Sweet Nothings

People acknowledge that a "sweet nothing" is a "nothing"; it has no content. So how can it be considered sweet?

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Magee's anti-fallibilism and anti-morality

I finished reading Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee. I have several comments on the last chapter. One is that replacing the phrase "X is a certain truth" with "X is an almost certain truth" does not make one a serious fallibilist. There have been hints that Magee doesn't really understand fallibilism throughout the book, and it's pretty blatant in the final chapter. On the last page of the book Magee talks about what we can and can't prove as if that's important. A fallibilist would know that we can't prove anything, so "can we prove X?" is not a useful thing to wonder about X.

Here is an example of Magee's disrespect for fallibilism on page 454:
We may not know how to answer [the questions above], but their significance--and, what is more, their fundamental importance--can scarcely be open to doubt.
And another on page 452:
I think I know that our situation is at least roughly as I have described it up to this point.
BTW, what is he so sure of? That realism is false! He's so sure that we have "selves" that are not part of the natural world. He's so sure that looking into a person's eyes is not a physical process. He's so sure that his favorite school of philosophy (German Idealism) is correct. How sad and parochial!

I think the worst passage in the book is this one, on the second to last page (462):
Throughout my life I have believed that I knew when I was doing wrong. The problem in those cases has not been knowing what was right but doing it.
Throughout the book Magee makes one thing especially clear: he loves philosophy. He is curious. He has questions and he wants answers. He loves to learn new things. He cares about creating knowledge.

This passage is a striking exception. It is extremely disrespectful to philosophy. It says that with regard to morality, philosophy has nothing to offer us. It says there are no interesting or important problems or questions to explore about how to live. It says that thinking is not needed. All that is needed is to obey the moral rules his parents taught him, and they are good enough for all of time, and the only problem is how to obey them more faithfully.

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The Mystical Power of Eyes?

Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee page 451:
According to the laws of physics nothing comes out of anyone's eyes at all. Light rays go into the eye, and cause all sorts of things to happen inside a person, such as seeing and headaches, but there is nothing at all that comes out of the eye into the surrounding space. According to all the scientific knowledge we have, what I see when I look into someone's eyes is the light from the surrounding air reflected back to me from the surfaces of the person's eyeballs, and that light is outside the person, the light in the air around us coming back at me again. If it is dark I cannot see the person: it is only by the surrounding light that I see the surfaces of his eyeballs, with whatever degree of clarity that allows. And that, according to science, is the whole of the situation. But who actually believes it? Who can believe it? The truth of which most of us have indubitable experience every day is that when I look into another person's eyes I am in what is for the most part a reliable degree of contact with multitudinous things going on inside that person--and he with multitudinous things going on inside me: feelings, moods, thoughts, intentions, hesitations, doubts, fears, hopes, and a host of other highly variegated inner states, together with attempts to conceal or dissemble any or all of those, most of it fleeting and flashing past in flickering instants of time, and the whole of it nuanced and inflected in subtle and sophisticated ways. Is there anyone who believes that this staunchless two-way flow of information is physically encoded on the surfaces of our eyeballs in a way that changes multitudinously instant by instant like a flow of orchestral sound (if so, how is it encoded?) and read off in the surrounding light by observers who instantly and accurately decode it in what is at both ends an essentially computing process? I have yet to hear of such a person.
I am such a person.

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A False Dichotomy

Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee page 441:
most people tend either to believe that all reality is in principle knowable or to believe that there is a religious dimension to things. A third alternative--that we can know very little but have equally little ground for religious belief--receives scant consideration, and yet seems to me to be where the truth lies. Simple though it is, people have difficulty getting their minds round it.

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Romance In Movies

This standard plot is found in over 9000 movies:

omfg hi
omfg hi
omfg i lik u
omfg i'm coy
omfg i lik u 2
omfg we happy
omfg i did bad
omfg i hat u
omfg i sry
omfg fuk u
omfg i sry
omfg i sry
omfg i sry
omfg wtf fein
omfg i'm forgiven?
omfg i guess
omfg we're <3
omfg happy ever after

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Wittgenstein Considered Harmful

Confessions of a Philosopher by Bryan Magee page 414
[Bertrand Russell] believed that mathematics was a body of knowledge about reality until the young Wittgenstein convinced him that mathematical truths were tautologies.

