Slightly less than truths. IV-V.


continued from here. note: this is doing a lot of groundwork, so it’s pretty dense.


Philosophy may or may not be useless, I say we showed the opposite. Why?

Book IV:

And Adeimantus interrupted and said, “What would your apology be, Socrates, if someone were to say that you’re hardly making these men happy, and further, that it’s their own fault – they to whom the city in truth belongs but who enjoy nothing good from the city as do others, who possess lands, and build fine big houses, and possess all the accessories that go along with these things, and make private sacrifices to gods, and entertain foreigners, and, of course, also acquire what you were just talking about, gold and silver and all that’s conventionally held to belong to men who are going to be blessed? But, he would say, they look exactly like mercenary auxiliaries who sit in the city and do nothing but keep watch.”

“Yes,” I said, “and besides they do it for food alone; they get no wages beyond the food, as do the rest. So, if they should wish to make a private trip away from home, it won’t even be possible for them, or give gifts to lady companions, or make expenditures wherever else they happen to wish, such as those made by the men reputed to be happy. You leave these things and a throng of others like them out of the accusation.”

“Well,” he said, “let them too be part of the accusation.”

“You ask what our apology will then be?”


“Making our way by the same road,” I said, “I suppose we’ll find what has to be said. We’ll say that it wouldn’t be surprising if these men, as they are, are also happiest. However, in founding the city we are not looking to the exceptional happiness of any one group among us but, as far as possible, that of the city as a whole. We supposed we would find justice most in such a city, and injustice, in its tum, in the worst-governed one, and taking a careful look at them, we would judge what we’ve been seeking for so long. Now then, we suppose we’re fashioning the happy city – a whole city, not setting apart a happy few and putting them in it…”

A) The comedic timing here is gold.

B) Socrates responds with two distinct arguments. “It wouldn’t be surprising if they were the happiest (because you have no idea what happiness is), but anyway we only designed this city for justice (so why are you trying to change the design?).” I’m going to focus on the latter (design), but the former (happiness) will be important for everything here on out.

C) Question: what is the ultimate purpose of the noble lie? “To raise the guardians to protect the city.” What’s the point of the guardians? “To make the city function.” What’s the point of the city functioning? “To obey its rulers.” What’s the import of the rulers? “Only they craft and enforce the city’s customs.” Fine, why do we need those customs? “So that the guardians can be educated into guarding the city.” Yeah, but why do we need them to guard the city? “So that it can function safely.” For what? “Sorry, isn’t it obvious? For justice.”

But we defined justice as the city functioning.

The definition of justice arrived at (“not interfering with others”) is weird but fine, and it isn’t where things start to break down. Socrates was asked to prove that justice is a terminal value with the implied condition that words are just words and no philosophy is allowed. Seems hard, but what did the feverish city prove? Justice is having a just city for justice, so you should care about justice in order to have justice. Hey, that sounds about right.

The best you can say, lacking some other measure, is that something “works for working to keep working.” Thrasymachus sounds like he has another measure (“advantage”), just like he sounds like “a hard-nosed political realist,” but Thrasymachus sounds all the time about a lot of things worth sounding around. That merely makes him loud. Here, he’s raucously tautological: “justice is the advantage of the stronger,” with “stronger” defined as “he who rules,” and “he who rules” defined as “he who is best at ruling,” making justice good for the justice necessary to help the ruler ruling to keep being a ruler.

We’re talking about the use of things, for instance “justice” or “philosophy” or “anything else.” But useful for what? Is it useful for being useful? Not even Sisyphus was required to best his timing with every heave, but I’m supposed to accept that as a core value? Efficiency for something is wonderful, efficiency for its own sake is hell. Am I supposed to act like the “for” is meaningless? Someone knows, they’ll substitute a substantive for you, be careful when you talk about utility. You can swallow the preposition but you’ll choke on the noun.


Books I-III are the foundation of the city and a description of its basic structure. They’re explicitly philosophical, by which I mean the city is still clearly a metaphor for Justice and Truth and Goodness of the Soul and Other Such Capitalized Words. That culminates in early Book IV, with the ability to finally define “justice” based on the design of the city, which leads into the problems above, which leads to the introduction of philosophy in Book VII. By any reasonable standard, that makes philosophy “important,” which is fine, but things can be important in all sorts of ways – hence, Books IV, V, and VI. Everything above is still “ethics” and “more ethics” with a little bit of “politics,” which is neither hard to prove nor really worth proving. Our task was to connect metaphysics, not blather about [whatever is happening up there].

Books IV-V are concerned with the minutae of the city, and they get set off by Adeimantus’s question. They’re technical, where “technical” means “basically playing Sim City,” i.e. concerned with the careful design of the hypothetical city before the introduction of  philosophy. These passages are more or less the reason people mistake the Republic for a political book, but it’s still about the soul. More to the point: it’s still about philosophy, but in the sense of “how to do philosophy,” with the city currently operating as a metaphor for doing it badly. Not coincidentally, “playing Sim City” is also how “Plato”-“loving” technocrats do their realpoliticking.

