of not understanding knock-on effects, and how legislation changes incentives to society's detriment. These people claim to be on the side of the poor - but that's just fantasy: they must despise the poor, given the repeated efforts they make to ensure life is more difficult for them.

Let me tell you what this legislation will achieve. It will make it harder for poorer people to find work - which is a real shame, because work is far and away the best route out of economic hardship. And given that it's the big firms that give the most work to poor people and lower-skilled workers, this legislation is going to cause a huge ripple in terms of foregone opportunities. Work is not a perfect solution to being poor, but it's the best we have by a long way.

A legislation that penalises firms for giving work to poor people will ensure that less work and fewer opportunities are given to poor people. Someone who really needs a job because she has dependents and costs society more in welfare is now less likely to be given a job next to someone who needs the job far less, doesn't have dependents, and costs society less in welfare. With friends like Bernie on their side, who needs enemies?

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Crime, Gambling, Risk & Deterrence

There was a lawyer on Sunday Morning TV this weekend talking about criminals and victims of crimes. His contention was that the penalty system would be better if victims of crime directly receive the financial spoils of fines rather than it going to the establishment. I'd wager that if he was an economist he would be less keen on the idea, because I think it would be an unwise move. Remember one of the near-ineluctable laws of economics: people respond to incentives. Remember another: everything is a trade-off.

Fines impose costs on criminals, thereby discouraging them from committing crimes. But financial restitution bestows direct benefits on victims of crimes, thereby minimising the incentives to avoid being victims of crime. By the way, if your reaction to that is one of incredulity, and you’re ready to assert that that can’t be right, I’d suggest you need to brush up on your economics (especially the Coase theorem). Some compensation for victims is perfectly just, but if it lessens the cost of being a victim of crime to the extent that many more people become victims of crime with better financial restitution then it would fail an efficiency test hands down.

The criminal has an entirely different set of incentives, which I'll explain by talking about gambling and risk-taking. A man who will break the law by answering his mobile phone whilst driving is a man who will willingly risk a possible fine (and points on his licence) rather than the certain inconvenience of having to pull over and delay his journey. To a much different extent, a man who burgles your house probably just needs the money (often for drugs), so his risk-analysis is often not the same as the first man. 

To get another perspective on risks we can look at how people gamble. As a former professional gambler (I use that term for simplicity’s sake – that’s not really what I was), I can tell you that the majority of people that spend their days making small bets in the bookmakers, and those that pump money into fruit machines for hours on end, are not really gamblers. If you do either of those things for a sustained period of time you will be at a financial loss at a fairly predictable rate. That is the opposite of gambling – because gambling doesn’t involve predictable rates – it involves risk and uncertainty (and there is a key distinction between those two things as well).  A man who drives and uses his mobile phone whenever he feels like it is taking a risk – but just like a gambler his risk may pay off if the net cost of his fines is less than the net benefits of the calls and the time saved in making them on the road. 

Although people are criminals for a number of reasons (I’ve already alluded to drugs as one example), the rational criminal is someone who has chosen a life of crime because he prefers risks, and perceives a better pay-off than if he wasn’t taking risks. If rational gamblers weren’t like this, they’d be shopkeepers, dentists, factory workers, waiters or mechanics instead. Someone who plays the lottery likes low stakes, long odds and big pay-offs. If lottery players weren’t like this they’d be buying scratch cards or in betting shops instead. 

If you want to understand the government’s ethos regarding crime, you have to understand what attracts people to committing crimes – so it helps to understand what attracts people to gambling and to playing the lottery. Surveys I’ve seen show that given the choice between twenty prizes of £500,000 or one prize of £10 million, most lottery players prefer the latter, because they prefer a small chance of a huge win rather than a better chance of a smaller win. If you want to make the lottery more attrctive to consumers (and sell more lottery tickets) then increase the size of the jackpot, because the kind of people who prefer a better chance of £500,000 aren’t playing the lottery to anything like as great an extent as those who prefer a small chance of £10 million. 

