Friday, November 9, 2007

Why aren't our property rights over one another more transferable?

Why do people get married? If anyone ever proposes to me for a reason other than to surreptitiously steal my belongings or to get more centerlink benefits, I would have to refuse them on the basis that I could not love a man so irrational.

~ all married/engaged folks please forgive me and freely assume I'm just rather jealous :) ~

What is the purpose of a contract to love someone forever?
If you anticipate loving them forever anyway, it would seem to be pointless. I'm told it is romantic nonetheless, but how is it romantic to take a legal precaution that implies some doubt that you will love each other forever?
On the off chance that you stop being in love with them, the last thing you want is to be legally bound to stick with them. And a legal obligation to actually love them is pretty laughable. Possibly if they stop loving you you might want them to stick around regardless, but isn't that rather selfish and desperate? Anyway, surely this is hardly the contingency people have in mind when saying their vows.

Anyway, now that divorce is allowed the whole thing seems to be completely meaningless, except if understood as a way of betting large swathes of assets on the outcomes of ones emotional attachments, with divorce lawyers and priests playing casino. If this is the kind of gambling that floats your boat it makes perfect sense, but perhaps you could benefit from counselling at some point.

I propose a solution for escaping most of the potential damage of weddings while retaining the romance they apparently emanate: short term marriage contracts. At the end of, say, six months (terms such as length should be completely flexible) you renew it, or don't, and act accordingly. If your spouse forgets this anniversary you can give them a year off. The whole ceremony could be the same as before, with a minor alteration to the vows: ' sickness or in health, to love and to cherish 'til death or May 17 - whichever comes first, do us part'. Plus you can have more parties later on.

(On the earlier point, if anyone is ever irrational enough to propose to me, and I usually consider them rational, perhaps I must conclude that they are irrational specifically with regards to me, so therefore may in fact love me. A heuristic for finding selectively crazy guys could be just what one needs. If this occurs then you all have permission to laugh at me lots.)

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Corporate ecology

Direct competition is resource intensive. Just to compete, species and companies have to invest heaps of energy in long trunks and roots, extra hunting and massive advertising campaigns for instance, instead of expanding or improving production. To avoid these costs they move into niches. Where there are multiple species or companies with very similar habits, one will eventually get an advantage somewhere and use it to get further ahead and outcompete the others. Consequently those that survive employ slightly different tactics and are spread between different habitats and markets. The fast food diverged from the fancy restaurants way back and nestled into more isolated markets. The fast food members have since emphasised their differences through differentiation of colourful plastic toys, varieties of hamburger and corporate identity, to appeal to different prey.

Companies can even evolve according to the prey’s preferences, their appendages growing beautiful but functionless layers of plastic and coloured cardboard, along with scents precisely attuned to attract passing shoppers.

All right, the mechanisms are half different (companies at least try to steer their behaviour, though I reckon natural selection comes in there to a great extent too). And the structure of the larger system is perhaps different (unless people are the decomposers, the production chain the trophic levels…yeah, whatev).

Drawing lines and tigers

There is a problem that catches the light occasionally, and is pushed off into political correctitude, but one day will have to be met. Humans are all as good as one another. If they are stupid or disabled or anything this doesn't detract from their worth as people. This is fine - I'm not disagreeing. Animals are worth less than humans. Dead humans are worth less than humans. This is also fine, and I'm not disagreeing. However there's an inconsistency.

These views can only work as long as the gaps between these things and humans are not filled. Humanity isn't binary. There is, at least potentially, a sliding scale between characteristic humanness and, say, characteristic antness, involving variations in many characteristics. Similarly for living and dead. At what point as you travel away from normal human characteristics do you suddenly draw a line and value a creature/person a little less?

In practice as soon as you stop relating to them, but this is hardly the basis for a moral distinction. Wherever you draw a line, it must be admitted that it is arbitrary. So while we might take pride in our fair treatment of all mankind, regardless of their characteristics, we must agree that we could just as legitimately draw the line elsewhere and treat our celebratedly cared for lowest-capability people as animals.

Aside from where to draw the line is the question of why to have one. Why does a characteristic (such as intelligence or 'level of consciousness') varying among animals vary their moral worth, while the same characteristic varying among humans doesn't? Their differences are judged using different rules, but not because of relevant inherent differences.

This problem hasn't fully emerged with animals yet (perhaps more with dead people, and very little with robots), but that does little to the argument: our ethics are inconsistent.

A way to be more open minded (an experimental thought)

(As in actually open minded, not just comfortably sheltered from one's narrow mindedness)

A technique I noticed while experimenting with being wrong:
1. If you have an opinion on something, find an opposing one
2. Feel like you believe it (emotionally, not necessarily mentally - pretend you know it's true and don't think about whether it is). It doesn't matter how averse you are to it - if somebody else can believe it, there are reasons to (not necessarily rational ones). Think of that reason and try out the associated emotions. Feel loyal, caring and understanding toward the idea's followers. The important bit isn't the belief, but its emotional affects - feel something about it.
3. Stop.