Thrasymachus has a problem – he assumes that “advantage” has some meaning that “justice” lacks, but the two concepts are inescapably stuck together. The glue is “good,” the issue is “finding it,” the methods are philosophy or […]. We’ve decided to go with the brackets, so what now? “Let’s talk about serious things,” so you assume that the problems work out on their own. They don’t, and now you have a very serious torture garden.

Adeimantus thinks that “happiness” is somehow more objective, which is bizarre, but the problem has compounded with another. He (correctly) intuits issues with the city, and then proceeds to “solve” them in the worst possible way. Thrasymachus was, at least, starting with a blank slate. Addie is not, he has the entire feverish city constructed according to the group’s specifications. He dislikes what came of it, so he wants to sub in some pleasure, but he doesn’t realize that things do not work that way.

Addie thinks the city is able to both define justice and allow pleasure, but what he doesn’t understand is that the conditions of “justice” preclude that kind of pleasure. Alternately, the conditions of pleasure preclude that kind of justice. “Lacking objective definition” means “liable to change,” and “liable to change.” Put a different way: did Adeimantus not think that “happiness” existed before? Why does Socrates claim they’ll be happiest? Addie (correctly) recognized it as a different one than he wants, but he doesn’t understand that justice has the same problem. Add in the pleasure, receive a different justice. Redefining one word redefines the others around it because they’re interconnected.

Words are just words, we agreed with Thrasymachus by design and then proved it via the noble lie and the act of defining justice. Adeimantus: “Oh. Well if it’s subjective, then it must not matter how they get defined or how those definitions fit each other. Let’s pop in some pleasure.” You go through values like a buffet, picking and choosing the ones that seem “nicest” without any regard for what those things mean. After all, it’s subjective. This means the opposite is important, you’re getting confused by words not by uncritically accepting them but because you knew to critically examine them and were bad at it.


Want to understand the world? One weird trick, Plato scholars hate him: Addie and Thras are the exact same person, and I’m giving a contentious reading of the Republic here to get you to recognize it. Full-blown Thrasymachus [whatever]ism is popular among teenagers/adults who get intellectually cornered and regress into teenagers, but the Adeimantus variation is extremely common. “Well, there aren’t Forms, and it’s not falsifiable, plus, like, social control, so who cares about justice?” Huh, never thought about it that way.

It’s not that it “won’t work,” it’s that it will always work. Defining justice a certain way is just that: definitional. Defining happiness a certain way is just that: definitional. The problem comes when the words are the same but their objects different, when a not-so-subtle-but-apparently-too-subtle shift makes you prove the opposite of what you meant to, and then when you get confused and think you’re still talking about the same concept. The value of it is different now.

“Extremely common.” You will accuse me of arguing with a cartoon, which I am, but only because people reduce their own arguments to 16-bit. It’s not even a specific cartoon: social constructivists, STEMsupremacists, a sad old academic raising his twitter count so the publishers will take his life’s work seriously. Exact same game, choose your fighter and spend the others, everyone’s a token something:

  1. An entire genre of papers attempting to quantify democracy is well-received and cited. The problem is that everyone decided that defining democracy was “boring” and, perhaps, “hard,” and most certainly “obvious,” so they let the numbers do it for them. Numbers don’t do that, so you have meaningless papers proving nothing about definitions no one would accept. But they do seem “important.”
  2. Edgy social constructivists try to evade “scientific objectivity” by redefining Truth as power, accidentally redefine it in the exact same way as the empiricists, use it to prove the exact same thing. Why did they care about truth? Serious question.
  3. A prominent Big Thinker writes a Big Thinking History about the causal import of the Enlightenment, defines “the Enlightenment” in 21st century terms, still gives it an 18th century causal role. Further fails to define “rationality” or “good,” argues for an inhuman and impossible world, calls it “rational” and “good” because he’d set it up that way.
  4. Same big thinker relies on bad social science genre, accidentally points out concentration of power among the wealthy, gets confused because it’s defined as  “democracy,” and “democracy” is certainly an important word.
  5. Various extremely staunch scientific realists decide to be a little bit too realist. In so doing, they reaffirm the Platonic forms, probably God, and almost certainly clear the way for a kind of moral realism they would find antiquated and a little scary. But it does, technically, “work.”
  6. Both “postmodernists” and people who fucking love science crash into the fact that truth doesn’t mean what they think it does, so science doesn’t mean what they think it does, but since they were arguing with the old definitions of the words anyway they just keep doing that. This time, with inapplicable arguments.

Not one single person failed to prove something, but neither did any of them prove what they set out to prove. The problem in approximately none of these cases is people being wrong. The issue is the precise way in which they went wrong.


Philosophy is not a science, but philosophical schools are somewhat analogous to Kuhnian paradigms. I think this is a more helpful metaphor for us than the city, the current essay is going to expand on it, I’ll need it for more important points down the line.

