Category Archives: Philosophy

Why Are Intellectuals So Opposed to Capitalism?

Robert Nozick

I just found a fantastic article by the late Robert Nozick over at Cato.  It’s titled, “Why do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?”  Nozick was a major proponent of free markets, and has become a go-to guy for many Libertarians like myself who never liked the Ayn Rand side of the Libertarian crowd. 

In this article he’s poking specifically at who he terms “wordsmiths”.  That is, those people who make their living through words: Novelists, professors in the Humanities, Journalists, etc.  But, I’d include most people in the sciences (with the very obvious exception of Economics).  Most scientist skew heavily toward the left by knee-jerk reaction.  I tend to agree with them in certain particulars (acceptance of global warming, heath-care and education as rights, and general environmentalism) but not categorically so. 

When it comes to their feeling about capitalism and free markets, there is a powerful distrust and distain that seems to color any ability to think about it with fresh and rational eyes.  It has often baffled me how otherwise very bright people, who themselves dislike when others use emotions to justify their beliefs rather than reason, can do exactly that when it comes to any discussion of capitalism.

Nozick has a possible answer.

Intellectuals now expect to be the most highly valued people in a society, those with the most prestige and power, those with the greatest rewards. Intellectuals feel entitled to this. But, by and large, a capitalist society does not honor its intellectuals. Ludwig von Mises explains the special resentment of intellectuals, in contrast to workers, by saying they mix socially with successful capitalists and so have them as a salient comparison group and are humiliated by their lesser status. However, even those intellectuals who do not mix socially are similarly resentful, while merely mixing is not enough–the sports and dancing instructors who cater to the rich and have affairs with them are not noticeably anti-capitalist.

 

That is, intellectuals have a feeling that what they do is more important than what Phil Knight (the owner of NIKE) does. But, they don’t get paid anywhere near what he does.  Isn’t the service they provide to society more important than a pair of shoes, or an inscribed basket ball?

 Nike LeBron

Nozick then goes on to explain how they may have come to these feelings in the first place.

What factor produced feelings of superior value on the part of intellectuals? I want to focus on one institution in particular: schools. As book knowledge became increasingly important, schooling–the education together in classes of young people in reading and book knowledge–spread. Schools became the major institution outside of the family to shape the attitudes of young people, and almost all those who later became intellectuals went through schools. There they were successful. They were judged against others and deemed superior. They were praised and rewarded, the teacher’s favorites. How could they fail to see themselves as superior? Daily, they experienced differences in facility with ideas, in quick-wittedness. The schools told them, and showed them, they were better.

The wider market society, however, taught a different lesson. There the greatest rewards did not go to the verbally brightest. There the intellectual skills were not most highly valued. Schooled in the lesson that they were most valuable, the most deserving of reward, the most entitled to reward, how could the intellectuals, by and large, fail to resent the capitalist society which deprived them of the just deserts to which their superiority "entitled" them? Is it surprising that what the schooled intellectuals felt for capitalist society was a deep and sullen animus that, although clothed with various publicly appropriate reasons, continued even when those particular reasons were shown to be inadequate?

This is backed up by the fact that so many of the worlds most successful entrepreneurs were horrible at school.  Many got straight C’s, scraped by, or simply dropped out.  They were smart, they were creative, but they didn’t have the specific skill set to do well in the environment of school. 

Think of school as an evolutionary selection tool.  It has rules, and where there are rules, there are selection pressures.  If you just happen to have the right series of skills, you will do well, and be rewarded.  But those rules are arbitrary.  Knowing a thing and demonstrating that you know a thing are two totally different things.  And further, the manner in which you ask a student to demonstrate knowledge will greatly affect whether the demonstration of that knowledge is closely tied to the actual knowledge you want them to have.

This was the argument behind many teachers resentment at being forced to deal with “No Child Left Behind”.  By creating a bunch of arbitrary standards, you are leaving those kids behind who DO know the material, but are bad at the particular method of showing that they know the material.

Intellectuals, people who work in these fields of the humanities and the sciences, tend to have been quite good in the world of school, with all of it’s grades and teacher-decided-upon rules.

[NOTE: Now in certain fields like Math and Physics it is demonstrably NOT the case nearly all of the best in the field did well in K-12 schooling.  In fact, many did the opposite and only thrived once they hit graduate school.  But, the reason these fields are so open to people who did poorly in early education is simply because the fields are so quantitative.  If you can demonstrate in any way at all that you are a genius at this stuff, then you’re in.  But, this is not the case in other fields that are more qualitative by nature. 

