Thursday, August 06, 2020

Free Will by Sam Harris

In this book, Sam Harris argues that the idea of free will is not only unsound; it is also contrary to our experience. For example, he says that, in the morning, he sometimes drinks coffee and sometimes tea, and when he makes the decision, it is just based on how he feels at the moment, which is caused by his genetic inheritance and life history, so it is not really a free choice.

Here and throughout the book, he fails to distinguish free will from volition (which is just will, without the freedom), so he fails to see that his examples involve volition. We can make this distinction by giving examples.

A dog following a trail sniffs in one place for a time and then decides which direction to go in.  This is volition without free choice; once the dog figures out which way the trail goes, it necessarily wills to go in that direction, rather than making a free choice of which direction to go in.  Volition evolved to let animals gather more information before acting, which lets them act more effectively: the delay lets the dog spend enough time to figure out which direction the trail goes, so it is more likely to find the prey it is tracking.  Likewise, Harris’ delay lets him figure out whether he is really in the mood for coffee of for tea before deciding which to do, and the decision is determined by his mood rather than being free.

By contrast, free will involves making a deliberate decision based on reasoning about evidence in the world or about our own experience. For example, when I was in my twenties, I read some books about nutrition, so I decided to eat whole grain bread and pasta rather than the refined grains I grew up on. I have generally followed that decision ever since, though I occasionally give in to my impulses and have some particularly delicious looking bit of bread made with white flower. When I made that decision, I was not being controlled by my mood: I decided that I should eat whole grains based on the scientific evidence that they are healthier.

Sometimes we make this sort of decision by reflecting on our own experience. For example, I might spend an hour reading comments on Twitter and realize that it is a waste of time and that I shouldn’t do it in the future - but occasionally, I might give in to temptation and binge on Twitter comments again.

After we have made this sort of decision, we can sometimes limit our volition based on it. For example, Harris gives in to his mood when he decides whether to have coffee or tea for breakfast, but if he were in the mood to have a few shots of whiskey for breakfast, he probably would resist that impulse. But sometimes we cannot limit our volition based on our decisions: for example, I occasionally have white bread.

Some people are chronically unable to limit their volition based on their decisions. For example, an alcoholic may realize that his drinking is destroying him, based both on scientific evidence and on his own experience, but he may not be able to stop drinking.

In cases like this, people traditionally said that the person was not free, that he was a slave to his impulses, unable to do what he himself had decided that he should do. The old-fashioned way of putting it was that he was a slave to his passions; the word "passion" was originally the opposite of "action," and it implied that the passions were not your own actions but things that happen to you and that you accept passively.  

Of course, Harris cannot make this sort of distinction. He would say that both this man's moods and his deliberate decisions were caused by his genetic inheritance and his past experiences and environment. Though he claims that our experience does not support the idea of free will, his examples don’t include any experience more complex than his decision to have coffee or tea on the morning, which depends on the impulse of the moment. He cannot deal with the experience we have all had of conflicts between our deliberate decisions and our impulses: we make deliberate decisions about what we should do and are tempted to give into the impulses of the moment rather than abiding by our own deliberate decisions.

The underlying problem is that Harris believes uncritically and unthinkingly in what philosophers call “physicalism,” the belief that the laws of physics that we currently know can explain everything.

Sometimes, he seems to go backward to the deterministic physics of the nineteenth century. For example, he says we cannot blame criminals for their crimes because “…if I were to trade places with one of these people atom for atom, I would be him: there is no extra part of me that could decide…to resist the impulse to victimize other people” (p.4).  Usually, he recognizes that some physical events are random, as twentieth-century physics showed, but he says that, if we act based on some random physical event, then we are not acting freely any more than if we act on based on determined physical events.

But he doesn’t consider the possibility that matter has some other property, which physics has not yet discovered, that lets us make deliberate decisions freely.

In the nineteenth century, physicists believed that the phenomena they observed were determined.  In the twentieth century, physicists believed that the phenomena the observed were either determined or random. It is possible that some day, physicists will discover that matter can also behave in some other way that lets us make deliberate decisions.