I’ll make this argument, be suspicious of it: Books IV-V are, if anything, more metaphorical. Plato seems to treat Sim City as a serious entity, but that’s only a response to Addie’s latter-day Thrasymachus. The city is a paradigm, change one part and reformulate everything. Might need a different paradigm, might simply revise the old ones, doesn’t matter, same deal. Their style is a way of getting around the common and obvious critiques: “Yeah, but isn’t that just being a little pedantic?” I dunno, how low-res are you willing to be? Take a city and declare the only law: “Be nice unless you must be mean.” Think it’ll go well? What about if you change the definition of “mean” every few years?

That same aspect makes them less helpful here. They’re hard, proving that “Plato says this thing” is only interesting if you already care about Plato. It’s more valuable to speak broadly, by which I mean not at all about Plato. Kuhn is a better metaphor for our time.

Kuhn. Just like in philosophy, the kind of question you ask gets restricted by the paradigm, e.g. an eliminative materialist won’t be asking questions about qualia. Similarly, the objects you’ll interrogate are determined by the paradigm, e.g. consequentialists are much more likely to examine empirical results, deontologists more likely to take principles to their logical extremes. Certain proofs become uniquely valuable for a paradigm (say, “light” for Einstein or “virtue” for Aristotle), but these values become almost identical with a certain methodology. The methodology necessitates the value and vice-versa. Finally, normal vs. anomalous gets determined by the paradigm itself. “Right” or “wrong” answers are only right or wrong in relation to the theory, not in relation to “real truth.”

Paradigms are inherently ambiguous, by which I mean “incapable of being reduced to a list of rules,” and schools of philosophy are no different. No school has a “list” outside of wikipedia, they aren’t perfectly mathematical, there’s always guesswork and movement. Scholarship in philosophy works much like the scientific articulation of a paradigm. Without some wiggle-room, every change would require a paradigm shift, and the ambiguity works like a shock absorber. Certain changes do revise large parts of the previous theory, but there’s still general agreement over methods, objects of interrogation, etc.

Put a different way: two Heidegger scholars screaming about “enowning” still agree that “enowning” is important enough to scream over. Even if you’re arguing that it’s unimportant for Heidegger’s work, you’re still admitting that its relative unimportance is important enough to draw attention to. They’re under the same paradigm, everyone else knows it, that they have opposite interpretations of it changed nothing. Or: Most of the hate directed at careful scholars completely misses the mark. You can argue that the entire theory is worthless, fine, but it’s hard to ask a scholar to do anything besides minutae. It would be like demanding that every scientist come up with a new theory. This sounds like a defense of academic philosophy, but really it’s a pharmakon


How is more important than what. Aristotle, Mill, and Kant all agree that “lying is bad.” Do they lie in the same way? Before answering, consider that words are meaningless and qualitative valuations liable to change.

There are a couple of results of this, and I hope the metaphor makes them easier to grasp:

First, it’s best not to think of results or specifics so much as methods, values, questions. How is more important than what, good=good=anything, and if you’ve ever read a philosophy book, you’ll know that they aren’t great about laying out definitions anyway. Where philosophical schools preach certain values, those values should be thought of as connections and tools rather than specific things. “Something that makes things visible or affords illumination” is true for Ptolemy, Newton, and Einstein. You need to have a more global understand, because you need to understand where the word can be used, why it gets used that way, and where its limitations are. Part of the issue is just that all definitions are going to arrive together. Context is king: e=mc^2 only makes sense with an understanding of m and e and the background knowledge of what that all came from.

Second, a question comes from paradigm, so certain pedantic changes are less pedantic than they seem. Philosophers may seem to agree on the importance of a concept (“Justice, I like it”) but they rarely use it the same way. This raises the stakes of things that seem small. For a given school, the solution to “why does non-euclidean geometry work?” is going to be tangled up with, say, why you should follow the golden rule (not a hypothetical). This is for an obvious reason: if you solved one problem with an equation, and that equation gets revised, you’ve now solved none problems. I recognize how weird this sounds, but recognize that if you only think that “light” means “something that makes things visible or affords illumination,” then the differences between Newton and Einstein actually don’t make much sense.

Third, paradigms are mostly incommensurable. Imagine plugging the periodic table into the world of phlogiston. What would happen? I have no idea, but it would not speak well of anyone involved. You might be able to get something out of it, but it’s hard to tell what anything there would actually mean. Similarly, try handing a deontological response to an ethical dilemma to a utilitarian. “No.” Good call. An obvious corollary is that – for the most part, exceptions are always there – no paradigm can really “disprove” another. They’re using completely different words even if they’re using the same words. What seems anomalous and paradigm breaking to one will not appear so to the other, because they have completely different standards for “anomalous behavior.” It may not even make sense.