A simple example is that in the field of Political Science, if you aren’t a professor at a top-tier school, you have very little chance of getting your paper published in a top journal – no matter how good it is.  The selection committee likely won’t even read it.  That would be unheard of in Mathematics where “no names” make remarkable discoveries all the time.]

Nozick then makes what amounts to a “nerd” comment:

There is a further point to be added. The (future) wordsmith intellectuals are successful within the formal, official social system of the schools, wherein the relevant rewards are distributed by the central authority of the teacher. The schools contain another informal social system within classrooms, hallways, and schoolyards, wherein rewards are distributed not by central direction but spontaneously at the pleasure and whim of schoolmates. Here the intellectuals do less well.

It is not surprising, therefore, that distribution of goods and rewards via a centrally organized distributional mechanism later strikes intellectuals as more appropriate than the "anarchy and chaos" of the marketplace. For distribution in a centrally planned socialist society stands to distribution in a capitalist society as distribution by the teacher stands to distribution by the schoolyard and hallway.

 

So, because intellectuals did better in the classroom (a totalitarian world, ruled by the teacher) and poorly in the schoolyard (a near-anarchy where school-smarts just weren’t enough), then they learned over time to fear systems that functioned similarly to the schoolyard. 

 

Now he was just positing all of this as a hypothesis, and it would need to be tested and refined to be useful in understanding why so many people in the intellectual class (particularly writers and people in the humanities and softer sciences – including biology) are so anti-free-market.  But, it is an interesting one that sits very well with my own experiences in Academia. 

And, if true, it would help to explain why so many of the people I know in this group have such visceral gut reactions against capitalism and free-markets that supersede their rational abilities. (That isn’t to say that free-markets are categorically good.  They could be bad – I’m always open to a good debate.  But, the responses I get from so many bright people are hardly intelligent nor well researched nor well thought out.)

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Clash of the Titans: Mature vs New Science

clash-of-the-titans

John Hawks takes a paragraph of a new book by William Burroughs, “Climate Change in Prehistory,” and runs with it.   It has to do with the clash between mature sciences and emerging new sciences.  Here’s the paragraph Hawks refers to:

It is often easier to write with confidence on fast-developing and relatively new areas of research, such as climate change and genetic mapping, than to review the implications of such new developments for a mature discipline like archaeology. Because the latter consists of an immensely complicated edifice that has been built up over a long time by the painstaking accumulation of fragmentary evidence from a vast array of sources, it is hard to define those aspects of the subject that are most affected by results obtained in a completely different discipline. Furthermore, when it comes to many aspects of prehistory, the field is full of controversy, into which the new data are not easily introduced. As a consequence, there is an inevitable tendency to gloss over these pitfalls and rely on secondary or even tertiary literature to provide an accessible backdrop against which new developments can be more easily projected (Burroughs 2005:10).

Hawks makes the point that this paragraph’s suggestion that a new science in facing resistance from an entrenched mature science can lead to one of two possible conclusions

1. … and therefore the simple conclusions of the immature sciences may be wrong.

or

2. … and therefore those wishy-washy archaeologists had better get their act together.

He comes to the defense of (what he calls) the mature science of archaeology.  In this defense he points out …

What marks a "mature" discipline is the emergence of informed critiques focused on the limits of methods of analysis. When archaeology was immature, before the 1950s or so, almost all archaeologists were simple (some say "naive") positivists. They excavated and found the traces of ancient people, just as today’s archaeologists do. And what they found was what there must have been. Find a handaxe, you know people made handaxes; find a temple, you know they worshipped gods of some kind. Dig in a mound, find a grave, you know that the people had rituals associated with death that required substantial non-subsistence directed labor.

Notice his definition of “mature”:  An emergence of informed critiques, focused on the limits of methods of analysis.  This isn’t a horrible definition (I’ll argue for a different one below).  He goes on:

Of course, today’s archaeologists tend to be positivists, too. There’s no sense twiddling around with hypotheses that will never be testable. The religion of Neandertals? Well, it’s one thing to speculate about it, but the fact is that it’s devilishly hard to test hypotheses about religion from the material remains of any pre-monumental culture. In the absence of information, we may as well stick to the facts.

But there’s a deeper sense in which archaeologists have a much more complicated view of their evidence. Archaeology has gone through many periods where different researchers developed and applied distinctive analytical techniques. These techniques have often been incommensurable. Sometimes they settle debates. For example, the systematic study of skeletal element representation and cutmark taphonomy has gone far toward testing (and verifying) the occurrence of hunting in some Early Pleistocene contexts. The hunting versus scavenging debate still goes on, with renewed emphasis on active or confrontational scavenging. But knowledge advanced by means of analytical critique.

