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How a New Hampshire libertarian utopia was foiled by bears

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This Vox report by Sean Illing is from just over a year ago — published in December, 2020 — but it deserves some recognition and reading:

Every ideology produces its own brand of fanatics, but there’s something special about libertarianism.

I don’t mean that as an insult, either. I love libertarians! For the most part, they’re fun and interesting people. But they also tend to be cocksure about core principles in a way most people aren’t. If you’ve ever encountered a freshly minted Ayn Rand enthusiast, you know what I mean.

And yet one of the things that makes political philosophy so amusing is that it’s mostly abstract. You can’t really prove anything — it’s just a never-ending argument about values. Every now and again, though, reality intervenes in a way that illustrates the absurdity of particular ideas.

Something like this happened in the mid-2000s in a small New Hampshire town called Grafton. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, author of a new book titled A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, says it’s the “boldest social experiment in modern American history.” I don’t know if it’s the “boldest,” but it’s definitely one of the strangest.

The experiment was called the “Free Town Project” (it later became the “Free State Project”), and the goal was simple: take over Grafton’s local government and turn it into a libertarian utopia. The movement was cooked up by a small group of ragtag libertarian activists who saw in Grafton a unique opportunity to realize their dreams of a perfectly logical and perfectly market-based community. Needless to say, utopia never arrived, but the bears did! (I promise I’ll explain below.)

I reached out to Hongoltz-Hetling to talk about his book. I wanted to know what happened in New Hampshire, why the experiment failed, and what the whole saga can teach us not just about libertarianism but about the dangers of loving theory more than reality.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

How would you describe the “Free Town Project” to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

I’d put it like this: There’s a national community of libertarians that has developed over the last 40 or 50 years, and they’ve never really had a place to call their own. They’ve never been in charge of a nation, or a state, or even a city. And they’ve always really wanted to create a community that would showcase what would happen if they implemented their principles on a broad scale.

So in 2004, a group of them decided that they wanted to take some action on this deficiency, and they decided to launch what they called the Free Town Project. They sent out a call to a bunch of loosely affiliated national libertarians and told everyone to move to this one spot and found this utopian community that would then serve as a shining jewel for the world to see that libertarian philosophies worked not only in theory but in practice. And they chose a town in rural New Hampshire called Grafton that already had fewer than 1,000 people in it. And they just showed up and started working to take over the town government and get rid of every rule and regulation and tax expense that they could.

Sean Illing

Of all the towns in all the world, why Grafton?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

They didn’t choose it in a vacuum. They actually conducted a very careful and thorough search. They zeroed in on the state of New Hampshire fairly quickly because that’s the “Live Free or Die” state. They knew that it would align well with their philosophy of individualism and personal responsibility. But once they decided on New Hampshire, they actually visited dozens of small towns, looking for that perfect mix of factors that would enable them to take over.

What they needed was a town that was small enough that they could come up and elbow the existing citizenry, someplace where land was cheap, where they could come in and buy up a bunch of land and kind of host their incoming colonists. And they wanted a place that had no zoning, because they wanted to be able to live in nontraditional housing situations and not have to go through the rigamarole of building or buying expensive homes or preexisting homes.

Sean Illing

Wait, what do you mean by “nontraditional housing”?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

As the people of Grafton soon found out, a nontraditional housing situation meant a camp in the woods or a bunch of shipping containers or whatever. They brought in yurts and mobile homes and formed little clusters of cabins and tents. There was one location called “Tent City,” where a bunch of people just lived in tents from day to day. They all united under this broad umbrella principle of “personal freedom,” but as you’d expect, there was a lot of variation in how they exercised it.

Sean Illing

What did the demographics of the group look like? Are we talking mostly about white guys or Ayn Rand bros who found each other on the internet?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Well, we’re talking about hundreds of people, though the numbers aren’t all that clear. They definitely skewed male. They definitely skewed white. Some of them had a lot of money, which gave them the freedom to be able to pick up roots and move to a small town in New Hampshire. A lot of them had very little money and nothing keeping them in their places. So they were able to pick up and come in. But most of them just didn’t have those family situations or those 9-to-5 jobs, and that was really what characterized them more than anything else.

Sean Illing

And how did they take over the local government? Did they meet much resistance?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

When they first showed up, they hadn’t told anyone that they were doing this, with the exception of a couple of sympathetic libertarians within the community. And so all of a sudden the people in Grafton woke up to the fact that their town was in the process of being invaded by a bunch of idealistic libertarians. And they were pissed. They had a big town meeting. It was a very shouty, very angry town meeting, during which they told the Free Towners who dared to come that they didn’t want them there and they didn’t appreciate being treated as if their community was an experimental playpen for libertarians to come in and try to prove something.

But the libertarians, even though they never outnumbered the existing Grafton residents, what they found was that they could come in, and they could find like-minded people, traditional conservatives or just very liberty-oriented individuals, who agreed with them on enough issues that, despite that angry opposition, they were able to start to work their will on the levers of government.

They couldn’t pass some of the initiatives they wanted. They tried unsuccessfully to withdraw from the school district and to completely discontinue paying for road repairs, or to declare Grafton a United Nations free zone, some of the outlandish things like that. But they did find that a lot of existing Grafton residents would be happy to cut town services to the bone. And so they successfully put a stranglehold on things like police services, things like road services and fire services and even the public library. All of these things were cut to the bone.

Sean Illing

Then what happened over the next few years or so?

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

By pretty much any measure you can look at to gauge a town’s success, Grafton got worse. Recycling rates went . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more — and indeed, there’s the book.

It strongly reminds me of Don Quixote, who spend so much time and study in reading his books of knights-errant that those became his reality, so that when he encountered things in the real world, he could see them only through the warped lens of his reading, so he attacked the windmills as though they were giants and the flock of sheep as though they were an army. He could no longer see things as they were, but only as his books and readings told him they should be.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 4:44 pm

The mask conundrum: A dialogue

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Kevin Drum treats us to a Socratic dialogue. He writes:

There’s a fundamental problem with our campaign to get people to wear masks. It’s pretty obvious, but here it is:

Socrates: Our greatest healers and physicians are united in urging us to wear masks in order to fight the plague that runs rampant among us. Do you believe their advice to be sound?

Glaucon: Why yes.

Socrates: And what evidence do they offer that you find so persuasive?

Glaucon: It is obvious that masks reduce the expulsion of bad airs from breathing and coughing. If I am suffering from the plague—but still out in the agora because I am not yet feeling any ill effects—it diminishes the number of malignant corpuscles that I introduce into the world.

Socrates: So when you wear a mask, you do it to help other people, not yourself?

Glaucon: That is so. It is not perfect, but it is still beneficent to the good health of Athens.

Socrates: And you consider this a virtuous act.

Glaucon: Indeed I do. A respect for the good of society is one of the highest virtues.

Socrates: Quite so. But you’ll admit that not everyone thinks as you do.

Glaucon: Unhappily, all my experience among men teaches me that you are right.

Socrates: So on the one side, we have your fellow citizens of virtue. They are the most likely to heed the advice of our physicians, are they not?

Glaucon: I cannot disagree.

Socrates: And being virtuous, they have probably already visited a physician and procured for themselves a potion that protects against the plague?

Glaucon: Indeed, I myself have done so. I believe it was called a “vaccine.”

Socrates: And what does this “vaccine” accomplish?

Glaucon:  . . .

Do continue reading. Drum points out a paradox we need to solve.

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 1:36 pm

The roots of Libertarianism

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Libertarianism has never made any sense at all to me, though I do understand some people find its ideas attractive and its logic irrefutable. The fact that it doesn’t work doesn’t bother them because, dad-gummit, it should work. (You may detect aspects of Don Quixote in this attitude, and if so, we we are in agreement.)

But where did this strange delusion originate? As it happens, there’s an excellent history that’s available as a PDF. Here it is:

From that document:

The more people got to know about LeFevre’s libertarian program, the more they started calling it out as an elaborate swindle hatched by wealthy interests, designed to talk the public into dismantling their own government power and institutions the only power that protected the public from the sort of corporate abuse that had brought on the Great Depression.

The purpose of Freedom School’s teachings, it was becoming increasingly clear, was to turn the American public against their own government, to free up corporations and the rich to do as they pleased, by selling it as “freedom” and to tarnish the forces that impeded corporate power government, democracy, labor unions as “tyranny.”

Read the whole thing.

And see also this previous post. (Libertarian Texas power grid)

And this one. (Libertarian destruction of Sears)

And this one. (Libertarians take over and destroy a city in Texas)

And this one. (Libertarians take over and destroy a city in New Hampshire)

And this one. (Libertarian naïveté)

Oh, heck: here’s the whole list. (blog search on “libertarian”)

Written by Leisureguy

22 January 2022 at 11:04 am

Great books are still great

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Full disclosure: I am an alumnus of the Great Books Program at St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD, and in addition I was a faculty member and director of admissions there a decade later. I can talk at length about the benefits of the program (which to my mind focuses on the development of intellectual skills more than intellectual content), but I’ll save that for another time — but I will note that skills are practical knowledge and thus are acquired and developed through practice.