Physicalism is an occupational hazard of cognitive scientists and of neuroscientists like Harris, because they create models of the mind or study the brain using today’s physics, so they have an intellectual vested interest in believing that today’s physics can explain everything. But physicalism is a completely irrational position, because we know that contemporary physics is not complete. Today’s physicists have not developed a theory that reconciles relativity and quantum mechanics. They do not understand dark energy, which makes the expansion of the universe accelerate. They do not understand dark matter, which makes up most of the matter in the universe. Physicist recognize what they don’t know, but cognitive scientists and neuroscientists don’t.

At one point, Harris claims that his argument doesn’t depend on materialism: “even if the human mind were made of soul-stuff, nothing about my argument would change. The unconscious operation of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does” (p. 12).

He is just showing how out of touch with our actual experience. Just as we can observe that our decision about drinking coffee or tea in the morning is based on our mood, we can observe the operation of our mind making deliberate decisions, which is conscious and which is the basis of our freedom.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Steven Pinker, Progress and "Climate Alarmism"

Steven Pinker recently tweeted against what he calls "climate alarmism" and in favor of two books by opponents of effective climate action who have been thoroughly debunked by climate scientists. This sort of science denial seems odd coming from someone who claims to be a supporter of enlightenment and reason, but it is actually consistent with what he has said in the past and with what he is saying now about history being the story of progress. 
In his book The Blank Slate, he parrots conventional conservative arguments against environmentalism, focusing on environmental issues that were current in the 1970s, when he was a graduate student and formed his political opinions, and ignoring those that are most important today. He attacks environmentalists for what he calls their “Malthusian” predictions that there are limits on resources, criticizing the Club of Rome Report named The Limits of Growth, which focused national attention on the issue when it was published in 1972. To refute this report, he mentions the famous wager between Paul Ehrlich, an early environmentalist, and Julian Simon, a fellow at the free market Cato Institute, about whether the price of natural resources would rise in real terms between 1980 and 1990; they bet about the price of five strategic metals, and Ehrlich lost all five bets, because (Pinker says) “Malthusian prophesies ignore the effect of technological change in increasing the resources that support a comfortable life.” (Blank Slate, p.237)  Pinker mentions in passing that The Limits of Growth said that uncontrolled growth would ultimately cause both resource shortages and more pollution than the earth could absorb - but he goes on to ignore pollution and only discuss resources.
Yet elementary economics tells us that the free market gives businesses an incentive to increase the supply of a resource when shortages drive its price up, but that the market has no mechanism that gives businesses an incentive to reduce pollution. Environmentalists are clearly right to say that government must control pollution. In 1990, the United States set up a cap-and-trade program to reduce the emissions that caused acid rain, and it worked: acid rain is no longer killing our forests and lakes, as it was in the 1980s. By the time Pinker wrote The Blank Slate, environmentalists considered global warming to be the greatest environmental threat and were calling for cap-and-trade to control it also. In fact, California passed a law using cap-and-trade to control greenhouse gas emissions just four years after this book was published.
When it comes to global warming and other problems caused by pollution, Pinker is clearly wrong to attack environmentalists and claim that new technology in itself will solve the problems. Yes, we do need to develop new clean energy technologies to control global warming, but the market does not provide the incentive needed to shift to clean energy quickly enough. It will remain cheaper for quite a while to keep existing dirty power plants than to replace them with clean energy, so we need the government to provide incentives to shift to clean energy in time to avoid the worst effects of global warming. The entire world realizes this, with the exception of the Trump administration, which is why the world adopted the Paris agreement in 2016 and governments worldwide pledged to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
More recently, Pinker has finally joined the entire world and realized that it is necessary to control global warming, but he obviously is still reluctant to admit how big a problem it is and to support putting a price on carbon, the most effective way to deal with it. Instead, he supports writers who say that nothing is needed but more technological breakthroughs, consistent with his belief that the world is inevitably getting better, as he argues in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature
He is right to argue in this book that people have become more humane over the long course of history, but he doesn't seem to understand the cause - and he doesn't understand the difference between that long course of history and our situation today. 
Over the course of history, technology improved, so people became more prosperous and could afford to be more humane. They didn't have to be like the Vikings or the Mongol Horde, who had no way to improve their own situation apart from invading, pillaging, and killing others. Military technology also improved, but before the twentieth century, it did not improve enough to cause mass destruction. Technology that improved production had destructive side-effects, but before the twentieth century, they were just local - polluted air or water that just killed people nearby. In both cases, the costs of improved technology were clearly outweighed by the benefit of increased production. 
Today, we have gone further. We have reached the point where we have weapons of mass destruction such as hydrogen bombs, poison gas, and bioweeapons that can wipe out entire populations. Everyone agrees they should be controlled, and we have done a good job of controlling gas and germ warfare, but we are not doing a very good job of controlling nuclear weapons, as rogue states like North Korea and Iran develop nuclear bombs. If we project current trends, we have to expect that there will ultimately - perhaps in a few centuries - be widespread proliferation of nuclear weapons that will probably be used in wars between small nations, with radiation spreading around the world. And if we project historic trends, we can also expect new military technologies to eventually be developed that are even more destructive than any we have today. 
Likewise, we have reached the point where the side effects of technologies that increases production have side effects that can effect the whole planet rather than just being local, for example by destroying the ozone layer or causing global warming. We have done a good job of protecting the ozone layer, but we are not doing as good a job of controlling global warming. It seems inevitable that we will have more than 1.5 degrees of warming, though we still have some chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees, avoiding its worst effects and avoiding feedback loops that would make warming much worse, such as melting of the worlds permafrost, which would release more carbon than is already in the atmosphere - and release it in the form of methane, which causes much more warming than carbon dioxide. 
Pinker's optimistic faith that progress is inevitable makes him reluctant to deal with global warming - and so makes it less likely that we will avoid its worst effects. 
We have reached a point where there is a very obvious answer to the question of whether or not the world will continue to become better - and the answer is that it depends on what decisions we humans make. Our technology has become so powerful that it can cause immense good or immense destruction. If we limit destructive technologies, we can eliminate the poverty that has stultified most people since the beginning of history and have a world with unprecedented prosperity and peace. If we fail to limit destructive technology, we can have nuclear war or environmental breakdown that causes billions of deaths and leaves a miserable world for those who remain alive. This is the permanent situation of the human race in the future: whether or not we do deal with global warming and nuclear weapons successfully, we will continue to develop new technologies that are even more powerful than those we have today and that can bring even greater benefits or even greater destruction. 
The irony is that people like Steven Pinker, who hesitate to control destructive technologies because they think history is the story of progress, make it more likely that future generations will look back on history as the story of misery and destruction. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Which Country Is the Model?

