Monthly Archives: February 2015

Video Games and Capitalism

I loved this talk on Video Games and the Spirit of Capitalism. Watch the whole video. I much preferred it to the text; the text spends more times talking about games than capitalism.

I think people’s personal experience in those roles backs this up. I know someone who enjoys resource management games because it’s practice for managing the time and abilities of different people in real life. Even before I watched this talk, I was finding similarities between project management and Farmville. That is, in Farmville, you set things going and then you have to wait. You’re not actually making plants grow. In project management, you are probably not the one designing, coding, building, etc. That means waiting, and then collecting the resources. Granted, project management is more than just clicking to plant — and there’s no QA or politics. Farmville requires zero skill. Still, this kind of work can be fundamentally more alienating than a task like coding.

I mean this as a structural critique of society, not as an individual indictment. Modernity is alienating, and all wage-slavery, so to speak, is alienating. But people gotta make a living and they even can find enjoyment in their individual day-to-day job experiences.

Incoherent thoughts on political epistemology

Politics is another realm where logic can often fall short — even more than in the moral realm. Humans are complex and politics is messy.

I’m skeptical of arguments from first principles and even more so when talking about politics.

One thing I find fascinating about Machiavelli’s The Prince is the way he classifies principalities. He takes into account their histories. A hereditary principality is different from a new one. Then, there are further subdivisions. The people who are in a new principality could be used to being free or used to living under a prince. Each type should be governed differently.

When it comes to government, we have to start with the people and history, not with first principles. We have to start with what’s there, not with ideology. Take ideas like fairness and equality. If you start with first principles, you have an abstract representation of what government might be like if its fair. People should be treated exactly as equals. You have an idea of what laws should look like in that case. If you get treated better than me, then that’s unfair. However, there are multiple flaws with this approach. The first flaw is that it misses historical (and current) iniquities. We don’t live in an abstract realm. We live in this human realm. Truths about government aren’t actually self-evident; they’re contingent on what’s happened already. (Which reminds me, I really should try reading Oakeshott some time.) If you start with the fact that people have been treated unequally in the past, then fairness includes rectifying this history rather than just trying to treat everyone exactly the same now. Affirmative action is unfair if you start from first principles instead of historical understanding.

The other flaw is the creation of Procrustean beds. In the more violent versions of the myth, Procrustes has two beds — one long and one short. Tall people go on the short bed and he lops their heads off. Short people go on the long bed and he stretches them. He fits the people to the bed. Those who argue from first principles do the same, fitting people to their ideology, rather than the other way around. They even tend to be more violent than Procrustes. (My thoughts on this would definitely be strengthened by more specific examples, but I’m just kind of scaffolding my own thoughts for myself right now.)

That’s it for now. I’ve got more posts in me on this topic, including how knowledge can be encoded in tradition.

Less disjointed thoughts on moral epistemology

I really need to re-read Hume because it’s the basis of my thoughts on why using logic is problematic when discussing morals. Here’s a link to Wikipedia on the is-ought problem. I’m fine linking to wikipedia as a summary because I fucking read Hume many times and wrote essays in college. Anyway, is and ought are two different things and there’s no way to derive ought from is. And here’s the wikipedia article on Hume’s Fork:

The apparent gap between “is” statements and “ought” statements, when combined with Hume’s fork, renders “ought” statements of dubious validity. Hume’s fork is the idea that all items of knowledge are either based on logic and definitions, or else on observation. If the is–ought problem holds, then “ought” statements do not seem to be known in either of these two ways, and it would seem that there can be no moral knowledge.

It’s only a problem if you accept the way Hume structures knowledge. And I don’t, of course. If you believe in the supremacy of logic and an epistemology of true-false, then Hume’s fork is a problem. You can’t derive moral knowledge.

That’s why I think those who insist on the primacy of logic during moral arguments are silly. They think they’re being logical, but if you follow the logic all the way though, they’re standing on nothing. They’re like the Coyote chasing the Road Runner off a cliff. Meep meep.