Some justification for this touchy feely emotional garbage? To remove it from the equation.
I think the biggest fog over unbiased judgement is emotion. From a side of any battlefield there are fierce positive emotions radiating from your ideals and negative ones flying in from the other side. The correct side is obvious - the one supporting the good feelings! Open mindedness isn't even called for. If it is brought out it is only to declare 'I'm looking at the other side, and they look dangerous!'. But both sides are awash with emotions supporting them and driving them on. If they weren't, there probably wouldn't be an argument. Sound reasons devoid of emotional allure don't pull the crowds. To be open minded it is necessary to neutralise of emotion. But it isn't enough just to acknowledge it - 'well the other side clearly cares about X' - if you actually feel something for the arguments on your side. You have to feel both sides or none. There'll be plenty of non feeling once you're dead, and giving up feelings can be hard, so try for feeling both initially, as outlined above. It'll all fade away quickly and you'll be more open minded.

Note: do not necessarily think both sides are correct as a result. Just choose unemotionally, or taking all emotion into account.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Some half-serious, half-formed thoughts on existing and so on

So I've been banging my head against a wall (metaphorically, almost not) for about a week and a half (or years on and off) about the apparent meaninglessness of anything and the difficulty of finding anything to do that is mildly satisfying next to the absurdity of existing. This is what I've come to:

On lack of inherant meaning in anything:

- Whether there is value inherent in the universe or not (by the way there's not) doesn't matter (nothing does! lol. But that's not my point). Value that you choose to place on something is as legitimate as that which 'God' or anything else does. It would be impossible for a God or anything else to allocate value to things in any more legitimate a way. If they did, and you disagreed with them, why would their values have precedence? To give them precedence would be a value judgement. There is no better possibility than what we've got (similar to how there is no better version of free will than determinism).

- Really it's not that bad. You have the freedom (yay) to value what you think should be valued. If there were some fundamental ones one had to stick by, I'd probably whinge heaps more about that (and anyway, if not comfy with it you can probably find some place to live where some government will be willing to choose values for you - such as Australia it seems)

- It is objectively better to value things, and to value things that other people's values aren't mutually exclusive with. 'Better' is defined in terms of the value placed on stuff (yours and others') - if you value things more, there will be more value. So it will be better. If you value killing people etc. you will impinge on their (probably less messed up) experience of value quite considerably, so it will very likely not be better. In the end the goodness of anything is a practical question of whether the values of the individuals involved are fulfilled. Potential for this depends on them having values, and them not being contradictory.

Note: there is a difference between indifference and not valuing things. You can just indifferently value whatever comes along, without caring what it is (though there are still other people's fixed values to watch out for). This can kind of work.

- You probably get on alright having your own values - knowingly chosen/based on biological and environmental effects - for things like wallpaper and lunch. Just do it for everything else (I don't like AIDS because it doesn't go with my sofa).

On how to behave when the absurdity of existing at all is just so crazy that anything else seems incredibly unsatisfying in comparison:

- Violence? Tried it this arvo for a bit. Distracting, yes. Fun, hell yes. Incredibly satisfying? Not really. A viable source of income? Possibly, but would have to find richer people to mug :)

- If you really feel like hurting yourself just to feel something, physical violence is probably not the best bet. Before it hurts enough you will damage yourself, which isn't useful. Try psychological torment ;D Some good bits of emotion can be had from just thinking about this kind of thing...satisfaction from the horror of dissatisfaction...mmm it's even pleasingly recursive (I like recursion and I don't care if God does). I had some other ideas, but I edited them out, as I feel bad about depressing people, ironically enough.

-Seek satisfaction from the absurdity of existing, without doing anything about it? Just think about it and see how amazed you can be. I suspect not enough to seem appropriate, but what's appropriate?

- Try to be nice and save the world and stuff? As mentioned earlier, I think this is the inevitable conclusion I must come to, regardless of the source of it's preferability. However I'm slightly inclined not to. On further introspection, I think this is merely because I just don't want to follow all the people who are lefties or righties or whatever because they haven't thought about any of this and are just engaging in smugness about their smugness about what they blindly assume is right. It's just kind of lonely - I feel like a hipocrite and an outsider to their sentiments, which makes me angry, which makes me more right wing. This is a bad reason, and anything is going to be lonely, with or without other people to misunderstand me. So this one isn't written off - in fact I think it is still going to be the inevitable conclusion.