Lottery players don’t usually risk big stakes, which means lottery players are not like rational criminals - because rational criminals like risks, but they also think those risks enable them to beat the odds. So while increasing the jackpot will attract lottery players, increasing the size of the prison sentence won’t have as much of an effect on criminals as increasing the conviction rate, because increasing the conviction rate will reduce their chances of beating the odds in a risky environment. In other words, double the length of the prison sentences attached to every crime and crime will fall; double the conviction rate attached to every crime and crime will fall a lot further. 

In dog racing the kind of person who will be most attracted to a tri-cast (trifecta) bet of, say, 33/1 (predicting the first three dogs) is much more likely to be the kind of person who will quit when he gets that one big pay-off. The kind of person who will be most attracted to betting £20 on a 6/4 dog is much more likely to be the kind of person who will place those winnings on the next race, and eventually come home at a loss. Bookmakers have an interesting trade-off between these two kinds of customers; a big pay-off maximises the profit on the present race, while lots of small prizes maximise the action on the races to come. 

Lottery players are like tri-cast players - they prefer a small chance of a huge win. They are like the rational criminals that prefer a small chance of a lengthy jail sentence - so if by reducing the one big jackpot on the lottery to twenty smaller jackpots you're going to deter people from playing the lottery, then by analogy to crime deterrence if the state increases the conviction rate by a significant degree it is going to deter a lot of rational criminals from committing crimes. 

Of course, increasing the conviction rate is not entirely straightforward – the state has to prudently channel its resources into areas that will engender the highest conviction rates (police strategies, personnel, research, surveillance, etc). As well as that it will have to assess the social costs of each crime and the relationship between that cost and number of occurrences; it will have to match the sentence to the crime; and it will have to calibrate whether enforcing a law is costlier than not enforcing it. If I made the decisions, I’d increase the sentences of the costliest crimes and add resources into increasing the conviction rates, because that is probably where the most good would be done.

Sunday, 12 August 2018

How To Make Sense Of Language Paradoxes

There are many statements that make no sense in their entirety but contain enough conjuncts to appear intelligible to a reader. For example, consider this statement:

“Tony Blair’s first movie appearance was in Full Metal Jacket.”

The statement is false in a number of ways – namely that Tony Blair never appeared in movies, so wasn’t in Full Metal Jacket. But it is a coherent statement in that one could assess its veracity based on the information contained.

Now consider another statement:

“The dog on Westminster Bridge is fed up with all these terrorist attacks.”  

This statement is less coherent because we don’t really know what it means for dogs to be fed up, let alone fed up with human things like terrorism. As Bertrand Russell said, a statement can be true only if none of its propositions are false. It could be true that there is a dog on Westminster Bridge; and it could be true that people are fed up with terrorist attacks; and it is true that there is someone called Tony Blair; and it is true that there is a movie called Full Metal Jacket - but when expressed as a conjunction of claims, neither statement is true.

My perception of language paradoxes is that they belong in the same family as the conjunction problems above: they are rather like linguistic versions of Escher drawings. Paradoxes are about a limitation in defining a perception or definition of a statement. Either the language employed is not precise enough to encapsulate that which is being described, or we are attempting to define something and getting our first and second order terms mixed up.

The liar paradox is a famous statement that seems to present a problem. The statement 'This sentence is false' has the paradox: if it's true then it's false, and if it's false then it's true. Mathematician Alfred Tarski sought to resolve the dilemma by talking about levels of language and how they predicate truth or falsehood. When one sentence refers to the truth or falsehood of another sentence, then according to Tarski it is 'semantically higher'. If I said "It rained on Westminster Bridge at mid-day on March 23rd 2014" and called that statement Statement 1, then there is a higher level proposition attached to it "Statement 1 is False". Here the truth or falsity of the proposition clearly is predicated on whether there was rainfall on Westminster Bridge at mid-day on March 23rd 2014.

