Tuesday, August 28, 2007 47 Comments

A reservationist epistemology

If I have a meta-ideology, it's that the world needs a lot more ideologies. Unfortunately, it doesn't have them. So I thought I'd fill in by making up some of my own.

If you're a formalist, you believe that any stable and predictable allocation of contested resources is an antidote to friction. If you're a neocameralist, you want to formalize the modern corporatist state, converting it into a joint-stock company whose beneficiaries are precisely defined, and erasing the last vestiges of the rotary system.

But UR would be a boring blog indeed if it did nothing but harp on these old ideas. So perhaps it's time for a new ideology, reservationism. A reservationist is anyone who reserves the right to think for himself. (Or herself.)

Of course, I'd like to think that anyone who thinks for herself (or himself) will arrive at the same conclusions as me, and thus be a formalist and a neocameralist. But since I have no way of guaranteeing this result, the monicker is not redundant.

The central dogma of reservationism is that reason is irreducible and untranscendable. Reason is no more and no less than common sense. It is not possible to construct a useful definition of common sense, nor is it possible to construct a system of thought that improves on common sense. Any system that purports to do so is either (a) bogus, or (b) justifiable via common sense, and thus a special case of it.

For example, mathematics is a special case of reason. Mathematics proves theorems by reducing complex formal propositions to a series of obvious steps. Since there is no mathematical definition of obviousness, there is no mathematical definition of proof.

I dislike the word "science" and wish people would stop using it, but inasmuch as the results of "science" are trustworthy, this trust can be explained by reason. For example, one reason why falsifiable "science" is trustworthy is that "science" is a social system which lionizes those who present falsifying evidence, and puts those whose theories are falsified in small metal cages, where passersby can jeer and poke them with sticks. When this social incentive structure breaks down, false theories which are logically falsifiable can be socially validated as "science."

Furthermore, the formal methods of mathematics and "science" are effective only for a very small set of problems. These problems do not include most of the things that most people disagree about. A reservationist has no objection to formal deductive and inductive reasoning, but he or she stoutly resists the proposition - all too common in the 20th century - that they can or should replace all other forms of thought.

The great enemy of the reservationist is the automatist. An automatist is a small, grubby person who believes he can reduce or transcend reason. In the last two centuries, enormous armies of automatists have proposed all kinds of replacements for common sense. The fact that these replacements often travel under the name of "reason" itself is best explained adaptively.

Automatists tend to fall into four camps. The stupidest are literalists, who believe that instead of thinking, we should accept the literal text of some holy book or other. The most dangerous are officialists, who believe that truth is whatever the government says it is. The most annoying are popularists, who believe that the most fashionable thoughts, as of right now, are the most likely to be true. And the most pernicious are algorithmists, who believe they have some universal algorithm which is a drop-in replacement for any and all cogitation.

Automatists are automatists not because they are evil, but because they are too familiar with special cases of reason in which their flavor of automatism is indeed reasonable.

For example, if you're a chemist, you might well come to believe that the CRC Handbook is the literal word of God. Certainly this belief is unlikely to serve you wrong in your chemical career. If Congress enacted the CRC Handbook as part of the US Code, the result would be a fascinating state of affairs in which Federal and natural law concurred, thus enabling a reasonable chemist to be both literalist and officialist. But this would not go one angstrom toward validating literalism or officialism as replacements for reason.

Automatists, in general, are fascinated by the elucidation of natural law. They have devised many effective techniques for reverse-engineering the structure of nature. I have no quarrel at all with these algorithmist methods. Where they work, they work because they are reasonable. There is no need to go as far as Feyerabend in rejecting formal methods.

Reservationists, in general, are fascinated by the interpretation of human affairs. In human history, politics, and economics, we observe patterns which appear to be patterns of cause and effect. If we can understand these patterns, we can predict the effects of our actions, and since most people are well-intentioned, we can wipe out war, poverty, bad television and tooth decay. If we misunderstand these patterns, our well-intentioned actions may indeed cause war, poverty, bad television and tooth decay.