- Something that hasn't been done before? Hard to find and once you've done it, it's been done. Also, it is unlikely to be terribly satisfying. Things that are particularly satisfying have probably been done. The best candidate for 'something that hasn't been done and might be satisfying' is something horrendously idealistic and difficult, like saving the world (from whatever, it's irrelevant here). Which solves the problem in the last point, because when smug people with the same end goal as me talk to me I can at least say I want to save the world because it would be 'kind of post-modern'. This will at least make it clear to them if we probably can't relate to each other, and they will go away.

- Hang around and think more about it? I am probably stupid enough to be wrong about how I'm even looking at these problems. Almost cerainly in fact - to my knowledge, nobody exists who isn't impressively stupid. This is one of the more interesting things to read/think about anyway.

- Wait until one day I give up caring about whether things matter inherently or not, and be back to square one...until I stop caring about that...fuck...

- Be relieved that as a the kind of complicated biological and social thing you are, you have a good few pre-programmed preferences for things. You could chuck them all out the window, on the basis that they are arbitrary upshots of evolution. However so are you, and they are the arbitrary upshots you like, and you probably won't find much satisfaction in not having them particularly. Also it's hard to do properly and you probably can't keep it up for that long (' is inevitable to be drawn back into human drama...').

So there. I think I'll go for a combination while I look for other things to think.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Probability is the oil of rationalisation

Or How to do whatever you feel like despite being a rationalist.

To rationally make a choice you weigh up all costs and benefits of all possibilities and choose the one with the greatest net benefit. To rationalise a choice you want to make, you choose costs and benefits that lead to your choice seeming like the rational conclusion. Thinking you're being rational while completely ignoring known costs and benefits that don't lead to your preferred conclusion is hard to do though. Even slight intelligence leads you to notice things like this happening in your mind.

For most everyday decisions I suggest the 'solution' lies in probability estimation. While you might have a set of outcomes you consider possible, their likelihoods are virtually always uncertain. It's a guessing game, and if you're guessing, why not guess things that lead to the conclusion you prefer? You might even notice while you're doing it that your probability estimates are being swayed by the conclusion they'll lead to, but it doesn't matter. Within the range where there are no other bases for their positioning, why change your estimates to ones with a less pleasing outcome in the short term? Essentially we slide partiality into the one non-rational part of a rational process.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Is outdoing monkeys while imagining free will the only way you can feel like a man?

Why does it bother people that we might be pretty similar to other monkeys (i.e. with better vocabularies, worse feet etc but no glorious fundamental difference)? Similarly what's so scary about everything being mechanistic, free will not existing, and everything being meaningless apart from the values that we make up?

If we are fundamentally similar to other animals it has no effect whatsoever on the experience of humanity that we cherish. It has always been that way, and works fine. We know what being human is like, so if monkeys are similar that should only change our ideas of what being a monkey is like. What being a monkey is like is not usually considered a pressing issue in society, so why care? Why does our societal self-worth rest on being heaps better than monkeys?

Similarly with the other possibilities listed above, if they are true, obviously they always have been and everything we enjoy is possible in their presence. It isn't like as soon as you stop believing in free will you will turn into a robot. If it's the case, you already are one, and everything you've ever loved and dreamed of has arisen from that. It's not some strange new reality.

Perhaps practically these things seem to hold different probabilities for the future to other beliefs? e.g. the universe being purely mechanistic might make Heaven seem unlikely. But you could still have a mechanistic God and Heaven and soul (it's not nearly as impossible as non-mechanistic ones). It's not the end of the world.

Or is it actually hard to hold one's own values, for instance, without the delusion that they are somehow fundamentally valuable?

Thursday, September 6, 2007

So much for the factual public debate that democracies completely fail to be built on

Publicly refuting facts often reinforces their believed truth in the minds of the public, and they will even credit the misinformation to the organisation denying it.

A Washington Post article reports an experiment where people were given fliers labelling common ideas about influenza 'true' or 'false'. Half an hour later older people already remembered 28% of falsities as facts, and three days later 40% , by which time younger people caught up to the older people's half hour figure. It seems that the repetition of the false information helps to ingrain it, while the extra information - that it is false - is soon lost.

So how do you have factual public debate when whoever starts it automaticly has a major advantage? Denial and silence can have the same effect as agreeing, but denying is still best. A good proportion of people (a few days later at least) do remember whether their facts are false or not. Though as TWP discusses, it's probably best to deny things without actually mentioning them if possible. That is, fiercly support something mutually exclusive.

As noted in the discussion of Overcoming Bias' post on this, if people have anything at stake they might pay more attention. While this has problems of its own (discussed there), a big obvious gap where it's important for people to have accurate information on topics not directly concerning them is in democracy. Just another in a long list of problems with the kinds of democratic systems we use, but in conjunction with rational ignorance it makes the chance of voters having a clue about anything not immediately concerning them both tiny and tied firmly to the chance of the first buyer of lots of ads happening to be right.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Markets are a kind of electrochemical cell

There are two processes taking place: adding and using up value from units. When everything is mixed together and these processes are happening in one place, they happen slowly (think of subsistence production by consumers). Separate them to their own containers and they happen faster (think production in factories and consumption in homes). The containers must be joined by a channel for units to move according to their value, and a wire for charges to balance that. The same value is removed from particles in one container as added to others in the other.