Liberals often cite the Scandinavian countries as model Social Democratic nations, because they have prosperous capitalist economies and use taxes and other policies to reduce inequality and make sure everyone gets a share of the prosperity.

I cite the Netherlands as the model. It not only has a prosperous capitalist economy and Social Democratic policies that spread the prosperity widely.  It also has the shortest work hours of any nation in the world.

People in the Netherlands have the right to choose part-time work. About half of all workers are part time. The average Dutch employee works only 80% as many hours as the average American employee. Though they produce about as much per hour of work as Americans, they choose to use their prosperity to have more free time as well as to produce more.

Clearly, they are better off than Americans, even though they consume less. People choose to work part-time only if they think they would be happier working part-time than full-time and having more free time rather than more income.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Is the Green New Deal Sustainable?

It seems like an odd question. The Green New Deal is a proposal to invest in clean energy to provide economic stimulus and good jobs, and the shift to clean energy is obviously needed to make the economy sustainable.

But I would say that the underlying assumption that the government should stimulate the economy to provide jobs is not sustainable. It has been the basic assumption of American politics since the end of World War II, but it is obviously not sustainable to stimulate the economy and promote economic growth forever.

As I have said many times, progressives ignore the underlying question of why we need economic growth to provide jobs.

New technology makes workers produce more, doing away with jobs. During the twentieth century, the amount that a worker produces in an hour increased roughly tenfold--which means that, in 2000, we would have had about 90% unemployment if we produced as much per capita as we did in 1900.