Fourth, and most critically: some words are “important,” by which I mean they sound important. Freedom, truth, justice, etc. These have no meaning on their own, and a one-sentence definition will not actually get at their importance. Over time, due to their use in a paradigm and everything they’re connected to, the sounds have built up a valuable sediment, but the accrued value doesn’t stick to the phonemes. If you change everything around them, that word is no longer important at all. It’s not even the same concept. This sounds obvious, and it is, but what is less obvious comes from the first and second points: even if the one-line dictionary definition is the same, and so it looks to you like it’s the same with relatively minor variations in use, those minor variations might have utterly unsettled the whole. If your mistake the sound (worthless) for its use (important), then you’ve appropriated the value without retaining the concept.

Yes, these are broad strokes for an idealized version of philosophy.  Yes, these are also assertions, I’m explaining how I’ll be using the words “philosophy” and “value” and “important” and “paradigm” for the rest of this series (read: this blog). Finally: yes, I know someone’s read a Nietzsche and will want to own me about “human reason and moralism.” It is true that people may have predetermined the morals and then built the metaphysics to justify those, rather than deducing ethics from pseudo-first-principles. In fact, I think it’s likely. Go reread and pretend that the values came first, it changes nothing but time and rhetoric unless you think that “reason” already has some special non-descriptive value, in which case –


Imagine an Extremely Important Lever in a factory. Due to a quirk of wiring, it has to be pulled at exactly the right time or the factory goes up in flames. Accordingly, the worker in charge of the Lever earns high wages, enjoys the station’s status and respect, etc. The factory is eventually remodeled and they fix the wiring problems. The Extremely Important Lever is still there for historical purposes, but now it only controls the lights to a supply closet. Is it the same Lever, does that Lever have the same value? If you wanted to argue that now salaries should be more equitable, what would you need to understand? Would it be enough to grasp the Lever’s shape, size, timing, the names of the operators and their yanking history?

If you want to understand why Adeimantus’s request is so bizarre, consider that plugging “pleasure” into the Feverish City is demanding that the Lever (justice) retain the same value (justice as staying in your lane), as though “uniform cyclical motion” was equally important to Newton. If you want to know why (1-6) think they did anything at all, consider that they presumed the value of  a specific paradigm’s word (democracy, truth, good, etc.), changed the paradigm, and thought that the word was still important. It isn’t, it doesn’t even have the same meaning. We only cared about “democracy” because it had one specific use and a few specific connections, without those it’s just a sound.

“Fact/value.” Kind of, not really, fact/value needs to be understood in a particular way, that comes next time. Everyone knows that Saxonisms like “good” and “mean” and “kind” are the useful part of philosophy while the hyphenations are masturbatory, except that the truth is precisely the opposite. The import of those words only depend on the paradigm (alt: the noble lie). “Is it the same lever?” and then: “It’s the same material on the same wall, duh.” I could respond with an observation about reality, but ontology does seem kind of pedantic. What about the particular wire at floor 3, hallway B?  “Uh, why are you asking me these frivolous questions?”


Kuhn’s views may rankle some, but he at least allows for some kind of progress. It’s not Philosophical Truth, but more and more solutions can be incorporated into the paradigms. More to the point: he provides a very solid defense of the physical sciences.

The interconnection between philosophy and science should be obvious enough. While normal science has no need for philosophy, extraordinary science requires it. Extraordinary science – preparadigmatic and crisis-periods – are characterized by an abundance of competing paradigms, and thus all arguments are primarily philosophicalNot arguments over the facts over which facts are relevant, which categories they belong to, and how those categories interrelate. For much the same reason, he later decided that the social sciences were and might always be preparadigmatic, i.e. not sciences.

In extraordinary periods, competing paradigms argue philosophically because they need to use philosophy (or “qualitative work” if you’re a prude) to determine the categories they’ll be testing. In turn, the sciences adopt a paradigm because it’s demonstrated solutions for “more puzzles”. Bluntly: philosophy alone cannot convince scientists to adopt your paradigm. It has to allow for more puzzles and give you the hint of a solution or two. Another blunt thing: this is where the metaphor begins to break down.

A science will have a given paradigm at a given time, but philosophy is perpetually pre-paradigmatic. This is for a few reasons: 1) It just isn’t that way, sorry. 2) Truth-standards are, by definition, determined by philosophies. They’re pre-empirical, you need to know what “something works” looks like before you can declare empiricism the workiest, meaning that “more puzzles” is not actually possible under different philosophical paradigms. 3) Different value systems are a part of the game.

“Fact/value.” Kind of, not really, fact/value needs to be understood in a particular way, that comes next time. When misunderstood, that can lead to the following: “unfalsifiable means irresolvable,” which is a weird thing to say, because you resolved the importance of empiricism just fine. “What?” Can you falsify falsifiablility? Sorry, I missed Popper’s empirical demonstration of it. I’m not trying to gotcha, I’m establishing base-level honesty. Variants of empiricism require pre-empirical work, which means they have non-empirical results. Are those unimportant? You realize that there are many different ways to respond to “unanswerable questions,” right?

