Thursday, March 28, 2013

Peisach: with liberty and unity (for all)

One of the main themes of Peisach is liberty. Another theme is unity. It is explained that we say "dayeinu" to being brought to Har Sinai, because on that day, klal Yisroel experienced unity. It also says that the whole reason for the slavery in Egypt was bittul: to mevatel our egos, making it possible for each of us to accept each other else.

What's the value of unity, and what is its connection to liberty?

First, there is a concept in Chassidus that lower unity parallels the upper unity. In some discussions, it is stated that lower unity results in upper unity.

"Lower unity" can refer to Malchus and z"a, or the lower spiritual worlds, but it can also refer to us: the Jews. This point of view is stressed in the ma'amor of Derech Mitzvosecho in which Tzemach Tzedek talks about Ahavas Yisroel. He states that one must unite in his soul all the sparks of all the Jews (represented there) before he can offer his soul as a karbon during davening. With a blemish within a Jew, he cannot pray effectively.

But, from the positive perspective, the reason to create a lower unity is that it results in upper unity: within the name of M"A. That is because all neshamos are routed in the Above, and when one creates unity between them (or between sparks representing them), one also creates a unity within their source. This is why it says that all of Torah is about the mitzva of Ahavas Yisroel. The purpose of all of Torah is to create unity Above through performance of the mitzvos Below. This is the effect that mitzva of Ahavas Yisroel accomplishes.

A philosophical, rather than mystical, explanation is found in the Duties of the Heart by R. Bahye. He says that the purpose with which G-d made all the multiple forms of creation is to show His lack of limitation: that anything can be created by G-d. Demonstration of G-d's unity is another purpose: we can see how all the creation works together as a machinery, each part complimenting each other, all bound by the same laws.

From another perspective, it is why, as mentioned above, we are given mitzvos: we have to demonstrate the unity of purpose and function Below. It is obvious Above that G-d is one. This is simply because He is singular and indivisible. He is one entity with no limitations or parts. But, it is also true, as R. Bahye mentions, that G-d has potentials to create many forms of existence. Perhaps there is a disunity in these potentials? What does G-d's potential to create a tomato have to do with G-d's potential to create a banana? They are separate, independent potentials, one might say, and they do not unite with each other except in the fact that they derive from the same Creator.

So, if we demonstrate that in fact both the banana and the tomato have the same purpose, and their existence Below can be used to demonstrate the existence of the Creator Above by carrying out His Will with them, we make a chiddush: we demonstrate unity even in the yechoilos, the potentials of G-d.

So, for all of the above reasons, unity is crucial.

* * *

What does it have to do with liberty? Because liberty makes unity possible. The concept of liberty is lack of oppression. When a person is free, he is free to be himself. If I force everyone to wear what I like to wear, I am forcing them to be me. If I let everyone wear whatever they want to wear, I am letting each person be himself.

So, one key to liberty is respect. And respect is all about boundaries. Paradoxically, because of the nature of people to express their will (given the opportunity), it is the fact that the stricter the boundaries around each person and the more respect the others have for those boundaries, the closer people can be to each other.

To explain: every person has his own desires and character. Every person tends to express them. If others contradict this expression, he tends to move away to find a space where he can do so. (Or he is forced to stop being himself and conform to others' will.) This is why there have been massive emigrations throughout history: people want to go somewhere where they can live their lives the way they want to live them. (Of course, another reason is that people go towards the places where life is already better. But, for many people, part of life being better is lack of oppression. Another point, already made by me earlier, is that freedom and prosperity correlate strongly throughout the history.)

So, paradoxically, if I create a very strong boundary around some person, a boundary that I cannot cross, I can coexist with that person — as close as that boundary. But if there are no boundaries around that person that I respect, than the person will tend to move away from me, and no co-existence will be possible.

There are many nuances here that I am not developing fully. Obviously, one person's boundaries cannot overlap with another person's boundaries. We might respect someone's right to wear whatever he wants, but not his right to beat his children to a pulp. Or his right to drill a hole under himself in a shared boat. Because those "boundaries" include other people — and their boundaries — in them. What exactly the picture of the co-existing boundaries should look like is a separate question.

Let us assume for now, therefore, that I am talking about legitimate boundaries. What hat someone wears. Whether he keeps gebrochts or not. Which Rebbe he follows. Whether he follows strict diet or whether he eats whatever he wants (within boundaries of kashrus). These are legitimate choices that one can make, and we have a choice: to respect other people's choices — and therefore co-exist with them in unity — or to disrespect them and push them away from us, creating disunity.

So, this is one connection between unity and liberty that I see. If you give Chessed liberty to be Chessed and give Gevurah liberty to be Gevurah, they can coexist with each other in unity.

The fact that we were liberated only to serve Hashem doesn't change the equation. Every person has his own circumstances and his own place in creation (both space and time), and that person and his place are dear to Hashem. We must love and respect our fellow Yidden and allow them to fulfill the role for which they were liberated by granting them freedom within their individual circumstances and characters.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Chances are: the world was just created

Here is a proof that the world is constantly being created ex nihilo.

A: Science tells us that the states of the Universe progress from less to more entropy (more to less order).

B: This is because a state which is more entropic (less orderly) is more likely to occur than the state that is less entropic (more orderly). Which is because there are more possible former kind of states than the latter.

This is why it is less likely for the smoke to go back into a cigarette than come out of it. Which is why the flow of time has a directionality: things progress from more to less ordered and don't go back, because it's more likely for them to go forward. The Universe has more states to choose from in the "future" pile than in the "past" pile, which is why it tends to pick the "future" ones.

