Science Cannot Count to Red. That’s Probably Fine.

notes on Kuhn and relativism


coming from Science Under High Modernismvaguely related toEverything is Going According to Plan.


Kuhn is most interesting for examining the uneasy relationship between politics, science, and philosophy, but that’s going to come next time. First, I should address a question that I keep getting asked. I assume it’s the same for anyone who writes about Kuhn:

“Was Kuhn a relativist?”

There are two questions bound together here. The first is whether or not science progresses. The second is over relativism. Kuhn’s answer to the first is his answer to the second. You can deny that his answer to one is a satisfying response to the other, hence the separation.

Towards the end of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn points out that his interlocutors all claim that science advances towards Truth-capital-T, but there’s very little reason to assume such a thing happens. After all, we don’t exactly know what we mean by that, making it somewhat hard to tell if we’re on the right course:

Does it really help to imagine that there is some one full, objective, true account of nature and that the proper measure of scientific achievement is the extent to which it brings us closer to that ultimate goal? If we can learn to substitute evolution-from-what-we-do-know for evolution-toward-what-we-wish-to-know, a number of vexing problems may vanish in the process.

It’s certainly correct to say that science advances (though you’d have to emphasize it does so in stages) but it’s not necessarily advancing “towards” anything. After all, you don’t know that there are anomalies beforehand – if you already did know, you’d have entered a crisis period already. To say that science is advancing “towards” truth presupposes that we know there will be a stopping point, that it’s on the right track to get there, that there’s an interpretation of the end point we’ll agree on.

This is a pretty basic argument, and it’s not really his main one. His own is much better, but it’s a little harder to conceptualize. Continue reading “Science Cannot Count to Red. That’s Probably Fine.”

Science Under High Modernism

on Thomas Kuhn and metis



In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn attempts to describe how science progresses and changes; in the process, he finds that any single definition of “science” will be misleading. Following this, he crafts an argument (at least implicitly) against many of the common definitions being argued at the time (and many in our own).

Kuhn was writing to philosophers busying themselves with the definition of “science.” It turns out this is actually an incredibly difficult task. Kuhn makes it easier by turning to historical events in lieu of abstracts, which immediately makes it harder: there are distinct periods with different behaviors. Accordingly, he distinguishes between pre-scientific activity (pre-paradigmatic), normal science (under a paradigm), and extraordinary science (post-paradigmatic). Normal science is the heart of the book. One of Kuhn’s central claims is that we’ve been so blinded by the flashiness of extraordinary science that most philosophy of science creates theories solely applicable to that period, like a Philosophy of Football that theorizes everything in terms of fumbles. Very exciting – totally useless for 99% of the game.

At a certain point in any paradigm’s history, normal scientific work runs into anomalies – observations discordant with the paradigm’s broader theory. Some will be resolved, others will add to or rearrange parts of the paradigm, but a few are irreconcilable with the broader paradigm. Then you get a crisis. At least some work during this crisis will try to overhaul the entire structure (most work  will be frantically trying to save the old paradigm), and that work is extraordinary science. Finally someone provides a satisfying new theory, there’s a paradigm shift/revolution, and normal science continues.

Most of this essay is about normal science, which might look kind of weird if you only know Kuhn as the crisis-paradigm-shift-revolution guy. Questions I will ignore: what progress means, the definition of truth, whether Kuhn is normative or a descriptive, why Popper got so mad, how paradigm shifts, like, evolve quantum consciousness. He does directly address Popper and the Logical Positivists, but getting into that debate would distract. Kuhn and Popper are way closer than the sheer vitriol suggests, and Popper begrudgingly admitted that Kuhnian normal science was an accurate account of most scientific work. Since that’s my focus, I’m going to pretend that no discord exists. Continue reading “Science Under High Modernism”


on the book of samuel and samizdats


a late introduction


I haven’t been writing much lately. Like many people I waffle between open hostility and absolutely crushing sadness re: Earth and its artifacts. I write better when hostile, but hostility requires an enemy, and the hopelessness of it all brought on whatever it is that other writers have other metaphors for. I tend to say “the feeling of humidity in a dry climate,” and  I trust that people who know what that means know what that means. A few readers noted it in the nihilism article, they were right. I gather this has been going around, I hope you’re all doing well. Still, it’s either break out or there’s a decent chance that I’m never going to update again. Forgive the introduction while I try to jump-start this blog again, I need to remind myself what I care about. There are many new readers since the last one, and they ask good questions, and I have thoughts and answers to write. Besides, they keep asking about the name.

Sam[]zdat is a pun on the Soviet samizdat and Sam’s data (/sæmz/ in Common Yank). The Sam in question is the prophet Samuel. The data in question is the Book of Samuel. It may as well just be called “blog,” because the name is a description of writing on the internet. Accordingly, this is less about resolving anything than just trying to draw out a couple of images.

Early Israelites were governed by judges – highly localized, tasked with interpretation of law and dispute, without the political power of neighboring kingdoms. This lead to local abuses (Samuel installs his unfit sons), but it didn’t threaten the entire people. Still, the dangers piled up, and the abuses piled up, and a kingdom serves for glory that the regional council does not. They tell God to give them a king.