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Popper's Leftism

Here are two unfortunate quotes by Popper:

if there could be such a thing as socialism combined with individual liberty, I would be a socialist still. For nothing could be better than living a modest, simple and free life in an egalitarian society. It took some time before I recognized this as no more than a beautiful dream; that freedom is more important than equality; that the attempt to realize equality endangers freedom; and that, if freedom is lost, there will not even be equality among the unfree.
Myth of the Framework page 125:
Avoidance of war is ... the overriding problem of public policy ... In this context it should be stated very clearly that one of the most disturbing aspects of recent events is the cult of violence. We all know that one of the most horrible aspects of our entertainment industry is the constant propaganda for violence, from allegedly harmless Westerns and crime stories to displays of cruelty pure and simple. It is tragic to see that this propaganda has had its effects even on genuine artists and scientists, and unfortunately also on our students (as the cult of revolutionary violence shows).

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Solving Problems

To solve a problem, or to accomplish anything at all, there are only three fundamental obstacles.

1) It may be impossible.

2) You may lack knowledge of how to do it.

3) You may not want to do it.

The first is about the laws of physics, the second the laws of epistemology, and the third the laws of morality. Because people are universal knowledge creators -- they can create any knowledge that can be created -- (2) can only be a temporary obstacle.

(1) can prevent us doing things, but it need not ever make us unhappy. Human problems are soluble within the laws of physics. Suppose we had the ideal world that was physically possible -- utopia. It would be ridiculous to be unhappy about that (especially given that in our present, imperfect society there is already a lot of good). So we can reach a point within the laws of physics which we can be happy with.

(3) can also prevent us doing things, but it can never make us unhappy. If we'd be happy about doing something then it allows it.

(2), despite being the temporary obstacle, is more problematic. We can create knowledge without limit, but there are no guarantees about when we'll learn a given thing. We might have a problem and not learn the knowledge that would solve it for hundreds of years. So to be happy (now) we need a life strategy that can cope with not having lots of knowledge. We can expect to have some knowledge, and some ignorance, and we can't guarantee having any specific piece of knowledge (or acquiring it in under a trillion years).

Fortunately we can get by with an arbitrarily large amount of ignorance. If we get stuck on a particular problem that we can't figure out then we can always replace it with a new one. And if we get stuck again then we can replace it again. We can do this without limit until we find a problem we know how to solve, now.

I may post the method later.

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Political Spectrum

It's interesting to analyze people not by how left-wing or right-wing they are, but instead by which direction their mistakes tend to be in. Which direction on the political spectrum should they have moved to make less mistakes?

I have found many of examples of mistakes in a leftward direction. Karl Popper was sympathetic to socialism and disliked the influence of TV. Friedrich Hayek supported a guaranteed minimum income. David Friedman incorrectly conceded points about public goods to anti-capitalists. Bryan Magee, Richard Dawkins, and William Godwin provide further examples. All of these people would be well served by more right-wing attitudes.

It's hard to find good thinkers who could be improved by being more left wing. The best example I've found so far is Ann Coulter.

In other words, here are some mistakes common to the left wing: environmentalism, anti-capitalism and socialism, authoritarianism, anti-Americanism, anti-semitism, cultural relativism, moral relativism, being a revolutionary. And here are some mistakes common to the right wing: homophobia, anti-semitism, being pro-life, creationism, being overly attached to religion over reason, sexism. The items on the first list of mistakes are considerably more common among good thinkers than the items on the second list.

What this means isn't obvious.

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A Philosopher's History of Free Will

As with Feynman's Physicists' History of Physics, airtight historical accuracy is not intended or relevant. This is a story about ideas, not really a history.

Once upon a time there were people. And then there were children and Judaism. After a few generations, a wise rabbi noticed that some adults are bad people, like murderers or pagans, and others were good people, like fellow rabbis, blacksmiths, or moneylenders.

And he noticed that as young children he couldn't see any critical difference in people. He couldn't predict who would turn out good, and who would turn out bad. He guessed that whether a child would be a good or bad person as an adult was not yet determined when they were still a child.

He tried preaching to people. He told them about how to be good people. He found very little success preaching to bad adults, but he found that in a controlled, double blind study the children he preached to turned out to be good adults at a much higher rate than children in a pagan control group.

And thus our Rabbi determined that human actions play a role in whether children grow up to be virtuous or wicked. But he wanted to help everyone, and some of the children he helped still turned out badly. What was going on? He needed an explanation.

He came up with the explanation that it is within a person's power to turn out either way, and they are able to choose which way they want to be. He found that the world made more sense taking into account this explanation. He found the explanation helped him and did not create any worse problems than he had before. He concluded that the explanation, while it may not be perfect, had content. There was something good about it.

Over the generations the idea of free will was refined. For example, people noticed that adults sometimes can make choices and change themselves. And they noticed that people get more than one choice in their whole life. And they noticed that the concept can be applied to simple things like "choosing" a flavor of ice cream. They also noticed that it sometimes may not apply; they noticed factors that can make it hard to choose; and they noticed factors that reliably make most exposed people turn out in a certain way.