Now, imagine two hypotheses:

1) The world came into being (as it is, with everything in it, including our memories, etc.) 5 minutes ago
2) The world came into being 10 minutes ago

The world in 1) is less orderly than the world in 2), as per A. But that means that that the world in 1) is also the one more likely (as per B)! Hence, it's more likely that hypothesis 1) is more correct.

Which means that it is more likely that the world came into being 5 minutes ago than 100 billion years ago. And so on...

But that also means that it's more likely that the world was just created — a Planck unit of time ago — than any time before it. Ex nihilo.

Any questions?..

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Should Orthodox Jews demand gay marriage to be illegal?

The author of the Emes ve-Emunah blog laments about Western society abandoning Bible-based ethics and Bible-believing people supporting laws going against the Bible-derived ethics. He uses gay marriage as an example.

You can read the post to see his argument and to judge whether you agree or not.

Here is my comment to the post (it uses my approach to the issue which I have written about multiple times, so don't expect any novel thoughts here):

Your assumption is that laws should be based on societal ethics. But this is erroneous. The purpose of law is to create a society, not to create a particular ethical version of a society. There has to be a basic set of prohibitions that maintain the society: prohibition from murder, stealing, rape, and fraud. Without those, there is no society.

After that, people are free to create private communities in which they can implement their personal ethical standards. The communities don't have to be geographically segregated, they can coexist, just like in modern American cities, Catholics, Protestants, Muslim, Hindus, atheists, and, lehavdil, Jews, coexist and co-operate (trade with each other and even work together).

There is absolutely no need for a society to determine what "marriage is" at all. This is not the society's concern. Jews can define marriage one way; atheists can define it another.

Anyway, according to Judaism, there is no concept of marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew. Therefore what? Would you want to make that into a law? Before our ancestors came to US, they have lived in the lands where people thought it ok to impose their views of what is ethical on Jews. And that continues to be so: in California, people attempted to ban circumcision. In Germany (in the same country where being a Nazi is illegal), it was actually banned. (So, you may think that banning views that you dislike is a good idea, but be prepared for the majority to ban your lifestyle if it doesn't like it.) In Scandinavian countries, shechita is banned on animal cruelty grounds. In Sweden, not sending your kid to a public school is forbidden. And so on. Supporting ethical paternalism doesn't seem to be in our favor...

If your ethical, moral, and religious principles prohibit you from tolerating people in a society who behave according to ethical standards foreign to yours (e.g., those who live gay lifestyle, or those who worship what you consider avoida zara), to the point that you'd prohibit those lifestyles through a use of force (which is what law is), then start by not doing any kind of business with them or those that do business with them. Even if you live in Israel, I think you will find this position impossible. We have to trade with nochrim (both in our country and abroad) to survive. We have to rely on their technology and services that they provide. Sometimes we even have to work for them. We have, therefore, to co-exist with them.

If we have to co-exist with them, we cannot find it unethical for the laws of our society not to prohibit their lifestyles — unless, of course, aspects of those lifestyles endanger the concept of a society. (So, our laws can tolerate them worshiping gods but not sacrificing children to them. Because once you make murder legal, there is no society or law to speak of. It all becomes "might makes right".)

The whole issue of gay marriage is completely moot. There should be no government-approved marriage. I don't want some stinking bureaucrat to "bless" my marriage. Nor do I want him to bless anyone's marriage on my behalf. In fact, I don't want anyone to do anything on my behalf (including Obama dronning people in some far-away lands), unless I explicitly contracted him to do something.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Deontological vs. consequentialist ethics

Deontological = rule-based. Consequentialist = consequence-oriented. Or, deontological = focused on the means, whatever the end; consequentialist = focused on the end, whatever the means.

An absurd example of deontological ethics is making it a rule never to lie and not lying to a Nazi asking you whether you're hiding any Jews. The result (people killed) is intuitively recognized as horrific, but you have adhered to the rule you committed yourself to. The point of this ad absurdum argument is that not caring about the consequences, as long as you adhere to the rules, is sometimes ridiculous. Or, in Latin, fiat justitia ruat caelum (“let the justice be done though heavens may fall").

One can also think, of course, of consequentialist ad absurdums. For instance, one achieves some worthy goal through lying or bullying others: you invest your client's money into something against his wishes, and that earns profit for him. Yes, you have achieved a positive result, but you have done so through an immoral act. Or, for instance, if you see some guy who owns some land that he doesn't use or uses badly. You confiscate the land from him, pay him very well for it, and put the land to a much better use, enriching the community. The guy was paid more than he would ever earn, and everyone benefited so much, but you have violated his property rights.

So, it would seem that it's important to take into account both consequentialist and deontological approaches.

One way to reconcile them is to treat deontological approach as producing long-term consequences with certain high but not 100% probability. Deontological rules can be framed in terms of slippery slopes. On the other hand, consequentialist approach worries about short-term consequences that have very high, near-100% probabilities (such as someone drowning). Usually it's more responsible to worry about long-term over short-term consequences, unless short-term consequences are totally terrible (and possibly unforeseen or an exception/emergency). So, this is the way to frame the balance between them in consequentialist terms (long-term vs. short-term consequences). Deontological framing would be to make a rule: e.g., "generally speaking, we don't lie, unless lying can save someone's life." Or: "generally speaking, we don't break into people's houses, unless we need to save someone's life from a fire." Etc.

Things get turned on their heads when allowance to break the long-term rules for short-term emergencies gets confused for not caring about the long-term rules. It's like a cousin who asked to sleep on the couch for the night and stayed for a month. I.e., the time frame of both the rule and the consequences gets confused. For instance, "we can confiscate someone's house to pay for someone else's cancer treatment". (Note, also, how the usual criticism of libertarian arguments involves life-boat situations.)