In Aeon Roosevelt Montás, senior lecturer in American studies and English at Columbia University and director of the Freedom and Citizenship program at the Center for American Studies, has an article on the Great Books, which I believe is an edited extract from his book Rescuing Socrates: How the Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (2021). The article begins:

As a high-school student with still-shaky English proficiency, I found a collection of Plato’s dialogues in a garbage pile near my house in Corona, Queens. I had grown up in a mountain town in the Dominican Republic and emigrated to New York City just before my 12th birthday. My mother had left the Dominican Republic a few years earlier, secured the only job she could get, earning the minimum wage in a garment factory, and petitioned for my brother and I to join her. In 1985, we entered New York City’s overcrowded public school system, where the free lunches supplied a good portion of our sustenance. Like many immigrants, we were poor, exposed, and disoriented by our uprooting.

It was not an auspicious beginning for the career I would have as student, academic administrator and faculty member at an Ivy League university. But the jarring journey became, at some point, less of a handicap and more of a peculiar vantage point from which to reflect on the intellectual and social world I had entered. My development was nourished by an education in what some people call ‘the great books’. That same education has made me sensitive to a culturally influential critique of ‘the canon’ that insists that Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Montaigne, Cervantes, Goethe, Hegel, Dostoyevsky, Woolf, et al, are not for people like me, that they are for white people, or rich people, or people born with class privileges that I lacked.

In the collection of Plato’s dialogues that I rescued from the garbage pile on that winter night in Queens, I encountered an old man named Socrates in his final days. He was defending himself against accusations of corrupting the youth and of introducing new gods to the city. ‘Men of Athens,’ he protested,

I am grateful and I am your friend, but … as long as I draw breath and am able, I shall not cease to practise philosophy, to exhort you … [asking] are you not ashamed of your eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation and honours as possible, while you do not care for nor give thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of your soul?

By the end of the collection, we find him in prison on the day appointed for his execution, ‘calmly and easily’ drinking the poison, laying down, and dying: ‘Such was the end of our comrade,’ says the first-person narrator, ‘a man who, we would say, was of all those we have known the best, and also the wisest and the most upright.’ I did not need to be rich, privileged or cultured to find in those words something that spoke to the deepest sense of my own being. And I did not need to be white or European to be startled by the claim that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.

Every summer since 2009, I have used these same Platonic dialogues to introduce low-income high-school students, who hope to be the first in their families to attend college, to the philosophic, ethical, and political tradition that Socrates inspired. Every year, I see my students roused to serious self-examination and, in many cases, to an earnest and lasting reorientation of their lives. They do not see Thucydides, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, and other texts we study, as alien objects belonging to others, but as thinkers who speak with a living voice to issues of urgency and relevance to their own experience. Again and again, I see these young people awaken to a source of self-worth and meaning that is not constrained by the material limitations that have otherwise hemmed in their lives.

The liberatory power of ‘the canon’ is easily lost in the theoretical haze of the academic humanities. At the same time, institutions of higher education have been all too ready to abandon the idea of liberal education – of learning for its own sake – in favour of professional and specialised studies. But the old classics still have the power to move and transform young people in ways that no technical education can. We don’t have to dilute the practical value of a higher education nor ignore the insights of the academic humanities to restore the vitality of liberal education in our colleges and universities.

In my last year of college, I . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

21 January 2022 at 11:30 am

The last design you’ll ever make

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The original Östereich Post KS 1952

Interaction Magic has a lengthy and well-illustrated article on the right to repair. It begins:

In the summer of 1950, a secret team of Austrian engineers embarked on project Nr. 121. From the basement of their Östereich Post headquarters, they set out to define a global benchmark in sustainable product design. The KS1952 Telephone that followed was a huge commercial success, influencing half a century of consumer electronics innovation and spawning the famous German Langzeitdesign (“Long term design”) movement.

You’ve never heard of this, because it’s complete fiction. The telephone is real and inside it’s a masterclass in design for repair. But instead of half a decade of global Langzeitdesign, we’ve waited almost seventy years for the growing right to repair movement to propel via grassroots movementscafesclinicsfestivals and (slowly) EU law into the mainstream.

To conserve the resources we have, repairing products to extend their lifespan is critical as there are currently no viable alternatives. Re-manufacturing of electronics has yet to appear at any significant scale. In the UK, less than 10% of all plastic is actually recycled. Microsoft’s Ocean Plastic Mouse might look cute, but if you really cared about the oceans you’d be best off not buying a new mouse at all.

Designers were brought up to design from cradle to grave. Our new challenge is to postpone that grave as long as we can.

How can we design the last product our customers will ever need buy?

Designing for a right to repair

From Teslas to insulin pumps, whether you design for it or not, the products we make will get opened up and repaired.

Consciously designing for repair needs three parts:

  1. A supply chain of replacement parts
  2. Design for re-assembly
  3. Accessible documentation

For consumer electronics, extending the product’s lifespan traditionally relied on ability of the manufacturer to supply replacement parts. Little Henry Hoover sets the benchmark here. This charming British design icon has 75 components, almost all of which can be used to repair the original 1981 design.

Unlike vacuum cleaners, consumers tend to notice meaningful improvements in the capabilities of smartphones every 3-5 years. Fairphone launched the Fairphone 1 in December 2013. They rightly deserve praise for a business built on lowering their environmental impact, from material sourcing and labour conditions to modularity and repairability. Despite these best intentions, Fairphone managed only 4 years of spare parts until the impact of managing a growing supply chain of obsolescence forced their hand.

Repair not replace is nothing new. We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years for economic, if not environmental, reasons. Yet problems arise when we depend on the manufacturer’s own parts for repair. Right to repair is as much mindset shift as engineering challenge and retaining all of the power with manufacturers is little better than providing no repair option at all.

Brands and manufacturers must learn the benefits that arise when they relinquish control of the repair process to their customers. As designers, our brief is simple. We must design for repair, assuming we’ll no longer be there to help.

And it all starts with  …

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

19 January 2022 at 1:32 pm

You Don’t Think In Any Language

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David J. Lobina writes in 3 Quarks Daily Part 2 in a series of essays on thought and language. (Part 1 in the series is here.) Lobina writes:

A provocative title, perhaps, and perhaps also counterintuitive. One thinks in the language one speaks, everybody knows that. Why would anyone ask bilingual speakers which language they think in (or dream in) otherwise?

I suspect that what people usually have in mind when they ask such questions is related to the phenomenon of inner speech, the experience of internally speaking to ourselves, which may well be ubiquitous in adults (but probably not in children), though not entirely universal. I certainly think that inner speech plays a role in thinking, but not as central a role as most people seem to think (I will come back to this on a later post, probably in Part 4 of this series, where I will also discuss how writers of fiction use the narrative technique of “interior monologue” to outline some of the mental processes of a given character (thinking, feeling, etc.) – but mostly to argue that authors generally go about it the wrong way!).

The point I want to make in this post is that no-one thinks in any natural language; not in English, or Italian, or whatever, but in a language of thought, an abstract, unconscious and moreover inaccessible, conceptual representational system of the mind. Or at least I intend to provide some of the evidence, anecdotal and otherwise, that suggests that this is indeed the state of affairs.

The idea of a language of thought is in fact a rather old one. It effectively refers to the old doctrine that we think in a mental language that is not a spoken language. Traceable back to Aristotle, Boethius, and William of Ockham (among others), the doctrine is to a large extent premised on the general observation that speakers of different languages can refer to the very same “things”, though they may employ different words to talk about them. As the French philosopher Claude Panaccio has aptly put it in a recent historical overview of the mental language, the French can talk about un homme whereas the English would say a man and the ancient Romans homo, but they all would have had the same “idea” in mind – the same concept, as cognitive scientists call such things, and as I myself mentioned last time around. Crucially, the same logic applies to the sentences in which the mentioned words can appear: homo curritun homme court and a man is running simply describe the same event – the same thought – in different languages.

This, at the very least, suggests a . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

17 January 2022 at 6:01 pm

Could Small Still Be Beautiful?

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Bryce T. Bauer writes in Craftsmanship:

1. “Economics as a Form of Brain Damage”
2. The Schumacher Center for a New Economics
3. The New Economics of Land Ownership
4. The New Economics of Business Financing
5. The New Economics of Currency
6. The New Economics of Entrepreneurship
7. Challenges to the New Economy

Four decades ago, just as some of the forces that have caused today’s problems with globalization and inequality began to take hold, a British economist by the name of E.F. Schumacher took America by storm with a set of contrary ideas about how an economy should work.

Schumacher aimed squarely at supporting everyday people and the communities where they lived. For a brief period in the mid-1970s, his name enjoyed headline status — and his book, “Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered,” joined a pantheon of powerful, call-to-action works of the time. Schumacher’s book was taken so seriously that, a few years after its publication, it was listed alongside such enduring critiques as Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Paul R. Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb.”