One way to look at the reservationist problem is to imagine that a superintelligent alien, an agent of some galactic supercivilization of unimaginable wisdom and antiquity, is orbiting the earth in an invisible spaceship. The alien's name is unpronounceable, so we'll call her Beatrice. Beatrice has a mind-boggling array of cameras, invisible drones, and other monitoring devices by which she achieves effective omniscience. However, she is strictly prohibited from affecting the world in any way.

Beatrice's job is to explain what's going down on Planet Three. Every year, she sends a hypercable back to the Large Magellanic Cloud which summarizes political, economic and intellectual developments on Earth. So that human concepts only need to be translated once, Beatrice's annual cable is written in English. Let's say it's no more than 20,000 words.

Wouldn't you like to read Beatrice's reports? I certainly would. I'd like to understand Beatrice's view of Planet Three, at least to the limited extent that my pathetic monkey brain can even begin to follow her vast and oceanic wisdom. In fact, I'd like to think that if Beatrice's rules of engagement were relaxed and she was permitted to start a blog, it would look very much like UR, although I'm sure she would be funnier, less neurotic, and more punctual in answering email and moderating comments.

What I don't think is that any literalist, officialist, popularist, or algorithmist methods can even begin to help us in emulating Beatrice's worldview. In fact, I think these automatist methods are tremendously distracting and destructive, which is why I spend so much time trying to find and resurrect forgotten writers whose thought strikes me as unbiblical, unofficial, unpopular and certainly unalgorithmic. (My new favorite: Albert J. Beveridge.)

One new, and very popular (among the smart set) algorithmist automatism is Bayesianism. Bayesians are followers of Bayes' theorem, a result in probability theory. The Bayesians tend to congregate at the group blog Overcoming Bias, where they get together and figure out how many blue balls are in the white urn.

Here is a good intuitive explanation of Bayes' theorem by one prominent Bayesian. Please take my word for it: this level of hubris is not at all atypical. When they say things like "in cognitive science, Bayesian reasoner is the technically precise codeword that we use to mean rational mind," they really do mean it. Move over, Aristotle!

Of course, in Catholicism, Catholic is the technically precise codeword that they use to mean rational mind. I am not a Catholic or even a Christian, but frankly, I think that if I had to vote for a dictator of the world and the only information I had was whether the candidate was an orthodox Bayesian or an orthodox Catholic, I'd go with the latter.

Let's take a slightly closer look at Bayes' theorem, and see why these people are on crack.

Bayes' theorem is a pure product of mathematics. It is extremely true and extremely reasonable. If A and B are stochastic events, P(A|B) really does equal P(A) * P(B|A) / P(B).

The only problem is that this little formula is not a complete, drop-in replacement for your brain. If a reservationist is skeptical of anything on God's green earth, it's people who want to replace his (or her) brain with a formula.

We can see this by looking for cases of cogitation for which Bayes' theorem is about as relevant as tits on a boar hog. Believe it or not, there turn out to be one or two such cases.

First, what Bayes' theorem gives us is a way of constructing one value from three others. We know: X = W * (Y/Z). Therefore, if we know W, Y, and Z, we can know X. Or if we know X, W and Z, we can know Y. And so on. Algebra! Do it yourself at home!

Now, there are certainly plenty of cases in which it is actually useful to calculate P(A|B) from P(A), P(B) and P(B|A). Spam filtering is one. P(Am) is the probability that message M is spam, P(Bs) is the probability that it contains some string S, P(Bs|Am) is the probability that if it's spam it contains S, and P(Am|Bs) is the probability that if it contains S it's spam. If we keep a database of past messages, we can estimate P(Bs|Am) and P(Bs) by assuming that spam messages are similar to other spam messages, and likewise for non-spam. Then we can construct P(Am) iteratively by starting with the percentage of all messages that are spam, and reapplying this algorithm for various S.

Note how interesting and special a case this is. It is precisely a case in which we have good estimates for Y and Z, and a crappy estimate for W which can be improved by iterating with a large set of Y's and Z's. Thus it makes sense to use Bayes' theorem.

But fundamentally, we are calculating one variable from three. The Rev. Bayes was a great man, no doubt, but his theorem does not contradict the Garbage Theorem. If there is garbage in W, Y or Z, there will be garbage in X. If we can iterate the computation for a wide variety of reliable Y and Z, we may be able to dilute the garbage in W to oblivion, but without reliable Y and Z, what we have is a magic box that turns garbage into fresh, tasty food.

