Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Real boundaries

There are two major kinds of maps that people tend to use: geographic and political. The first kind represents the nature: landscape features of the land. The second presumably represent people living on the land.

But does it? It surely represents the boundaries of political authority that is imposed from the top, but does it say anything meaningful about the people themselves (besides the fact that in this place people tolerate the fact that they were forced to choose between Bob and Bill, and in that place they tolerate the fact that they were forced to choose between Joe and Jim)?

This new approach to mapping human activity challenges this notion. Briefly, the authors of the approach propose to draw boundaries based on "how far a buck travels": the extent of people's economic activity. The other approach is to try clustering the exchanges of money for products and services. I tend to buy a lot of my stuff locally. I also tend to order some things from a few online stores centered in certain locations. So, I tend to spend my money in the area where I live (with reduced probability of spending with the distance) and in a few "hubs".

Another approach is to try mapping communication: cell phone calls between places. Or employment: how far do people travel to work. Or personal interaction. Etc.

Using one of these approaches, US map becomes this:

Brockmann America

Or this:

MIT Senseable City - "The Connected States of America"

(You can read more in the report on the methodology of creating these maps.)

Notice how rarely the political boundaries correspond with the "real" boundaries of human interaction. (It seems that in most cases that they do, there is also a physical boundary like a river or a mountain range that obviously serves as real boundary for human interaction.)

On the other hand, the political map of Great Britain, a much older country, tends to correlate somewhat better with the country's political map:

British Phone Map

The map actually looks somewhat similar to the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic kingdoms that existed before the Danish invasion in the 9th century CE:

I wonder if these patterns correlate with geographic features or just with traditional established economic centers.

But another, much stronger, point that immediately jumps to one's attention is that thinking of communities in terms of little bounded areas with well-established lines is silly. At best, the lines are very fuzzy. But it's also the case that the communication between people, especially in our times, is so fluid, dynamic and far-ranging that thinking of nations and communities in terms of boundaries seems unjustified.

Much better to think of them in terms of connections that unite people rather than borders that divide them:

Long Distance Map

Monday, April 22, 2013

King Edmund of East Anglia

From Bernard Cornwell's Last Kingdom:


I do not know if King Ed­mund was a saint. He was a fool, that was for sure. He had given the Danes refuge be­fore they at­tacked Eofer­wic, and giv­en them more than refuge. He had paid them coin, pro­vid­ed them with food, and sup­plied their army with hors­es, all on the two promis­es that they would leave East An­glia in the spring and that they would not harm a single church­man.

They kept their promis­es, but now, two years lat­er and much stronger, the Danes were back, and King Ed­mund had de­cid­ed to fight them. He had seen what had hap­pened to Mer­cia and Northum­bria, and must have known his own king­dom would suf­fer the same fate, and so he gath­ered his fyrd and prayed to his god and marched to do bat­tle. First he faced us by the sea, then, hear­ing that Ivar was march­ing around the edge of the great wa­tery wastes west of the Gewæsc, he turned about to con­front him.

Ub­ba then led our fleet up the Gewæsc and we nosed in­to one of the rivers un­til the chan­nel was so nar­row our oars could not be used, and then men towed the boats, wad­ing through waist­deep wa­ter un­til we could go no far­ther and there we left the ships un­der guard while the rest of us followed sog­gy paths through end­less marsh­land un­til, at long last, we came to high­er ground. No one knew where we were, on­ly that if we went south we had to reach the road along which Ed­mund had marched to con­front Ivar. Cut that road and we would trap him be­tween our forces and Ivar’s army.

Which is pre­cise­ly what hap­pened. Ivar fought him, shield wall against shield wall, and we knew none of it un­til the first East An­glian fu­gi­tives came stream­ing east­ward to find an­oth­er shield wall wait­ing for them. They scat­tered rather than fight us, we ad­vanced, and from the few pris­on­ers we took we dis­cov­ered that Ivar had beat­en them eas­ily. That was confirmed next day when the first horse­men from Ivar’s forces reached us.

King Ed­mund fled south­ward. East An­glia was a big coun­try, he could eas­ily have found refuge in a fortress, or else he could have gone to Wes­sex, but in­stead he put his faith in God and took shel­ter in a small monastery at Dic. The monastery was lost in the wet­lands and per­haps he be­lieved he would nev­er be found there, or else, as I heard, one of the monks promised him that God would shroud the monastery in a per­pet­ual fog in which the pa­gans would get lost, but the fog nev­er came and the Danes ar­rived in­stead.

Ivar, Ub­ba, and their broth­er, Half­dan, rode to Dic, tak­ing half their army, while the oth­er half set about paci­fy­ing East An­glia, which meant rap­ing, burn­ing, and killing un­til the peo­ple sub­mit­ted, which most did swift­ly enough. East An­glia, in short, fell as eas­ily as Mer­cia, and the on­ly bad news for the Danes was that there had been un­rest in Northum­bria. Ru­mors spoke of some kind of re­volt, Danes had been killed, and Ivar want­ed that ris­ing quenched, but he dared not leave East An­glia so soon af­ter cap­tur­ing it, so at Dic he made a pro­pos­al to King Ed­mund that would leave Ed­mund as king just as Burghred still ruled over Mer­cia.