But when it comes to statements like 'This sentence is false', while the language employed makes sense on a word-by-word basis, the level at which it is employed doesn't, because it is stated as a higher level statement, when in fact it isn't about anything related to a lower level proposition. Because of this we can construct sentences that accord with our ordinary semantic rules, but they cannot consistently be assigned a truth value because they are in isolation from a concomitant statement.

Statement A: “Every even number is the sum of two prime numbers"

Statement B: “The statement that every even number is the sum of two prime numbers cannot be proven.”

Either Statements A and B are both true or they are both false. If they are both true then there is a statement in arithmetic that cannot be proven. And if they are both false then we have proof that we can prove a false statement. If upon reading the statement 'This sentence is false" you decide to say that it is neither true nor false, you come smack up against the Godelian problem that there is no complete system of rules of inference in mechanised logic, and that any formally mechanised system in which a categorical set of axioms exists cannot be captured in one grand slam rationale without leaving a brute residue of incompleteness. But if on the other hand upon reading the statement "Every even number is the sum of two prime numbers” you decide to say that it's neither true nor false you find this cannot be allowed because it must be either true or false.

Another one: here’s one of Zeno’s famous paradoxes; If I fire an arrow directly at you, the arrow will never reach you. Suppose the distance the arrow travels is 10 metres – Zeno shows how it will never reach its target, because it first has to travel half that distance (1/2), then half again (1/4), and then half again (1/8), an so on, ad infinitum. Zeno’s ‘logic’ told him that the arrow would carry on travelling indefinitely, but his senses told him that it would reach its target.  Then it was later shown (principally by Leibniz) that this sequence of common ratios (1/2,1/4,1/8,1/16, etc) converges into 1 as a geometric series. Despite Zeno’s logic of infinite travelling, the mathematics supports what Zeno’s senses showed, even if physical reality does not, as King Harold would attest. 

Logical paradoxes can give the impression of an illogical world – but as Wittgenstein said in his Tractatus, we could not say what an illogical world would look like. It is because language is a human construction that we get into these semantic situations. The statement ‘I am lying’ which as we've said, is false if it’s true and true if it’s false - but why this paradox occurs should be easily seen when we treat language as a mere invention with first-order, second-order (and so on) statements. 

Clearly to avoid self-contradiction, ‘I am lying’ has to be a statement that refers to a statement other than the one being made. If John is lying about where he was last night, then the statement John makes which says “I was round Terry’s last night” needs to be related to the second order statement about the first-order perspective, which is “It is true that I, John, was round Terry’s last night”, which is a statement about a statement. The second order statement is a statement about the first order statement, and here John can be lying by relating his whereabouts to the truth or falsity of his whereabouts – but with ‘I am lying’ he would be mistakenly conflating first and second order statements without the other level with which to correlate the ‘lie’ in question. 

Locke, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, talked about the vitalness of language in that it maps words to ideas, concepts or representations in each person's mind. This is one of the principal reasons why humans are the most advanced of all the animals; the ability for one man to share the concepts in his head with the concepts in someone else's head by some form of mutual consent is a key foundation in our being able to construct moral systems, as well as build skyscrapers and jumbo jets. To conjoin private concepts to a word, sentence or paragraph in our common language is to take us one huge step forward in realising the potential of our minds in a shared human reality. To that end, language paradoxes represent us at our most brilliant and at our most frivolous simultaneously.  

Friday, 10 August 2018

Overestimating Costs & Underestimating Benefits

On a day when the socialist Tory Chancellor Philip Hammond wants yet more penalties for firms doing well and providing lots of value, I was reading in Bloomberg about how Amazon is going to create another 100,000 full time jobs in the United States over the next 18 months. Still not everyone at Bloomberg seems to understand economics, as this little remark shows:

"Amazon's move could do less to help the U.S. economy than is immediately apparent. Research groups have argued that the company kills more jobs than it creates because it has disrupted the traditional retail industry."