The Host of Hosts makes clear what will happen:

10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.”

As a side note, most of human psychology – at least the interesting parts – can be found in that passage. Continue reading “Two”

Democracy Scales Are Still Bad, and Four Panicked Suggestions


related to: Enter a search term, e.g. “democracy” and Everything is Going According to Plan


The last essay I wrote can be summed up in a sentence: measurement won’t tell you anything unless you know what you’re measuring and why you’re measuring it. This seems obvious and reasonable, which is why it invariably attracts criticism.

There are two bad responses and one good:

“We teach this in 101, you’re not saying anything new.” On the contrary, I’d have no reason to write any of this without the catastrophe of modern academia. Anyone remotely invested in the advancement of human knowledge and/or the use of that knowledge should be screaming right now.

“It’s the fault of media.” This is partially true, inasmuch as the media picks and chooses and can’t read a study to save its life, but even a good review of the evidence would be bad because the evidence is bad.

The more interesting, approximating a comment so as not to put anyone on blast: “Numbers – even imperfect approximations of qualitative judgments – are still a helpful tool for making judgments. For instance, APGAR scores rely on some degree of qualitative opinion enumerated, but they have a definite use and it would be bad to lose them. You’re overplaying your hand by attacking them as inherently bad.”

Normally I’d  just reply to the comment, but I have a feeling I’ll be using these democracy essays going forward and I want to get it clear. Continue reading “Democracy Scales Are Still Bad, and Four Panicked Suggestions”

Enter a search term, e.g. “democracy”



The Economist: Democracy continues its disturbing retreat

The US has been classified as a “flawed democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)’s Democracy Index for the second year in a row. First, in 2016 (study released 2017), and now 2017 (released 2018). I’m going to privilege year under study and call the first the 2016 report and the second the 2017 report.

The global picture and a bonus briefer on our shortcomings:

Almost one-half (49.3%) of the world’s population lives in a democracy of some sort, although only 4.5% reside in a “full democracy”, down from 8.9% in 2015 as a result of the US being demoted from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in 2016 (see Democracy Index 2017 by regime type, page 2). Around one-third of the world’s population lives under authoritarian rule, with a large share being in China.

Here’s the report (pdf), methodology at the bottom. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index scores countries between 1-10 based on five factors: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture.

You might wonder how one measures any of that, and you would be right to, and I have nothing to offer you but confusion. Apparently, the EIU uses both “public opinion polls” and “experts.” Since I cannot find any information on the specific experts – the website gives me all analysts, the editor of the report, and no further information – I’m guessing this means “some suits + World Values Survey.” No, I am not joking:

A crucial, differentiating aspect of our measure is that, in addition to experts’ assessments, we use, where available, public-opinion surveys—mainly the World Values Survey.

Here’s how countries are scored:
10-8 =  Full democracy.
8-6 = Flawed Democracy.
6-4 = Hybrid Regime.
4-rekt = Authoritarian.

In 2016 the US dropped into the “flawed democracy” category, and this trend continues. You might wonder “dropped how” and the answer is .02 democracies, because as of 2017 we’re a 7.98. No, I have no idea what that means either. According to the report, we’d been teetering on the edge for a while due to low confidence in institutions, and that finally pushed us over.

This is presumably a worrying trend or something, although I have no idea what it’s a trend of. Still, it’s a relatively minor fall with many causes and we should probably keep our heads cool. It’s worth noting that if we were downgraded due to trust in the system, inaccurately reporting that the US government is no longer democratic probably isn’t the best way to rectify that.

These are the best democracies in the world — and the US barely makes the list

America falls short of being a full democracy for second year running, report finds

And, finally, from Democracy Dies in Darkness itself:

U.S. democracy is in grave danger, a new Economist report warns Continue reading “Enter a search term, e.g. “democracy””

Everything is Going According to Plan

on nihilism


note: this is very long.

You taught me language, and my profit on ’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
-Caliban, The Tempest


Their ideals had begun to turn on them.

If you want to be a philosopher about it, the problem is being vs. becoming, Heraclitus’ Fire and Flux vs. Parmenides’ Oneness and Rest. Plato unites these, so the story goes. This isn’t exactly true, but it’s close enough: the very highest things are Being, so eternal, and the very top of that is the Form of the Good. The lower things of this world are becoming – shadows in the cave – but they partake in Being via the forms. Man has two natures – flesh and soul – flesh is becoming and soul is being. The best human life, then, is one that partakes in the eternal, and especially in the form of the good. Normally, this is just called “Truth.” It’s important that this work in a particular way: if there is no access to being, then all our knowledge is shadow and wind. This worked out very well for us for a time, truth was a fine friend, it even gave us a God or two for when the nights were particularly nocturnal.

Then the first problem: Truth unsettles everything around it. Empiricism is a very effective way to pursue our ideals, and it pursues them right off a cliff. Turns out there is no metaphysical ground, atoms in a void, many worlds in the multiverse and the You in each of them is terrified and confused. Theoretically, you were supposed to find a sobering and harmonious universe. What you find is a teenage goth’s wildest fantasies: there is no heaven, there is no God, there is no meaning, morality is arbitrary, justice is the will of the stronger, humans are self-deceiving moral monsters, fuck it, I’ll be a gnat next life. But you can’t just lie, that’s still wrong for poorly understood reasons, we can’t go back.