The meet­ing was held in the monastery’s church, which was a sur­pris­ing­ly large hall made of tim­ber and thatch, but with great leather pan­els hang­ing on the walls. The pan­els were paint­ed with gaudy scenes. One of the pic­tures showed naked folk tum­bling down to hell where a mas­sive ser­pent with a fanged mouth sw­al­lowed them up.

“Corpserip­per,” Rag­nar said with a shud­der.


“A ser­pent that waits in Ni­fl­heim,” he ex­plained, touch­ing his ham­mer amulet. Ni­fl­heim, I knew, was a kind of Norse hell, but un­like the Chris­tian hell Ni­fl­heim was icy cold. “CorpseRip­per feeds on the dead,” Rag­nar went on, “but he al­so gnaws at the tree of life. He wants to kill the whole world and bring time to an end.” He touched his ham­mer again.

An­oth­er pan­el, be­hind the al­tar, showed Christ on the cross, and next to it was a third paint­ed leather pan­el that fas­ci­nat­ed Ivar. A man, naked but for a loin­cloth, had been tied to a stake and was be­ing used as a tar­get by archers. At least a score of ar­rows had punc­tured his white flesh, but he still had a saint­ly ex­pres­sion and a se­cret smile as though, de­spite his trou­bles, he was quite en­joy­ing him­self.

“Who is that?” Ivar want­ed to know.

“The blessed Saint Se­bas­tian.” King Ed­mund was seat­ed in front of the al­tar, and his in­ter­preter pro­vid­ed the an­swer. Ivar, skull eyes star­ing at the paint­ing, want­ed to know the whole sto­ry, and Ed­mund re­count­ed how the blessed Saint Se­bas­tian, a Ro­man sol­di­er, had re­fused to re­nounce his faith and so the em­per­or had or­dered him shot to death with ar­rows. “Yet he lived!” Ed­mund said ea­ger­ly.

“He lived be­cause God pro­tect­ed him and God be praised for that mer­cy.”

“He lived?” Ivar asked sus­pi­cious­ly.

“So the em­per­or had him clubbed to death in­stead,” the in­ter­preter fin­ished the tale.

“So he didn’t live?”

“He went to heav­en,” King Ed­mund said, “so he lived.”

Ub­ba in­ter­vened, want­ing to have the concept of heav­en ex­plained to him, and Ed­mund ea­ger­ly sketched its de­lights, but Ub­ba spat in de­ri­sion when he re­al­ized that the Chris­tian heav­en was Val­hal­la with­out any of the amuse­ments. “And Chris­tians want to go to heav­en?” he asked in disbelief.

“Of course,” the in­ter­preter said.

Ub­ba sneered. He and his two broth­ers were at­tend­ed by as many Dan­ish war­ri­ors as could cram them­selves in­to the church, while King Ed­mund had an en­tourage of two priests and six monks who all lis­tened as Ivar pro­posed his set­tle­ment. King Ed­mund could live, he could rule in East An­glia, but the chief fortress­es were to be gar­risoned by Danes, and Danes were to be grant­ed what­ev­er land they re­quired, ex­cept for roy­al land. Ed­mund would be ex­pect­ed to pro­vide hors­es for the Dan­ish army, coin and food for the Dan­ish war­ri­ors, and his fyrd, what was left of it, would march un­der Dan­ish or­ders. Ed­mund had no sons, but his chief men, those who lived, had sons who would be­come hostages to en­sure that the East An­glians kept the terms Ivar pro­posed.

“And if I say no?” Ed­mund asked.

Ivar was amused by that. “We take the land any­way.”

The king con­sult­ed his priests and monks. Ed­mund was a tall, spare man, bald as an egg though he was on­ly about thir­ty years old. He had pro­trud­ing eyes, a pursed mouth, and a per­pet­ual frown. He was wear­ing a white tu­nic that made him look like a priest him­self. “What of God’s church?” he fi­nal­ly asked Ivar.

“What of it?”

“Your men have des­ecrat­ed God’s al­tars, slaugh­tered his ser­vants, de­filed his im­age, and stolen his trib­ute!” The king was an­gry now. One of his hands was clenched on the arm of his chair that was set in front of the al­tar, while the oth­er hand was a fist that beat time with his ac­cu­sa­tions.

“Your god can­not look af­ter him­self?” Ub­ba en­quired.

“Our god is a mighty god,” Ed­mund declared, “the cre­ator of the world, yet he al­so al­lows evil to ex­ist to test us.”

“Amen,” one of the priests mur­mured as Ivar’s in­ter­preter trans­lat­ed the words.

“He brought you,” the king spat, “pa­gans from the north! Jere­mi­ah fore­told this!”

“Jere­mi­ah?” Ivar asked, quite lost now.