It's a peculiar concern because it misjudges how Americans become richer. When a natural monopoly like Amazon creates hundreds of thousands of jobs over its lifetime and kills other jobs in the process, it is following the principle of 'creative destruction' - making us richer by improving efficiency and increasing value.

A new company that creates a natural monopoly by doing what it does well in spite of competition is analogous to a new technology - enriching us by doing more for less work. Jobs are the cost of doing something, not the benefit of doing something - that's why we have to pay people to do those jobs. Getting more benefits for less work makes us richer, not just intrinsically, but extrinsically too, as it frees up labour resources to go and produce other things to increase our consumption potential.

Thursday, 9 August 2018

I'll Say One Thing For Corbyn: Thanks To Him I'm Never Short Of Blog Material

Global trade is the biggest cause of material progression the world has ever seen. When we Brits buy goods produced on foreign soils, we gain hugely, as do the foreigners that produce these goods. These are what we call ‘mutually beneficial transactions’. No surprise then that the perennially misinformed Jeremy Corbyn wants to upset this with his own hair-brained idea:

“A Labour government would seek to ensure we build things here that for too long have been built abroad", says Corbyn.

We’ve repeatedly talked about why this idea is both fatuously short-sighted, and damaging to the people he’s trying to help (most notably low income Brits) - but in case there are any readers who still haven’t grasped this, let me offer an analogy to higlight the utter buffoonery on display here. Just so we are clear what we are saying: Asserting that we Brits should buy home grown to make ourselves better off is logically equivalent to the reverse statement, that we must be worse off if we buy more from abroad than buying it domestically. If we are on the same page, now the analogy:

Suppose you get a job at Sainsbury’s, and you get paid 80% of your wages in cash and the other 20% in Sainsbury’s vouchers. Then imagine there’s a minister in charge of supermarkets who introduces a law prohibiting every Sainsbury’s worker from spending more than 25% of their vouchers. At the end of the year you’ve spent all the cash you want, you’ve spent your 25% voucher allocation, but you have in your drawer a stash of Sainsbury’s vouchers that the minister has made it illegal to spend. Has the minister done you a favour or not - ensuring you have a stash of vouchers you cannot spend? Almost everyone can see why the answer is ‘no’.

Let’s even assume he makes an attempt to rectify the situation by offering you a cash refund of 50% of the value of the vouchers. Has this helped? A little, but you are still in a much worse situation than if he let you spend all the vouchers you earn - or even better, if Sainsbury’s paid you your entire wages in cash and enabled you to spend it wherever you wanted. Making Brits buy home grown goods by restricting their ability to buy from abroad is equivalent to insisting that they are paid a proportion of their wages in vouchers that it is either illegal to spend, or less valuable than spending what they earn on the transactions that would confer the most benefits for them.

On the off chance that there's someone still following me who doesn't understand why socialists like Corbyn - and communists, young earth creationists, ethno-nationalists, for that matter - are missing the boat, let me articulate it in the following way. All subjects have experts: these experts have put in the hours over many years to master their subject. They know a lot more than the layperson - and therefore, when laypeople get into arguments with experts they invariably come off worse in the exchange.

Sometimes, especially in the social sciences, humanities, and philosophically intractable subjects, there are experts that disagree with other experts. That's why two experts that differ on, say, the extent to which we have free will, the nature of consciousness, or the nature of quantum theory can have very engaging discussions and still end up disagreeing. But it's relatively rare for a debate between an expert and a layperson to be engaging. This is because, by and large, the average layperson does not have the knowledge to match an expert on his or her subject of expertise. People who disagree with experts are usually far less informed, stubborn and so agenda-driven that they lack the basic ingress for rational persuasion.

So the people we mentioned - the socialists, communists, young earth creationists, ethno-nationalists, etc - are guilty of major solecisms against robust intellectual enquiry. Because, you see, you can guarantee that the experts with whom they disagree know a lot more about the subject than they do, have studied it for a lot longer, have lots more supporting information, have better access to facts, are more apprised of counterarguments, and are probably more intelligent and conscientious too. And yet despite all this, the average person, who knows comparatively little on the subject, thinks they are right and experts are wrong.