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Morality and law: an expanded version

Someone on Reddit replied to what I wrote in the previous post and asked, basically: "Well, but if you believe something is moral, you believe it ought to be done. I mean, that’s the definition of something moral. So, how can you say that something’s ought to be done but ought not to be a law? Isn’t that a contradiction?"

I thought it was a good point. I responded the following:

I struggle with this as someone with a very developed ethical system (I am an Orthodox Jew) but also someone with strong political views.

I think it is exactly like I wrote: law is a contract. A social contract. Not between you and the government (that's nonsense), but between you and other people. Law allows you guys to coexist together.

(A slight tangent: You probably think of law as "something that the government, elected by We the People, said", but that's not the case, and it has not been the case throughout human history. Kings were not in charge of creating laws. People were (not democratically, but through customs or favoring private arbitrators who resolved disputes). Law is a natural way for people to resolve conflicts peacefully, rather than through violence. It is all about the civilization. You can cut out the government from the model completely, and you'd still have the need for law and have some way that people would find to create the law (as they have for millennia). Now that we’ve established that, let’s go back to answering the question:)

Suppose one's moral views tell him that all males must wear little hats on their heads. In his opinion, that's the right thing to do. Should he urge people to make that into a law?

Well, imagine he has very good martial arts skills and a lot of friends with sticks and guns. Should he go from house to house and force people to put on little hats? First, he has to decide whether violence or threats of violence fit into his moral views (he might think wearing little hats is a moral imperative, but also abhor violence, for instance). But even if he decides that it fits, notice that what he is doing is simply bullying. He did not create a law, because wearing little hats has nothing to do with conflict resolution. He just decided: screw the law, I am going back to the jungle and might makes right, because I just care about the little hats this much. Which, I suppose, is his choice.

Now, if he and his little gang are called "government" nothing changes. If 51% of the people in the neighborhood voted for him and his friends, nothing changes. He may think he is doing a morally upright thing, but it's still not the law. It's an instance of bullying among otherwise possibly peaceful society.

So, why should someone choose law over moralistic bullying? Well, as I said, for starters because maybe he thinks bullying is immoral (whether done by him or "the government"). Or because he values peace.

Throughout history, even the societies that felt that they knew what's right (as David Mitchell puts it in one of his Youtube videos, they felt like they were certain as to what the hell was going on and, in fact, which specific hell was going on) at some point found it beneficial to stop fighting and recognize that it's more important just to survive and not kill each other. Emergence of the classical liberal values (as opposed to neo-liberalism, which is basically Marxism) in the Western culture was the same idea but applied within the society: coexisting with others peacefully is as much a value as whatever moral values one has.

Finally, there is something to be said for upholding the concept of law over "whatever we happen to think is right". It's a long-term principle. Today we may think it's beneficial to forbid people to grow as much wheat on their farms as the want. Or we may think it's a good thing to outlaw Communist party. But by supporting whatever (imagined and usually wrongly estimated) short-term benefit, we are destroying the concept of law: that it is wrong to bully people and that interaction between people in the society must be peaceful, by definition of the society.

And the next thing we know, well, pick your favorite 20th-century atrocity. It is always a direct result of that slippery slope that starts with the idea "I know what's best for the society, so let's force everyone to do it".
This is basically the deontological argument. The principled one.

[Before you read the rest, note that I was responding to a moral utilitarian.]

The economic/consequentialist one is: you don't know what is best for the society. Nobody knows. Just like you don't know what the best next model of the smart phone should be. And nobody knows. A bunch of people have good ideas, but you have to let them experiment, compete with each other, then send their phones to Best Buy, and let the public choose. And the public will choose more than one correct answer (some more correct than others), and those answers must be allowed to co-exist.

Every single central-planning strategy in anything, from cars to roads to economics to warfare to politics, is horrible compared to the strategy of letting people do whatever they want* and comparing the results.

*The obvious caveat is that there are things we cannot let people do. Those things that would tear the fabric of the society. I.e., violence and bullying. Murder, theft, robbery, rape, fraud. Those should be illegal. But everything else — you may think you're the new Oracle of Delphi and the Universe has shared its secrets with you how to build the perfect society, but you're wrong. Your little Sim City will not run as smoothly as it will if left to its own devices.

As I said, this is the pragmatic/economic argument. Very different from my original "principled"/legal/contractarian argument. But I think the two go hand-in-hand.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Why not base law in morality?

Someone asked the above question on Reddit. Below is my answer:

Because the purpose of law is to create a civilized society with non-violent resolution and prevention of conflicts over scarce resources. Law is a way to resolve those conflicts peacefully. (Not to be confused with law enforcement, which may or may not be peaceful. I.e., law simply determines whose claim over a scarce resource is right.) This has nothing to do with morality. It's just a mutual contract. Rules of a game called "society".

(Of course, not taking others' property and not aggressing against them could be a part of one's morality and the reason why living in a lawful society might be preferred by him/her. But that is a meta-reason for having law - one of many possible - not the law itself.)

These rules allow for people with very different views of morality to form societies together. I think that eating pork is immoral for Jews because the Creator of pork asked them not to (as far as I know). But I don't think my view should be a law, since this would prevent me from living in a society with all those who think otherwise.*

The same with utilitarian morality. Presumably, a utilitarian thinks that if forcing two people to fight to death (or maiming) will entertain a crowd of thousands, they should be forced to do so, since this maximizes utility of the society. But such an act of force would not be law; it would be returning to Hobbsean jungle of might makes right, since it would not be a way of peaceful resolution of the conflict of the crowd vs. the two people over a scarce resource (their bodies).