One of the monks had a book, the first I had seen in many years, and he un­wrapped its leather cov­er, paged through the stiff leaves, and gave it to the king who reached in­to a pock­et and took out a small ivory point­er that he used to in­di­cate the words he want­ed.“Quia malum ego,” he thun­dered, the pale point­er mov­ing along the lines,“ad­duco ab aquilone et con­tri­tionem mag­nam!”

He stopped there, glar­ing at Ivar, and some of the Danes, im­pressed by the force­ful­ness of the king’s words, even though none of them un­der­stood a sin­gle one of them, touched their ham­mer charms. The priests around Ed­mund looked re­proach­ful­ly at us. A spar­row flew in through a high win­dow and perched for a mo­ment on an arm of the high wood­en cross that stood on the al­tar. Ivar’s dread face showed no re­ac­tion to Jere­mi­ah’s words and it fi­nal­ly dawned on the East An­glian in­ter­preter, who was one of the priests, that the king’s im­pas­sioned read­ing had meant noth­ing to any of us.

“For I will bring evil from the north,” he trans­lat­ed, “and great de­struc­tion.”

“It is in the book!” Ed­mund said fierce­ly, giv­ing the vol­ume back to the monk.

“You can keep your church,” Ivar said care­less­ly.

“It is not enough!” Ed­mund said. He stood up to give his next words more force. “I will rule here,” he went on, “and I will suf­fer your pres­ence if I must, and I will pro­vide you with hors­es, food, coin, and hostages, but on­ly if you, and all of your men, sub­mit to God. You must be bap­tized!”

That word was lost on the Dan­ish interpreter, and on the king’s, and fi­nal­ly Ub­ba looked to me for help.

“You have to stand in a bar­rel of wa­ter,” I said, re­mem­ber­ing how Beoc­ca had bap­tized me af­ter my broth­er’s death, “and they pour more wa­ter over you.”

“They want to wash me?” Ub­ba asked, as­ton­ished.

I shrugged. “That’s what they do, lord.”

“You will be­come Chris­tians!” Ed­mund said, then shot me an ir­ri­tat­ed look. “We can bap­tize in the riv­er, boy. Bar­rels are not nec­es­sary.”

“They want to wash you in the riv­er,” I ex­plained to Ivar and Ub­ba, and the Danes laughed. Ivar thought about it. Stand­ing in a riv­er for a few min­utes was not such a bad thing, es­pe­cial­ly if it meant he could hur­ry back to quell what­ev­er trou­ble af­flict­ed Northum­bria. “I can go on wor­ship­ping Odin once I’m washed?” he asked.

“Of course not!” Ed­mund said an­gri­ly. “There is on­ly one God!”

“There are many gods,” Ivar snapped back, “many! Ev­ery­one knows that.”

“There is on­ly one God, and you must serve him.”

“But we’re win­ning,” Ivar ex­plained patient­ly, al­most as if he talked to a child, “which means our gods are beat­ing your one god.”

The king shud­dered at this aw­ful heresy.

“Your gods are false gods,” he said. “They are turds of the dev­il, they are evil things who will bring dark­ness to the world, while our god is great, he is all pow­er­ful, he is mag­nif­icent.”

“Show me,” Ivar said.

Those two words brought si­lence. The king, his priests, and his monks all stared at Ivar in ev­ident puz­zle­ment.

“Prove it,” Ivar said, and his Danes mur­mured their sup­port of the idea. King Ed­mund blinked, ev­ident­ly lost for in­spi­ra­tion, then had a sud­den idea and point­ed at the leather pan­el on which was paint­ed Saint Se­bas­tian’s ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing an archer’s tar­get. “Our god spared the blessed Saint Se­bas­tian from death by ar­rows,” Ed­mund said, “which is proof enough, is it not?”

“But the man still died,” Ivar point­ed out.

“On­ly be­cause that was God’s will.”

Ivar thought about that. “So would your god pro­tect you from my ar­rows?” He asked.

“If it is his will, yes.”

“So let’s try,” Ivar pro­posed. “We shall shoot ar­rows at you, and if you sur­vive then we’ll all be washed.”

Ed­mund stared at the Dane, won­der­ing if he was se­ri­ous, then looked ner­vous when he saw that Ivar was not jok­ing. The king opened his mouth, found he had noth­ing to say, and closed it again, then one of his tonsured monks mur­mured to him and he must have been try­ing to per­suade the king that God was sug­gest­ing this or­deal in or­der to ex­tend his church, and that a mir­acle would re­sult, and the Danes would be­come Chris­tians and we would all be friends and end up singing to­geth­er on the high platform in heav­en. The king did not look en­tire­ly con­vinced by this ar­gu­ment, if that was in­deed what the monk was pro­pos­ing, but the Danes want­ed to at­tempt the mir­acle now and it was no longer up to Edmund to ac­cept or refuse the tri­al.

