Tag Archive | assumptions

Economic Self-Interest

So the Nobel Prize in economics was recently awarded to Thaler, who showed that economic actors (i.e., “people”) don’t always act rationally, or in their best interests. While I have not read his award-winning work, that isn’t even important, because there are two underlying assumptions that don’t hold up, and that must be true for the hypothesis to be true: first, that rational and irrational behavior are different things, and second that “best interests” can be definitively measured.

Without going further, everyone should by now be identifying the scientific woo in the assertion. As I’ve written about before, rationality and irrationality are two sides of the same coin–that which we value, we value for emotional reasons, yet it is only rational to care (emotion-based) about our values. That’s rather circuitous, so let me explain with an example. Let’s say that I love chocolate milk, and that I’d be willing to pay $5 for a bottle of Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup if only one remained at the store and I was competing with someone else for it. It is only rational that I put my desires first, and therefore only rational that I seek out and attempt to acquire the chocolate syrup. But why should I care about having chocolate syrup, and why should I care whether I am happy (with my desires fulfilled) or unhappy (with my desires unfulfilled)? Why should I care whether I am happy and acquired the chocolate syrup, or unhappy without the chocolate syrup?

We have a strong tendency to separate the two things, but they cannot be separated. There is no rational reason that I would care whether I am happy or sad–only emotional ones. Yet it is only rational that, if my emotional state matters to me, then I would attempt to keep my emotional state positive. If I care, then it is only rational that I do things that satisfy that concern, but there is no rational reason that I should care except that I care, and that, since I care, it only makes sense for me to do things to satisfy that concern. See? It’s all circular. Rationality and irrationality are woven together, inseparable; no one ever “acts rationally” and no one ever “acts irrationally.” They perpetually act both rationally and irrationally.

Suppose I run into a burning building to rescue a cat. Many people would say that I had behaved irrationally. Yet others would say that, because I care deeply about cats (no, really, I do, and I would rush into a burning building to save one), it is only rational that I would do everything in my power to save them. Yet there is no rational reason that I should care about cats–I care about them for emotional reasons, hence the use of the word “care.” Yet is it not irrational for an untrained person to rush into a burning building for any reason? Is it not irrationality–emotion–my love for cats–that inspired my behavior, even though it’s got an overwhelming likelihood of being against my best interests (survival)? And, if so, why should my survival be considered a rational goal?

On the surface, it would certainly appear that it is only rational for a person to want to keep themselves alive, but is it? No. Such a want–a desire–is motivated entirely by emotional concerns: a fear of death, a love of life, whatever. There is no rational reason to want to continue living, but look what we are doing–we are calling it irrational to rush into a burning building because it could lead to death. We are assuming that it is rational to want to continue living, but that assumption is flawed; there are only emotional reasons. So we are not using “rationality” in its accurate, true sense when we ascribe it as a value to certain actions; we are labeling a broad range of actions with “self-preservation” as the ideal goal–a goal that we put as the ideal only for emotional reasons.

For what rational reason does an individual, group, or species conclude that their survival and procreation are valuable? There isn’t one, and that’s the assumption upon which his idea is built–that there is. There is absolutely no rational reason that I should care whether I live or die, whether humanity lives or dies, or whether the entire freaking planet lives or dies. Why? Positive and negative statements are value statements, and they are made according to unknown, subjective, individual-specific criteria and weighed for emotional reasons, not rational ones.

Before anyone can say that actors occasionally act rationally or irrationally, they must define what these words mean. Apparently, “rationally” in this context means “in their best interests.” According to whom? And by what criteria? Plenty of people would say that habitual drug users are acting against their best interest by continuing to do methamphetamine, but are they? Who is to say that the short-term high of meth isn’t a sufficient reward for them to outweigh the longterm damage? Who is to say what is in their best interests and what is not? Who in the world has the omniscience to make such a statement, and then to present it as science? This guy won a Nobel Prize for “demonstrating” that Person A occasionally acts against Person A’s best interests.

What?

What in the bloody hell are we considering to be in Person A’s best interests? Economic stability? Amassing untold wealth? Getting lots of pussy? And then why are we considering those things to be in their best interests? And even if we could somehow come to a universally agreed upon criteria of what is and isn’t in someone’s best interests, this doesn’t even begin to answer the question of whether they’re acting in their long-term best interests, but against their short-term best interests (as I do each time I buy cryptocurrency). How in the world can we ever attempt to say scientifically that Person A has acted against their short-term best interests and against their long-term interests, according to this gargantuan list of factors and concerns that we have by fiat determined to be “best”?