Now don't misunderstand, it always good to avoid complacency - and no one likes confounding so-called expert opinion and turning it on its head more than I do. But the vast majority of the departures from expert opinion from laypeople are hopelessly inadequate, and are simply based on lies and distortions of the truth. When you get people like Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell happy to promulgate ideas that history has consistently (by which I mean always) shown to be rationally, empirically and logically discredited - and which depart from the long-standing and robust body of expert opinion, we have to ask some serious questions about how we've created a society that lets them get away with it so easily.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

He's A Lumberjack & He's Okay!!

Just now I stumbled upon this article in Construction News about health and safety protocols in the industry, dating back as far as John Prescott in 2001. Here is what we are told:

"Many firms in this bracket think of H&S as a drain on time and money, and that it is limited only to physical safety.”

I can’t say I’m surprised. Health and safety legislation is a bit like eating a juicy steak: if there’s the right amount of it, it’s fine, but if it’s too large it becomes uncomfortable to swallow. Here’s why.

Recently I observed out of my window a gentleman who had been paid by the council to cut down three huge trees to create the space for a car park. What struck me was how risky his job looked: he was climbing near the top, sawing through branches while being finely balanced on a nearby branch, and he would swing down to lower of levels of the tree with apparent alacrity. I don’t know what the health and safety regulations are surrounding his role, but one thing of which I’m fairly certain is that a job like that is precarious, and therefore that precariousness will be compensated for in his wages.

Put it this way, a firm that provided health and safety equipment, such as scaffolding or a crane or a highly expensive tree-cutting device to greatly minimise his risk would not be paying him as much. The corollary of this is that a minister who forced the firm to purchase the health and safety equipment would be enforcing lower pay for the worker in question. The point being, there are many times where health and safety regulations are justified, especially with asymmetry of information, when the workers need protection against unscrupulous bosses - but those occasions are mostly limited to when employees do not have sufficient information to measure the risk of doing a job.

When employees have sufficient information to assess the risk of their own jobs against the rewards of doing those jobs, no state legislation needs to exist. The reason being; workplace health and safety regulations are not free to those who are forced to mandate them, but just as important, they are not free to those who benefit from them either. The more risky or socially undesirable the job, the fewer people will be willing to do it, and the more the wages will have to be bid up in order to attract prospective employees.

Being forced to make your workplace safer is not always a desirable law, especially in cases where individuals can make rational choices based on the known risks and rewards. This is because different people make different trade-offs between risk and reward (higher pay). People in high risk jobs, like our aforementioned lumberjack, tend to, on average, put a lower monetary value on low risk than people doing low risk jobs.

Employers only benefit from improving workplace health and safety regulations when the cost of doing so is lower than the savings they make on reducing wages. Similarly, these health and safety measures must be worth more to workers than the cost borne in reduced wages. This means that, while there are plenty of beneficial health and safety regulations, there are also plenty of times when individuals can make their own decisions based on risk and reward strategies, and therefore, need not be subjected to extraneous regulations that impede rational decision-making based on perceived risks and rewards.

Monday, 6 August 2018

Why So Many People Are Bodging Up The Brexit Debate

A couple of weeks ago on Facebook, I said that I have some highly intelligent Remain friends, who I love dearly, but that I think they are missing a key thing: most Remainers fail to realise why the EU has to go, because they misunderstand why its most well-informed critics dislike it. Here's a simple way to explain it.

The EU shares a common property with Islam. All the bad things attributable to Islam are the reason it's perhaps the worst of all human inventions. And all the good things attributable to Islam are nothing to do with Islam - they are good human qualities that exist in spite of Islam, not because of it. They are the qualities associated with being human that Islam has appropriated, and for which it has tried to take credit, fooling millions in doing so.