Eventually, by the year 2008, the general understanding of free will was quite a bit better than the original, including the understanding of what is and is not an exception. Progress had been made.

If someone wants to say that free will is a bad concept, he needs to tell a better story. He needs to solve the same problems in a better way. If he wants to replace this story with nothing at all that is a revolutionary, anti-Popperian approach which is inconsistent with the steady growth of knowledge. We need improved ideas that do a better job of solving our problems. We do not a bunch of logicians to go on a rampage throwing out any ideas they don't understand well enough to justify, and leaving us to find new solutions from scratch.

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Encouraging Girls To Be Pretty

"I wish I could do something like that."

I knew a plea for attention when I heard it ... so I closed the book. "You have other talents."

"Yeah, right."

"Seriously," I said. "You're really smart. And pretty, too."

"Pretty isn't a talent. Besides, it's not like I can get a job because of it."

"Well, you know about current events and stuff."

"Great," she scoffed. "Another useful skill."

"I dunno, maybe somebody'll hire you to be smart and pretty and talk about current events."

"Yeah, right."

"Hey, you never know."
Girls don't obsess about their appearance all on their own initiative. If they ever waver they'll get plenty of reminders. In this scene the girl wants to be good at something important that could land her an intellectually respectable job, and she meets with resistance. The guy says she's smart as an empty platitude and then brings up her looks twice.

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Impersonal Personal Relationships

"Seriously, though. What kind of guy are you looking for?"

She stopped and gave it some thought. "Someone smart... funny... cute... cool. Interested in politics... TV... music." She thought for a moment and then went on, "Tall... well-built, but not all muscles... a cute smile... nice teeth"”no braces, ugh." Another pause. "Dark hair... kinda wavy... not too hairy otherwise... knows how to treat a lady... can talk about his feelings..."


"All I really want is a guy I can trust," she said with a shrug.
There isn't anything very demanding on this list. How many people *wouldn't* qualify?

Basically this is the same stuff every other girl wants, and which every guy knows he should be in order to be attractive.

The most restrictive trait listed is either being tall or being interested in politics. Both are extremely normal.

Let's set aside the issue of whether these things are good or not. What I find most disturbing is that they are all stereotypical. The girl hasn't expressed any preference personal to her. She doesn't *have* her own preferences, she only has her culture's preferences.

She doesn't know that. If asked, she'd say her desires for what kind of guy she wants is a "deeply personal" subject.

And she's ignoring a lot of evidence for the fact that her preferences are not unique, such as all her friends having similar preferences, and all the TV characters she sees.

Conventional personal relationships are highly impersonal.

The South Park creators made the same point in Team America:

Only a woman
Can brighten up my day
Only a woman
Can touch me the right way
Only a woman
Is allowed to touch me there
All I ask is that you're a woman

I like rain, I like hair
I like you
You're around, you're right here
So you'll do
They are teasing guys who have such impersonal taste in personal relationships that any woman will do.

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Popper's Insignifiance

The Myth of the Framework page 195:
Men are not gods and they ought to know it. We shall never dominate nature. The mountaineer is to be pitied who sees in mountains nothing but adversaries he has to conquer -- who does not know the feeling of gratitude, and the feeling of his own insignificance in the face of nature.
Popper's idea that men are insignificant compared to nature applies to himself: Popper is insignificant next to a zebra or a pile of dirt.

At least that's what he says. I think that is ridiculous. I think Popper had more good ideas while walking over one hill than all zebras have ever had.

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Schopenhauer, Kant, Magee

I'm reading Bryan Magee's Confessions of a Philosopher. He's been talking up Schopenhauer throughout the book. I finally got to the part where he explains Schopenhauer. On Magee's first attempt to read Schopenhauer, he found some quotes in a book about Schopenhauer. He gives half a dozen examples to show Schopenhauer's appeal and talent. I found every single example unimpressive. Meanwhile Magee tried to read the primary source and he found it impenetrable and dense and wasn't getting anything out of it and gave up.

Six years later, Magee tried again, and that time he loved Schopenhauer. One of the first things he actually says about Schopenhauer's ideas, on page 356, is:
Schopenhauer believed, along with a great many other people then and since, that Kant's most important insight was that what we human beings can think, perceive, know, experience, or be aware of in any way at all depends not only on what the reality is with which we have to deal but also on the apparatus we have for doing those things -- our human bodies with their senses, nervous systems and brains.
From this I have concluded that Schopenhauer is worthless (which I already suspected). It also confirms that Kant is worthless. Why?