To make this more concrete, let's look at how fragile Bayesian inference is in the presence of an attacker who's filtering our event stream. By throwing off P(B), any undetected pattern of correlation can completely foul the whole system. If the attacker, whenever he pulls a red ball out of the urn, puts it back and keeps pulling until he gets a blue ball, the Bayesian "rational mind" will conclude that the urn is entirely full of blue balls. And Bayesian inference certainly does not offer any suggestion that you should look at who's pulling balls out of the urn and see what he has up his sleeves.

Once again, the problem is not that Bayesianism is untrue. The problem is that the human brain has a very limited capacity for analytic reasoning to begin with. When you persuade it to obsess over one nifty, but basically unimportant, result in probability theory, you are doing your best to convert it into the Bayesian equivalent of this French civil servant.

A Bayesian will not exactly come out and tell you that you shouldn't think deductively or intuitively. He will just drop little hints that all other ways of thinking are special cases of Bayes' theorem, which in a sense is true, because they can be used to compute Y and Z. As the Turks say, all you need is three horseshoes and a horse. And this is why rationalism is the enemy of reason: you start with a fully shod horse, and end up with a horseshoe. Hey, where'd my brain go?

A reservationist is perfectly comfortable in applying Bayesian inference to Bayesian problems. Similarly, the Bible is a pretty good source of Biblical history, Centcom's statements about the war in Iraq tend to be quite reliable, I agree with most people that cold beer is refreshing and warm beer is nasty, and Pythagoras was right that the angles in a triangle sum to 180. This does not make me a fundamentalist Christian, a Bush supporter, a demotist or a Pythagorean.

Meanwhile, if you are actually interested in "overcoming bias," there's no better way to start than reading the Lincoln biographies of Beveridge (1928) and Masters (1931). Clear out some of them stinky old personality cults. After Lincoln, try Flynn (1944) on FDR. If that don't update your priors, I dunno what will.

(Update: "automatist" above used to be "rationalist," but was replaced by popular demand. Please see the comments.)

47 Comments:

Anonymous TGGP said...

I notice a distinct lack of quotations from Bayesians to support your point that they say the things you claim they do.

Regarding biographies of Lincoln and FDR, how do you know the reader doesn't already hold the opinions of the authors, in which case they may just be confirming pre-existing biases?

August 28, 2007 at 2:19 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

Also, I think the term "rationalist" would be off for many of the people you ascribe it to. Many religious revelationists would explicitly deny being rationalists and attack the concept.

August 28, 2007 at 2:28 PM  
Blogger Conrad H. Roth said...

"the Bible is a pretty good source of Biblical history"

Not as good as you might think.

August 28, 2007 at 5:57 PM  
Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

What of empiricism? Sure, one must always make a leap when encountering new situations (and what isn't new in some way?) but it strikes me as more successful than any other methodology, including reason or "common sense." One needs only to look at the ancient philosophers to see where reason alone gets you and, as Einstein pointed out, "common sense" is just the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.

Let's take your project of creating a new government. If we use reason alone, we could arrive at formalism, Marxism, libertarianism, etc., based on our own prejudices. If we use empiricism, we will find a government of a similar country that we like and attempt to replicate it. We won't have perfect results, but I like our odds.

August 28, 2007 at 6:04 PM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

You have, as usual, done a great job articulating something I was vaguely fumbling towards but was completely unable to express properly. The closest I could previously come to explaining what seemed to be wrong with the Overcoming Bias crowd was that there didn't seem to be any place for truth in their worldview, only probabilities, but of course preferring logic to truth is the hallmark of rationalists.

As an aside, I'd be interested to know where you picked up the term "rationalist" in this sense. It's a fairly common perjorative in Objectivist circles, meant, I believe, in much the same way. From "For the New Intellectual", by way of The Ayn Rand Lexicon:

[Rationalists were] those who claimed that man obtains his knowledge of the world by deducing it exclusively from concepts, which come from inside his head and are not derived from the perception of physical facts[.]

August 28, 2007 at 7:39 PM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

Whoa, dude, I think that you terribly misunderstand Bayesian inference.