The extra energy pushing the charges and value laden particles between the containers can be used to run things like light bulbs and welfare systems. Alternatively it can be used to run a small heat to warm up the reaction, or an advertising industry.

While the charges can move around indefinitely, the particles eventually run out. Then it's all over. With any luck/sensible policy the metaphor doesn't continue this far.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Who needs democracy, free speech and all that rubbish when you can prescribe the values of your citizens?

The Australian Government has released a list of ten values it considers essential to being an Australian citizen.

While these principles are relatively inoffensive, letting the government prescribe what values citizens should hold is a frightening road to be going down! The point of democracy is for citizens to decide what the government's values should be. This means nothing if the government chooses citizens' values.

Incidentally I don't value any of those listed per se. Only as general principles that are usually upshots of what I do value. There are times I would act against most of them for values not on this list. I also don't know what our national flower is (though I've never found that a barrier to integrating with Australian culture). I hope I get deported to somewhere where policy is less of a joke.

Friday, August 3, 2007

God is irrelevant

Philosophically that is. Psychologically he fulfils an important role - to distance us from philosophy.

In no way would the existence of a God alter the important properties of the universe. Most of the problems a God supposedly solves are merely shifted to the other side of him - a step further away from humans, where we can comfortably ignore them.

Some solutions God doesn't really provide (presumably all thought of before by various philosophers, but I don't know which ones, and it's irrelevant, so please excuse the plagiarism) :

Creator of the universe: An obvious one. Where did God come from then? If he's existed forever then so could a universe. If you think something as complex as a universe couldn't come from nothing, how complex would God have to be to be able to make universes?

Source of morality: Where does God get his moral principles from? If he invents them himself they are just as arbitrary a set of restrictions on behaviour as any other (such as an atheist's morals are feared to be by the religious). Why follow them? If they are inherent in the universe, related to other people, or a matter of choice then God isn't needed.

Morality is a set of value judgements. If God and I both have a set of value judgements (a moral code), to say that God's takes precedence is a value judgement in itself. Who judges? God? Why?

Provider of free will: For reasons discussed in the previous post, Free will isn't a concept (unless you mean determinism), God can't have - or give humans - free will which isn't deterministic. The absence of God's 'free will' is even more apparent if he must be good all the time (unless he invents his own changeable moral code as he goes, but is that the kind of morality God should subscribe to? Well yes, if he does! But there's still the old problem of free will not existing - he can't escape).

If he's all powerful as well, then he just ends up as another natural law - one that makes good things always happen. Anyone who's been alive can tell you there's fairly solid empirical evidence against such a law existing, but my point isn't to draw attention to the problem of evil so much as to point out that natural laws are nothing new.

The final picture? A God who may well exist*. But who cares? Yeah, if he's all powerful perhaps you should follow his moral laws just to stop him smiting you, but that's politics, not metaphysics.

*except perhaps for the whole problem of evil bit - but goodness is hard to define, so let's give him a break on that one for a moment

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Free will isn't a concept (unless you mean determinism)

Imagine something happens. For instance you make a decision. There are three possibilities for this occurence:

  1. It could be related purely to other factors (determinism)
  2. It could be not related to other factors (randomness)
  3. It could be a combination of these (a mixture of determinism and randomness)
None of these are free will (as commonly understood). So where does the concept of free will fit in? How could an occurence escape from being in one of these categories? Clearly it can't. So there is no possibility of a concept of free will that is in opposition to determinism, let alone a chance of it existing in reality.

But you feel like you have free will (whatever that is - just don't think about it), don't you? Or to put it another way, you feel like your actions are neither determined nor random. You choose them.

And that is precisely why they are determined. They are determined by you. And you already exist to the finest detail at the time you are making the decision. If you made choices (or some element of them) not controlled by your personality, experience, thoughts and anything else that comes under the heading of ‘the state of your brain as a result of genetics and your prior environments’, they would be random, which still isn’t free will (not to mention being a less personal and less appealing model, if that's how you choose your beliefs).

You might argue that you can choose what to think and how to feel , and how heavily to let those things influence you, when making a decision. That doesn't alter the situation however. Those are then choices too, and your decisions for them would presumably have to be made based on other thoughts and feelings , which you would presumably choose, and so on. The point at which free will should have occurred would just be shifted back indefinitely. Again you just have a long chain of cause and effect.

The closest thing you can have to free will is for your actions to be determined purely by the state of your brain. Free will is determinism.