Similarly, the bad things attributable to the EU are what make it an obviously failed economic model, with all the concomitant problems that come with diseconomies of scale. And all the good things about the EU are the good human cooperatives that are nothing to do with the EU - they are beneficial things that would exist in spite of the EU, not because of it. They are the qualities associated with being human that the EU has appropriated, and for which it has tried to take credit, fooling millions in doing so.

Although I stated that quite succinctly, what I am describing is a very complex phenomenon that makes the Brexit battleground oversimplified, and talk of deals and no deals somewhat inadequate to the task. The reality is, a monstrosity of an organisation like the EU, and its concomitant interconnectedness with all the domestic politics of its members states, is going to be a very knotty institution from which to disentangle ourselves. This means that countess social commentators from both sides will continually be able to bleat on about the benefits and costs of Leaving, and the benefits and costs of Remaining, and act as though they the only ones talking sense.

The debates would be of a higher standard if more people adopted a Bastiat-esque Seen & Unseen approach to the situation. That is, everyone who wants to talk about Brexit should constantly be mindful of the reality that there are huge costs if we Leave, huge benefits if we Leave, huge costs if we Remain, and huge benefits if we Remain. Unless you are attuned to thinking this way, you are providing only sub-standard analyses of the Brexit debate.

Moreover, you also need to add in another element - the element of timescales, which adds a further level of permutational complexity to the debate. For example, with timescales factored in, there are huge costs if we Leave soon, huge benefits and opportunities if we Leave soon; huge costs if we Remain now and Leave later, and huge benefits if we Remain now and Leave later. The number of possible outcomes is nigh-on uncountable, because there are so many subset events that could feed into any potential transpiration, and there are so many good and bad things that might happen, based on so many good and bad decisions that could be made, that it is virtually impossible to predict the short-term net benefits and costs of the culmination of all this.

But all that said, I think there is a way to be confident that, unapprised of all the permutations and possible costs and benefits, voting Brexit was still, on balance, the best decision you could have made. I'm a great believer in the integrity of challenges to failed models, even if that failed model has numerous benefits. Failed models are inevitably going to provide a net loss when all costs and benefits are counted up - and that is why it is right that Britain should leave the EU. It may be a long percentage game to reap the rewards and gradually undermine the failing institution, but many long term gains require bold decisions in the short term.

One of the reasons it's hard to measure the net costs of failed models is because both benefits and costs to society almost always happen very slowly, and are hard to perceive with the naked eye. It is hard to tell if a swimming pool is gaining water or losing water if there is a small leak during a rainfall.

The prosperity pool
That analogy reminds me of a term the economist Don Boudreaux has for human material progress - he calls it 'The prosperity pool', where the higher the water level in this pool, the greater our prosperity. Boudreaux rightly points out that the “prosperity level” in the prosperity pool is only gradually filled up with drops. Even tiny saucerfuls of additional prosperity are exceedingly rare - there are mostly only small drop-by-drop progressions, no more. This is also why if something is going to be good and large, it is going to emerge bottom up, not be imposed top down.

Very few single drops have any noticeable effect on the prosperity level, but each drop - bicycle stabilisers for children, cat's eyes on the road, padded cushions for bike seats, new shades of varnish, comfier shirts, more efficient sewing machines, sunglasses, clothes pegs, and so on - make our lives a little better through their entrance into a highly competitive market. Even the things you may perceive as quite large drops - Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Ford, General Motors, Samsung, Apple, Sinopec and Walmart (to name but a few) are still small relative to the entirety of the prosperity pool and the complex nexus of the human interactions required for these developments.

There are numerous ways the EU causes harm to human prosperity (see my sidebar tab), but as well as the harm it causes, it also doesn't create enough additional value to justify its existence. The rest of the time it primarily moves resources sidewards - and as anyone who has ever taken a swim knows, moving water around in the pool does not raise its overall level.  

In the prosperity pool analogy, new drops are added to the pool every time value is created in society: either through a new good or service, an improvement to an existing good or service, an increase in efficiency, an improvement in technology and decreasing costs of doing something (there are a few more, but those are the big five).