Bayes rule is not a "nifty, but basically unimportant, result in probability theory". No! Bayes rule is fundamental to the theory of stochastic processes. Statisticians invoke Bayes rule in the same way that physicists always talk about vector spaces and functionals.

Bayes rule does not just tell you how to figure out the value of one number from some other numbers. Rather, it tells you about the relationships between probability distributions. An evangelical Bayesian (i.e. any statistician) would tell you that the Garbage theorem is a special case of Bayes theorem: If you have uncertainty in one thing, then you also have uncertainty in other things that are statistically related to the uncertain evidence.

Your counterexample of the adversary who delivers only blue balls from the urn is stupid and unfair. Faced with this evidence, the Bayesian optimal estimator (I agree with you that "rational mind" is a bad term) will infer that the overall stochastic system (urn + balls + ball-fetcher + observer) has a high probability of obtaining apparently blue-colored balls from the urn. Whether the urn is really full of blue balls is a separate question, which can also be addressed through Bayesian inference (starting with some prior proposals for the distribution of balls in the urn, and the preferences of the ball-fetching system, and the observer's ability to discriminate the colors of the balls, etc.) The essential point of Bayesian inference is that one can not glibly assume that the urn is full of blue balls, without knowing the probabilities of the system.

August 28, 2007 at 8:45 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

Mencius

Dude, you have totally done it this time. You have closed the circle and eaten your tail!

You are a damn rationalist, and you know i don't vest that term with any respect whatsoever. Jewish Atheist is right, much of hellenic philosophy is a great illustration of the dangers of rationalism (my fave example is Aristotle deciding that a thrown stone flies because it bores a hole through the air, and the air rushing in from behind to fill in the void, also pushes the stone forward) -- but this is largely what you do here, weaving cloud castles from thin air, a smattering of historical references, and a huge dollop of arbitrary conjecture. For example, why assume that the relatively low war body count for medieval times was due to feudal framework, rather than inadequate production techniques simply not leaving enough people available for elective pursuits like war?

Anyway, I told you this before, and now you have positively walked into it: you are Kay from Andersen's 'The Snow Queen', sitting in the ice palace, arranging ice crystals trying to make them into the magic word. Damn, you imagine that there is such a magic word, that the Holy Grail of social engineering actually exists! Talk about hubris...

I can deal with a little rationalism. Hell, we are all somewhat rationalist, myself not being an exception; but the cojones on you, to place yourself in the category opposite of rationalism... Dude, you are as rationalist as any objectivist or marxist!

Oy vey, what to do... Don't worry, the talmudic mafia will be knocking on your doors soon -- they will want their methodology back!

August 28, 2007 at 9:09 PM  
Anonymous Edward Williams said...

Mencius
You really should try writing fiction; then you find out, quickly, how hard it is to prolong a thesis, or develop an assumption. Try telling a story, and you will find out what little use these theories upon opinions of theories have. Also, your vocabulary might get juiced up. Your are suffering from severe language anemia, and that is because your ideas are all melting into one another.

I admit I read you blog vainly hoping you will discourse on my poetry again!

August 29, 2007 at 12:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ooh, tough crowd. Anyway, I thought the defining characteristic of a "Bayesian" was not belief in or over-application of Bayes' Theorem, but rather, to quote the wikipedia, "the degree-of-belief interpretation of probability, as opposed to frequency or proportion or propensity interpretations."

August 29, 2007 at 1:29 AM  
Blogger Robin Hanson said...

I also think you have misunderstood what "Bayesian" means. No one I know proposes to replace your brain with a formula. People do use formulas as constraints on how reasonable brains would behave. Finding that such a constraint has been violated suggests the brain could be adjusted to do better at estimating truth.

August 29, 2007 at 3:44 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

In other words, intellectual standards tell me what I can and can't believe. Can't have that. I'll change my mind when I damn well feel like it and screw "logic", "evidence", and all that other white male capitalist oppressor bull. How very post-modern. Common sense served the witch-haunted wretches of history and of modern Africa so well. It lets them be "authentic" and "spiritual but not religious".

August 29, 2007 at 4:53 AM  
Anonymous M.C. said...

this level of hubris is not at all atypical.