So, only the actions that prevent us from forming a society can be prohibited by law: namely, aggression against each other and our respective properties. If "law" prohibits wearing blue shoes because doing so offends many people, such a rule is not law. It's just bullying of a minority by a majority. In fact, it's anti-law; it's a pocket of violence in possibly otherwise lawful society.
* I realize that this party of my argument may be unconvincing to some religious Jews, but here's my question: do you think it's against Halacha to do business with those who don't keep Halacha or Mitzvos Bnei Noach? Presumably not. (Even though we may have an obligation to try to influence them.) Next: are you prepared to live in compete isolation from those people, not being a member of their society in any shape our form (including trading with those who trade with these people)? And finally: even though there is an opinion among some of our authorities (such as Rambam and Ramban) about vigilante justice and "righteous wars", do you think it's a feasible idea nowadays and a proper way to go?

I.e., are you completely prepared to cut yourself off from the society of those who in your opinion live against Halacha?

Conflict resolution in a free society

A friend on Facebook asked me the following question:
Imagine it's 12 am. Your neighbor is playing music loudly. As a libertarian, what do you do?
The context of the question is: what would happen in this situation in a libertarian society?

This is a perfect example of conflict resolution. Today it is done through legislature, courts, and police. How would conflict resolution happen in a free society? The answer is: the same way as hunger resolution (eating) would happen: through private service providers. There are three services that are done by the three mentioned organizations:
  1. legislation (creation of laws that specify when, for example, it is no longer acceptable to disturb your neighbors with music),
  2. arbitration (if I sue you for disturbing my peace with music, we can go to court),
  3. law enforcement (if it has been determined — by either courts or legislative bodies — that you're "in the wrong" for playing music so late and yet you continue doing so, law enforcement agency will come and force you to comply).
Today, the government has a monopoly on these three services (which it enforces by threats of violence). In free society, these services would be provided by free, independent organizations competing with each other (for customers) on the market:

1. Legislation.

Under the theory of natural rights, the function of legislation is not to create order or to express the ruling prince's desire, but to create boundaries between people's rights. Sure, that also creates order, but there is presumably order in a concentration camp, but without human rights being respected.

Different theories of rights can exist "on the market", each espoused by different legal authorities: people that express their opinions about what the boundaries between rights should be. This is similar to how today, different "experts" express their opinions on how words should be spelled, or where a comma should be in a sentence. Note that these people get their ideas from observing the on-going customs (if an expert on spelling would tell us that the correct way to spell dog is doug, most people wouldn't accept his opinion just because he is an expert) and from logic. They may also have some considerations about efficiency and function of grammar. (For instance, I have for years been advocating placing punctuation outside of quotation marks and surrounding em-dashes with spaces. Of course, I am not a renowned expert in grammar, so nobody listens to me.)

If this reminds you of something, it should. This is exactly how Halacha has been paskened for the last two millenia: through independent private authorities. Nowadays, such authorities may even live within the same locale. For example, on a block in New York, you may find a Litvish, a Sephardic, or a Chassidic authority in Halacha — and sometimes all three.

In terms of the question about playing music at 12 am, three approaches may exist:

a) Absolute rights: if your music invades my space, it is the same as your body or your bullets invading my space. You are clearly violating my rights. Therefore, if I ask you to stop playing music (even in the middle of the day), you have to comply.

b) Homesteading rights: what was the situation like when you moved into your house? If the area was quiet at night (and then my music-playing neighbor moved in), then I have homesteaded the quiet environment of my house. I have rights to the quiet. When my neighbor moves in and starts playing music, he violates my rights. On the other hand, if he "was there first", then he is not.

c) Local custom: what is usually the accepted practice by the people of the community? If it is a community of musicians, who play at random times at night, then perhaps my neighbor is not violating my rights. (This is similar to the previous point, but not exactly the same.)

Different experts may adhere to some or all of the these (and maybe some other) rules for legislature. Different arbitration authorities may or may not consider these authorities' opinions. Thus, the markets will select for these authorities' (and their opinions') popularity. (They may get paid for publishing their legislative theories and teaching. They may also get hired as experts to testify during arbitration.)

2. Arbitration.

When my neighbor plays music loudly, first I will ask him to stop. If her refuses, I will call my "protection company" (a company that provides protection service and insurance for me for a fee). They will contact my neighbor's protection company, and the two companies will go to an arbitrator.

Note that the two companies can also resolve the conflict through violence: the way some mafia may do. But on a free market in a society where people favor peace (as in North America, for example), companies that resolve conflicts through violence may quickly lose clients. Thus, it will be in economic interest for the two companies to resolve the conflict peacefully. They may do so between themselves, or they may do so through a private arbitrator. The arbitrators will also be selected by the market for the fairness of their decisions (their cases will be published), and the public — including the protection companies — will be able to pick the arbitrators who are well known for their judgement skills (and for the legislators whom they bring in as experts or whose opinions they follow).

Note that multiple legislative and arbitration strategies may co-exist on the market. Some protection companies may be known for seeking arbitrators who follow strategy X. When signing up for those companies' services, the public will know this and can make a decision (the same way the public decides today whether to buy a computer that has Apple OS or Windows installed on it).

3. Law enforcement.

After the decision has been made by the arbitration company, a number of things to enforce it may happen. First, my neighbor may be informed about the decision. Let's say he refuses to abide. In that case, either I or my protection agency may have power to enforce the decision or hire an enforcement agency: a bunch of guys who can come in and use threat of violence to force the guy to stop playing music (or force him to pay a fee).