Furthering the analogy; taxes, subsidies, tariffs, price fixing, protectionism, bureaucracy, overregulation and making itself rich off the fruits of other people's labour is the EU's raison d'ĂȘtre. To the typical Remainer, the EU seems to resemble a consignment of rocks thrown into the pool over time as the EU has grown in size (consistent with Wagner's law), which appears to them to have raised the prosperity level. Propagandist memes like this one below are a good case in point:
But alas, the above meme is a rather pathetic medley of exaggerations, attempts to take undue credit, misunderstandings about opportunity costs, and outright falsehoods - all intended to create a fabricated picture of the benefits of the EU. But here's the reality check: as anyone who has ever taken a bath or read Archimedes would know, even if the measured level of the prosperity in the pool appears to be higher, the appearance of a consignment of rocks can make it seem like the water levels are increased when, in fact, they are not.
Continuing with the pool analogy, what the taxes, subsidies, tariffs, price fixing, bureaucracy and overregulation are really equivalent to is closing some of the valves in order to restrict the plumbing line to the pool. They are the costs that society bears in the shape of all the unnecessary expenses, the misallocations of resources, the interferences is information-carrying price signals, and in the new businesses that never get started up, the buildings that never get built, the innovations that never materialise, and the countless mutually beneficial transactions that never occur.
And if we do have genuine aspirations to create a world where the bureaucrats get properly exposed for what they are doing, and a world in which the above activities are no longer an impediment to a fuller and even faster global development for all human beings, then the only way to vote was to vote for Brexit, and hope that by starting to pull out the weeds we will be beginning to irrigate the soil too.


Thursday, 2 August 2018

A Fascinating Twist On The Theory Of Our Evolution

In my as yet untitled book on God, mathematics, physics and philosophy, I wrote a chapter along the lines that without biological sentience the universe is just pure mathematics - or at least, pure mathematics is one way it could be described by the mind of God. The basic story of human evolution is that all the stuff we humans perceive as being 'out there' - the stars, planets, trees, mountains, etc - are perceptions that accurately reflect reality through the Darwinian lens that is essential for survival. In other words, we perceive the world physically because we are physical, but the outside reality is not very much like what it seems.

This morning I read an interesting interpretation of that idea by professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Donald D. Hoffman, who postulates that not only are our sensory perceptions a very limited reflection of reality 'out there', but that it may in fact have been evolutionarily advantageous to avoid perceiving the outside world as is (full article linked at bottom of page). Here's how professor Hoffman puts it:

"The classic argument is that those of our ancestors who saw more accurately had a competitive advantage over those who saw less accurately and thus were more likely to pass on their genes that coded for those more accurate perceptions, so after thousands of generations we can be quite confident that we’re the offspring of those who saw accurately, and so we see accurately. That sounds very plausible. But I think it is utterly false. It misunderstands the fundamental fact about evolution, which is that it’s about fitness functions—mathematical functions that describe how well a given strategy achieves the goals of survival and reproduction."

He then says that an organism that sees reality as it is will never be fitter for survival than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality but is just tuned to fitness. What follows is a terrific computer desktop metaphor from Hoffman about how seeing a false reality could be beneficial to an organism’s survival:

"Suppose there’s a blue rectangular icon on the lower right corner of your computer’s desktop — does that mean that the file itself is blue and rectangular and lives in the lower right corner of your computer? Of course not. But those are the only things that can be asserted about anything on the desktop — it has color, position, and shape. Those are the only categories available to you, and yet none of them are true about the file itself or anything in the computer. They couldn’t possibly be true. That’s an interesting thing. You could not form a true description of the innards of the computer if your entire view of reality was confined to the desktop. And yet the desktop is useful. That blue rectangular icon guides my behavior, and it hides a complex reality that I don’t need to know. That’s the key idea. Evolution has shaped us with perceptions that allow us to survive. They guide adaptive behaviors. But part of that involves hiding from us the stuff we don’t need to know. And that’s pretty much all of reality, whatever reality might be. If you had to spend all that time figuring it out, the tiger would eat you."