Come on now. Yudkowsky is the Barry Bonds of hubris. No one else is likely to challenge him for the title for many years or even decades to come. Just go read this post for the latest example:

This is a story from when I first met Marcello, with whom I would later work for a year on AI theory; but at this point I had not yet accepted him as my apprentice. I knew that he competed at the national level in mathematical and computing olympiads, which sufficed to attract my attention for a closer look; but I didn't know yet if he could learn to think about AI.

August 29, 2007 at 9:04 AM  
Anonymous ru said...

MM write that "in cognitive science, Bayesian reasoner is the technically precise codeword that we use to mean rational mind,"

MM, I think you misinterpret that statement. Cognitive scientists need some way to "score" or judge human mental performance at a task.

Take a very simple experiment in which experimental subjects are given $20 and offered a chance to spend it at a Las Vegas slot machine or to keep the $20.

If subject A keeps the money and subject B puts it in the slot machine and wins $2000, it would be an error to conclude that subject B's cognitive performance was better than A's because he ended up with 100 times more money than A did! B was just lucky -- and foolish!

Bayesian statistics is the simplest system by which for cognitive scientists to determine or define what constitutes good mental performance on experimental tasks.

Although cognitive science is the study of the _human_ mind in problem solving, to avoid circular reasoning, it is good to have a way to evaluate human mental performance that does not rely on human judgement but rather can proceed from mathematical calculation from axioms.

Note that cognitive-science experiments put subjects in artificial situations devoid of the ubiquituous complexity of real life, and consequently Bayesian statistics is capable of "scoring" the performance of the subjects.

That is what Eliezer meant when he said that "in cognitive science, Bayesian reasoner is the technically precise codeword that we use to mean rational mind,"

He certainly wasn't prescribing the explicit application of Bayesian statistics as the primary or even a common way for a person to navigate his life, to make decisions or refine his model of the world!

One objection Eliezer would immediately raise to that prescription is that it would quickly consume the person's entire capacity for deliberation, and Eliezer knows that compared to other cognitive resources, deliberation has a very low bandwidth. (So, decisions made that way would tend to take a ridiculously long time to make.)

August 29, 2007 at 11:01 AM  
Anonymous Randy said...

The whole bayesian thing doesn't mean much to me, but the break down of the various types of rationalists is priceless. Thanks.

August 29, 2007 at 11:20 AM  
Anonymous George Weinberg said...

It is not possible to construct a useful definition of common sense, nor is it possible to construct a system of thought that improves on common sense. Any system that purports to do so is either (a) bogus, or (b) justifiable via common sense, and thus a special case of it.

I'm not sure exactly what you mean by this. Certainly there are cases in which we can use deductive reasoning to derive results which seem quite counterintuitive, and yet we can feel confident that the results are correct, and in fact they are.

Have you ever written a computer opponent for a game that was able to beat you? I have, depending on the game it's not that hard. We're a long way from having true AI, but I don't see any reason in principle why there couldn't be a computer program capable of answering questions with more reliability than a human ever could, yet unable to explain to a human in any meaningful sense how it arrived at that particular conclusion. Would "trust the computer no matter how bizarre its pronouncements" then become "common sense"? I don't think that's what most people understand the term to mean.

August 29, 2007 at 1:28 PM  
Blogger Aaron Davies said...

Slightly off-topic for this post, but it's been bugging me, so here goes: how would you define Formalism/Cameralism in a single sentence? I'm looking for something to use in the "go read UR, it's the best thing since sliced den Beste", "OK, what's it about?" exchange. The closest I've been able to come is that you believe that all implicit power relationships should be made explicit and fungible, but I can't help but feel I'm not quite getting it right.

August 29, 2007 at 5:56 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

I award this round to the commenters: "rationalist" is a lousy pejorative. Hearing that the Objectivists use it is the last straw. Clearly I'll have to fabricate another epithet.

August 29, 2007 at 8:59 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

chairmanK,

If you can apologize for "rational mind," I will apologize for "unimportant result."

I didn't mean that Bayes' theorem is an unimportant result relative to the theory of stochastic processes. I meant that the theory of stochastic processes is an unimportant aspect of thinking clearly.

Your definition of GIGO in Bayesian terms is an excellent case in point.