After World War II, we adopted the policy of dealing with this techological unemployment by stimulating the economy, so people would consume more and more and would keep up with the economy's capacity to produce more and more. But this is not sustainable.

Instead, we should be creating jobs by shortening work hours. If people could choose their work hours based on how much money they want to earn and spend, they we could match the amount the amount the economy produces to the amount that people want to consume - rejecting the unsustainable policy that we must make consumption keep up with productivity to avoid unemployment.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Lyndon Johnson and Progressivism

Recent opinion pieces have said that progressives may end up liking Biden as president, because they also had doubts about Lyndon Johnson at first but he turned out to be one of the two most progressive presidents in history (along with Franklin Roosevelt).

This claim shows that today's progressives have not learned from the successes and failures of 1960s progressivism.

One of the great successes was Medicare. For the first time, everyone more than 65 years old could afford health care.

One of the great failures was public housing. Federal funding let cities demolish existing neighborhoods in the name of slum clearance and replace them with public housing.  Yet studies showed that the public housing had higher crime rates than older neighborhoods nearby with the same demographics, and things were so bad that hundreds of housing projects were later demolished under the HOPE VI program.

Progressives should have learned that:
  • The Federal government is good at making transfer payments, taxing the wealthy and distributing income or vouchers to the poor. In addition to Medicare, examples of successful federal anti-poverty programs are Social Security and Food Stamps (now called SNAP food benefits). What these programs have in common is that they give income or vouchers that people can spend more-or-less as they choose. 
  • The Federal government is not good at micromanaging the lives of the poor. Centralized programs are likely to use the sort of impersonal, mass-production methods that are so obvious in the design of mid-century housing projects. And when centralized programs make mistakes, they make them on a vast scale; decentralization has the advantage of letting us try many different methods, so we can imitate the successful ones and abandon the unsuccessful ones without very widespread damage. 
Yet progressive have not learned this second lesson. They seem to be able to think about only one thing at a time - that they want to help the poor - and can't think at the same time about what sort of program to help the poor is most likely to be successful. Most self-styled progressives have not even learned the most obvious lesson of the 1960s and still want housing projects for low-income people. 

To give the most striking example, almost all progressives support universal preschool. But what if the federal government makes an error in designing this universal program, as they made an error in designing mid-century housing projects? The housing projects were built for decades before this error became apparent to everyone, and the universal preschool would continue for decades before any errors that it makes become apparent when the children grow up.

The housing projects blighted low-income urban neighborhoods physically. Errors in designing universal preschool could do much worse damage: they could blight an entire generation of Americans psychologically.

The obvious alternative it to give an allowance to all parents of pre-school children that they could use to pay for preschool or to supplement their income so they could stay at home and care for their own children, at least part-time. This is the sort of transfer payment that has been successful in helping the poor, rather than the sort of micromanaged system that has been a failure. But I don't hear any progressives advocating it. They all want a centralized, top-down system of universal preschools.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Bernie Sanders: Electability and Policy

Many say that they like Bernie Sanders' policies, but they are not voting for him in primaries because they think he is not electable.

I think he is not electable - and I also think he would be a bad president both because of his policies and because of his rigid, dogmatic character.

Sanders is the only major Democratic candidate during this primary season who has said he is against putting a price on carbon emissions. Instead, he proposes spending trillions of federal dollars on a a top-down remake of much of our economy.

A price on carbon emissions is the lowest-cost method of controlling global warming. Some of Sanders' proposals seem very expensive and wasteful. For example, he wants to spend over $500 billion creating a national smart grid. Twenty years ago, a smart grid seemed like a good idea, despite the cost, because it was the best way to deal with the intermittency of solar and wind power: the sun is always shining and the wind is always blowing somewhere, and if solar or wind power are not available in one place, a smart grid would bring them there from somewhere else.  But today, the cost of battery storage is so low and declining so rapidly, that it seems that local generation with battery storage is more cost effective than shuttling electricity back and forth across the country.