This sounds rather violent, but remember what happens today: if I call the police, they will come and at first talk to my neighbor. If he refuses to stop, they will use threat of violence (or actual violence) to restrain him, bring him to some holding facility, where he may end up receiving a fine or even be imprisoned long-term. Except, remember, there is no competition. We have only one kind of police, only one kind of prisons, and only one kind of judges. If the police are exceptionally brutal while arresting my neighbor, I don't have a choice to use another law enforcement agency.

In a free society, there would be competition: agencies that enforce the laws with unnecessary violence will lose customers (and so will the protection agencies that hire them). They may even get sued themselves (something that cannot happen today with the police, or happens with low efficiency, since the government is usually on their side; it's almost impossible today for a police officer to lose a job and to suffer some economic penalty; at worst, he may be suspended for some short time).

This is basically the short answer. There are many nuances to consider, and the picture of all these possible interactions is a little fuzzy, but the nature of all business interactions is somewhat fuzzy. Different entities on the market always compete to provide different way to satisfy the customers' needs for a certain service (or a number of services combined in a package). The above services are no different, though, after millenia of living under the governments' monopolies, it may be difficult for us to conceive of this.

Think about the other example I mentioned: eating. Today it is done through many parallel channels. You can go to a restaurant. You can buy your own food and cook (and there are multiple places to buy ingredients and cooking utensils from). You can pay someone else to come and cook for you. And for each mentioned service, there are many other services sustaining it. For many people in the Soviet Union, as late as 1980s, it was difficult to imagine what would happen if collective farms, where food was grown by the government, were disbanded. Some people really believed that people would starve.

So, this is basically where we are today regarding conflict resolution. We think that without the government doing it, the society would break down into chaos and violence.

Some of the questions immediately arising after reading the above may be addressed in the following sources and examples:


Chaos Theory by Bob Morthpy
Law in Medieval Iceland and Ireland


Market for Security by Bob Murphy
A brief excerpt from the above video explaining the point about the warlords
A recenty interview with David Friedman:

Monday, March 4, 2013

Pay your taxes if you want roads

Swedish propaganda video.

Yes, citizens. Taxes is the price you pay for maintaining laws of economics. Supply and demand do not exist without taxes.

Nobody except the government would demand paved roads or have the extreme insight to provide them.

Yes, private entrepreneurs can find a way to create smartphones and electric toothbrushes and virtual online societies and checking food for kashrus, but they would have no clue how to pour some concrete on some dirt and find a way to earn profit for it.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Riddles in the dark

I stated earlier a position that mathematical concepts are just our way of making sense of our internal logical reality, not so much making sense of reality "out there". I repeated this view in a later post, stating:
Mathematical truths are merely descriptions of the internal laws governing our processing of the world outside. Specific laws and notations of mathematics are our ways of making sense of the external world. To say that there are 10 bottles in a pack merely means to say that we have grouped the matter in the pack into 10 objects (per our definition of "ten" and "objects") in our heads. There is nothing more to it. 
The reason why Math is useful is because our brain can model the reality pretty well (at least to a certain extent), having been created/evolved for that purpose, and the brains of people are quite similar in this capacity, such that these models can be shared and mutually recognized as either true or false (or, rather, good predictors of reality or bad ones). 
 As a matter of support for this view, consider that mathematicians and physicists choose different kinds of Mathematics to describe the world. Eucledean mathematics can allow you to build a pyramid, but not circumnavigate the world. And Newton had to invent of a whole new set of mathematical concepts in order to prove his theory of gravitation. Same for Einstein: he had to adopt a radically new set of mathematical models to describe his view of the physical reality. 
 So, while the physical reality is "external" and objective, our ways of understanding and modelling it are internal and subjective, pure products of our minds.
Let me illustrate this point of view with a few examples:

* * *

What is 400+200? Most of you will say: 600.

But imagine we are on a sphere that is 1000 miles in circumference. Each of us can be at most 500 miles away from each other (half the circumference). Imagine we are standing on the equator of the sphere, and you start walking away from me along the equator. You are 200 miles away. Then you walk 200 more miles. How far are you? 400 miles.

Now, pay attention: you walk 200 miles more. How far are you? You may be tempted to say: 600 miles, but remember that the sphere allows us to be at most 500 miles apart from each other, along the surface of the sphere. What happened is that you reached the opposite end of the sphere and then started circumnavigating it back towards me, along the other side. So, you're still 400 miles away.

On such a sphere, 400 mi +200 mi = 400 mi, when measuring distance between two objects.

The same is actually true for Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Once you start moving really fast, the speeds don't add up as they do in our everyday reality and they can never add up above the speed of light, c. So, what is 0.6 c + 0.5 c? It's some number smaller than c.

And according to Einstein's General Relativity, sometimes 3-dimensional space curves.

* * *

Another example would be of a wall clock. According to wall-clock arithmetic, 11 o'clock + 3 hours = 2 o'clock. 11 + 3 = 2. One way to state this is that the number line of the clock is curved onto itself, such that 12 = 0.

* * *

Imagine a string of numbers:

N = 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + ... to infinity.

Can we figure out what N is equal to?

Well, we can write N as:

N = (1 – 1) + (1 – 1) + (1 – 1) + (1 – 1) + ... = 0 + 0 + 0 + 0 + ... = 0

But, another, equally valid way of writing this is:

N = 1 + (−1 + 1) + (−1 + 1) + (−1 + 1) + … = 1 + 0 + 0 + 0 + … = 1

So, N is equal to both 0 and 1.