My brother, who has a PhD in numerical analysis, tells me that a saying among numerical analysts is that you can define almost any problem as finding the maximum of a function - but this is almost never the right way to solve the problem.

Similarly, you can think of GIGO in terms of probability distributions. You can think of almost anything in terms of probability distributions. Is this the clearest and most effective way to understand or explain the principle of garbage in, garbage out? Not for me. Of course, your mileage may vary.

The human mind is not a Bayesian inference engine, and it is certainly not a general-purpose computer. Unless you have a very unusual brain, if you retrain it to think of everything in Bayesian terms, you are simply destroying the facility for rhetorical and intuitive thinking you were born with. You probably will continue to think rhetorically and intuitively, but you will do so in a passive and unexamined way.

August 29, 2007 at 9:10 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

ru,

That is what Eliezer meant when he said that "in cognitive science, Bayesian reasoner is the technically precise codeword that we use to mean rational mind."

He certainly wasn't prescribing the explicit application of Bayesian statistics as the primary or even a common way for a person to navigate his life, to make decisions or refine his model of the world!

Your explanation is excellent, and I hope you're right. In fact, I suspect you're right. The trouble is that I don't see any evidence of this in the textual context.

This is what I mean by overselling Bayesianism. There are always people looking for a formula for truth. Look at Marxism, for God's sake.

Extremely smart and articulate people, such as Yudkowsky and his ilk, need to actively work to ensure that they are not inadvertently purveying any such panacea. A lack of intent to purvey such is necessary, but not sufficient.

August 29, 2007 at 9:16 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Robin,

Please see my reply to ru above.

August 29, 2007 at 9:18 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

tggp,

There are probably less than 10,000 people in the US who agree with Masters and Flynn about Lincoln and FDR, and they all read LewRockwell.com on a daily basis. I don't think catering to the mob is a major danger here!

I can do better, actually - I have a piece by John Burgess, founder of American political science, in which he recounts his experience of the Civil War. Basically no one alive today has the same perspective as Burgess, a Unionist from Tennessee. Yet he was there and we weren't. Perhaps I'll type this one in soon.

August 29, 2007 at 9:21 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

george,

Yet another insightful criticism. You have a way of finding the cracks in my rhetoric and slipping an edge between them.

Think of it in terms of Searle's Chinese Room gedankenexperiment. If you can build a true AI, you can build the Chinese Room. Since I do not follow Penrose and the neo-vitalists in believing that AI is in principle impossible, I think the Chinese Room can be built, although it would take a lot of people and be very slow.

My argument is that, not only is it the Room rather than the people in it that speaks Chinese, but (in my opinion) the algorithm that the Room executes will not be one that is globally intelligible to humans, in the way that a human can understand, say, how Windows XP works.

In other words, the human brain is not powerful enough to virtualize itself. It can reason, and with sufficient technology it can build algorithmic devices capable of artificial reason, and this implies that it can explain why these devices work. But it cannot upgrade itself to a superhuman level of reason by following the same algorithm itself.

August 29, 2007 at 9:28 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

JA,

The trouble with empiricism is that "empirical" and "experimental" are not synonyms.

Imagine if, sometime in 1960, the entire world except for the Warsaw Pact had been wiped out by some strange plague. Presumably the best-governed country in the world would be, as it was in 1960, East Germany. Therefore, following your procedure, if some opportunity appeared to establish a new system of government, the answer would be simple: emulate East Germany.

In Bayesian terms, the problem with empiricism is that we don't know P(B), and we can't know P(B). We have no way of controlling the set of governments that history presents us with, and we have no way of knowing what aspects of these governments are responsible for their success or failure.

August 29, 2007 at 9:33 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

victor,

Au contraire - you are an empiricist, which qualifies you as an algorithmist, which makes you a "rationalist" (as used above). See my response to JewishAtheist.

If you think I'm the Snow Queen, what do you think of Hume, Mill or Mises? Montaigne, Jefferson or Acton? You and your revolt against reason are strong, I will admit. But we have the past on our side.

August 29, 2007 at 9:40 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

edward,

I don't know how you guessed that I'm a terrible fiction writer. Perhaps you have unusual powers. Or perhaps you're simply right.