Another important component of morality is skin in the game. It’s an elegant solution to principal-agent problems — usually much better than inventing regulations and bureaucracies, which can be gamed and captured. In Roman times, if a guy built a bridge, he had to sleep under it before people used it. That’s skin in the game. If a money manager tells you a stock is great, but never buys the stock herself, then she has no skin in the game. You should feel comfortable telling her to fuck off.

That’s the problem with logic and being dispassionate when arguing morals. It usually means you have no skin in the game. Dispassion indicates disconnection; it’s a moral thought experiment where you remove yourself from the equation. It’s even easier if it’s not a thought experiment and the moral matter doesn’t affect you at all. If an obvious injustice isn’t stirring righteous anger within you, then perhaps you shouldn’t have a say.

You have to go even further than saying that these people have no skin in the game. They do have skin in the game, but because they benefit from the existing power structures. These lived realities of existing structures matter more than moral arguments from first principals, which is another case where logic comes up short. To explain this, I have to transition from moral epistemology to political epistemology. This will have to come in future post(s).

Some Incoherent Thoughts on Rationality

Alex posted this on pslack: The Myth of “Emotion vs. Logic” and The Reality of Oppression. I found it interesting, but I’m not going to respond to it directly for now. What I did want to talk about is why I devalue logic, so I guess I’ll talk about how I arrived at similar conclusions from a different angle. This, of course, is an incomplete account, but I gotta start somewhere.

My epistemology is mostly formed as a response to thinkers like Plato and Descartes. I disagree with their ideas about the structure of knowledge. I think Forms are nonsensical. Things are good, but there is no “The Good.” I also don’t think you can say, “Alright, I know this one thing is true” and then have that one thing be enough to build all of human knowledge on top of it. I don’t think it works.

When it comes to moral epistemology, I’m heavily influenced by the is-ought problem, or Hume’s Guillotine. One of the reasons I don’t think knowledge can be structured the way Descartes thinks is because you can never build morality off of it. (Some would say God is a way around these limitations, but I think God is basically just a Form.) You can’t get from logic to ought. Logic mostly just gets you consistency.

People who value logic also tend to value that which can be neatly expressed. Logic requires a chain of reasoning. If you don’t have good reasons for something, then you’re stupid and illogical. I don’t think that the ability to verbally express yourself clearly (and optionally, extemporaneously) is equivalent to knowledge. (However, at the same time, I do think that writing can help you learn and gain knowledge.) There are plenty of charlatans and sophists who are very logical and very persuasive. You can play Werewolf as a werewolf and win without ever telling a lie. Plenty of people talk good on TV but are full of shit. Conversely, you can express plenty of knowledge without ever saying a word.

I really like Taleb’s Green Lumber Fallacy, where the most successful trader in green lumber thought it was literally lumber painted green. People who talk smart on TV and go bankrupt can have less knowledge than those who sound stupid. Logic is about what’s true and what’s false. However, not all information is equally important. That’s why true-false isn’t always as helpful in a world where you’re acting with incomplete information.

I also really like this aphorism from Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes: “Since Plato, Western thought and the theory of knowledge have focused on the notions of True-False; as commendable as it was, it is high time to shift the concern to Robust-Fragile, and social epistemology to the more serious problem of Sucker-Nonsucker.” These epistemologies are more useful for when you’re trying to navigate the world.

If you really push me on true-false epistemology, I become a skeptic. I’m not sure that’s there’s any way to know anything. First, you can’t get morality. Second, there are issues with induction (which I’m not going to explain now). Finally, even deductive reasoning requires postulates. In the end, I don’t think logic can dictate whether you should even jump out a window or not, but robust-fragile and sucker-nonsucker can.

As an aside, another issue with talk is that it often involves narrative, and as a sometimes-artist, I’m keenly aware that to some extent, narratives are always lies.

P.S. I’m going to add a note here that the part where I really agree with the article is the primacy of lived experiences over logic.