While “Small Is Beautiful” hasn’t endured with quite the same power those works have enjoyed, its ideas have still seeped into the thinking of some of the nation’s latter-day acolytes of social and environmental sustainability, including Wendell Berry, Jane Jacobs, and Bill McKibben. Schumacher’s work also inspired a small think-tank focused on turning the small towns and bucolic countryside of the Massachusetts Berkshires into a laboratory for further exploration of his theories.

Given how rarely Schumacher’s once-popular ideas are discussed today, one can’t help but wonder—were his perceptions all wrong? Or, as the director of the institute focused on sustaining his ideas, and as Schumacher himself also said, was their time yet to come? If the latter, might that time be now? Every day, it seems, more and more experts join the argument that the accelerating dominance of global companies — in a world struggling with income inequality, resource depletion, and the growing ravages of climate change — has put us on an unsustainable path. If that bleak outlook is correct, maybe it’s time to give Schumacher’s ideas a second look.


When “Small Is Beautiful” came out, in 1973, Schumacher had already worked for several decades as an economist. In the years after its publication, he toured the United States speaking to crowds across the country and meeting with political leaders, including an address before 50 members of Congress and a meeting with President Jimmy Carter. At the time, America was being wrenched by many of the ills he said modern economics would cause. The 1970s was a decade marked by oil and gas shocks, labor unrest and stagflation, a growing concern over the environment, and the discord of the Vietnam War. Schumacher was attuned to what it all portended. (In fact, the first use of the term “global warming” occurred just two years after Schumacher’s book was published.) Schumacher wrote “we do well to ask why it is that all these terms — pollution, environment, ecology, etc. — have so suddenly come into prominence…is this a sudden fad, a silly fashion, or perhaps a sudden failure of nerve?”

Born in Bonn, Germany, Schumacher had fled Nazi Germany to England in 1937. During the Second World War, when Great Britain began interning Germans, including Jewish refugees, Schumacher and his family moved to the countryside, where he worked on a farm until his writing caught the notice of John Maynard Keynes, the British economist who launched the 20th century’s activist alternative to unfettered, free-market economics.

The core of Schumacher’s argument lay in his book’s subtitle: “Economics as if People Mattered.” For far too long, economists had approached the problem of development in a way that focused too much on goods over people, emphasizing the elimination of labor instead of job creation. He accused these experts of treating consumption as the end itself, always to be maximized.

In Schumacher’s view, the economy would not benefit from the standard methods of stimulation; if anything, it should be de-intensified. If this could be managed, Schumacher believed, it would allow time “for any piece of work — enough to make a really good job of it, to enjoy oneself, to produce real equality, even to make things beautiful.”

The opportunity to work this way — which is central to any artisan or tradesman, and to his or her ability to produce top-notch, innovative work — clearly has only declined further in the years since Schumacher made this observation. And if anything, his critique might be even more timely today. In a new book, “Tightrope: Americans Reaching for Hope,” veteran New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn argue that the growing scarcity of jobs that offer such visceral satisfactions is part of what’s plunged America’s working class into unprecedented levels of despair, drug addiction, and suicide.

To be truly helpful, Schumacher argued, development funds in poor areas should be spent on “intermediate technology” — that is, technology that’s cheap, resilient, and simple enough to be used by workers in areas that lack access to education, ready capital, and sophisticated infrastructure. Technology that’s too expensive, and too complex to be readily used in developing economies, he said, destroys “the possibilities of self-reliance.”

Whenever he traveled to speak about these ideas in the U.S., crowds met his stops — 2,000 in Chicago, 500 in Minneapolis, 200 at the Colorado School of the Mines in Golden, 600 in an overflow crowd at the Helena, Montana Civic Center — and his book was, at one point, reportedly selling 30,000 copies a month. His ideas also inspired a government “Office of Appropriate Technology” in California, where then-governor Jerry Brown introduced Schumacher during a 1977 tour of America. (That organization is still in existence, in slightly altered form in Montana, as the National Center for Appropriate Technology.) During Gov. Brown’s more idealistic days, he once said, “if you want to understand my philosophy, read this,” as he brandished a copy of “Small Is Beautiful.”

“The 60s was a generation that wanted to do things different…and there was Schumacher saying I was a conventional economist and I was mistaken,” says Susan Witt, who became the executive director and co-founder of what’s now called the E.F. Schumacher Center for a New Economics. “I didn’t take into account human beings. I didn’t take into account their spiritual lives. I didn’t take into account concern for the earth and I’ve had to re-think my economics. Those essays in ‘Small Is Beautiful’ touched a generation.”

One of those touched by Schumacher’s ideas was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

13 January 2022 at 12:07 pm

Paraconsistent Logics Find Structure in Our Inconsistent World

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Zach Weber, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Otago in New Zealand and author of Paradoxes and Inconsistent Mathematics (2021), has in Aeon what I suspect is an extract from that book. He writes:

Here is a dilemma you may find familiar. On the one hand, a life well lived requires security, safety and regularity. That might mean a family, a partner, a steady job. On the other hand, a life well lived requires new experiences, risk and authentic independence, in ways incompatible with a family or partner or job. Day to day, it can seem not just challenging to balance these demands, but outright impossible. That’s because, we sense, the demands of a good life are not merely difficult; sometimes, the demands of a good life actually contradict. ‘Human experience,’ wrote the novelist George Eliot in 1876, ‘is usually paradoxical.’

One aim of philosophy is to help us make sense of our lives, and one way philosophy has tried to help in this regard is through logic. Formal logic is a perhaps overly literal approach, where ‘making sense’ is cashed out in austere mathematical symbolism. But sometimes our lives don’t make sense, not even when we think very hard and carefully about them. Where is logic then? What if, sometimes, the world truly is senseless? What if there are problems that simply cannot be resolved consistently?

Formal logic as we know it today grew out of a project during the 17th-century Enlightenment: the rationalist plan to make sense of the world in mathematical terms. The foundational assumption of this plan is that the world does make sense, and can be made sense of: there are intelligible reasons for things, and our capacity to reason will reveal these to us. In his book La Géométrie (1637), René Descartes assumed that the world could be covered by a fine-mesh grid so precise as to reduce geometry to analysis; in his Ethics (1677), Baruch Spinoza proposed a view of Nature and our place in it so precise as to be rendered in proofs; and in a series of essays written around 1679, G W Leibniz envisioned a formal language capable of expressing every possible thought in structure-preserving, crystalline symbols – a characteristica universalis – that obeys precise algebraic rules, allowing us to use it to find answers – a calculus ratiocinator.

ationalism dreams big. But dreams are cheap. The startling thing about this episode is that, by the turn of the 20th century, Leibniz’s aspirations seemed close to coming true due to galvanic advances across the sciences, so much so that the influential mathematician David Hilbert was proposing something plausible when in 1930 he made the rationalist assumption a credo: ‘We must know, we will know.’

Hilbert’s credo was based in part on the spectacular successes of logicians in the late 19th century carving down to the bones of pure mathematics (geometry, set theory, arithmetic, real analysis) to find the absolute certainty of deductive validity. If logic itself can be understood in exacting terms, then the project of devising a complete and consistent theory of the world (or at least, the mathematical basis thereof) appeared to be in reach – a way to answer every question, as Hilbert put it, ‘for the honour of human understanding itself’.

But even as Hilbert was issuing his credo and elaborating his plans for solving the Entscheidungsproblem – of building what we would now call a computer that can mechanically decide the truth or falsity of any sentence – all was not well. Indeed, all had not been well for some time.

Already in 1902, on the verge of completing his life’s work, the logician Gottlob Frege received an ominous letter from Bertrand Russell. Frege had been working to provide a foundation for mathematics of pure logic – to reduce complex questions about arithmetic and real analysis to the basic question of formal, logical validity. If this programme, known as logicism, were successful then the apparent certainty of logical deduction, the inescapable truth of the conclusions of sound derivations, would percolate up, so to speak, into all mathematics (and any other area reducible to mathematics). In 1889, Frege had devised an original ‘concept notation’ for quantified logic exactly for this goal, and had used it for his Basic Laws of Arithmetic (two volumes of imposing symbolism, published in 1893 and 1903). Russell shared this logicist goal, and in his letter to Frege, Russell said, in essence, that he had liked Frege’s recent book very much, but had just noticed one little oddity: that one of the basic axioms upon which Frege had based all his efforts seemed to entail a contradiction.

Frege had assumed what he called ‘Basic Law V’ which says, in effect: Sets are collections of things that share a property. For example, the set of all triangles is comprised of all and only the triangles. This seemed obvious enough for Frege to assume as a self-evident logical truth. But from Basic Law V, Russell showed that Frege’s system could prove a statement of the form P and not-P as a theorem. It is called Russell’s Paradox:

Let R be the collection of all things with the property of ‘not being a self-member’. (For example, the set of triangles is not itself a triangle, so it is an R.) What about R itself? If is in R, then it is not, by definition of R; if is not in R, then it is, again by definition. It must be one or the other – so it is both: is in and is not in R, self-membered and not, a contradiction.