A dozen men shoved the monks and priests aside while more went out­side to find bows and ar­rows. The king, trapped in his de­fense of God, was kneel­ing at the al­tar, pray­ing as hard as any man has ev­er prayed. The Danes were grin­ning. I was en­joy­ing it. I think I rather hoped to see a mir­acle, not be­cause I was a Chris­tian, but be­cause I just want­ed to see a mir­acle. Beoc­ca had of­ten told me about mir­acles, stress­ing that they were the re­al proof of Chris­tian­ity’s truths, but I had nev­er seen one. No one had ev­er walked on the wa­ter at Beb­ban­burg and no lep­ers were healed there and no an­gels had filled our night skies with blaz­ing glo­ry, but now, per­haps, I would see the pow­er of God that Beoc­ca had for­ev­er preached to me. Bri­da just want­ed to see Ed­mund dead.

“Are you ready?” Ivar de­mand­ed of the king.

Ed­mund looked at his priests and monks and I won­dered if he was about to sug­gest that one of them should re­place him in this test of God’s pow­er. Then he frowned and looked back to Ivar. “I will ac­cept your pro­pos­al,” he said.

“That we shoot ar­rows at you?”

“That I re­main king here.”

“But you want to wash me first.”

“We can dis­pense with that,” Ed­mund said.

“No,” Ivar said. “You have claimed your god is all pow­er­ful, that he is the on­ly god, so I want it proved. If you are right then all of us will be washed. Are we agreed?” This ques­tion was asked of the Danes, who roared their ap­proval.

“Not me,” Ravn said, “I won’t be washed.”

“We will all be washed!” Ivar snarled, and I re­al­ized he tru­ly was in­ter­est­ed in the out­come of the test, more in­ter­est­ed, in­deed, than he was in mak­ing a quick and con­ve­nient peace with Ed­mund. All men need the sup­port of their god and Ivar was try­ing to dis­cov­er whether he had, all these years, been wor­ship­ping at the wrong shrine. “Are you wear­ing ar­mor?” he asked Ed­mund.


“Best to be sure,” Ub­ba in­ter­vened and glanced at the fa­tal paint­ing. “Strip him,” he or­dered. The king and the church­men protest­ed, but the Danes would not be de­nied and King Ed­mund was stripped stark naked. Bri­da en­joyed that. “He’s puny,” she said. Ed­mund, the butt of laugh­ter now, did his best to look dig­ni­fied. The priests and monks were on their knees, pray­ing, while six archers took their stance a dozen paces from Ed­mund.

“We are go­ing to find out,” Ivar told us, stilling the laugh­ter, “whether the En­glish god is as pow­er­ful as our Dan­ish gods. If he is, and if the king lives, then we shall become Chris­tians, all of us!”

“Not me,” Ravn said again, but qui­et­ly so that Ivar could not hear. “Tell me what happens, Uhtred.”

It was soon told. Six ar­rows hit, the king screamed, blood spat­tered the al­tar, he fell down, he twitched like a gaffed salmon, and six more ar­rows thumped home. Ed­mund twitched some more, and the archers kept on shoot­ing, though their aim was bad be­cause they were half help­less with laugh­ter, and they went on shoot­ing un­til the king was as full of feath­ered shafts as a hedge­hog has spikes. And he was quite dead by then. He was blood­ied, his white skin redlaced, open­mouthed, and dead. His god had failed him mis­er­ably.

Nowa­days, of course, that sto­ry is nev­er told; in­stead chil­dren learn how brave Saint Ed­mund stood up to the Danes, de­mand­ed their con­ver­sion, and was mur­dered. So now he is a mar­tyr and a saint, war­bling hap­pi­ly in heav­en, but the truth is that he was a fool and talked him­self in­to martyrdom.

The priests and monks wailed, so Ivar ordered them killed as well; then he decreed that Earl Go­drim, one of his chiefs, would rule in East An­glia and that Half­dan would sav­age the coun­try to quench the last sparks of re­sis­tance. Go­drim and Half­dan would be giv­en a third of the army to keep East An­glia qui­et, while the rest of us would re­turn to sub­due the un­rest in Northum­bria. So now East An­glia was gone.

And Wes­sex was the last king­dom of England.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


(NOTE: for those who don't wish to read my summary of moral intuitionism, skip till after the second set of asterisks.)

I wish to propose a meta-meta-ethical view that will give reason for existence of meta-ethical theories.

What does that mean? Well, ethics asks evaluative questions. Such as: "What actions or circumstances are good or bad?" and "What actions or circumstances are right or wrong?"

Meta-ethics asks questions about the nature of evaluative truths. What is good and bad? What is their nature? What do we mean when we say those words (or should mean if we are to make any sense)? How do we know what actions are good or bad? How can we find out?

A meta-meta-ethical analysis asks what the role of making meta-ethical theories is. And how we know that those are true.

One simple answer is: by using reason. We can just see if a meta-ethical theory makes any sense internally. (Just like we would with, say, a geometric theorem.)

For instance, Kant says that a categorical imperative is a kind of imperative that would be binding on you if you knew it to be binding on everyone. Which you can verify by imagining a world in which such an imperative is not binding on anyone. Is this view coherent? Does it make sense? One can ask questions like: Well, yes, it makes sense that were absolute binding rules to exist, they would take form of categorical imperatives. But who says they exist? Also: how are we to judge whether a world in which everyone is free to lie or murder is a good world? Should we use our emotions? Why is that a good method for evaluating whether a world is good or bad?