I suppose my posts might be better if I revised them before hitting "Publish"...

August 29, 2007 at 9:43 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Aaron,

Isn't the "sliced den Beste" enough?

Let's see if we can get this in one sentence. Rights to contested resources should be formally defined, and stably aligned with control over those resources.

Which is basically what you said, except that by "fungible" I think you mean "negotiable." I'd say negotiability is implied by formality (non-negotiable shares are pretty clearly not Pareto-optimal), but you could slip it in between "defined" and "and" if so inclined.

A formalist accepts this principle in general, but may not apply it to the special case of sovereign (self-securing) states. A neocameralist goes all the way to the "corponation."

August 29, 2007 at 9:51 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

What would Beatrice report back? Probably a lot of stuff that's boring to us like the total number of kilograms of protein harvested from livestock each year.

We're interested in the things that are hard to predict. I could tell you that the sun will come up at 6:37 am tomorrow and you'd yawn, even though that statement is the result of millennia of scientific and technological progress. But it's boring. In contrast, I could tell you that Mike Huckabee will defeat Barack Obama in the 2008 Presidential election by a popular vote ratio of 53%-45% and you will tell me that I don't have the faintest clue what I'm talking about, which is true. I just made it up. But you are more interested in that latter statement than when the sun will come up tomorrow, precisely because Presidential elections are constructed to be interesting by being hard to predict.

August 29, 2007 at 10:03 PM  
Blogger chairmanK said...

Similarly, you can think of GIGO in terms of probability distributions. You can think of almost anything in terms of probability distributions. Is this the clearest and most effective way to understand or explain the principle of garbage in, garbage out? Not for me. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Okay, but this is simply a matter of taste. You may not intuitively regard the world as a pile of probability distributions, but I do - and not as the result of some twisted Bayesian indoctrination.

The human mind is not a Bayesian inference engine

Most of the neuroscientists whom I know believe that brains are indeed Bayesian inference engines. Ensembles of stochastic, weakly-coupled neurons can do a very nice job of representing probability distributions; Bayesian inferences naturally arise from the statistical physics of these ensembles. (Note that I am not claiming that brains are like the "belief networks" that people use in machine learning. Belief networks are too tidy, algorithmic and supervised to be biologically plausible.)

August 29, 2007 at 11:05 PM  
Blogger Victor said...

Mencius

I don't think you to be the Snow Queen; I think you to be Kay, trapped in the illusion of rationality devoid of empirical feedback. Snow Queen was the autochthonous personification of nature, but Kay was the boy who fell under its sway. As Kay, in effect, became the avatar of dead icy reason, so you try to be.

I am not a big fan of Mises, or the Austrian school of economics in general, because they are indeed rank rationalists, just like you. However, Hume and Mill were both careful to not divorce their reasoning from practical experience; and where they failed (Mill most egregiously IMO), they often ended up coming up with blithering nonsense.

Empiricism is not a revolt against reason -- it's a revolt against rationalism, against the idea that you can grok the world by simply thinking about things really hard. For you to call empiricism a species of rationalism (or automatism, for that matter) is simply terminological self-abuse.

You rationalists do indeed have the past on your side, in that rationalism has dominated human abstract thought for far longer than empiricism had, but that is all you guys got -- the past; and it's a rather distant past too, as rationalism largely fell out of favor centuries ago.

To call yourself a 'reservationist' is really a description of your meta-epistemic method, rather than the epistemic approach itself. You can reserve the right to think for yourself, and independently arrive at the rationalist delusion, thus being a 'reservationist rationalist' -- which is AFAICT exactly what you are.

August 30, 2007 at 7:09 AM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

There are probably less than 10,000 people in the US who agree with Masters and Flynn about Lincoln and FDR, and they all read LewRockwell.com on a daily basis. I don't think catering to the mob is a major danger here!
There are probably all sorts of people that take a similar view toward Lincoln and FDR but don't read lewrockwell. Left anarchists like Carson & Preston, Franz Oppenheimer socialists, New Left/Marxists like Gabriel Kolko and purist anarcho-capitalists at No Treason (whose hatred for LVMI/LR are quite odd but can can also be rather amusing) might all be receptive to the less-than-mainstream view of Historic Great Men but put off by the whiff of paleoconservativism (even though some of these people have had things published there). Furthermore, the people reading your blog are not a representative sampling of Americans, but rather among those most likely to read such sites and have such opinions of Lincoln and FDR.