 

 

What is a “Mature” Science?

Now, I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but I would never call Archeology a mature science.  At least not by my definition (which I’ll outline in a second).  It is an adolescent science, albeit an exciting one on the verge of maturity. 

I define a field to be "mature" if and only if it has a reasonably well developed empirical AND theoretical side.  Without both, you are only half a science.   

(OK, I used the ambiguous word "reasonably" in my definition.  And this opens the door for questions about what we mean by that.  But, that’s the way laws should be written – with room for interpretation.)

I’ve found most people I talk to about this (in the sciences) to be rather hostile to my definition.  I suspect the reason is that if we take it to be strict, there is only ONE mature science – Physics.  (I include engineering in physics as applied-physics, the way that we include medicine in biology as applied-biology.)  The reason is that it is the only science that has serious mathematics and theoretical work being done “in house”.  They don’t rely on Mathematicians to do the hard labor for them.  There IS great work being done on the theoretical side of a lot of other sciences, but nearly all of it is done by Mathematicians and Physicists. 

Let’s go into more detail as to what I mean in my definition:

Empirical Science

chemistry

The empirical side of science is what everyone thinks of when they think of science.  That is, when YOU think “science”, I’m guessing that you’re thinking of guys in white lab coats pouring boiling blue liquid into a beaker.  This side of science is well developed in nearly every field save for economics (that’s a whole different discussion – and a strange one at that). 

This side of science is all about hypothesis testing, data collection, and statistical and other methods to deal with the vast amount of data that is gathered.  That is, this is the “get your hands dirty” part of science.  It’s why most people who go into science went in to it in the first place.  They loved all that went with it.  Primatologists love to hang out with primates, Chemists love to mix chemicals, Archaeologist love to dig in the dirt. 

As I discussed in my article on Karl Popper, a science must have a robust empirical side in order to test hypothesis.  Without it, we have no way to know if we’re just blowing smoke or not.

What most sciences don’t have (and some refuse to take seriously) is a serious theoretical side of their field. 

Theoretical Science

math

Theoretical Science is all about hypothesis generating.  Darwin’s theory of natural selection is an example of a work of theoretical science.  Einstein was a theoretical physicist, and the theory of relativity is a work of theoretical science also. 

As a field gets more developed, theoretical science converges more and more toward mathematical and computational work.  That is, the models become so complicated that only the tools of mathematics and computer science are able to deal with them.

Don’t get this confused with statistics.  We need complex statistical models to deal with the data collected by empirical scientists.  But, theoretical scientists don’t deal with data – at all.  Sure, they may be inspired by data.  But, the point is that they are developing theories about how the world works that are then able to be tested.    They follow lines of implication – if this is true, then this other thing MUST be true.  It is logical philosophy, mathematics, theorem-proof. 

No science is totally devoid of theory.  Obviously.  Paleoanthropologist gave us the “out of Africa” theory which has proven to be rather robust.  But, no science other than physics has a dedicated “in house” world of theoreticians who’s ONLY job is to follow lines of implications and thereby generate new and diverse hypothesis. 

Theoretical physics predicted Black holes before they were seen on a telescope.  They predict things like an expanding universe.  They predict dark matter, super strings, etc.  All of this is done by physicists who are not passed off by their empirical counterparts as “just” mathematicians, or “arm chair” physicists. 

They do their job with very complex mathematics.  Some times the experimental physicists will prove them right … sometimes wrong.   But, the important point is that they are full fledged members of the physics community. 

In most other sciences, theoretical (and especially mathematical) work is met with skepticism and sometimes outright disdain.  If you do ONLY theoretical work, then you are not really a member of this science at all … you’re a mathematician.  A real scientist DOES something.  They do field or lab work.  They get their hands dirty.  Blah, blah, blah …

Why Are Most Sciences So Hostile to Mathematics, and What Can We do About It?

I suspect the reason why most sciences have been traditionally so hostile to treating mathematical modeling as a serious part of their field is simply because most of the members of that science haven’t ever taken any serious math.  Oh, they may have taken a calculus class or two, but let’s get real.  Calculus is a FRESHMAN level class for math, physics, and engineering students.  There is an entire world of mathematics that comes after that that is hard to describe to people who haven’t seen it (imagine explaining what “red” means to a blind man).

Of course, this is changing.  Chemistry has always been in second place to Physics as the most mathematical of sciences.  They had to be.  Now Biology is catching up.  Theoretical Biology is (in my opinion), hands down, the most exciting emerging field (it’s been emerging for about 25 years).  But, still most of the work is done by math people, not biologists. 