In other words, we can test the internal coherence of a specific meta-ethical theory.

But people oftentimes don't do just that. They do that and they also test the conclusions of the theory. For instance: is torturing puppies for fun moral? Some might argue that it passes every one of Kant's moral maxims. Is lying to a Nazi asking you where the Jews are hiding immoral? Some argue that according to Kant's maxims it is immoral, and one shouldn't lie even in such a situation.

When people hear such conclusions, they infer that there is something wrong with Kant's meta-ethical theory. Or at least that it is incomplete. Because it leads to absurd conclusions.

But why should that be a test of a meta-ethical theory?

* * *

It seems that people already know what the correct moral answers are — at least in some cases. Even without having a coherent meta-ethical theory on their hands. How do they know? And if they do, what's the use of having meta-ethical theories?

Well, this is where the theory of moral intuitionism comes in. I've discussed it before, and I was introduced to it through writings of a moral philosopher Michael Huemer (whose book, Moral Intuitionism, I am currently reading and recommend to everyone interested in the subject), but, briefly, the idea is that there are moral truths about the world and our actions which we perceive intuitively.

What are these truths metaphysically? I haven't read that far in Huemer's book yet, but from his essays, it seems that he believes that the answer doesn't make sense. It assumes that moral truths must be defined in terms of some other set of truths, like natural truths. But, first, this would defy Humean is–ought gap, and, second, there is no reason why we cannot think of moral truths to be a separate set of truths, besides the natural ones.*

(I expressed my frustration and skepticism with this analysis before and offered an alternative explanation as to the metaphysics of moral truths. But I will leave that issue alone for now. And I am not completely sure I was right.)

How do we know about moral truths? Well, we perceive them. Intuitively. We have a perceptual modality called moral intuition, and through it we perceive certain actions as "choice-worthy" or not. And the idea called phenomenal conservatism says that unless we have a good reason to do otherwise, we should take our perceptions seriously. Because: well, they are there. We know about them. That is some sort of knowledge. Unless you have another sort of knowledge (usually from other perceptions) that denies this knowledge, it seems unreasonable not take the latter seriously.

* * *

So, how can moral intuitionism be a meta-meta-ethical theory? Doesn't it sound like a meta-ethical theory in itself?

Well, to answer this question, we have to humble ourselves a little regarding our physical and mathematical theories. We perceive physical and mathematical "truths" to be exactly such: true (we hope). Of course, with physics, we often re-evaluate our models later. And then again. With math we don't re-evaluate them, but we just make new ones if we need to. (So, in physics, "F=ma" is corrected by Einstein. In Math, Eucledean geometry exists in parallel with Riemannian geometry.)

But perhaps another equally correct way of thinking about both physical and mathematical models is not in terms of their absolute truth (or a degree of approximation thereof), but in terms of their usefulness. It is useful to imagine the world being countable in discrete numbers. It is useful to imagine shapes of all objects as being drawn on a sheet of paper. It is useful to think of the world as full of moving particles.

Until it's not useful anymore. And then, on that level, we apply a different model. What do I mean by "useful"? Useful in what sense? Only in the sense of explanatory power. I can explain how heat flows from one room to another if I model it in terms of many particles' kinetic energy. Such a model is more useful than one having some mysterious substance phlogiston flowing from one place to another, because the first model fits and predicts more observable phenomena.

The same goes for physical concepts like field, mass, energy, force, spin, voltage, and so on. They are just lego pieces that we invented; a perceptual glue to hold our observations together and make them fit into one shape. It's not really clear to me, for example, whether field really exists out there, as a property of space, or whether it's just something we made up to explain charged particles' behavior when they are a certain distance from other charged particles.

Why do we need the models? Because we can't observe all aspects of nature directly. So, we must deduce existence of something from those observations that we can make directly. And those deductions must be judged in terms of their usefulness in terms of their predictive and explanatory power.

What does this have to do with ethics? Well: I know it's wrong to kill humans out of pure convenience (or to prevent inconvenience). I know it's wrong to kill newborn babies. I know it's not wrong to kill one's cancer tumor (lo aleinu) or remove a mole. All these things I know from intuition.

I don't know whether it's wrong to kill fetuses. That's a gray area for my intuition.

For that reason, I need to construct a meta-ethical theory that will somehow incorporate my intuitive knowledge about ethics of "everyday" killing and will give me an answer about the morality of abortion. The data for this theory (that will either verify or break it) will be the moral facts I already know intuitively.

For instance, if we say that it's wrong to kill someone because you're extinguishing consciousness, then it seems OK to kill a fetus before his nervous system is developed enough to be conscious. Well... is it moral to put someone under anesthesia? Is it moral to kill someone, once he is under anesthesia? The answers to these questions seem intuitively obvious, and these answers break the "extinguishing consciousness" theory.

Note that "extinguishing consciousness" theory is not itself internally complete. It doesn't explain why extinguishing consciousness would be wrong. It only attempts to systematize our existing beliefs in some cohesive whole and make predictions about moral truths not immediately accessible to our intuition. Unfortunately, as I said, it is not a good meta-ethical theory, because it is broken by the data: our intuitive knowledge.