And this guy won a Nobel Prize for this.

In actuality, what Thaler has proven is that “By the criteria of what I consider to be ‘best,’ people occasionally do things that will not yield the results of what I consider ‘best.'” It doesn’t matter if his criteria is economic stability, productivity, long-term survival, or anything else–why in the world should his values, or even the majority’s values, dictate that another person has behaved irrationally? No, Thaler. You have demonstrated that people occasionally do things that you feel are not in those people’s best interests. That’s all you’ve demonstrated, and that, as science, is meaningless and useless.

If you define their “best interests” in the way that you prefer, then it’s no surprise that you’ll find people occasionally act against the “best interests” that you’ve defined, because not everyone is trying to achieve whatever goals you have outlined; not everyone cares about those same things. It’s not in my economic and financial best interests to take time out of my workday to write this article, but I care about whether science is actually, you know, scientific. Is it rational that I care about that? Well… It’s no more rational than your estimation of what is and isn’t in other people’s best interests.

Why the English Language is Broken Fundamentally

It was years ago that I sat down to evaluate and rebut Matt Slick’s modified Cosmological Argument for the existence of a deity–a common Transcendental Argument for the existence of God, although modified slightly so that Slick took the “existence” of the Logical Absolutes, and the alleged characteristic of “transcendence,” and attempted to hold them up as proof that a deity exists. In that paper, I pointed out that Slick’s primary mistake was in misunderstanding the nature of the Logical Absolutes, because they are not things with existence; they are events, or, to be more specific, they are extrapolations of events into generalized form.

The easiest way to explain this is to take the first of the three Logical Absolutes–that something is what it is, and is not what it is not–and to say that “A tree is a tree.” It may seem a silly statement to the uninitiated, but the tautological nature of this statement forms the very basis of all possible knowledge; it is neither trivial nor silly. Before we can “know” anything, we must establish the parameters by which we can know things, and this is the purpose of the Logical Absolutes.

Anyway, “tautologies are true” is essentially the first of the three, which itself is a tautology and presumed to be truth only if it is already true. If tautologies were not true, then our tautology that “Tautologies are true” could not be true, and we end up with a logical paradox. We’ll come back to this.

It’s not because of any transcendent property of nature or reality that we would say that “A tree is a tree,” and it’s not an existent thing that allows us to make that assessment. It is an observation of an event–the verbiage should be instant giveaways. “Is,” after all, is a verb, and it means that something is presently engaged in being or doing something. The statement “A tree is a tree” is shorthand for saying “A tree is presently engaged in the act of being a tree.” We could ask, if we wanted, whether it was possible for the tree to be engaged in the act of being anything else, and that is where the Logical Absolutes come into play, but prior to that it’s nothing but the observation of a subjective being.

Whether the tree is actually engaged in the act of being a tree cannot be ascertained. To make this a statement of “truth,” we would need to modify it further, such that we’d say, “It appears that the tree is presently engaged in the act of being a tree.”

However, such a statement contains its own ellipsis, just as the initial one did. “It appears to me that the tree is presently engaged in the act of being a tree,” is what the sentence actually says, once we remove those banes of non-native English speakers that make grasping the language so difficult. This is because English often assumes one perspective or another, and hides the assumption in an ellipsis that the average native English speaker isn’t even aware of. Quite literally, they are unaware of the assumptions they are making, because the language of expression provides the means by which they can hide their own assumptions away from themselves and instead claim to be Heralds of the One True Value System.

And yet, what did we say? What were the words we initially used to express this sentiment?

“A tree is a tree.”

The English language is so full of self-deceit. The only way to begin to think freely and without this self-deception is to think in concepts rather than the words we use to (allegedly) represent those concepts. Language is infinitely valuable for communication, when it is built on the basis of the Logical Absolutes, which thereby allows us to agree that when we say “tree” we are both referring to the same thing, which is itself. But the language is only useful if the word “tree” actually calls up in your mind the essence of a tree. If you instead picture a flying fish, then communication is impossible, and one or the both of us is engaged in considerable self-deceit or a butchering of the shared medium of communication.

As always, it’s important to remember that we did not move from “A tree is a tree” to “It appears to me that the tree is presently engaged in the act of being a tree” accidentally or arbitrarily; we got to here by dissecting the statement and pointing out possibly errant assumptions.