But, we could also say that:
N = 1 − 1 + 1 − 1 + …, so:
1 − N = 1 − (1 − 1 + 1 − 1 + …) = 1 − 1 + 1 − 1 + … = N,
1 − N = N; thus N = 0.5

So, we can get three different answers for N just based on the simple concepts of addition of integers and infinity.

* * *
Then there are statements like: "This statement is not true". Is the statement in quotation marks true?

There is the well-known case of Xeno's paradoxes which was solved through invention of Calculus.

And so on...

* * *

All these examples show that specific systems of notation and logic get us only so far. A specific method of "keeping track" of our internal world's perceptions of the outside works for only certain kinds of perception; other methods may be devised for different kinds, and even within the methods we already know well, there may be limits of their applicability.

I think it may be true that the reality "outside" has certain logic to it, and we are mapping out different aspects of this "grand-logic" in our head using many different kinds of "mini-logic". This doesn't just apply to Math, but to any kind of logic, symbolic and formal or not.

The point is that we must be prepared for the idea that there are "creases" in the outside's grand-logic where our internal mini-logics flow into each other (or transition sharply). There may also be areas of the grand-logic where "here be dragons".

Morality and neuro-porn

(parallel circuits of prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia)

I am reading a neuro-porn article about morality. Neuro-porn is a sub-genre of popular science in which writers use imagery or description of brain scans to strengthen a point. In this article, the author is saying that moral judgments are an illusion because certain brain areas light up when a person is making a moral choice. In particular, many of the areas responsible for sub-conscious processing of emotions.

Well, brain areas light up when I am trying to catch a ball or learn how to shoot an arrow from a bow. Does this mean that space and time also do not exist? Furthermore, some of those areas will be responsible for subconscious processing of emotions, because emotions (salience) are crucial for people to learn. When I used to learn algebra, I actually felt the numbers through emotions: there were tricky variables, benevolent ones, etc. Math may or may not be a product of my mind (corresponding to objective reality or not), but I think it's silly to say that mathematical calculations are merely emotions.

Yes, it makes sense that our brain would express moral valuations through a feeling of disgust. But that doesn't necessarily mean that our moral judgments are simply products of feelings. That's just the "language" of the brain. Sometimes our brain uses one set of qualia to represent another set of information. Pain (or taste) feels as hot or sharp. It doesn't mean that temperature, pain, acute tactile pressure, and taste are the same thing.

Also, one should not discount the idea that subconscious processing of values could elicit subconscious emotional reactions. Another brain area that lights up consistently during moral choices is medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). It is the area responsible for planning and execution of actions, but also for thinking about different outcomes and switching between strategies. It is one of the most advanced part of the human brain phylogenetically. Is mPFC being driven by the emotional centers? Does it drive them? Is there a more complicated picture? The causality is not clear, and I don't believe the state-of-the art fMRI can reveal it.

Making sense of moral truths, cont.

Because moral truths must be truths about reality (as I have argued in my previous post) if we are to reject the subjectivist moral position, we have to define very carefully what we mean by saying that moral truths are objective.

We could mean that the moral truths are universal statements of goals. Subjective evaluative statements are statements of compatibility with subjective goals. To say "it's too cold in this room" is to mean "I want to feel comfortable, and in order for that to happen, the temperature in the room must be higher". Obviously, this is a subjective evaluative statement, since what's cold for you might be too warm for me because of our unique biology or mental reactions.

Saying "taking I-95 N from Boston is wrong" implies that you want to go south (e.g., to New York).

So, maybe all people have a certain set of goals, and to achieve these goals, they must do certain things having property of "good" and cannot do certain things thus having property of "bad". That would be interesting, but I don't think we would find such a universal set of goals for all humankind. In fact, quite the opposite: most people want to continue surviving and incur pleasure while staying away from pain. But what are we to do if people's goals intersect: i.e., if causing pleasure to myself will cause pain to you?

* * *

What else we got? Well, we could define good as "beneficial". For instance, something good for a bacterium is to avoid destruction. For every living being there seems to be a set of goods and bads. So, just like we can recognize that certain things are good for us in the sense that they allow us to survive and enjoy ourselves, there are things that are good for others, both humans and other living beings.

One problem is with defining what exactly good is. Ayn Rand famously said that only living forms have a choice between staying living and being dead. Dead matter is already dead: it has no choice about it.

But surely one could argue that there is a difference between being a magnificent stalagmite and a bunch of crushed rock. So, we can define "good" and "bad" in terms of order vs. entropy. Order means good. Destruction of something means increasing its entropy. (Another objection to Rand is that humans can have other choices besides being alive or dead, such as leading more or less creative or rational lives, enjoying oneself more or less, etc. Those are real choices, and it's not clear one set of choices — e.g., how much fun to have in one's life — must be more important than another — how long to live.)

The problem is that the obvious fact of life is that in order for anything to survive it needs to feed on something else. We have to destroy plants and sometimes animals to survive; the animals do the same. Even the plants feed on the products of our sun's continued destruction.

So, is it good for a bear to eat me? It is good for the bear; it is bad for me. The same is true in reverse. So, again, how are we to decide between choices of good and bad? Should I steal someone's umbrella? It's bad to do that to someone else; but it's equally bad to let me walk under rain without an umbrella. Which bad should I avoid? Which good should I choose?

I do not claim that there are no answers to these question. I am trying to show that simply defining good and bad as harm and benefit does not suffice.

* * *

One can go the route of moral intuitionists and say that "good" and "bad" are simple properties of nature as "red", "green", "hot", "cold" or having a certain electrical charge or mass or occupying certain amount of space. And we know these things simply from perception and do not have to define them in terms of anything else.