This way, moral intuitionism serves not only as a meta-ethical theory (it explains about the nature of moral truths and how we are to know them), but also as a meta-meta-ethical theory: it explains how meta-ethical theories can be useful even if we are not to think of them as "real truths" as opposed to mere models.

* Also, as an aside, if someone asks you: "What is water?", the most straightforward answer is: "What I perceive to be water: a clear, odorless, tasteless, drinkable liquid, with certain observable physical and chemical properties". Based on those characteristics, I know I am dealing with water.

If you answer: "Well, water is H2O", that invites the question: "What is hydrogen? What is oxygen? What are atoms?" You can explain in terms of electrons and protons, and so on... but eventually you will have to stop. You will have to say that there is a set of phenomena in the universe that behave a certain way, but why they behave that way we don't know for sure yet.

So, does this mean that you fundamentally don't know what water is? That seems strange. Also, imagine that — as unlikely as it sounds — it was proven that actually water is not H2O and H2O is not water. What would that mean? Would we continue calling the H2O water? Seemingly not. We would continue calling water the phenomenon of clear, odorless, tasteless, drinkable liquid that freezes at 0 degrees Celcius.

Basically, this analysis shows us that our perceptions are not chopped liver. Now apply the same analysis to "what is good" and "what is evil", and the answer "that which I perceive as something that ought not be done in principle" doesn't seem so silly anymore.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Intellectual property and scarcity, part 2

(If you're too bored to read the whole post, skip to the summary at the bottom.)

In the first part I have briefly outlined Stephan Kinsella's argument against intellectual property (IP) that is very popular in libertarian circles. To recap, Kinsella states that property rights exist to resolve conflicts over scarce resources. Because information is not scarce (my use of an idea does not conflict with/prevent your use of the same idea), property rights do not apply to information; in fact, they create a conflict rather than resolve one.

I said that I would outline possible objections to Kinsella's approach in the next post. It will probably take at least two posts. First, let's list the two possible metaphysical theories of information:

1. Information is a bunch of platonic objects
2. Information is patterns of matter isomorphic to other patterns of matter (I will explain below what this means)

A platonic object is a hypothetical ideal object ("ideal" as in "idea", not in "perfect") existing either in a parallel realm or as a part of our reality. Whenever we access some information through a piece of matter, we are actually observing that object, either in its "pure" form, or somehow distorted. So, if a few mushrooms are arranged in a circle, there is a platonic circle which somehow communicates with the matter of the mushroom resulting in their arrangement in an approximation of the said circle.

Likewise, the idea of Middle Earth is a platonic object (either created or discovered by J.R.R. Tolkien). Every time someone reads The Lord of the Rings, he accesses the Middle Earth platonic object. Likewise if he writes a novel set in the Middle Earth.

The assumption that information is non-scarce (that Kinsella and other libertarians make in their anti-IP analyses) alludes to the concept of platonic objects. Each such platonic object is non-scarce in the sense that both I and Tolkien can use Middle Earth to write a separate book (after Middle Earth has been created/discovered). Supporters of IP claim that Middle Earth can be owned by Tolkien estate. Critics of IP claim that Middle Earth cannot be owned by anyone, since nobody may exclude someone else from accessing Middle Earth, precisely because it is a non-scarce object, and one person's use of it does not conflict with another person's use. In other words, a rule that would allow such an exclusion would be both immoral and illegal in the sense that it would go against the moral/legal purpose of property rights: to prevent conflicts over scarce resources.

* * *
Here is the first part of my critique:

Kinsella's argument is based on the acceptance of the doctrine of platonic objects. But why should one do that? Why not assume the alternative hypothesis: that information is not platonic objects but merely patterns in matter not separable from matter itself? Or, if you wish, information is a series of patterns isomorphic to another series of patterns. "Isomorphic" here means "corresponding" in such a way that someone can use set of patterns A to recreate or analyze set of patterns B. For example, sequence of nucleotides on DNA is isomorphic to a sequence of amino-acids in a protein. Note that this doesn't have anything to do with human brain; cells use DNA code to create proteins all the time.

This argument is much more straightforward in that it does not require assumption of religious-like concepts like Platonic objects. If someone believes in platonic objects, let him bring forth evidence of their existence. (I will deal with a religious assumption that platonic objects exist in the next post.) Likewise, if he believes that we live in a Matrix, and all information we have is owned by some Matrix machine, let him also bring forth that evidence. Prima facie, it seems that information is nothing but patterns of matter that can either be recognized by our brains (by creating a set of isomorphic patterns in them) or not.

(The burden-of-proof argument is significant, by the way. If someone believes that platonic objects exist, he must formulate exactly what they are and how he knows about them. It may still turn out, from his evidence, that they cannot be property. For instance, if platonic objects exist in a non-material world, created by G-d, then who says they are our property? They are G-d's property. To be sure, so are all the objects in the material world, but G-d granted people rights of ownership because of the scarce/rivalrous nature of the objects. My point is: we can't willy-nilly state some theory without looking at its context.)