The whole system was in fact inconsistent, and thus – in Frege and Russell’s view – absurd. Nonsense. In a few short lines, Frege’s life work had been shown to be a failure.

He would continue to work for another two decades, but his grand project was destroyed. Russell would also spend the next decades trying to come to terms with own his simple discovery, first writing the monumental but flawed Principia Mathematica (three volumes, 1910-13) with Alfred North Whitehead, then eventually pivoting away from logic without ever really solving the problem. Years would pass, with some of the best minds in the world trying mightily to overcome the contradiction Russell had found, without finding a fully satisfactory solution.

By 1931, a young logician named Kurt Gödel had leveraged a similar paradox out of Russell’s own system. Gödel found a statement that, if provable true or false – that is, decidable – would be inconsistent. Gödel’s incompleteness theorems show that there cannot be a complete, consistent and computable theory of the world – or even just of numbers! Any complete and computable theory will be inconsistent. And so, the Enlightenment rationalist project, from Leibniz to Hilbert’s programme, has been shown impossible.

Or so goes the standard story. But the lesson that we must give up on a full understanding of the world in which we live is an enormous pill to swallow. It has been almost a century or more since these events, filled with new and novel advances in logic, and some philosophers and logicians think it is time for a reappraisal.

If the world were a perfect place, we would not need logic. Logic tells us what follows from things we already believe, things we are already committed to. Logic helps us work around our fallible and finite limitations. In a perfect world, the infinite consequences of our beliefs would lie transparently before us. ‘God has no need of any arguments, even good ones,’ said the logician Robert Meyer in 1976: all the truths are apparent before God, and He does not need to deduce one from another. But we are not gods and our world is not perfect. We need logic because we can go wrong, because things do go wrong, and we need guidance. Logic is most important for making sense of the world when the world appears to be senseless.

The story just told ends in failure in part because the logic that Frege, Russell and Hilbert were using was classical logic. Frege assumed something obvious and got a contradiction, but classical logic makes no allowance for contradiction. Because of the classical rule of ex contradictione quodlibet (‘from a contradiction everything follows’), any single contradiction renders the entire system useless. But logic is a theory of validity: an attempt to account for what conclusions really do follow from given premises. As contemporary ‘anti-exceptionalists about logic’ have noted, theories of logic are like everything else in science and philosophy. They are developed and debated by people, and all along there have been disagreements about what the correct theory of logic is. Through that ongoing debate, many have suggested that a single contradiction leading to arbitrary nonsense seems incorrect. Perhaps, then, the rule of ex contradictione itself is wrong, and should not be part of our theory of logic. If so, then perhaps Frege didn’t fail after all.

Over the past decades, logicians have developed mathematically rigorous systems that can handle inconsistency not by eradicating or ‘solving’ it, but by accepting it. Paraconsistent logics create a new opportunity for theories that, on the one hand, seem almost inalienably true (like Frege’s Basic Law V) but, on the other, are known to contain some inconsistencies, such as blunt statements of the form P and not-P. In classical logic, there is a hard choice: give up any inconsistent theory as irrational, or else devolve into apparent mysticism. With these new advances in formal logic, there may be a middle way, whereby sometimes an inconsistency can be retained, not as some mysterious riddle, but rather as a stone-cold rational view of our contradictory world.

Paraconsistent logics have been most famously promoted by Newton da Costa since the 1960s, and Graham Priest since the 1970s. Though viewed initially (and still) with some scepticism, ‘paraconsistent logics’ now have an official mathematics classification code (03B53, according to the American Mathematical Society) and there have been five World Congress of Paraconsistency meetings since 1997. These logics are now studied by researchers across the globe, and hold out the prospect of accomplishing the impossible: recasting the very laws of logic itself to make sense of our sometimes seemingly senseless situation. If it works, it could ground a new sort of Enlightenment project, a rationalism that rationally accommodates some apparent irrationality. On this sort of approach, truth is beholden to rationality; but rationality is also ultimately beholden to truth.

That might sound a little perplexing, so let’s start with a very ordinary example. Suppose . . .

Continue reading. This strikes me as an exciting concept. I personally have by stymied by the way that (classical) logic leads sometimes to a dead end or an unresolved knot. This is an interesting approach that holds the promise of offering guidance in a (classically) inconsistent world (cf. quantum mechanics).

Written by Leisureguy

13 January 2022 at 6:54 am

A century of quantum mechanics questions the fundamental nature of reality

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Which is the “true” view of reality: the underlying structure of quantum mechanics, with strange (but observable) phenomena, such as the double-slit experiment? or the emergent reality we experience in our daily life? I thought of Neo’s situation in the Matrix: the underlying structure of bodies embedded in machines that feed and control them vs. the experience of their daily lives, lived in ignorance of those machines. Do you want the red pill? or the blue one?

Tom Siegfried writes in Science News:

Scientists are like prospectors, excavating the natural world seeking gems of knowledge about physical reality. And in the century just past, scientists have dug deep enough to discover that reality’s foundations do not mirror the world of everyday appearances. At its roots, reality is described by the mysterious set of mathematical rules known as quantum mechanics.

Conceived at the turn of the 20th century and then emerging in its full form in the mid-1920s, quantum mechanics is the math that explains matter. It’s the theory for describing the physics of the microworld, where atoms and molecules interact to generate the world of human experience. And it’s at the heart of everything that made the century just past so dramatically unlike the century preceding it. From cell phones to supercomputers, DVDs to pdfs, quantum physics fueled the present-day electronics-based economy, transforming commerce, communication and entertainment.

But quantum theory taught scientists much more than how to make computer chips. It taught that reality isn’t what it seems.

“The fundamental nature of reality could be radically different from our familiar world of objects moving around in space and interacting with each other,” physicist Sean Carroll suggested in a recent tweet. “We shouldn’t fool ourselves into mistaking the world as we experience it for the world as it really is.”

In a technical paper backing up his tweet, Carroll notes that quantum theory consists of equations that describe mathematical entities roaming through an abstract realm of possible natural events. It’s plausible, Carroll argues, that this quantum realm of mathematical possibilities represents the true, fundamental nature of reality. If so, all the physical phenomena we perceive are just a “higher-level emergent description” of what’s really going on.

“Emergent” events in ordinary space are real in their own way, just not fundamental, Carroll allows. Belief that the “spatial arena” is fundamental “is more a matter of convenience and convention than one of principle,” he says.

Carroll’s perspective is not the only way of viewing the meaning of quantum math, he acknowledges, and it is not fully shared by most physicists. But everybody does agree that quantum physics has drastically remodeled humankind’s understanding of nature. In fact, a fair reading of history suggests that quantum theory is the most dramatic shift in science’s conception of reality since the ancient Greeks deposed mythological explanations of natural phenomena in favor of logic and reason. After all, quantum physics itself seems to defy logic and reason. [And see the next post on the limits of logic and reason — and how those break down. – LG]

It doesn’t, of course. Quantum theory represents the ultimate outcome of superior logical reasoning, arriving at truths that could never be discovered merely by observing the visible world.

It turns out that in the microworld — beyond the reach of the senses — phenomena play a game with fantastical rules. Matter’s basic particles are not tiny rocks, but more like ghostly waves that maintain multiple possible futures until forced to assume the subatomic equivalent of substance. As a result, quantum math does not describe a relentless cause-and-effect sequence of events as Newtonian science had insisted. Instead science morphs from dictator to oddsmaker; quantum math tells only probabilities for different possible outcomes. Some uncertainty always remains.

The quantum revolution

The discovery of quantum uncertainty was what first impressed the world with the depth of the quantum revolution. German physicist Werner Heisenberg, in 1927, astounded the scientific community with the revelation that deterministic cause-and-effect physics failed when applied to atoms. It was impossible, Heisenberg deduced, to measure both the location and velocity of a subatomic particle at the same time. If you measured one precisely, some uncertainty remained for the other.

“A particle may have an exact place or an exact speed, but it can not have both,” as Science News Letter, the predecessor of Science Newsreported in 1929. “Crudely stated, the new theory holds that chance rules the physical world.” Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle “is destined to revolutionize the ideas of the universe held by scientists and laymen to an even greater extent than Einstein’s relativity.”

Heisenberg’s breakthrough was the culmination of a series of quantum surprises. First came German physicist Max Planck’s discovery, in 1900, that light and other forms of radiation could be absorbed or emitted only in discrete packets, which Planck called quanta. A few years later Albert Einstein argued that light also traveled through space as packets, or particles, later called photons. Many physicists dismissed such early quantum clues as inconsequential. But in 1913, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr used quantum theory to explain the structure of the atom. Soon the world realized that reality needed reexamining.