August 30, 2007 at 2:17 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

steve,

I'd like to think Beatrice would be interested in the things that are hard to predict, as well. Of course, if her interest in Earth is solely a matter of its meat production... but do we want to go there?

September 1, 2007 at 1:15 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Most of the neuroscientists whom I know believe that brains are indeed Bayesian inference engines. Ensembles of stochastic, weakly-coupled neurons can do a very nice job of representing probability distributions; Bayesian inferences naturally arise from the statistical physics of these ensembles. (Note that I am not claiming that brains are like the "belief networks" that people use in machine learning. Belief networks are too tidy, algorithmic and supervised to be biologically plausible.)

This is exactly the difference I'm referring to. I also have no problem at all in believing that neurons use Bayesian or Bayesian-like algorithms. But a neuron is not a brain.

September 1, 2007 at 1:17 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Victor,

By talking about "cold icy reason," you reveal your hand!

Empiricism is not a revolt against reason -- it's a revolt against rationalism, against the idea that you can grok the world by simply thinking about things really hard.

See my response to JA above. When it makes sense, empiricism makes sense because of reason. But when it conflicts with reason - as it often does - reason wins.

I am not suggesting a return to the Scholastic era of angels on pins. In fact, I think that era is another fine case of automatism.

September 1, 2007 at 1:19 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

MM, some historical examples of empiricism conflicting with reason and reason winning.

September 1, 2007 at 3:52 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

Darwinian evolution is really the great one, I think, at least in the science department.

But almost every piece of quack economics ever presented has been accompanied by empirical evidence. Inflationists, for example, always note that inflation produces an economic boom. As indeed it does.

September 3, 2007 at 6:36 PM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

Darwinian evolution is really the great one, I think, at least in the science department.
What the hell? Explain.

September 4, 2007 at 7:55 AM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

There's no direct evidence for the transmutation of species. There is some circumstantial evidence, but it's by no means impossible to explain. Deduction has to be deployed.

September 5, 2007 at 10:07 AM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

There's no direct evidence for the transmutation of species.
Species is about as fuzzy a concept as race. People who think there is a real difference between microevolution and macroevolution don't actually know anything about evolution. We've got loads of fossil and DNA evidence for evolution, we've done experiments on creatures with shorter life-cycles on the effects of selection as well as genetic engineering. Anti-evolutionists confronted with the data have to say silly stuff like God planted it to test our faith (for the same reason Hindus consider Siddartha to be an incarnation of Vishnu). No Aristotelian would have come up with evolution in his smoking chair, it was the product of the British empirical tradition.

September 5, 2007 at 12:40 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

No Aristotelian would have come up with evolution in his smoking chair, it was the product of the British empirical tradition.

Perhaps. But an Aristotelian could have come up with evolution in his smoking chair, and certainly thoughts from the smoking chair are sufficient to demonstrate the validity of evolution. No empirical investigation is needed - in theory.

In practice, of course, Darwin went to the Galapagos, Wallace went to Indonesia, etc, etc. But if they had realized the truth of natural selection in their smoking chairs, it would not be any less true.

September 7, 2007 at 10:31 AM  
Anonymous TGGP said...

I asked for an actual example in which reason trumped evidence, and you gave me something that hypothetically could have (though I dispute that without evidence from animal breeding that children inherit qualities from their parents) come from reason, but in practice thousands of years of reasoners never thought of it. But leaving aside that, how the hell does the evidence weigh against Darwinism?

September 7, 2007 at 12:52 PM  
Blogger Mencius Moldbug said...

The evidence doesn't weigh against Darwinism at all. It's just that it doesn't demonstrate it, either, at least in the case of speciation. For that you need the theory.

Empirical examples are a great tool to stimulate thought. The same goes for analogies. But this has nothing to do with actually demonstrating the truth of a proposition.

September 11, 2007 at 3:51 PM  
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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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March 2, 2009 at 9:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

~「朵語‧,最一件事,就。好,你西

March 6, 2009 at 9:12 PM  

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