* * *

Significantly, this means that information is scarce. Only one person can read a given piece of information in a given book. Or, at least, it is as scarce as the carrier of the given instance of information. And someone certainly can own information -- by owning its carrier. If I bought a book from you, I now own the ideas in the book: the specific patterns of ink that create isomorphic patterns in my brain. You don't own them, because you don't own the book (since I bought it from you).

Can I use these patterns to create new patterns? (Either by copying the book or by using its fantasy-land setting to write my own book.) Why not? I am using my property the whole time. The book and information within it is my property. The new book that I am writing is also my property: I am using my paper and ink (presumably). I can sell it to anyone I want, since it's my property.

So, this analysis still argues against IP. And to me it seems like a much more straightforward approach that does not require the mental gymnastics of scarcity and justification for property rights. (Which I will deal with in the next post.) It's not clear to me why Kinsella, who is an atheist (and writing mostly for an atheist crowd) does not use it.
* * *
One can probably also criticize the platonic model as somewhat vague and incoherent. Imagine I re-write The Hobbit, replacing each instance of "Bilbo" with "Shmilbo". Is my Shmobbit the same ideal object as Tolkien's Hobbit? What if I write a novel (as has been done) from the point of view of Orcs: in which the latter and Sauron are actually misunderstood fighters for freedom against the oppression of the West? What if I write a novel whose fantasy-land setting has Misty Mountains, but nothing else from the Middle Earth? How about the Misty Mountains and a forest called Lothlórien? What if in my novel, the plot is very similar to Tolkien's (someone goes somewhere to destroy some object of power), but doesn't use the same details?

You can perform this kind of mental experiments to see that the concept of platonic objects is too vague to be used successfully as a set of rules for allocation of property. But this analysis also demonstrates that even if the universe of platonic objects existed, its anatomy would be so vague and alien to our mind that it would be difficult to determine who owns what and to what extent. It would be like owning land whose borders sometimes expand and sometimes contract.

In the next post I will try to analyze what would happen if we were to overcome the problems of figuring out what exactly platonic projects are and if we had some source (e.g., a religious revelation) that told us that all information is actually a bunch of platonic objects.

* * *

To summarize:

In the first version of critique of Kinsella's anti-IP argument, I am stating that a much easier argument would be to ask: what exactly are we owning? What is that object? Where is it?

If we discover that there is no such thing as platonic ideal objects (or their existence is subject to burden of proof), then we have to identify information with its material carriers. I cannot own contents of something without owning also its carrier. The contents of something are merely the properties of that thing.

The fact that my key fits my lock is my key's property. The unique pattern of the key's molecules is mine as long as I own the key, because it is the key. (Sure enough, another pattern on another key is that key and belong to whomever owns the key. Even if it is "the same" pattern, in the sense that it can fit the same lock or can be recognized as the same by a human brain.)

Some people may be against this attempt of "isolating" where and what objects are. But I disagree. Perhaps as a scientist, I find it important to understand the nature and ontology of some phenomenon before we deal with it.

The same goes, for example, for numbers, rights, values, tastes, truths, etc. We must identify what they are exactly before we are to deal with them.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Intellectual property and scarcity, part 1

(who owns Middle Earth?)

I have recently thought about Stephan Kinsella's core argument against intellectual property (IP) and whether it has a hole in it. I think it might not, if certain assumptions are made, but I will try to discuss my approach to the issue. This will also be a useful review of why intellectual property makes no sense.

First, let me outline Kinsella's argument:
Nature, then, contains things that are economically scarce. My use of such a thing conflicts with (excludes) your use of it, and vice versa. The function of property rights is to prevent interpersonal conflict over scarce resources, by allocating exclusive ownership of resources to specified individuals (owners). 
(Against Intellectual Property, p. 20) 
You can read the quoted essay for more details of the argument. Here is my understanding of what Kinsella is saying:

1. Some resources in nature are scarce: they can only be used by one person at a time.

2. Sometimes two or more people will want to use the same resource and will not give way to each other. This is called "conflict over scarce resources". (The conflict can be actual, with two people arguing, or theoretical: for instance, if I see a resource and want to know whether I have a right to take it.)

3. Property rights exist (as an aspect of both law and morality) to resolve conflicts over scarce resources peacefully. NOTE: this means peacefully determining whom the resource should "belong" to. Enforcement of that decision can be violent or not.

The last point is important. Assume someone disagrees to honor a certain determination of property rights. It seems that the rights-holder has, well, a right to defend his property. With force if necessary. (Or threat of ostracism. Or personal authority.) Point is: it's moral and legal for the owner to exclude others from use of his property.

4. Resources that are not scarce don't fall under above justification for property rights. In other words: if my use of X does not conflict with your use of X, then it doesn't seem like there is any conflict. So, what exactly are property rights to X supposed to resolve? What is the justification for you to prevent me from accessing X if my doing so doesn't prevent you from accessing it?