Here is my problem with this view of moral truths: it seems an intellectually arbitrary dead-end. All the physical qualities I listed above have relation to other events in the universe, can be investigated further, can be detected and verified independently. The same goes for mathematical truths, whatever one makes of them.

But if I am saying that "harming children for the fun of is bad; end of story", it doesn't seem like I can investigate the nature of this quality any further or connect it to other phenomena. I either believe it to be true or not. Maybe I can compare it with other similar truths ("Is it acceptable to allow three children of someone else to die at the cost of saving one's own single child?"), but it seems that the results of the comparison are themselves singular intuitive truths which one cannot investigate much further.

Also, this approach smacks of arbitrary ascribing of one's internal states to the nature without any way to verify the truth and validity of it. Imagine that I said that on a rainy day, the nature is sad, on a windy day it's angry, on a sunny day, it's happy, and early in the morning it's calm.

When asked what I mean by these things: are those the emotions that I feel, I would say, no, they are the nature's qualities. I can feel such emotions myself, but in this case, I am describing the states of nature. Well, do I mean that the nature feels those emotions? No, that's silly. I am just describing the nature's properties or some truths about nature, and no further definition is necessary. How do I know that the nature has these states? Why, I observe it. I already know what angry, happy, sad, or calm are from introspection. I can also recognize these qualities in nature. There are those that can agree with me, and there are those that cannot sense those qualities in nature; maybe they are psychopaths of sorts.

I think most people would find these descriptions not only somewhat silly, strange, and arbitrary, but also not very useful.

* * *

So, how do I personally define objective valuations? First, I want to return to the idea that a valuation is an expression of correspondence to some goal. Something is good if it allows one to reach some goal.

The goal itself may or may not need justification; it may or may not need be a part of another goal. For instance, I eat because I don't want to be hungry and want to survive. I don't want to be hungry because I don't want to suffer. My goals of not suffering and continuing to survive cannot be explained; they are what defines me as who I am.

Perhaps the latter point needs some work. Maybe it is wrong to define something as an end in itself or an axiom without a good justification. (Such that denying it would force one to contradict oneself, such as saying "I don't exist".) I do not know yet if one can apply this method to goals to verify which of them are "basic" (or "final") goals.

Be it as it may, let me quote myself from an earlier post:
How can there be an absolute, "objective" purpose to the world out there? I walk in a forest and see a beehive. My purpose for it is to eat the honey to satisfy my hunger. The bees' purpose is to keep the honey to feed their larvae. Maybe somebody else's purpose is to take the honey and sell it on the market. How can there be an "ultimate" or absolute purpose, independent of any agents, built-in into the fabric of reality of the beehive? 
Clearly there cannot be, unless there is one agent who imbues all reality with a purpose: the one who created and continues to create the beehive, consciously, willfully, and with a certain goal in mind (so to speak). I.e., G-d, [the Creator of the World, imbuing it with a purpose].
That is my definition of objective morality. It is that which corresponds with the objective, teleological end of the world, its purpose. Those who don't believe in G-d might believe in something like Omega Point theory, which states that the universe has a teleological purpose defined in its laws to which it tends. In that case, following that purpose is good, while going against it is bad.

I am not making this definition because I am trying to fit morality into religion. Simply all the other definitions do not make any sense to me. (And subjectivist morality contradicts my perception of  intuitive, non-subjective truths being real.) I may change my mind, but this is where my view stands at the moment.

Finally, I do not mean to say that the only way to know G-d's purpose for the world is through a revelation. Another way is, potentially, through intuition, one's "moral compass". It may or may not be a good way to know G-d's purpose in certain things, just like our eyes may or may not be a good way to gain knowledge about space, time, colors, etc.

I think one's moral landscape must consist of a symbiosis between one's knowledge of G-d's revelation of His desires about the world and one's moral intuition.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Thomas Nagel and coherence of moral truths

I have recently read a couple chapters from Thomas Nagel's recent book, Mind and Cosmos. In it, he argues that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory of the origin of life as we know it must be incomplete or altogether erroneous, because it cannot account for many aspects of our everyday lives, specifically the parts of what's commonly known as mind–body problem. Nagel focuses on the problems with providing a Darwinian account of the origins (and justification of) consciousness, cognition (including knowledge of mathematical truths), and moral values.

I don't want to discuss here the main thesis of the book. I just want to focus on Nagel's definition of moral realism and objective moral truths, in which he follows the tradition of many other moral realists.

According to Nagel, moral realism asserts that moral truths are not merely subjective experiences of individuals contingent on their personal preferences. Moral truths are independently real — and accessible to most individuals through reason. Furthermore, moral truths do not need to be defined or proven in terms of other truths (subjective or objective). After all, we cannot hold that every belief must be defined and verified through an infinite chain of definitions and verifications. That would be impossible and incoherent. Some ground-truths must exist simply because they must exist; according to Nagel's description of moral realism, that applies to moral truths:
[Moral] realism is not a metaphysical theory of the ground of moral and evaluative truth. It is a metaphysical position only in the negative sense that it denies that all basic truth is either natural or mathematical. [...] Value realism does not maintain that value judgments are made true or false by anything else, natural or supernatural.
The part in bold is what I am having a problem comprehending. But first, let Nagel continue...

He explains that, of course, our evaluation of certain events as good or bad requires our knowledge of those events. The fact that running over a dog for the fun of it is evil requires knowledge that running over a dog will cause pain, suffering, and death of a living creature for the fun of it. But knowledge that causing pain, suffering, and death to another living creature is bad is self-evident according to Nagel. It does not require knowledge of anything else.