Just as important, if we passed legislation putting a price on emissions, with the price increased steadily over the years, the policy would last long enough to control global warming, since it is difficult to pass new legislation that would change it. But budget allocations are made each year, and if there were one Republican president before we reach net-zero emissions, he would derail Sanders' plan.

Sanders really does think like a socialist. He believes in top-down command-and-control economics rather than in the market.

In the 1960s, when Sanders came of age, many believed that socialism could out-perform capitalism. But the world became disillusioned with socialism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as it became clear that it led to economic stagnation: socialism collapsed in Russia and eastern Europe; China kept talking about socialism but added a large private sector that is responsible for its economy's dynamism; India and other countries with moderate forms of socialism privatized their state-owned industries. It takes extraordinary ideological rigidity to live through this and still believe in top-down socialist economics, like Sanders.

This rigidity would prevent Sandeers from being effective as a president, since he is incapable of the compromises that are needed to get anything done. Elizabeth Warren campaigned for Medicare for All but also said that in the first couple of years, she would focus on smaller policy changes to extend health insurance to more people, since Medicare for All is not feasible immediately. Bernie Sanders has not said anything like this, and he seems to be incapable of thinking like this. As a result, he would fritter away all of his political capital as president demanding Medicare for All, which Congress will not pass, rather than working on smaller measures that Congress would pass.

Sanders and his young supporters remind me of a saying from the old days when socialist still seemed economically viable: If you are not a socialist at age twenty, you do not have a heart, but if you are still a socialist at age forty, you do not have any common sense.

But that saying applies much more strongly to Sanders. He lived through the world-wide collapse of socialism without learning anything from it, which requires an almost unbelievable absence of common sense. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Michael Kimmelman versus Trump

Donald Trump is considering an executive order that would require classical or traditional styles for almost all federal buildings, and New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman rushed to the opposite extreme and produced the worst architecture criticism to appear in the Times since his predecessor Nicolai Ouroussoff left.

He used Thomas Phifer's United States Courthouse in Salt Lake City as an example of one of his favorite federal civic buildings, which this regulation would not allow. It is the building to the left in this picture, and it is obviously a forbidding, sterile monolith. Architects loved it, but ordinary people hated it and named it the "Borg Cube" after a villainous alien race in Star Trek that used cubical space ships.
Kimmelman's article uses a picture that looks at this building head-on, so it looks like a free-standing minimalist sculpture in the middle of its grassy grounds.

Here, we use a picture showing the face it turns to the street, to make it obvious how completely it ignores its urban context. Across the street, there is a older building with stores and restaurants facing the sidewalk, creating an attractive place for pedestrians. But the courthouse has a blank wall facing the sidewalk, then a lawn, and then set back behind the lawn, the forbidding blank wall of the courthouse building, creating a miserable place for pedestrians.

Anyone who admires this building either doesn't care about or doesn't know anything about placemaking.

The building is a typical example of the most obvious fault of modernist architecture: it tries to create a sculptural object in space rather than creating a good place for people to be.

The architects who admire it have a post-romantic view of the architect as an artist whose only obligation is to his own creative genius, rather than thinking of architects as professionals who have an obligation to create good places for their clients. It is as if a lawyer speaking in court only cared about his own flowery rhetoric and did not care about his client.

Trump's new guidelines would replace guidelines adopted in 1962, the heyday of mid-century modernism, which say that design should, "flow from the architectural profession to the government, and not vice versa." This is just another way of stating the modernist ideal of the architect as an artist with obligations to his own creative genius rather than to his clients.

I don't think the government should require a specific style, but it should adopt architectural guidelines that require buildings to break up their massing, to have human-scale fenestration, and to relate to their urban context, so we don't get more forbidding monoliths that turn their backs to the street like this Salt Lake City Courthouse. These guidelines would be something like form-based codes, so they would replace the mid-twentieth-century ideal of the architect as an artist creating sculptural objects with a twenty-first century ideal of the architect as a professional who should create human-scale places for the community.

Things might be different  if Trump had considered an executive order that required the style that he really likes best - the glitzy modernism of Trump tower. Then the critics might rush to the opposite extreme and call for a humanistic architecture rather than sterile glass monoliths.

See Kimmelman's article here