Now, let's look at what information is. Information is a non-scarce resource. If you describe a new method for getting rid of garden gnomes or a new fantasy land, and I gain access to that information (e.g., by buying your book in a store), why should you prevent me from using that information whichever way I want with my property? (E.g., printing out instructions in my book and selling them or writing a new novel set in the same fantasy land setting.) It's not like I am preventing you from using the said information for your purposes.

One quick objection is that my activity can lure some of your potential customers away. But: therefore what? Do you own your customers? Do you own their money before they gave it to you? Certainly not. Is it a loss to the original author? Well, it is in the same sense that the fact that I cooked tonight and didn't go out was a loss to whatever restaurant I would eat out at. (And if I ate at a pizza place, that decision resulted in a loss to the deli next door.) It's a loss from the estimated potential future profits. But potential future profits were not in your possession — that's why they were "potential" and "future". So, I didn't steal anything that you actually owned.

What IP laws do, therefore, is not protect from theft of actual property. Quite the contrary: they themselves create theft (if we define "theft" more generally as "violation of property rights"; such as "borrowing without permission is theft"). If I am not allowed to use my pen, ink, and paper to write a novel in a fantasy world invented by you (or, for that matter, to distribute the book I bought from you), my property rights to my pen, ink, paper, printer, hard drive, etc., are being violated.

That is the general outline of the anti-IP argument prevalent in the libertarian circles. I will discuss my slight objection — and the potential answer to it — in the next post.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The case for open borders by Michael Huemer

Michael Huemer, a libertarian and intuitionist-moralist philosopher (who's been receiving some attention both on this blog and on Cato Unbound website recently) talks about ethics of open borders and unrestricted immigration:

Interestingly, Dr. Huemer discusses the concept of prima facie vs. absolute right to travel.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Liberty versus prosperity

A copy of two comments I made elsewhere (one of them on Facebook).


I grow less interested in economic arguments and more in ethical arguments. Here is why:

1) Economic arguments themselves are based on moral presupposition that "increasing wealth of the society = good".

I mean, you could objectively say that something is stupid, because it won't get you to the goal you set yourself; so, in that sense Hitler's decision to allow the 6th Army to be encircled at Stalingrad was a stupid decision (although I am personally glad he did that). We could analyze economics and politics from such a detached point of view: e.g., "politicians want to cure poverty, but their programs just exacerbate it for the following reasons...".

But I don't think anybody actually thinks that way. If it turned out that Stalin actually did want to starve millions of Ukrainians, we wouldn't call Holodomor an economic success. There is a built-in assumption that the purpose of economic policies is to increase wealth for a society through ethical means (not, for example, conquest).

2) I was reading some stuff about Germanic tribes and Roman Empire. And I realized that I'd rather have lived as a free German tribesman, albeit without the benefits of Roman civilization and prosperity, than as a Roman slave or semi-slave ("subject"). So, if I had a choice around the time of Arminius whether to ally myself with Germanic tribes or Roman Empire, I would do the former.

I care more about freedom and rights than about prosperity. That is my personal preference. I also think that resounds more with my views on objective morality, but even if there are no objective morals outside of religion, my subjective preferences are such that I abhor any violation of personal freedom in favor of some supposed prosperity for the greater number.

Normally, freedom correlates with prosperity, but not if there are confounds, such as difference in capital and knowledge accumulation (such as in the case of Roman Empire vs. Germanic tribes). So, there could be a case when freedom doesn't correlate with prosperity.

In such a case, I would choose freedom anyway.

* * *

And here is the other comment, where I elaborate on the second part above and contrast it with Roderick Long's views:

I was reading recently about Arminius and the ambush on three Roman legions by Germanic tribes. Very briefly, as Roman Empire was expanding into "Germania" during the times of Augustus Octavian, Romans started subjugating certain tribes just east of Rhine. They taxed them and introduced Roman law, replacing traditional Germanic law. This obviously provoked a great deal of displeasure from many people. On the other hand, contacts with Romans brought benefits from trade, exposure to new technologies and way of life, etc.

Arminius was a son of a Germanic chieftain who was taken as a child a hostage to Rome to be brought up as a Roman officer. He gained command of Roman auxilia and was eventually sent back to Germania by Augustus together with Varus, a new governor of the "province". Long story short, he sided with Germanic tribes, contrived a scheme to get rid of Roman presence, lured three legions led by Varus into German forests, where they were butchered by a confederation of Germanic warriors led by Arminius himself. This is basically an equivalent of Stalingrad Battle for Hitler. Despite some future wars with Germanic tribes and punitive incursions by Roman army into Germania, this basically was the end of Roman expansion east of Rhine.

Interestingly, at the time when Arminius was planning his scheme, some chieftains had to be convinced to side with him, because for them it was better off to live under Roman semi-subjugation.

So, as I was reading all of this, I realized that I don't agree with Roderick Long that justice is always profitable. (Let's assume that continuing to live under Germanic law in a relatively greater freedom = more justice here.) Maybe having absolute justice is more profitable than having absolute injustice, but you can have more justice and less prosperity and vice versa. I am not talking about just some chieftains who were in the Romans' pockets. One might imagine a situation when all Germans would be better off in terms of prosperity living under Roman rule.

So, which one would you choose?