What’s wrong with that?  Why not just let mathematicians do the work, and leave scientists alone to do the dirty stuff?

There are 2 reasons. 

  1. Mathematicians have their own work to do.
  2. Scientists and Mathematicians can’t communicate properly with one another.

First, contrary to popular belief amongst many scientists, Mathematicians are not here to serve you.  Yes, oftentimes they come up with highly useful tools that scientists find they can’t live without.  But, mathematicians generally get into math for its own sake … not because they care so much about furthering some particular science. 

Second, even amongst those mathematicians who DO get in on the action of a particular science, it’s often impossible for them to communicate with the members of said science.  This goes both ways.

Mathematicians are frustrated by the total lack of knowledge of even basic mathematical skill by scientists, and scientists are shocked at how little mathematicians know about the basics of their field. 

What physicists have figured out is that if you train your own theoreticians, then you can train them from the get-go to be able to communicate with the experimenters. They’ll know the big problems in the field, they’ll know the history, the language, the nuts and bolts.  Similarly, they train ALL physicists up to a threshold level of mathematical maturity, even the ones who become experimenters.  This way, everyone can talk to everyone else. 

So far, no other field has ever gotten this right.  They only train empirical scientists.  The only math required is what any advanced high school kid can do.  And as such, the theoretical side of their field is grossly underdeveloped. 

Again, this IS changing.  Most of the hard sciences are making strides fast, but it will take a lot more time. But, because of the reasons outlined above, I can’t call Archaeology a “mature” science. 

The Return of Karl Popper: Is Social Science Really Different Than Natural Science?

karl-popper Social Scientist have contended for much of the last century that we cannot approach the study of human behavior with the same tools that we would use to study the natural world.  This is hogwash.  And Karl Popper, the great 20th century philosopher, would agree with me. Humans are animals, they are made up of chemicals and cells, their behavior is determined by a complex interaction of chemical processes and their lives are a network of cause and effect relations with other animals (some of which we’d call human).   If we are ever going to get a solid grasp on our own behavior, we’ll need to use the items from the large and well developed toolbox of natural science.

Falsifiability and Objective Reality

Karl Popper believed that a theory is scientific if and only if it is falsifiable.  Most scientists would agree with this statement, and in fact would be shocked by anyone who didn’t.  (This may be why natural scientists and social scientists don’t tend to hang out together!)  But, falsifiability presupposes a belief in an Enlightenment-style “objective” reality beyond that of our own minds.  In much of social science, especially in sociology and psychology, there is a powerful belief in a post-modern relativism that rejects an objective reality. That is to say, they don’t believe that there is a truth that is inherent to the objects of study themselves.

Without a belief in an objective truth outside the mind of the observer, it is impossible to even discuss what it would mean to falsify a statement.  Therefore, you cannot use Poppers falsifiability axiom as a demarcation line for what is and isn’t science.  And now we allow in all sorts of unfalsifiable statements and theories simply because who is to say what is and is not objectively true?  This is not good science.  But, it defines much of what passes for science in the world of social inquiry.

Now, it must be said, that the truth is likely somewhere in the middle. But, most relativists are basing their relativism on what I’d consider a false understanding of some basic ideas.  Among the more common things I hear when encountering someone who is a hardcore relativist, who wants to impress me (knowing that I’m a mathematician) is with the idea of quantum physics.  It usually goes something like this, “hey, man, you know that every time we observe a particle we change it’s state.  So, everything is relative.  Our presence changes what we observe.  There is a reflexivity between us and the object.  There is no way to know what’s what if every time observe something that something changes.  Reality can be and is manipulated.”

OK, true.  But, it’s missing the point.  When we say we change a particles state, we aren’t saying the particle didn’t have a state to begin with.  It was simply a state we can’t directly observe.  That isn’t relativism in the strictest sense.  Sure if I observe it and you observe it, we’ll see different things, but that doesn’t mean the particle didn’t have an objective state before we each changed it. True relativism would be that the particle has no state until someone observes it. But, that isn’t how it is.

Octavian-coin Think of a particle as a coin.  Suppose I spin that coin on a table.  While it is spinning is it heads or tails?  You might say neither, or more accurately, you could say both.  It’s 50% heads and 50% tails.  That’s it’s objective state.  The trouble is, suppose we can’t see a coin spinning.  Suppose we can only see coins when they are heads or tails with 100% probability – that is, when they are flat on the table.  Then if I want to observe the coin, I have to slam my hand down on top of it to stop it from spinning.   Say it lands heads up.