I care about science too, why do you think I bother to write about it? Here’s your problem: certain values – say, truth – are different from field to field, and all of them will always “work,” because “working” has no meaning outside of a broader value system. Hell, even saying that something is “untrue, but it still works,” requires that. Plenty of people admit lies into their value systems, see: me.

That being said, unfalsifiability is important, and it’s interconnected with the “words are just words” position. The reason you need to care about the limits of a given mode of inquiry is that within certain limits, it will always work. It will never stop working, it will never arrive at a crisis on its own, you don’t get God’s hand reaching down to tell you when to stop, you have to stop yourself.

Put a different way: philosophy is not science, because it can never drive itself into crisis empirically. It can do so qualitatively, sometimes, maybe, bigger question. The immediate result is this: no crisis, but we do still have incommensurability. Want to see what happens when we don’t understand that?


This is dense, I know. It will be the most dense in this series, and it should be clarified by later pieces. It’s a necessary foundation for what comes later, and I couldn’t see a way to put it that was not overly [like this]. Let’s recap:

  • Schools of philosophy work like paradigms – the questions, methods, etc. are tangled all together.
  • Sometimes they overlap, but more often the overlap is superficial. Words that look the same will have very different uses and connections.
  • Values get determined not axiomatically, but more loosely. They’re part of a whole. “Value” there should probably be clarified: I mean both value in the sense of a variable, i.e. use and meaning in a system and value in the sense of “importance, both ethical and metaphysical.”
  • Changing aspects of the paradigm mean you’re not discussing the same object.
  • Truth-standards are one of these, meaning that philosophical schools don’t run into crisis. You need to take great care with the philosophical reasons behind a certain value.
  •  …Because they’re still incommensurable, and the similarities of the words, and the sense of their “importance,” tricks people into crossing paradigms.

Normally, this means you just say something meaningless. Other times, it overlaps with definition drift. (Then again, definition drift is worth investigating.)

There’s one way to deal with this problem: “who cares?” It’s not a serious response.

Values may come from philosophy or noble lies or God or drinking your brain soft, but they’re there. Problem for another time, it’s a doozy.  “Who cares” turns you into a puppet, see Thrasymachus. Hope your esophagus is particularly large. If someone’s feeling extra clever, you get “not even wrong” and, indeed, this is the exact problem. The only thing worse than having a crisis is not having a crisis.

Let’s work through a misunderstood example: Polanyi’s economic bias (or economistic prejudice, he uses both) and the double movement.

I’m going to mangle this to get the point across, the above article does a better job going through it all. Still, it’s important for us:

18th-19th century liberal economists needed to define wealth, so they galaxy-brained a measure for wages. This fit nicely for their purposes, it made things empirical (read: measurable), and the trend-lines were up. It also blinded them to certain phenomena, namely what everyone else meant by it and why they cared in the first place. Applying this – and thus defining “social progress” in a certain way that allowed for certain behaviors – is what Polanyi calls the economistic prejudice.

The traditional definition of wealth incorporated family and communal land and gifts and etc. These have obvious non-material value in addition to material value. Usufruct land provides food, families help you out when the harvest goes poorly, local churches provide a safety net different in kind from the poor-house. The results of the first movement – communal property was enclosed and sold, better wages came from a distant town with no family, religiosity fell as a result of work hours, etc. – damaged that. In their paradigm (not measurable, or at least not in the same way) wealth had fallen. They began to rebel, but their rebellions were in such a language as to be unintelligible. Liberal economists: Everything is going well, economy is booming, wages are wealth and wages are up, why are the plebs grumbling, are they daft?

This is not the problem.

Peasants were unhappy, liberal economists had all the power, their game their rules, the pleb definition of wealth is out. All of those traditional components (family, land, community, etc.) get reframed as solely cultural, and thus not a question for political policy. To argue about Serious Political Things, you have to talk about Serious Economic Things, i.e. the peasants had to translate their demands into liberal economic language. The solution could only be thought of in certain terms, and those terms couldn’t deal with the solution. The forms of aid proposed and the economic laws suggested all ran contrary to how the system worked, and if you’re crazy you might say “Good, burn it down,” but then you’d miss the broader point: the peasants couldn’t get what they wanted either. We’d (still) call it “cultural” rather than political, no proposals could properly address the actual “wealth” that the peasantry was talking about, burning the system down would take everyone even further.

Or, the problem is this: Since the peasants had to substitute their demands into a different system, the political results of those demands overturned everything. A value from a completely different system had been subbed in, which (checking Kuhn above) means that the rest of the system was getting subbed in, and solving for one system of equations with the x-values of another is never a good thing to attempt. x=7=x=39. Mathematically, this seems wrong.