By 1921, awareness of the quantum revolution had begun to expand beyond the confines of physics conferences. In that year,  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

13 January 2022 at 6:43 am

The Police Will Never Change In America. My experience in police academy.

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Using a temporary username, a person posted the following on Reddit:

Throwaway for obvious reasons. If you feel If i’m just bitter due to my dismissal please call me out on it as I need a wake up call.

Over the fall semester I was a police recruit at a Community Colleges Police Academy in a midwestern liberal city. I have always wanted to be a police officer, and I felt like I could help kickstart a change of new wave cops. I am passionate about community oriented policing, making connections with the youth in policing, and changing lives on a individual level. I knew police academy would be mentally and physically challenging, but boy oh boy does policing need to change.

Instructors taught us to view citizens as enemy combatants, and told us we needed a warrior mindset and that we were going into battle everyday. It felt like i was joining a cult. Instructors told us supporting our fellow police officers were more important than serving citizens. Instructors told us that we were joining a big bad gang of police officers and that protecting the thin blue line was sacred. Instructors told us George Floyd wasn’t a problem and was just one bad officer. I tried to push back on some of these ideas and posed to an instructor that 4 other officers watched Chauvin pin Floyd to the ground and did nothing, and perhaps they did nothing because they were trained in academy to never speak against a senior officer. I was told to “shut my fucking face, and that i had no idea what i was talking about.”

Sadly, Instructors on several occasions, and most shockingly in the first week asked every person who supported Black Lives Matter to raise their hands. I and about a third of the class did. They told us that we should seriously consider not being police officers if we supported anti-cop organizations. They told us BLM was a terrible organization and to get out if we supported them. Instructors repeatedly made anti-LGBT comments and transphobic comments.

Admittedly I was the most progressive and put a target on my back for challenging instructor viewpoints. This got me disciplined, yelled at, and made me not want to be a cop. We had very little training on de-escalation and community policing. We had no diversity or ethics training.

Despite all this I made it to the final day. I thought if I could just get through this I could get hired and make a difference in the community as a cop and not be subject to academy paramilitary crap. The police academy dismissed me on the final day because I failed a PT test that I had passed multiple times easily in the academy leading up to this day. I asked why I failed and they said my push up form was bad and they were being more strict now it was the final. I responded saying if you counted my pushups in the entrance and midterm tests than they should count now. I was dismissed on the final day of police academy and have to take a whole academy over again. I have no plan to retake the whole academy and I feel like quality police officers are dismissed because they don’t fit the instructors’ cookie-cutter image of a warrior police officer and the instructors can get rid of them with saying their form doesn’t count on a subjective sit up or push up tests. I was beyond tears and bitterly disappointed. Maybe policing is just that fucked in America.

The warrior-mindset (vs. the guardian-mindset) training is indeed prevalent, and specifically viewing every citizen as a potential hostile threat — see, for example, this article. And it is common for those who have power in a particular organizational culture will use that power to resist changes to the culture (which, they fear, will mean a reduction in their own power).

The comments to the post are worth reading — and see also this Harvard Law Review article on the problem of the warrior mindset and this article that advocates in favor of a warrior mindset.

BTW, I believe a warrior mindset is totally appropriate in soldiers in a shooting war, and totally inappropriate in an organization that is supposed to be a guardian of the public’s safety and Constitutional rights — and even the accused have rights, something many police disapprove of (because the public is the Enemy).

Written by Leisureguy

11 January 2022 at 5:59 pm

Average citizens have no measurable impact on public policy

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Here’s an article by Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, who also wrote the book Democracy in America?: What Has Gone Wrong and What We Can Do About It. An abstract of the article (which itself is worth reading — and see also the previous post):

Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics – which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, and two types of interest group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism – offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.

A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. This paper reports on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

American Democracy?

Each of our four theoretical traditions (Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic Elite Domination, Majoritarian Interest Group Pluralism, and Biased Pluralism) emphasizes different sets of actors as critical in determining U.S. policy outcomes, and each tradition has engendered a large empirical literature that seems to show a particular set of actors to be highly influential. Yet nearly all the empirical evidence has been essentially bivariate. Until very recently it has not been possible to test these theories against each other in a systematic, quantitative fashion.

By directly pitting the predictions of ideal-type theories against each other within a single statistical model (using a unique data set that includes imperfect but useful measures of the key independent variables for nearly two thousand policy issues), we have been able to produce some striking findings. One is the nearly total failure of “median voter” and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.

Interest groups do have substantial independent impacts on policy, and a few groups (particularly labor unions) represent average citizens’ views reasonably well. But the interest group system as a whole does not. Over-all, net interest group alignments are not significantly related to the preferences of average citizens. The net alignments of the most influential, business oriented groups are negatively related to the average citizen’s wishes. So existing interest groups do not serve effectively as transmission belts for the wishes of the populace as a whole.

Furthermore, the preferences of economic elites (as measured by our proxy, the preferences of “affluent” citizens) have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of average citizens do. To be sure, this does not mean that ordinary citizens always lose out; they fairly often get the policies they favor, but only because those policies happen also to be preferred by the economically elite citizens who wield the actual influence.

What do our findings say about democracy in America? They certainly constitute troubling news for advocates of “populistic” democracy, who want governments to respond primarily or exclusively to the policy preferences of their citizens. In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover, because of the strong status quo bias built into the U.S. political system, even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

A possible objection to populistic democracy is that average citizens are inattentive to politics and ignorant about public policy; why should we worry if their poorly informed preferences do not influence policy making? Perhaps economic elites and interest group leaders enjoy greater policy expertise than the average citizen does. Perhaps they know better which policies will benefit everyone, and perhaps they seek the common good, rather than selfish ends, when deciding which policies to support.

But we tend to doubt it. We believe instead that – collectively – ordinary citizens generally know their own values and interests pretty well, and that their expressed policy preferences are worthy of respect. Moreover, we are not so sure about the informational advantages of elites. Yes, detailed policy knowledge tends to rise with income and status. Surely wealthy Americans and corporate executives tend to know a lot about tax and regulatory policies that directly affect them. But how much do they know about the human impact of Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, or unemployment insurance, none of which is likely to be crucial to their own well-being? Most important, we see no reason to think that informational expertise is always accompanied by an inclination to transcend one’s own interests or a determination to work for the common good.

Despite the seemingly strong empirical support in previous studies for theories of majoritarian democracy, our analyses suggest that majorities of the American public actually have little influence over the policies our government adopts. Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America’s claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

As a comment by Don McCanne, MD points out:

Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page present historical data that show that average Americans, even when represented by majoritarian interest groups, have negligible influence in shaping public policy. In sharp contrast, the economic elites and their business-oriented interest groups wield tremendous influence in public policy.

Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez have shown that the flow of income to the top has resulted in a concentration of wealth that is not only self-sustaining but likely to perpetuate the transfer of more wealth to the wealthiest, at a cost to everyone else.

This combination – a concentration of wealth at the top with the domination of policymaking by the economic elite, does not bode well for new policies that would be established for the common good.

In health care reform, the common good would have been served by improving coverage through the removal of financial barriers to care and by expanding coverage to everyone. Instead, the interests of the economic elite were served by increasing the market for private insurance products that, for the majority, increased financial barriers to care and reduced choice of providers, while leaving tens of millions of the most vulnerable without any coverage. More wealth moves to the passive investors at the top, while the deterioration in coverage requires average Americans to spend more out-of-pocket through higher deductibles.

We desperately need a well-designed single payer system if we want everyone to have the health care that they should have. At this point it appears that the economic elites are not going to allow single payer, and we will have no say.

Even though our Constitution laid the plans for a democracy, by fiat we now have a plutarchy (plutocratic oligarchy). Although Gilens and Page have shown that our Majoritarian Electoral Democracy has “only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy,” perhaps the people can still change that. Although recent history demonstrates citizen inertia, that does not necessarily lock in the future. Think of Social Security, Medicare, and the Civil Rights Act.

A decade ago, in a book review for the NEJM on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

11 January 2022 at 12:04 pm

To wake from a dream and embrace reality — if only

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In Jacobin magazine:

In an essay penned shortly before his death, David Graeber argued that post-pandemic, we can’t slip back into a reality where the way our society is organized — to serve every whim of a small handful of rich people while debasing and degrading the vast majority of us — is seen as sensible or reasonable.

And then they post this essay that David Graeber wrote:

At some point in the next few months, the crisis will be declared over, and we will be able to return to our “nonessential” jobs. For many, this will be like waking from a dream.

The media and political classes will definitely encourage us to think of it this way. This is what happened after the 2008 financial crash. There was a brief moment of questioning. (What is “finance,” anyway? Isn’t it just other people’s debts? What is money? Is it just debt, too? What’s debt? Isn’t it just a promise? a If money and debt are just a collection of promises we make to each other, then couldn’t we just as easily make different ones?) The window was almost instantly shut by those insisting we shut up, stop thinking, and get back to work, or at least start looking for it.