First, how do I know that you aren’t lying? How am I to know how a thing appears to you? The English language allows us to make this statement of subjective experience as though it’s objective fact, but I cannot tell you whether or not “a tree is a tree,” because I can only tell you whether the tree appears to me to be presently engaged in the act of being a tree. Perhaps you’re wrong, or perhaps I’m wrong–we’d have no way of knowing.

If our senses are reliable, then they would report to us that they are reliable. We would not commonly see things that turned out to not be there upon closer inspection. Except… this does happen, doesn’t it? And quite regularly. Just last week I experienced an extended period of sleep paralysis where I not only saw a scythe-wielding reaper standing before me, but actually saw and felt a woman lift up my leg and stab me in the foot with a knife. These ghosts appeared entirely real–and, in my condition, I thought that they were–but closer inspection revealed that my ocular information had to be discarded as pareidolia, and the pain of having my foot stabbed was entirely imaginary. There are also mirages, aural and ocular hallucinations, feeling bugs crawling on the skin–why, just by suggesting it to you, I can make you feel like there is a spider crawling very slowly on the back of your neck.

More to the point, it’s a logical paradox that reliable senses could report that they are unreliable in the first place, because this would be a falsehood, and reporting falsehood to the perceiver would make the “reliable” senses unreliable. Reliable senses can only ever report that they are reliable.

Unreliable senses, however, have the freedom to report anything they like–they can report that they are reliable, as long as their consistency is unreliable. If this was the case*, we would find ourselves perceiving things and regularly having to evaluate them further, to determine whether or not the initial perception was accurate. Sometimes it would be, and sometimes it wouldn’t be, and there would be no immediate way of knowing when we perceived something whether it was one of those reliable pieces of input or an unreliable one. They could not regularly report that they were unreliable, as this would make them reliable, which is another logical paradox.

Alarmingly, this is precisely what we have found. It appeared that the Earth was flat and orbited by the sun, for example. I’ve no doubt that we all have experiences that we can point to where something appeared to be one way, yet turned out to be entirely different. Whether our correction of the situation and recognition of it as “something different” to what we initially thought is any more “correct” than the initial one of appearance is immaterial, because the truth of the matter is simpler: “Initially, we perceived one thing; upon closer inspection, we perceived something else.” The truth or falsehood of the perception has no bearing on how the subjective being experienced it, and neither does it matter that our unreliable senses are the metrics that we used to separate what we came to think of as “falsehood” (the initial perception) from “truth” (the modified perception).

Of course, this isn’t to say that we should stand in the street and question whether the oncoming car is actually there, or whether our unreliable senses are relaying inaccurately to us that we should probably move out of the way of the vehicle. For whatever reason, it appears to me that we must make assumptions as we go about our lives, and there couldn’t possibly be anything inherently wrong with that–neither does being an assumption make it any more or less likely to be true–but I do think it’s important that we not lose sight of the fact that we are making assumptions.

One such assumption was my critique of Slick’s work, wherein I didn’t dispute the notion that the Logical Absolutes are transcendent. First, what does “transcendent” even mean? “Above or beyond the range of human experience,” according to Google, which is fair enough as a definition but needs expansion. For something to be transcendent, it must not be dependent upon any particular perspective and must be universally true without regard to perception.

“Possibly, but probably not,” then, is the answer. They can appear to be transcendent, but whether they are or aren’t cannot be determined by subjects who rely upon perception to experience the world–perceptions that are dependent upon perspective in the first place. I cannot say whether the Logical Absolutes are transcendent any more than I can say that the tree is a tree; I can only say how they appear to me–or, in the case of the Logical Absolutes, how my fallible and weak human mind can imagine them to be.

Once more, we are not dealing with reasonable certainty here, but claims of absolute certainty. One can be reasonably certain or not that a car is coming down the highway, but one can never be absolutely certain of it. What is “reasonable” to one person isn’t necessarily reasonable to another, either.

TheraminTrees did a wonderful video on this subject, where he posed the hypothetical that you were having a party. A friend is known to be clumsy, and gets drunk, exacerbating his clumsiness. He breaks your lamp and apologizes. Most people would agree it’s reasonable to accept the apology. Then he breaks your television. At this point, if you were to fly into a yelling rage at the friend and demanding that he pay for the damages, many people would decry you as responding unreasonably to the situation. But surely if your friend is prone to clumsiness, he has incorporated that into his life such that he takes responsibility for it? Is it not unreasonable to allow someone to come into your home, get drunk, and break your things?