In one of my books I wrote a chapter about what I called the 'mental matrix' - the limitations of physical organisms in seeing the world through the narrow lens of their own biological landscape. I argued that there is a multifaceted, highly complex outside world that our biological evolution only enables us to sparsely sample. As with Kant, the distinction between the world 'out there' (noumena), and the world experienced through minds 'in there' (phenomena) creates a very limited phenomenal world that engages with external reality through evolutionary perceptions and conceptions of space and time.

But on top of the noumena merely being things which can’t be known 'as is' due to our being locked inside the limitations of our evolutionary biology, Hoffman wants to take it even further and hypothesise that natural selection acts on mutations that retain a veiling filter between reality 'as is' and reality 'as is perceived'. In other words, Hoffman's contention is that noumenal reality is so ultra complex and so informationally intractable that our brains evolved a sensory system to inform us of the fitness consequences of our actions and at the same time shielded us from developing a too complex, albeit potentially more accurate perception of outside reality.

I think there is plenty of truth in all this. Avoiding snakes and tigers is much more evolutionary advantageous (in the short term) than being able to appreciate complex metaphysical wonders of reality, or do philosophy, or tap into our creative endeavous - and it is probably true that evolution edited out some of the extraneous cognitive qualities if they would have impeded survival. But the fact is, along with the our reactions to moving objects, our fear of the dark, our blushing, our sneezing, our hairs standing up, our goose bumps and our trepidation at wild animals, we did evolve the capacity to philosophise, and do complex maths, and write profound literature, and construct beautiful poetry, and enjoy hints of the numinous, and be awed by our sense of wonder, and recognise God as the Creator.

While there is no question that we are evolved beings, with all the limitations of a Savannah-dwelling species, it is also very evident that our cognition operates as though it is over-engineered for the things for which biological evolution equipped us. I was in HMV earlier looking for a CD: an activity sedimented in a variety of things such as alphabetisation, image awareness, memory, geometrical apprehension, and every other perceptive tool that causes an interrelation between the agent, the objects and perceptivity. But even a simple task like finding a CD comes with all the suggestion that we are over-skilled and over-endowed in our cognitive capacity for the tasks at hand that aided our thriving of the species - there seems to be a supplementary facet to task-management that goes well beyond simple agent and action. What we do with our minds astronomically dwarfs what we need to do with our minds as evolutionary animals. 

For balance, I should say, one must remember the law of large numbers and how, given vast amounts of activity, things that produce seemingly extraordinary patterns are bound to occur. If one thinks of our development as rather like dealing cards, then natural selection has dealt a lot of cards, so our mental engineering, fecund as it is, must also be seen on those terms, especially as natural selection is rather like getting to keep hold of your favoured cards when they are dealt. So we should remember that, in card dealing terms, natural selection has dealt billions upon billions of hands that are 'under engineered' compared with us, so the human mind is certainly a stupendous deal - and on this score it is important to avoid simply assigning providence to our cognition just because we happen to notice it is superior to anything else in the world we know. 

On the other hand, there may be a better explanation. As well as it being true that our evolution filtered out most of the stupendous traits of cognition that would have helped see reality even more comprehensively, perhaps the dynamics of the interaction of the agent and its surroundings, as primary determinants of bit by bit accumulative development of reasoning, gave rise to an inevitable unsatisfactory logical dead end, whereby the justification of the fecundity of the human mind using mental artefacts that arrived through natural selection was just simply too much of a cognitive leap for us to understand quite how amazing we are in relation to the rest of the universe. In other words, perhaps a feature of our evolved consciousness is that it had to evolve with sufficiently limited protocols that it doesn't have the potential to recognise its own metaphysical magnitude, except by way of hints, such as when transcendent echoes like poetry and music literature seep through the cracks.

You can read the whole article here.