Wealth=wages only one equation, but the rest of the paradigm was built around it, and the rest of the paradigm just happened to be “all of society.” Laws, theories, regulations, private firms, etc. Changing the definition of “wealth” is whatever, but changing it within all the rest of the is a little less whatever. Accounting for the wrongness meant incorporating a series of proposals that could never work within the system. When you try to translate “mere cultural concerns” into economic language, it goes poorly for the “cultural concerns” as well as the economy. When attempted, it meant pervasive inefficiencies, incoherent solutions, and worsening deprivations. Or: the entire system got scrapped. Here, “entire system” means the reigning global order, and “scrapped” means everything that happened from 1920-1950. No, this is not the entire story, but that was a major part. It still is. Why do you think so many mass movements tried to fit clearly cultural concerns into economistic language? Why do you think so many still do?

Polanyi refers to this type of social upheavals the “double movement.” People who read Polanyi tend to focus on the damages of the first part – enclosure acts, wrong-headed application of bad definitions, etc. – while ignoring the second. This second part of the double movement – “formalized local economics” did just as much damage, and it’s a prejudice to focus too hard on either part. It’s also foolish to argue of the facts. Wealth=wealth, look above, neither is truer.

The better question to ask is not truth, nor accuracy. It’s “why did we care about wealth in the first place?” followed by, “Wait, did we just forget why what we were measuring mattered?”


Polanyi’s argument is a textbook example of incommensurability, but it’s not an example of crisis. A crisis only comes where an observation is interpreted as an anomaly by the paradigm itself, but that could never have happened here. w=t*l will always empirically justify itself because there’s no “wealth” sitting around in object-space to tell you that it is not true. More to the point, if you think “wealth” can be measured with a few quick surveys and an equation, then nothing outside of a philosophical argument will prove you wrong. Here we’re pretend that this is impossible, meaning that, yes, nothing will prove you wrong.

Both systems worked, they were simply incommensurable. I’ve discussed the fallout in some detail, where I describing it as “translation issues.” The thing that looks like a “crisis” is actually one paradigm being substituted into another. You can think of it like a system of equations. The same w-value will always come up for the same system, and it only stops working when you plug in a value from a different one. Hey, that sounds about right.

The single worst way to understand this would be to argue that it was a problem of “fact,” because that’s how you repeat it. Unsurprisingly, that’s always how the argument goes, which leads to the next question: why do you think this happened?

Here’s one option, the better one: someone thought wealth=wealth, they had a paradigm that restricted certain questions, they did not understand where it differed from others, didn’t care, and so plopped in the value from a different one. Hilariously, this destroyed both.

Here’s a second option, far more unsettling: if you’ve unconscious adopted a certain modern paradigm – call it a noble lie – then your standard for “valuable” is something like Kuhn’s version of science. “What works” and also “How many puzzles will it solve?” This gets transmuted into “it works” and therefore “it’s correct,” which tricks you.  “Wealth” is not a natural category, if you define wealth as “wages” then, empirically speaking, wealth will always be wages. What confused the economists was the assumption that, if wrong, they’d run into an anomaly. They didn’t, they ran into a different paradigm and failed to see it.

“Yes, but the empirical version of justice is truer, because it better incorporates the phenomena.” We already agreed that justice was subjective, so what could ‘truth’ possibly mean here? I suppose you mean “this is the observed behavior,” but if so, why are you assuming that it’s an important behavior to classify for observation? There’s no natural category for that, so the only possible justification is that the value is important to you, but then you betray the uses and connections that made it once useful. Why are you trying to keep the word anymore? Is it particularly mellifluous?


You have to be philosophically rigorous (read: care about qualitative arguments over subjective unmeasurables) because one cannot leap straight into the forms. This is for much the same reason that incommensurable paradigms means you have to be very careful about the limits of your own.

Where Kuhn gets accused of relativism is precisely the truth vs. puzzles question, but he points out (and it’s a good thing to point out) that there is an objective value here: puzzle solving is objective, inasmuch as “more puzzles” can be compared to paradigms with “fewer puzzles,” and science does not dispute its value. See above. Of course, Kuhn himself points out that his theory is totally relativistic when applied to anything like “society” or “thinking.” Kuhn was right.

“More puzzles” in the human realm is a value, as in “one of several options,” and there’s no clear reason to favor it and many reasons not to. If you optimize exclusively for “solve puzzles,” then you start to lose everything for that single one. Note that, based on everything said, it is impossible not to do this.

Ptolemy had a specific goal, “retaining uniform circular motion.” He contorted a whole bunch of things to achieve that, and there were epicycles everywhere, but he did manage to save the appearances. There were philosophical arguments for this, and there were philosophical arguments against this, but neither of those was quite as important as the Copernican ability to add to the stack of explicable phenomena. Copernicus completely changed the heavens, this is a good thing scientifically. The same action in the human realm – the same changing of the heavens – is not automatically good. We have values for reasons beyond solving puzzles about the values, right?

Or: Imagine trying to convince the Guardians that they should value “citizenship” without reference to this particular Noble Lie. Give it some pleasant, milquetoast definition that we all like, that allows for more phenomena, and that gives them their little pleasures (for Adiemantus). Let’s say that “citizenship” actually means “under the same legal framework.” Is that it?