Last time, most of us fell for it. This time, it is critical that we do not.

Because, in reality, the crisis we just experienced was waking from a dream, a confrontation with the actual reality of human life, which is that we are a collection of fragile beings taking care of one another, and that those who do the lion’s share of this care work that keeps us alive are overtaxed, underpaid, and daily humiliated, and that a very large proportion of the population don’t do anything at all but spin fantasies, extract rents, and generally get in the way of those who are making, fixing, moving, and transporting things, or tending to the needs of other living beings. It is imperative that we not slip back into a reality where all this makes some sort of inexplicable sense, the way senseless things so often do in dreams.

How about this: Why don’t we stop treating it as entirely normal that the more obviously one’s work benefits others, the less one is likely to be paid for it; or insisting that financial markets are the best way to direct long-term investment even as they are propelling us to destroy most life on Earth?

Why not instead, once the current emergency is declared over, actually remember what we’ve learned: that if “the economy” means anything, it is the way we provide each other with what we need to be alive (in every sense of the term), that what we call “the market” is largely just a way of tabulating the aggregate desires of rich people, most of whom are at least slightly pathological, and the most powerful of whom were already completing the designs for the bunkers they plan to escape to if we continue to be foolish enough to believe their minions’ lectures that we were all, collectively, too lacking in basic common sense do anything about oncoming catastrophes.

This time around, can we please just ignore them?

Most of the work we’re currently doing is dream-work. It exists only for its own sake, or to make rich people feel good about themselves, or to make poor people feel bad about themselves. And if we simply stopped, it might be possible to make ourselves a much more reasonable set of promises: for instance, to create an “economy” that lets us actually take care of the people who are taking care of us.

And in this connection, see the next post.

Written by Leisureguy

11 January 2022 at 12:03 pm

Learning something as a language

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I have long found that the metaphor of “learning x as a language” to be useful. To me it means that you have learned so well all the essential rudiments of x and how those are used and combined, and what they mean alone and in combination, that you no longer think of them but instead focus on the thoughts you express through them. That is, in Timothy Wilson’s terms, the lessons have been learned by your adaptive unconscious.

Language: To learn a language as a language means that you have mastered vocabulary and grammar and idiom and convention and the common works of that language that those come to mind without effort when you want them, and even without coming to mind provide reliable guidance (as in grammatical rules and word choice — you don’t think of the rules but simply express the thought “naturally,” and you don’t think of the words but the ideas, and the words for those simply appear in your mind.

Fencing: To learn fencing as a language means that you have mastered stance and movement and the various guards (six in sabre fencing) and their use, strengths, and weaknesses, along with various sequences of guards and attacks, so that you simply are thinking the actions directly: you think, and your body moves to express the thought. Two skilled fencers are conversing.

Chess, cooking, playing a musical instrument — all those can be learned as a language, so that you no longer have to consciously think about the basics but instead can focus on your ideas and on expressing your ideas in that medium.

This came to mind on reading this passage which I highlighted in The Hand, by Frank R. Wilson:

While I was in San Diego in 1973 I ran into Ursula Bellugi, a psycholinguist whom I had met before. She took me to her lab, where there were some deaf people signing. While I watched, she translated into English what they were saying. It took me some time to absorb what she had shown me; Ursula explained that sign language is not a code on English—she said, “It seems to be a language. There are rules for making up words and rules for making sentences out of the words, but the rules have to do with space and shape—it’s an entirely different way of doing language.” I was really stunned. It was like being told there’s another ocean that you had never heard of. After a few days of looking into it and digesting it, I began to realize that this meant that language was not about speaking and hearing, which had always been my assumption. It meant that the brain had the capacity for language, and if you can’t put it out through the mouth, you put it out through the hands. (Location 3,555)

That highlighted passage was brought to my attention via an email from Highlights, a useful service for those who use a Kindle as an ebook reader. This is from The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O’Brian:

…his mind drifted back to the days when he too had belonged on the forecastle, when he too had danced to the fiddle and fife, his upper half grave and still, his lower flying – heel and toe, the double Harman, the cut-and-come-again, the Kentish knock, the Bob’s a-dying and its variations in quick succession and (if the weather was reasonably calm) in perfect time. To be sure there was a golden haze over those times and some of the gold was no doubt false, mere pinchbeck at the best; but even so they had an irreplaceable quality of their own – perfect, unthinking health, good company upon the whole, no responsibility apart from the immediate task in hand – and he was thinking of the rare, noisy, strenuous, good-natured fun they had had when hands were piped to mischief as he fell asleep, smiling still. (Location 2,411)

Learning something as a language means that the knowledge has become a part of the person and is used as an expression of the person, a part of the person’s identity.

Written by Leisureguy

6 January 2022 at 6:47 pm

Cultural Relativism: Do Cultural Norms Make Actions Right and Wrong?

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Cross-cultural moral judgments are always tricky, and certainly Kant labored to produce some axioms of culture-free morality, the main fruit of which was his Categorical Imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” When I searched 1000-Word Philosophy on “categorical imperative,” I found quite a few articles that seem intriguing.

My thought is to condemn, in general, actions that harm oneself or others, though an obvious example is the treatment of those who deliberately, consciously, and with malicious aforethought harm others. They violate the rule about harming others — that is, they do not accept such a rule — so they can scarcely object to punishment that harms them (e.g., financially, loss of liberty, and the like).

The author of the article in 1000-Word Philosophy is Nathan Nobis, and the site notes:

Nathan Nobis is a Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA. He is co-author of Thinking Critically About Abortion, author of Animals & Ethics 101, and the author and co-author of many other writings and materials in philosophy and ethics.

He writes:

1. Understanding Cultural Relativism

Cultural relativism proposes that what is ethical is relative to, or depends on, cultural attitudes:

  • if a culture disapproves of people doing an action, then it is wrong for people in that culture to do that action;
  • if a culture approves of people doing an action, then it is not wrong for people in that culture to do that action.[4]

Cultural relativism is not the empirical observation, accepted as true by everyone, that different cultures sometimes have different ethical views, or that what people believethink, or feel about the morality of an action is sometimes “relative” to the culture they are in.

Cultural relativism is a theory of what makes actions right and wrong. The “don’t judge!” and “be tolerant!” reactions above might be based on it and reasoning like this:

“People in other cultures aren’t doing anything wrong because ethics is determined by cultural attitudes: so they shouldn’t be judged; they should be tolerated.”

2. Cultural Relativism’s Implications

We can better understand cultural relativism by thinking about what follows from it:[5]

if cultural relativism were true or correct, then:

1. the majority view on any moral issue is always correct;

relativism identifies the majority view with what’s ethically correct in that culture, so the majority view is always correct, no matter what;

2. people who criticize majority views and advocate for change are always wrong:

since according to relativism, majority views are always correct, anyone who critiques them must be mistaken;

3. what’s ethical is identified by opinion polls;

according to relativism, to find out whether an action is ethical or not, we survey the population to find the majority view: research, reflection, and wise guidance aren’t needed;

4. there is only cultural change, never progress or improvement:

according to relativism, if, e.g., a culture approved of slavery then slavery was not wrong in that culture at that time; if that culture came to reject slavery, then slavery would become wrong in that culture; this, however, was not moral improvement or progress since slavery earlier was not wrong according to relativism: there was merely a change of views.

Many people think these implications show that relativism is a false theory since the majority isn’t always right, cultural critics are sometimes correct, opinion polls don’t tell us what is really ethical, and cultural views really can improve and, unfortunately, decline.

3. Arguments For Cultural Relativism

What can be said for cultural relativism? What’s appealing about it?

3.1. Tolerance

Some people argue

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

6 January 2022 at 2:33 pm

Agnoticism about God’s existence

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When I was active on Quora I repeatedly encountered people who did not understand the difference between “atheism,” the position that God does not exist — the word is from the Greek “a-” (alpha privative negating the following word — cf. “amoral”) and “theos” (“god”) and “agnosticism,” the position that it is not known whether God exists — that word from the Greek “a-” and “gnosis” (to know).

These people would insist that agnostics are atheists, which they are not. It was frustrating. So I was pleased to see this new article in 1000-Word Philosophy. The author:

Sylwia Wilczewska is an adjunct at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences and a research assistant at the Faculty of Philosophy of the Catholic University of Lublin. Her philosophical interests currently focus on the epistemology of religion and the issues surrounding the relation between philosophy and literature.

However, I should point out this footnote to the article:

On an alternative definition of atheism, everyone who does not believe that God exists is a negative atheist, while a positive atheist is someone who believes that God does not exist. That would make agnostics a subset of negative atheists. See e.g. Martin 2007: 1-3 and Draper 2017.

That somewhat validates the position against which I argued.

She writes:

One of the main debates in the philosophy of religion is between theists, who believe that God exists, and atheists, who believe there is no God.[1]

However, not everyone interested in God’s existence is a theist or an atheist. The term “agnosticism”, coined by Thomas Henry Huxley in the 1860s, describes the view of some of the people who do not fit into these two camps.