Where you or I disagree on what is reasonable is also irrelevant; the point is just that there is no universally agreed criteria where something qualifies as “reasonable” or “unreasonable,” and too often it’s nothing more than a matter of perspective. From the limited and narrow sense that shouting at a friend and demanding they pay for something is unreasonable, our hypothetical partier is unreasonable. From a greater perspective (I would probably argue)–one that takes in a wider view of the situation–it is, in fact, unreasonable of the friend to ignore their own mistakes and shortcomings, particularly when damage is caused to their friends.

So I can say that “I’m reasonably certain that the tree appears to me to be presently engaged in the act of being a tree, per my understanding of what it means to be and per my definition of what a ‘tree’ is,” and this is a statement filled with quite a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity. Not everyone seems equipped to handle that level of uncertainty, and thus–the English language, which provides them with the means to hide from all that uncertainty by presenting a tenuous and unfalsifiable statement of subjective experience as an absolute truth.

* As part of my attempts to dissect the English language, this is intentional. “This” is singular, and there is no good reason that it should be treated as though it is plural.

Socialism is Full Wagner On Steroids

Unless you’re one of 500~ people who like the page Shit Kyle Wagner Says, then you’re probably not going to get the reference in the title. If you’re an anarchist, voluntaryist, or libertarian, though, go to that page and enjoy what this self-professed “former anarcho-capitalist who ‘woke up’ and became a libertarian who ‘woke up’ and became a liberty-leaning conservative who still calls himself a libertarian even as he says some of the dumbest shit you’ll ever see” has to say.

I got into a discussion with someone recently about Socialism versus Capitalism, and the argument ultimately sank into emotional territory; after it was all said and done, the question asked of me was this:

There are four million homeless people in Spain and eleven million houses that are empty. This is a waste of resources, and it’s morally wrong.

At first glance, this is not a good argument but a great one, for how can he be incorrect? Is it not clearly a waste of resources for so many houses to go empty while so many people need houses? Is it not obvious that the efficient use of those resources would have produced exactly as many houses are needed and would have left no one homeless? We can address the “morally wrong” statement later; for now, are these things not obvious?

They are, but only at a surface glance–and a limited one that sees only the first ten feet. It is a car driving around at night whose headlights reveal only the next thirty feet of highway, so the driver assumes he can relax and take his hands off the steering wheel, never considering that there is a sharp turn thirty-five feet away. “I can’t see it, so it’s not there!” the driver proclaims. If you’d dispute this assessment, then you should go and read the actual comment chain, where the socialist argues exactly that, saying that because he can’t see the value of x job at thirty-five feet away, it must have no value.

What a strange notion.

Let’s examine, for a moment, what’s happening here. The anonymous socialist–who is almost certainly the same guy who gave a competing answer to the question–is making a valuation judgment on the use of these resources, saying, “They are without value.” Obviously, he is being hyperbolic, and I’m not faulting him for that. What he means is that the job has almost no value; there’s no way he means that the job has absolutely zero value to anyone. If nothing else, the job has value for the person who does that job, so we have to assume that he meant “The job has very little value.”

However, we know that all valuation judgments are subjective. He is deciding that this job has no value based on his internal understanding of what has value and what doesn’t, and his understanding is colored by his own biases and predilections. To see what I mean, let’s look at another value statement.

“Drugs are bad.”

Sure, most people would agree, but why are drugs bad? Well–for a moment putting on the appropriate hat–they are damaging to society and to the individual.

Okay, but why is “damage to the individual” bad? Why is “damage to society” bad?

We’ll find that these questions are actually impossible to answer. We can do this with any value statement. What we find are value statements built on assumed value statements. Drugs are bad because damage to the individual is bad. However, when pressed, when we trace this seemingly-infinite regress back to its source, we are left finding ourselves saying, “Because it just is!” Let’s do another, more controversial one.

“Murderers are bad.”

Again, virtually everyone would agree–as would I–but why are murderers bad? Because killing people is wrong. But why is killing people wrong? Because it’s a violation of their rights? That’s not an answer–it’s rephrasing the assumption. Why is it wrong to violate people’s rights? Again, we are ultimately left with only “Because it just is!”

It’s not a problem that we build our value judgments upon assumptions that are built on assumptions that are built on assumptions. I firmly agree that murderers are bad, and I would certainly say that they’re bad because killing people is wrong because it’s a violation of their rights. The point is that it can’t be demonstrated. It isn’t objective. This value that we’ve set–even if 100% of all people agree with it–is not objective. Murder is no more objectively wrong than homosexuality is objectively wrong. This is what led Nietzsche to his observation that power is good, and that which causes a will to power is good; what is bad is weakness. Strictly speaking, Nietzsche is more right with his valuation judgments than anyone else, but only because his good and evil–a Blue and Orange morality if ever there was one–is built on the notion that survival of the species, ensured through power of the individual, is critical. This, too, is an assumption–Why is it good for the species to survive?–and Nietzsche was well aware of that. However, we’re getting into topics here that aren’t really related enough to warrant this much attention.