We want a reason to exist, so that’s a bummer, but not really the end of the world. I guess you can just mope or something, Siouxsie was pretty cool. So you Phil 101: “Humans determine their own meaning.” Blatantly untrue if you’ve talked to one, but I understand the significance of the words. It’s a subjective phenomenon, we are subjects, maybe meaning [static and wails]. I don’t even disagree, I just don’t think you understand. Not only did you not make that choice, it’s not even the right one. “How wondrous to exist and Sisyphus really digging the struggle,” is no meaning at all, it’s too abstract, it’s both flabby and hollow at once, it’s only possible for a weakling to raise it because it’s so empty. Everyone wants “good things” and is quite sure that “good things” are rather important. Does that help us coordinate for the specific goods we want?

Here’s your second problem: Truth unsettles itself. What truth does find doesn’t look much like its first mandate. Not only are there no Platonic Forms, there’s nothing that even resembles objective truth. The human mind evolved to lie to itself, to interpret according to experience, but even checking experience against experience is merely the best approximation of a human experience. It may be our best interpretation, but scientific truth is just an interpretation conditioned by the creature experiencing it. No, sadly, there aren’t better ones. Trust me, I’ve looked. Without Platonism you’re screwed for the deep deep grounding. This should change something maybe, if there’s no moral purpose and Truth is just an interpretation then why not discard it for happiness? Deepak Chopra seems like he has a pleasant outlook – I imagine it’s much like thought thinking itself through a lukewarm bath. That it’s “wrong” is no count against it if you can’t justify your own truths, but you still can’t seem to lie to yourself.

Good instinct. But also why silent black screen, slow rise of a single note, cigarette-voice: Their ideals had begun to turn on them.

Here’s your third problem: it is hard to be a creature of becoming that understands being. We judge ourselves by unrealistic standards. “Understands.” Now you know that’s a ridiculous problem to have, an artifact of evolution, just some cave-man shit. Does that make it go away? It’s the thought of it that hurts, not its reality. Zeus isn’t real either but it’s the reason you understand why Homer made Zeus judge: “Of all the living creatures, man is the most wretched.” You are a creature that has some notion of ephemerality, some desire to be more-than-that, and finally the knowledge that this is impossible. Eat up. Continue reading “Everything is Going According to Plan”

In which there are ghosts

Plato is hard, so let’s shitpost about art.


relatedThe Guardian’s Inferno and Notes on Values


Plato is hard, so let’s shitpost about art.

SSC writes a response to The Good Guy/Bad Guy Myth by Catherine Nichols. Nichols’  piece claims that good vs. evil stories are distinctly modern, older tales were more ambiguous, this was a causal factor for modern nationalism and subsequent atrocities.

On one hand, I don’t want to look a gift-horse in the mouth. I’m in favor of Old Books, they are indeed complex, thanks for the backup. Nichols’ underlying premise is worthwhile: a) Myths and epics and fairy-tales have a moral complexity and ambiguity we casually ignore; b) There has been a genuine shift in values, and while Christianity was part of it, the after-effects of the industrial revolution are much more relevant for our current society.

On the other, I agree with Scott’s criticisms. The historical argument presented is wild. The Spanish conquered most of the Americas between the 16th and 17th centuries under the pretense of moral ineptitude and evil among the natives. They had to be forced into enlightenment, which meant murder, torture, and slavery. Bartoleme de las Casas is considered more rhetorical than accurate, but he says some true things. Here’s his book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies: there’s a lot about feeding people to dogs and slaughtering children for fun, sometimes both at once.

Then again, maybe the Spanish were just early adopters. Pierre Menard (PDF) or Miguel Cervantes wrote a book about simplistic values in literature causing illusory political actions way back in 1604:

And so, having completed these preparations, he did not wish to wait any longer to put his thought into effect, impelled by the great need in the world that he believed was caused by his delay, for there were evils to undo, wrongs to right, injustices to correct, abuses to ameliorate, and offenses to rectify. And one morning before dawn on a hot day in July, without informing a single person of his intentions, and without anyone seeing him, he armed himself with all his armor and mounted Rocinante, wearing his poorly constructed helmet, and he grasped his shield and took up his lance and through the side door of a corral he rode out into the countryside with great joy and delight at seeing how easily he had given a beginning to his virtuous desire.

The Aeon piece is factually incorrect, its timing is screwy, fine. That’s not my problem.  The essay set off a very particular panic point for me.

In making the case that we have a simplistic good/evil binary, it set up its own – nationalist/liberal, politically bad/politically good, whatever you want to call it. Nazi references rule everything, it was not subtle. It argues against art as a tool for training moral values – which I happen to agree with – but makes it, instead, a political tool. Not that she wants that, because she doesn’t, but that it can do that, and thus that art which does such a thing is bad art.

In other words: it uses a political reason to brand certain types of art as “bad.” Continue reading “In which there are ghosts”