1. What is agnosticism?

One is agnostic about something when one suspends judgment on it, i.e., is neutral or undecided about the issue in question after considering it: e.g., most people, when they begin wondering whether the number of leaves on a nearby tree is odd or even, become agnostic on the matter.[2]

Within the contemporary philosophy of religion, the word “agnosticism” usually refers to the position of those who suspend judgment on the existence of God.

2. What agnosticism is not

To avoid common misconceptions about agnosticism, one should note that:

  • agnosticism is not necessarily incompatible with religious faith. According to some, agnostics can have non-doxastic faith, e. faith without theistic belief, with some other positive attitude (e.g., hope) at its core.[3] Another positive option for an agnostic is to embrace fictionalism and treat religion like a fictional narrative that guides one’s actions.[4] However, agnosticism does not entail any specific positive or negative attitude towards religion;
  • agnostics may or may not actively seek or hope to acquire evidence about the existence of God. Agnosticism entails neither being a ‘seeker’ nor spiritual indifference;[5]
  • agnosticism is not the same thing as apophaticism, which states that God is essentially unknowable: on most accounts, apophaticists are a subgroup of theists;
  • agnosticism is not the same thing as religious non-cognitivism – the position that the question of whether God exists (like all statements which involve the term “God” or other religious terms) does not make sense (e.g., because it does not refer to anything empirically observable) and thus cannot have a meaningful answer. Both agnostics and non-cognitivists are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics believe that the question of whether God exists does have an answer, even though they suspend judgment on what it is.

3. Why agnosticism?

The main argument for agnosticism can be described as  . . .

Continue reading.

I found the alternate belief positions listed above interesting.

Written by Leisureguy

5 January 2022 at 7:16 pm

Posted in Philosophy, Religion

Conservatism and Fascism Are Not the Same Thing

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The US is in serious danger of collapsing into a repressive and authoritarian state. Jonathan Chait writes about that in New York:

The Republican evolution into an authoritarian party is the most important development of the current political era. The conservative movement has a long tradition of anti-democratic thought, which Donald Trump catalyzed and which has accelerated since he departed office into his movement’s defining ethos.

Hardly a day goes by without some horrifying new expression of the right’s contempt for democracy. Here is Republican senator Rand Paul defining a “stolen” election as “targeting and convincing potential voters to complete [ballots] in a legally valid way.” Here is conservative talk-show host Jesse Kelly warning, “When I take power, communists” — Kelly’s term for liberals — “will not be allowed to hold jobs. Their children won’t be allowed in schools.” Here is an essay in a conservative journal urging the right to openly celebrate January 6 “as our Storming of the Bastille … One side is prepared to do everything necessary to secure their political power, so the other side must be prepared to resist every step of the way with equal determination.”

Ideas like this are not representative of the Republican Party — at least not yet. What they represent is a fringe that is creeping closer and closer to control over the GOP and meeting less and less resistance.

It is vital to understand the interplay between authoritarian logic and standard-issue conservative politics. My long-standing contention is that the two overlap heavily — that is, rather than having descended suddenly in the form of Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the party, right-wing authoritarianism grew out of the conservative movement organically. Trump articulated deep-seated fears that the conservative agenda could not prevail under liberal democratic conditions because the right would be outnumbered either economically (the takers would confiscate the wealth of the makers) or demographically. Conservatives turn to authoritarianism for the same reason communists turn to revolution: They don’t believe they can accomplish their policy goals democratically.

Jason Stanley has proposed a much more sweeping claim. Stanley, a philosophy professor at Yale, argues in the Guardian that the Republican Party has entered what he calls “fascism’s legal phase.” Stanley’s essay, which attracted widespread praise from progressive intellectuals on Twitter, treats conservative policy goals as inherently authoritarian. The total conflation of conservative policy goals with authoritarianism is ill conceived and ultimately counterproductive to the goal of defending democracy and clearly understanding the threats it faces.

ne of the things you learn in your first week of an introductory philosophy course on logic is how to identify a logical fallacy. The most common is called “affirming the consequent.” The structure of this fallacy takes the form:

If A, then B;
Therefore, A.

For example:

If it is raining, there won’t be a baseball game that day;
There isn’t a baseball game today;
Therefore, it must be raining.

Stanley has presumably learned about this, having secured a job in a philosophy department at a high-quality institution like Yale. Oddly, though, his entire essay is built on this well-known fallacy.

Stanley bases his conclusion that the Republican Party is fascist on a series of juxtapositions. For instance, “The Nazis used Judeo-Bolshevism as their constructed enemy. The fascist movement in the Republican Party has turned to critical race theory instead.”

Does this mean opposition to critical race theory is fascistic? This would come as a surprise to critics of CRT on the center-left as well as the right. Or does Stanley merely mean to say that opposing critical race theory is something a fascist would do? If so, he’s probably right. A right-wing fascist is certainly going to fulminate against left-wing theories. But so too would a perfectly democratic right-of-center party. Nothing about the CRT debate gives insight into the Republican Party’s authoritarian bent any more than the absence of baseball today indicates rain.

Drawing out his analogy to Hitler’s rise, Stanley notes that the Nazi Party “increased its popularity over many years in part by strategically masking its explicit antisemitic agenda to attract moderate voters,” focusing its attacks on communists and other unpopular left-wing targets. But how do we tell a right-wing fascist party strategically masking its fascist agenda from a conservative party that is appealing to moderate voters because it is engaging in democratic politics?

Stanley provides his readers no tools to make this distinction. Instead he simply lumps all right-wing politics into the same bin. He points out that right-wing extremists seize on left-wing protests to create a crisis atmosphere that justifies extreme countermeasures:

In its most recent iteration, in the form of the reaction against Black Lives Matter protesters and the demonization of antifa and student activists, a fascist social and political movement has been avidly stoking the flames for mass rightwing political violence, by justifying it against these supposed internal enemies.

Yet Stanley seems to present any criticism of left-wing protests as laying the groundwork for fascism:

Street movements in the US have often been accompanied by vigorous campus protests, from the protests against the Vietnam war of the 1960s, to recent campus protests for racial justice that attracted media rebuke (paradoxically, for “chilling free speech”). Politicians in both parties have feasted on these moments, using them to troll for votes.

I’ve read this passage and the surrounding text a half-dozen times attempting, fruitlessly, to locate a clear statement of how these positions relate to fascism. It seems to me that some criticisms of left-wing protests are perfectly consistent with democratic politics while others are not, and distinguishing between the two is the vital thing. Stanley simply doesn’t bother parsing the difference.

On gender controversies, he is more alarmingly cogent. I don’t see any other way to read this passage except as a claim that restricting abortion is ipso facto fascistic:

Fascist ideology strictly enforces gender roles and restricts the freedom of women … According to National Socialist ideology, abortion, at any point in pregnancy, was considered to be murder … The recent attack on abortion rights, and the coming attack on birth control, led by a hard-right supreme court, is consistent with the hypothesis that we are, in the United States, facing a real possibility of a fascist future.

I urge you to read the entire thing to see that I am not omitting the caveat where Stanley says, Of course you can oppose legal abortion without being a fascist. No passage like that exists. If you think opposing abortion (which, to be clear, I do not) is fascistic, then you don’t recognize any boundary between conservatism and fascism at all.

Why am I quibbling with Stanley’s logic, or lack thereof, if I agree with his conclusion that the Republican Party is increasingly authoritarian? Because . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 January 2022 at 8:15 pm

David Troy’s blunt thoughts for 2022

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From Dave Troy’s Facebook post:

Some blunt thoughts for 2022.

1. Omicron will either mark the end of COVID by forcing everyone into immunity, OR a new set of deadly variants will be born in the process.

2. Cryptocurrency is political, and a misanthropic enterprise aiming to shove hardcore libertarianism down everyone’s throats.

3. Ukraine conflict is, at root, the aforementioned libertarian conflict. It is a test of institutions against capital and corruption. The way Americans will experience this war is through cyberattacks, economic warfare against the dollar, psychological warfare, and a final shattering of reality—especially around money.

4. Conflict over Taiwan will merge with the Ukraine conflict, and will turn into a world war against the US and NATO over the continuance of the dollar as reserve currency; also at issue is the EU and the Euro. While we will most likely encounter this conflict domestically via electronic means, kinetic, nuclear and EMP warfare is a possibility. Taiwan chip shortages may cripple global manufacturing for an indeterminate period.

5. US politics is now about only one thing: individualism (libertarianism) vs. democracy. People will try to tell you “maximizing freedom” is democratic and it’s a lie. Same thing is playing out in the UK and EU. “Communism” is the bogeyman they will use to try to fight democracy in any form. There are people on both the “left” and “right” fighting against democracy.