In effect, what we have from this socialist are two subjective valuation statements that are being said as though they are objective truths. “The resources are wasted in this manner,” meaning that the value of the resources is higher than the value of how they are presently being used; “this is morally wrong,” meaning that this state of affairs is “bad.”

Not only are these built upon assumptions, but how are these comparisons even made?

As Henry Hazlitt observed in The Foundations of Morality*, what is happening here is that the socialist is comparing an is to an ought. I’ve spoken about this before, how we humans do this constantly, comparing one state of affairs to another, and often one of those hypothetical states of existence is an idealized perfect one. Hazlitt put it best, though–we are looking at what is and comparing it to what ought be.

Obviously, though, we have a problem. Our imagining of what ought be is based on our assumptions of what is good and what is bad, and our assessments of good and bad are built on other assumptions. We might say “The world is in poor shape because people still kill one another, and we shouldn’t.” On the surface, yes–absolutely. However… We are comparing the state of the world as it is to how we think it ought be. So how do we think the world ought be? It ought be free of murder. Why do we think that? Because murder is wrong. Why do we think that? Because a violation of someone’s rights is wrong. Why do we think that? Because it just is.

My contention here isn’t that these subjective value statements derived from various assumptions are wrong. How could I even begin to make such a case? That they are wrong is, itself, a value statement, which is, itself, built on other assumptions. Beyond that, though, I agree–“It just is” wrong to violate someone’s rights. Far from arguing that these assumptions must be discarded, I firmly agree that these assumptions are critical, otherwise we can’t get anything done.

After all, every single day we assume that reality is real. Why do you get out and go to work? Because you assume that you’d really starve to death and really become homeless if you didn’t. Are these assumptions valid? Probably–but we can’t say definitively. Maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe everyone else would, but you’re a magical human being who doesn’t need to actually eat. Can you say you’re not? Have you ever tried? Maybe you’d experience the pains and mental anguish of hunger but would never actually die from it. Can you say this isn’t true? No. Does this mean you should chance it, and sit at home and wait to see if you die of starvation? No–make the assumption that you would starve, and take your ass to work.

I don’t demand that we stop assuming things and that we stop assigning values based on these assumptions.

I’m simply saying that we need to be aware that they are subjective statements built on assumptions, and that not one of us is objectively or demonstrably right about any value statement.

We can see, then, the immediate flaw in the socialist ideology. Not only does it contend that the state can set values correctly, thereby assuming that a thing has objective values and thereby assuming that the state can find them, but it proceeds on that assumption as though it is an objective truth. In fact, I could–and did–make the argument that it would be a waste of resources to give the houses to the four million homeless.

Think about it like this. I have a spare $100, even after I’ve put money into savings. It’s just spare money for me, completely disposable. A hooker comes up to me and tells me that she’s got STDs and is addicted to meth, and that she spent all of her money on meth and now doesn’t have money to buy food. The socialist’s position is that it would be a “waste of resources” and an “inefficient use of resources” if I told her no and kept my money to myself, saving it for another day. “You should give it to the prostitute,” says the socialist, “because she can put it to use buying food.”

The value statements can’t end there, though. What is the value of this woman having food? She will continue going through the streets fucking dudes and probably giving them STDs in the process. This must be included in the assessment of efficiently used resources. Maybe her survival means that she gives birth to a kid who grows up to be the next Stephen Hawking. This must also be included in the assessment. To make any definitive value statement requires omniscience–that is what I’m getting at. We must be able to compare an is to an ought, and we must be able to identify every single variable and every single consequence of the action. This is an impossible task.

Regardless, I don’t see how forcing me to give $100 to a drug-addicted, disease-ridden prostitute is a more efficient use of the money than if I just kept it to be used at a later date. They may be equally efficient, and letting me keep it may be more efficient. We don’t know. We can’t know.

But the socialist claims to.

* A fantastic philosophical work, though I have to confess that Hazlitt is occasionally pretty hard to read. However, if you can get through Nietzsche and things like Thus Spoke Zarathustra**, then Hazlitt shouldn’t be a problem.

** Good luck with that.