When I leave, suppose it pops back up and begins spinning again.  Then you come by and slam your hand down on it.  Now it’s landed on tails.  We’ve each seen the same coin in different states.  I claim the coin is heads, you claim the coin is tails, but neither of us realizes that it is both.

Many things in the natural world are of this form.  That doesn’t mean we can’t study them objectively, and infer what we can, correct for our own “observation” errors, etc.  Physics is going just fine with far crazier objects than humans could ever hope to be.  There is no reason we have to pretend that studying human behavior is somehow so much harder than studying particle physics.

Popper’s 3 Worlds

There is no doubt that the reality outside our minds is not always in line with the perceived reality we hold within our minds.  Many natural scientists, in light of this, are Cartesian dualists without even knowing it.  That is, they accept that there are two worlds: the world of material things that we study; and the world of the human mind. They accept that these don’t always jive, and that each one has an influence on the other.  But, keeping them separate, at least heuristically, is seen as useful.

In social science there is a stronger emphasis on the effects culture on the mind.  And this is seen as a feedback loop from the mind to itself.

Karl Popper goes one step further with his heuristic and suggests that the universe is really made up of three worlds.  The objective world of objects.  The world of the Mind.  And the world of human-created ideas as manifested in books, paintings, blogs, etc.   The third world includes culture and so brings it out of the second world, thus striping it of some of its recursive properties.

What I like about the idea of the third world is that it allows for this world to undergo it’s own evolution (the way the other two obviously do).  And because of this we can study it (largely) independently using the tools of evolutionary research such as game theory.

One More Time

I contend that Social Science is a proper subset of Natural Science and is in fact a subset of Biology, most specifically Human Biology.   To say that we cannot study Social Science with the same tools we use in Natural Science because we are ourselves of the type we are studying is an act in strange logic. If we follow the strange logic further, then we shouldn’t study any animals like we study the natural world, because we are animals.  We shouldn’t study chemistry as we study the natural world because we are made up of molecules.  And we shouldn’t study physics the way we study the natural world because we are nothing more than a collection of atoms.

There is always some sense of recursion in any attempt we make to study the natural world.  Our brain is made up of cells which use electricity to fire information back and forth.  Whenever we are trying to understand electricity, we are using electricity to understand it!

Popper dealt with this problem in what I consider a most reasonable way, the Popeye way:  Science is what it is, and that’s all that it is.  Scientific statements can only be falsified, not verified.   And the world (including the world of human interaction) has an objective component that must be sought after as truth in its own right.  It isn’t perfect, but it gets the job done.

The only way we’ll ever make headway into the realm of human behavior is if we are comfortable approaching the human animal the way we approach the study of all animals – with science.

No Ontology without Epistemology: Of God and Mathematicians

God, or just some dude with a beard and a good muscular build?

God, or just some dude with a beard and a good muscular build?

On the Big Ideas Blog there is a post about the different types of reasoning, Analytic vs. Synthetic, and their relavence to the existence or non-existence of God.  But, my favorite passage was one concerning we mathematicians:

The requirement of reasonableness might be illustrated as follows. Imagine Tom, John and Jane live in a country run entirely by mathematicians. Their whole culture is built on analytic thinking — only water-tight logical proofs are considered to have any real force. Well, then it would hardly matter how careless Tom had been in disguising the murder, since any number of outlandish explanations for his innocence might be put forward. If you require that Tom is innocent until analytically proven guilty then he’ll get off scot-free, as will every other criminal. This is why mathematicians are rarely given anything important to do.

(Emphasis mine)

Aside

Gershom Gorenburg discusses what it takes to prove you’re a Jew.  In response, Robert Wright wonders what it would take to prove you were a Southern Baptist.  If he figures it out, my family would be interested.

Live Forever, A Diavlog with Aubrey de Grey

A discussion about gerontology and anti-aging.

Another Iraq? Georgia vs. Russia

Sullivan clarifies:

We can argue over the analogies. Yes, Iraq was a wicked dictatorship, and Georgia is a nascent democracy. Yes, the US is not Russia in terms of democratic norms. But actions and context are important. Iraq is thousands of miles away from the US; Georgia is on Russia’s doorstep. The US invaded without the critical second UN resolution, putting the US outside the kind of international legitimacy in a way not totally unlike Russia. There is no American population in Iraq; there is a sizable Russian population in Georgia. Russia is recovering from one of the most precipitous declines in power in world history; the US stood athwart the globe in 2003 with no serious competitors. The Russian intervention has not toppled the Georgian government and has been halted after a few days. The American intervention in Iraq is now in its fifth year, with the administration doing all it can to stay longer.