6. Web3 is an attempt to shame/FOMO smart people into advancing libertarianism. Fuck that, with prejudice.

7. The oil/gas industry is behind the libertarian drive, because it doesn’t want to be regulated (translated: ended) by “mob rule” (i.e. democracy).

8. The libertarian influence campaign is driving COVID disinformation because they want to maximize oil/gas/industrial profits via maximizing movement and consumption. This is being done through many layers of overt influence and covert influence (cults and intelligence ops).

9. We will never, ever address the climate disaster in time if this libertarian agenda is allowed to dominate.

10. Casual opinions are no match for expertise and study. If you have something to contribute here, slow down and be thoughtful. There is a good chance I have, through deep study of this domain, facts and perspective you may not yet; I’m sharing this here with the full knowledge that most others have not been able to do this study. Performative, reactive comments will be deleted; I’m also deprecating my use of Messenger. Going forward, please email me if you have something important to share: davetroy at gmail.

Best case scenario: COVID burns out by Spring, and no new variants emerge; Putin gets cold feet and is deterred; China takes a slow, economic approach to Taiwan absorption; Tether investigation sparks crash, unwinding the sector without harming broader recovery; anti-democratic momentum is reversed; climate investments are begun.

Worst case scenario: Omicron surge sparks multiple variants with high mortality rates among vaccinated and unvaccinated, with a slow incubation time; Putin advances in Jan or Feb; China follows suit; Thiel, Bannon et al push crypto assault to try to destabilize dollar in parallel; government is captured and unable to squelch anti-democratic forces; dollar is actually challenged as reserve currency; chip manufacturing is halted, crashing tech deliveries and stocks; people’s 401(k)s are effectively wiped out; rioting, unrest. EMP or nuclear attacks leave entire regions in 1800’s mode, with little communication or transportation, and possibly uninhabitable. A neofeudal, libertarian hellscape, if it can even qualify as a society.

Worst case is unlikely as a whole, but any one of these things is possible if we fail to understand our moment.

Best case is achievable if we get lucky and know what we are dealing with. Putin respects strength; let’s show it. Tether is a scam and needs to be taken down aggressively; the whole sector needs regulation. China won’t be emboldened if Russia is curbed. This is the year that institutions need to be strengthened and shine brightly, for if they fail to do so, they will be lost for good, along with our hopes for democracy or any sort of just world.

Written by Leisureguy

2 January 2022 at 7:10 am

The Opposite of Toxic Positivity

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Scot Barry Kaufman wrote in the Atlantic back in August 2021:

Countless books have been written on the “power of gratitude” and the importance of counting your blessings, but that sentiment may feel like cold comfort during the coronavirus pandemic, when blessings have often seemed scant. Refusing to look at life’s darkness and avoiding uncomfortable experiences can be detrimental to mental health. This “toxic positivity” is ultimately a denial of reality. Telling someone to “stay positive” in the middle of a global crisis is missing out on an opportunity for growth, not to mention likely to backfire and only make them feel worse. As the gratitude researcher Robert Emmons of UC Davis writes, “To deny that life has its share of disappointments, frustrations, losses, hurts, setbacks, and sadness would be unrealistic and untenable. Life is suffering. No amount of positive thinking exercises will change this truth.”

The antidote to toxic positivity is “tragic optimism,” a phrase coined by the existential-humanistic psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. Tragic optimism involves the search for meaning amid the inevitable tragedies of human existence, something far more practical and realistic during these trying times. Researchers who study “post-traumatic growth” have found that people can grow in many ways from difficult times—including having a greater appreciation of one’s life and relationships, as well as increased compassion, altruism, purpose, utilization of personal strengths, spiritual development, and creativity. Importantly, it’s not the traumatic event itself that leads to growth (no one is thankful for COVID-19), but rather how the event is processed, the changes in worldview that result from the event, and the active search for meaning that people undertake during and after it.

In recent years, scientists have begun to recognize that the practice of gratitude can be a key driver of post-traumatic growth after an adverse event, and that gratitude can be a healing force. Indeed, a number of positive mental-health outcomes are linked to a regular gratitude practice, such as reduced lifetime risk for depression, anxiety, and substance-abuse disorders.

The human capacity for resiliency is quite remarkable and underrated. A recent study surveyed more than 500 people from March to May 2020. It found that even during those terrifying early months of the pandemic, more than 56 percent of people reported feeling grateful, which was 17 percent higher than any other positive emotion. Those who reported feeling more grateful also reported being happier. What’s more, even more people—69 percent of respondents—reported expecting to feel grateful two to three months in the future.

I believe that an overlooked route to gratitude is exposure to difficult circumstances. There are many basic advantages of life itself that we too often take for granted. After all, humans have a natural tendency to adapt and become used to situations that are relatively stable. When individuals become aware that their advantages are not guaranteed, many then come to appreciate them more. As the writer G. K. Chesterton put it, “Until we realize that things might not be, we cannot realize that things are.”

Indeed, several studies have found that people who have confronted difficult circumstances report that their appreciation for life itself has increased, and some of the most grateful people have gone through some of the hardest experiences. Kristi Nelson, the executive director of A Network for Grateful Living, faced her own mortality at the age of 33, when she received a cancer diagnosis and had to undergo multiple surgeries, chemo, and radiation. Nevertheless, she writes that she was constantly on the lookout for opportunities to cultivate gratefulness:

I was in the hospital, separated from all my friends and family and tethered to all kinds of IVs and dealing with pain. And yet,  . . .

Continue reading.

Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the books I find myself repeatedly recommending.

Written by Leisureguy

1 January 2022 at 11:23 am

How to discuss issues with someone who will not listen

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This video is part of a series, and this one has some good tips about when to back off. If you trigger a person by exposing a cognitive dissonance, they go into a kind of panic and simply are unable to listen. If you continue to argue, you reveal yourself to be one of those who will beat their head against a brick wall because they are (a) unperceptive and (b) stubborn. Don’t be that. Back off, let the person collect himself, and perhaps respond with a harmless joke (NOT mocking the person or the position) or stating as best you can the best version of what you understand the other person is saying. (Habit 5: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” — in that order). 

Written by Leisureguy

31 December 2021 at 10:50 am

How to Rewrite the Laws of Physics in the Language of Impossibility

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In Quanta Amanda Gefter interviews the physicist Chiara Marletto about constructor theory, an effort to get at an more fundamental statement of reality from which the laws of physics can be derived. The video above is included in the interview and serves as a good introduction to it. The interview bgins:

They say that in art, constraints lead to creativity. The same seems to be true of the universe. By placing limits on nature, the laws of physics squeeze out reality’s most fantastical creations. Limit light’s speed, and suddenly space can shrink, time can slow. Limit the ability to divide energy into infinitely small units, and the full weirdness of quantum mechanics blossoms. “Declaring something impossible leads to more things being possible,” writes the physicist Chiara Marletto. “Bizarre as it may seem, it is commonplace in quantum physics.”

Marletto grew up in Turin, in northern Italy, and studied physical engineering and theoretical physics before completing her doctorate at the University of Oxford, where she became interested in quantum information and theoretical biology. But her life changed when she attended a talk by David Deutsch, another Oxford physicist and a pioneer in the field of quantum computation. It was about what he claimed was a radical new theory of explanations. It was called constructor theory, and according to Deutsch it would serve as a kind of meta-theory more fundamental than even our most foundational physics — deeper than general relativity, subtler than quantum mechanics. To call it ambitious would be a massive understatement.

Marletto, then 22, was hooked. In 2011, she joined forces with Deutsch, and together they have spent the last decade transforming constructor theory into a full-fledged research program.

The goal of constructor theory is to rewrite the laws of physics in terms of general principles that take the form of counterfactuals — statements, that is, about what’s possible and what’s impossible. It is the approach that led Albert Einstein to his theories of relativity. He too started with counterfactual principles: It’s impossible to exceed the speed of light; it’s impossible to tell the difference between gravity and acceleration.

Constructor theory aims for more. It hopes to provide the principles behind a vast class of theories of physics, including the ones we don’t even have yet, like the theory of quantum gravity that would unite quantum mechanics with general relativity. Constructor theory seeks, that is, to provide the mother of all theories — a complete “Science of Can and Can’t,” the title of Marletto’s new book.

Whether constructor theory can really deliver, and how much it truly differs from physics as usual, remains to be seen. For now, Quanta Magazine caught up with Marletto via Zoom and by email to find out how the theory works and what it might mean for our understanding of the universe, technology, and even life itself. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

At the heart of constructor theory is the feeling that there’s something missing in our usual approach to physics.

The standard laws of physics — such as quantum theory, general relativity, even Newton’s laws — are formulated in terms of trajectories of objects and what happens to them given some initial conditions. But there are some phenomena in nature that you can’t quite capture in terms of trajectories — phenomena like the physics of life or the physics of information. To capture those, you need counterfactuals.

Which are?

The word “counterfactual” is used in various ways, but I mean a specific thing: A counterfactual is a  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2021 at 12:56 pm

Posted in Philosophy, Science, Video

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