The guardians set the legal framework, why not set it to their advantage? “Well that would be oppressive.” Who cares? The Guardians are also soldiers, hence the name, they kill people for the material good of the city. They’re allowed to do that because the-people-they-kill have no relation to them, and the Noble Lie is meant to convince them that they cannot do that to the people-they-govern because the-people-they-govern are family. If you get rid of that, they’re now equidistant from the people-they-kill and the people-they-govern. Do you seriously expect them not to at least hustle the governed out of a few bucks? Is killing less oppressive than scamming?

The Guardians valued a very specific citizenship, and we certainly can generalize it into “citizenship under the same legal framework.” That will allow us to solve more questions of fact re: citizenship in the world, how people in states behave, etc. The question you need to ask is: why does that “fact” have value?

Someone will now accuse me of being a relativist (it’s the opposite), because they will not have understood. I’ll put it plainly: these are not natural categories, their reality depends on your paradigm, under an empirical paradigm “justice” and “virtue” and “kindness” most definitely are not real. You grouped a bunch of phenomena under a certain label and act like it’s a meaningful category. Which it is, maybe, but only because there was some anterior version you’ve swapped out.

The definition will always work, not all of the definitions have the same value. We invented the facts, then we’re surprised that they’re invented, and in our surprise we argue about which invention is the least invented.

Works for what is the question, which means we start here: They both work, both are useful, they’re equally subjective. “Equally subjective” does not mean “equivalent.”

It also doesn’t mean “equal,” and if you think it does then you probably think that useful things are used for using.

top from True Detective


Author: Lou Keep

22 thoughts on “Slightly less than truths. IV-V.”

  1. I am very happy you are writing all of this so I do not have to. Or more accurately, be obligated to do but never invest the time and energy to actually do (assuming even after all of that investment that I could).

    A question though: what happens if all of these scholars, experts, elites, and ordinary people realize they are confusing conclusions with premises and premises with conclusions? What happens when they realize the “problem” in their paradigm is all the other paradigms extending over it? What do they do with that excess energy? I want to think it generates more understanding within paradigms and more meta-paradigm discussion. But I also speculate that pre-civilization humans had a visceral understanding that their “justice” was not the neighboring tribe’s “justice” and their solution was three-digit-death percentages.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks.

      Yeah, I think a lot of this depends on what you consider to be certain threats of “tribalism.” That’s not the best phrase, but it at least vaguely relates here. I’ll give three, the first of which is the most common, the latter two being my real concern:

      1) A lot of the discourse focuses on lack of empathy/understanding of the outgroup, or the desire to eliminate the outgroup, etc. That is bad, of course, and I won’t pretend that it’s not one possible result of seeing different paradigms for what they are. I think that’s what you’re talking about, and I agree that it’s an issue. Still.

      2) Tribalism has an equally dangerous trend for the ingroup, though it’s not as common in the discourse. Something like “slowly occupying a position you’d have found abhorrent a few years before.” This seems related to Jay’s (correct) connection of this essay to SSC’s Moloch. At a certain point, there’s no material difference between the enemy burning your fields and your own spiteful scorched earth policy. Like, maybe you win, but what exactly have you won? I don’t know quite how effective, uh, intellectual honesty is in stopping that, but it certainly can’t hurt. Anyway, it’s not like anything else will be effective.

      3) Presupposing universal values – and thus enforcing them under the guide of “modernizing” or “making people live up to their beliefs” – is often just as vicious. A tremendous amount of colonialism has been justified by this, as has a lot of domestic policy. See: Polanyi. “Enlightening the savages” implies that you’re, you know, enlightened, and enlightened in a way that everyone else is really trying but failing to be. See also: fundamentalist religion. Realistically, this feels like the biggest threat to me at the moment.

      I’m writing some more (today or tomorrow) to explain parts of this, so I’ll incorporate some of this.


    2. There’s been something bugging me about the whole liberalism/tribalism discourse for a long time, so this seems about as good a time to bring it up as any.

      The two primary claims of fact about tribalism – that strong group values cause people to go out and genocide, and that liberalism is the destruction of those strong group values – seem both to be entirely false. People don’t tend to kill one another, ever, because of differences in belief, outside of psychotic edge cases. They kill one another over one thing and one thing only, which is the feeling “you have something that I want.”

      Consider Scott Alexander’s work on the outgroup (which might as well be foundational text, given that we’ve all read it). The core mechanic it notes is that the people that any one group really hates aren’t the ones most culturally different from them, but the nearest people to them with some kind of cultural difference. Hot take: what he’s describing are competitors. People hate competitors. If you don’t compete, then you might as well not exist.

      The next question is the nature of the competition. In traditional tribal cases, the object of the competition – the thing that you have that I want – tends to be at the very bottom rungs of the hierarchy of needs, i.e. if someone doesn’t have it they die. This makes fights to extermination over those objects logical, rather than brutal and excessive. Don’t mean to pull the Marx chain too hard here, but material conditions do shape human relations quite heavily. As soon as you get out of that rut, the objects of competition start varying massively on an individual basis, and the logical outcome of fights varies accordingly. A good rule of thumb is: nobody’s willing to suffer or inflict more harm in competition over an object than depriving someone of that object would cause naturally. When people do that, we get horrified and say they were going overboard. Not that they committed an atrocity, typically, although we get there through logic eventually, but that they were totally fucking disproportionate.