First, this idea does not have the ring of great philosophy. It's not a penetrating insight. It's a lot closer to common sense. There's just nothing special about it. It seems to me that this idea must have been invented by countless people, most of whom didn't consider it worth making a fuss over. If this is the best Kant has to offer, then he is simply not a great philosopher. Even if it were true it would not be very impressive.

There is a major school of thought which existed before Kant, and which believes we gain knowledge of the world through our senses. Is it really the case that none of them ever considered the limitations of our sense organs before Kant pointed it out? That is not plausible. They must have considered the issue and had a reply already worked out.

Now for the critical flaw: Kant's "most important insight" is false.

As Popper taught us, starting points are not very important, what's important is to look for and correct errors. If you begin with limited and flawed ideas, so what? All our ideas are flawed anyway, and all our ideas are limited in their scope and understanding. That doesn't stop us making progress. Learning takes as input flawed and limited ideas, then proceeds to flawed and limited criticisms of them, and flawed and limited guesses at new ideas, and flawed and limited suggestions for minor changes to existing ideas, and outputs an unlimited stream of progress.

If your eyes are faulty that is not a fundamental handicap. You can get glasses or a microscope. You can ask questions of people with better eyesight. You can touch things to get a more accurate idea of their size. You can get a seeing eye dog. Or you can guess in what way your eyes are faulty, then reinterpret everything you see to account for the fault. And then you can see what goes right and what goes wrong, and adjust your way of reinterpreting. Even Hellen Keller was able to learn things.

No one's senses are perfectly reliable, and that isn't important.

One final issue is universality. There is some set of sense organs, which is fairly minimal, which allows one to do any measurement possible (with appropriate tools and aids, which you can construct). For example, only having the sense of touch would be sufficient to learn anything. You can construct artificial eyes which output braille. And a sound recorder that outputs braille. And a smeller and taster, and more. And therefore Kant's implication that we are limited in what we can measure/observe by the details of our sense organs is false. Even Hellen Keller had a universal set of sense organs.

Similar lines of argument apply to our nervous systems and brains which have universality, taking into account possible augmentations which we are capable of performing (after learning how to perform them, which we are also capable of).

All in all, it's not really a bad idea. If my neighbor told it to me, I'd give him some pointers and encourage him to think about it more. It's not obvious why it's false. But it's not great philosophy either.

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Popper: Meek or Angry?

On page 183 of Confessions of a Philosopher, Bryan Magee writes
In practice this meant [Popper] was trying to subjugate people. And there was something angry about the energy and intensity with which he made the attempt.


Emotionally, Popper understood little if anything of this. he behaved as if the proper thing to do was think one's way carefully to a solution by the light of rational criteria and then, having come as responsibly and critically as one can to a liberal-minded view of what is right, impose it by unremitting exercise of will, and never let up until one gets one's way. "The totalitarian liberal" was one of his nicknames at the London School of Economics, and it was a perceptive one.

... discussions with me were carried on by him in a kind of rage ...

... the angrier he got ...

In later years [Popper] said that in those early meetings I was frequently rude to him, but I do not believe this to be true ... The truth, I think, is that I stood up to his intellectual bullying and hit back hard, and that he was taken aback by this, coming from someone half his age, and he resented it--and then, because he resented it, saw it as offensive.
And on page 198:
I became uninhibited about hitting him with all the artillery I could muster ... [Popper] turned every discussion into the verbal equivalent of a fight, and appeared to become almost uncontrollable with rage, and would tremble with anger
David Miller contradicts Magee:

[Popper] said that I did a good job as his assistant, and later he trusted me with his writings in a way that he rarely trusted others; nonetheless, I was amazed, and endeared, by the meekness with which he so often accepted my suggestions and emendations.


I never really managed to quarrel properly with Popper in all the years that I knew him. We disagreed on many issues, of course, philosophical, technical, stylistic, tactical, and personal. But far from being overbearing, he was patient and tolerant. If there was difficulty in resolving disagreements, it was not tiresome confrontation ... Sweet in argument, Popper was as often as not the one who gave way.

I am inclined to think Miller is correct. There are hints in Magee's story that he himself was not calm during those discussions and may have misinterpreted what was going on. Popper's view was that Magee was rude and Magee, by his own report, "hit" Popper "hard" which supports Popper's view. Magee interpreted their discussions as fights, but that does not mean that Popper did too.

Magee's assertion that Popper was taken aback by criticism -- that he was surprised by it -- is at odds with the facts of Popper's life. Popper was never idolized during his career; he was closer to an outcast; people disagreed with Popper and criticized him all the time, certainly more often than they agreed with him. Being criticized was the status quo for Popper, not something that would shock him.

My guess is that Popper was very accustomed to criticism, and genuinely enjoyed it, and that's why he did not realize his criticisms were offending Magee, who was less open to criticism than Popper.

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