So far so good. But then he elaborates on the bit in bold above. David Gordon, in his review of Cosmos, explains:

But is not moral realism exposed to a decisive objection, famously pressed by John L. Mackie? In suggesting that values are "out there" in the world, rather than human preferences or sentiments, does not the moral realist postulate "ontologically queer" abstract objects, unlike anything else in the universe? 
Nagel convincingly shows that this objection rests on a misunderstanding. Moral realism does not hold that there is, in addition to ordinary objects, a special class of metaphysical objects called "values." Rather, its contention is that moral reasons do not require reduction to something else in order to count as legitimate. 
"The dispute between realism and subjectivism is not about the contents of the universe. It is a dispute about the order of normative explanation. Realists believe that moral and other evaluative judgments can often be explained by more general or basic evaluative truths, together with the facts that bring them into play.… But they do not believe that the evaluative element in such a judgment can be explained by anything else. That there is a reason to do what will avoid grievous harm to a sentient creature is, in a realist view, one of the kinds of things that can be true in itself, and not because something else is true." (p. 102)

I.e., the statement that causing suffering and pain for fun is evil is not a statement about a law of the universe; nor is it a statement about one's mind (since that would make it subjectivist). It is merely a truth, in and of itself.

(Michael Huemer makes a similar point, but I can't find the quote right now. Perhaps I confabulated it.)

I find this position incoherent. All truths must be either truths about our mind or about the reality outside our mind. Take mathematical truths, for instance. What are they? Several views can exist:
Subjectivist: Mathematical truths are merely descriptions of the internal laws governing our processing of the world outside. Specific laws and notations of mathematics are our ways of making sense of the external world. To say that there are 10 bottles in a pack merely means to say that we have grouped the matter in the pack into 10 objects (per our definition of "ten" and "objects") in our heads. There is nothing more to it. 
The reason why Math is useful is because our brain can model the reality pretty well (at least to a certain extent), having been created/evolved for that purpose, and the brains of people are quite similar in this capacity, such that these models can be shared and mutually recognized as either true or false (or, rather, good predictors of reality or bad ones). 
 As a matter of support for this view, consider that mathematicians and physicists choose different kinds of Mathematics to describe the world. Eucledean mathematics can allow you to build a pyramid, but not circumnavigate the world. And Newton had to invent of a whole new set of mathematical concepts in order to prove his theory of gravitation. Same for Einstein: he had to adopt a radically new set of mathematical models to describe his view of the physical reality. 
 So, while the physical reality is "external" and objective, our ways of understanding and modelling it are internal and subjective, pure products of our minds.
Realist: The above view is ridiculous. Yes, the specific ways in which we measure and analyze the world and perceive the logic of it are unique to our brains and products of them. But there must be some independent, external aspect of reality that these internal models are representing. That is why Fermat could predict certain property of numbers in his Last Theorem, and people could prove it after a few hundred years, in a book several hundred pages long, itself being a product of seven years' worth of research based on centuries of previous research.
That is why, just from knowledge of geometry and Calculus, I can figure out how tall the level of water (whose rate of flow I know) will be in a pool of known dimensions after a certain number of minutes. I can figure it out theoretically, without knowledge of empirical laws of physics, and then go back and observe my answer being correct in reality (as long as the measurements of the pool's dimension, the flow of water, and the time elapsed were approximately correct). How the heck can I predict something like that about the world outside of my head just through introspection about my own logic? There must be something more to it. 
Furthermore, mathematicians sometimes develop theorems that they think are purely abstract. Later it turns out that they can be useful in modelling the world. For instance, extremely abstract Riemannian geometry (developed in the 19th century) was found to be useful in the 20th century as a mathematical basis for Einstein's General Relativity Theory. 
This manner of consistency must result from something objective existing "out there", not just a subjective modelling of the world inside our heads, a merely useful way to keep track of all the geese in one's herd. Thus, mathematics must be a part of the physical world.  
(Incidentally, perhaps the reason why mathematicians can study this part "internally", without ever getting out and observing the world, is because their brains also operate according to the same laws of logic as the rest of the universe. Thus, lehavdil, "from my flesh, I envision G-d".) 
Mystic/Platonist: The realist is right that there is objective reality which mathematicians study. But he is not right that it is a part of the physical world. It is a part of some parallel world of forms, "on which" the matter of this world is built, in a manner of a matryoshka (Russian doll). There, the forms and numbers and other abstract truths exist in their pristine form. 
In our, material world, those "ideal objects" are forced onto the matter (or the other way around), such that we can still recognize them through reason and observation of the world, but we have to abstract them in order to mentally study their relationships in the world of forms. This is why we can make precise predictions about the extremely imprecise physical world. Our theories about it must be modified all the time, but not our theories about how to make mathematical sense of it. 
This is not because our subjective view of our internal world is so unshakably consistent and reliable (after all, psychological accounts of our internal world evolve constantly). Nor is it because our knowledge of the physical world is so precise (it is constantly corrected as well; in fact, some long-held descriptions of reality, such as Newton's Laws, are eventually proven to be incorrect or imprecise). It is because we can know the world of forms (by inference from the physical world or by internal knowledge through our souls) in a better fashion that we can know the world of the physical matter. There may be a kabbalistic reason for it (such as that the world of forms is one of the Worlds of Truth, while in the physical world, the truth is muddled up by the physical matter).

Whatever the correct view of the ontology of mathematical truths, as I said before, they must be truths about something. They must be a part of the reality: either a subjective part of our brains and minds (similar to tastes), an objective part of the physical reality (like laws of physics), or a part of some parallel non-physical world. To say that something is good, but mean neither that "goodness" is its realistic property nor that its my mind's reaction to it, is not demonstrably wrong or illogical; it's simply incoherent.

To be continued...