      For political struggles, however, as soon as we left the extermination bracket, we get only two kinds of conflict remaining: conflict over specific material resources (usually land), and conflict over dominance. By dominance, of course, I mean labor. Dominating someone, or some group of someones, means that you get to decide what they do – you force them to exercise their labor for you, in proportion to how severely you dominate them. In ancient societies, this tended to mean explicit slavery. By the time we got to classical societies, at least in the ancient Mediterranean, conquered peoples instead were made into “subjects,” although the goal still seems to have been to co-opt as much labor as possible via taxes. As far as inter-polity competition goes, modern-day accepted means of co-opting labor are neocolonial: move in a favorable government, force favorable trade treaties, and let the corporations do the boots-on-the-ground work of extracting labor.

      Intra-polity competition over labor has stayed rather uniform, as far as results go. There’s always been a large group of people for whom most of their labor goes to serve their “masters,” the ones who won out in the competition and got the bigger piece of the pie. The main difference, starting up with the rise of “liberalism,” is what the accepted form of the labor competition is. Traditionally it would be who could wield the most violence or win the favor of whoever did wield that violence. This meant that all competition was violent, and because the object of the competition was which societal class you would be dumped in, the stakes were reasonably viewed as very high. Liberalism, for its part, lowered the stakes. The primary means were through two mechanisms: first, abolishing class and estate systems of labor in favor of more capitalistic options (read: competition over labor became more frequent and less extreme), and second, moving from traditional systems of winner-takes-all political (labor-guiding) power in favor of increasingly democratic approaches. Competition stopped being about: this one civil war determines who will decide on labor for the next fifty years, and started being about: this one paycheck, or this one election cycle, will determine what’s happening… until the next one. Unsurprisingly, lowering the stakes like this made people chill right the fuck out, at least in terms of how brutally they fought one another. They’ve stayed just as fierce, cruel, and bloody-minded, but that’s been channeled towards different atrocities, like office backstabbing and political memes on the internet.

      Apart from competition over labor, or economic currency, there’s also competition over social currency, which have served increasingly as two different things as society has become more liberal (as in liberalism, not as in blue). I’m on board with Lou’s article on social states here. The rest of the gaps are pretty easy to fill in.

      The exception here seems to be, as it has always been, mass movements. Mass movements, characterized by perpetual frustration (adolescent thought), are not experiencing or exerting rational levels of competition. It’s always the teenagers who go totally fucking overboard in their competition, which is why one of the jobs for anyone unfortunate enough to have to care for them is to get them to chill the fuck out. What this means practically is that examples of mass movements tend to wildly miscalculate the stakes and do incredibly horrible things because they think that what they’re fighting over is that severe. In the case of political mass movements, like with the Nazis and the young Maoists (and even the French Revolutionaries – but not Stalin, who accurately realized that Soviet state socialism was winner-takes-all and acted accordingly, although still a monster regardless), you get purges, because nobody has any fucking clue that they’re fighting over labor, not basic needs. In the case of social mass movements (like what we have today), we get… purges, but with less blood. The person’s social status sure is destroyed, though.

      This model kind of explains everything we’re seeing right now, in terms of competition. Scorched earth is a highly reasonable policy against an invading army bent on your destruction, where you carry away everything you can and burn the rest of the supplies, but it’s disproportionate to do that for anything less than an existential crisis. The various forms of colonialism are just ways to try and gain use of someone else’s labor, whether economic or social. And frankly, only an adolescent – someone somehow wrapped up in the fevers of a mass movement – would think that strong values (which they mistake for identity beliefs, the only things they have) are the reason people cause harm. In fact, it’s the exact opposite.

      (To be clear: this is not Summa Contra Thersites, or Summa Contra Lou, you two just happened to capture the majority of the points I was really concerned with. Jay has some great points about brutal competition, and I’d just add: leader-based anti-communication is actually a statement both of values and the nature of the competition. By saying these things, the leader is basically saying: “Football. Baseball. Sometimes soccer, on FIFA years. Basketball.” Now everyone knows what the game is, and the game is working with these terms to express and achieve their various needs. It’s a reaffirmation of the competition on less bloody grounds, and highly sensible.)


      1. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, but I think you’ve missed some important cases. Soldiers and cops do quite a bit of the world’s violence without having much to gain directly. Evaluated on a self-interest basis, the possibility of a little looting or corruption isn’t nearly worth the risk of getting shot. And though there are some similarities to mass movements in the Hoffer sense, they mostly lack the “burn it all down” mindset of a true mass movement. A soldier’s aggression actually does seem to have to do with strong group values, and initial military training has been designed by generations of psychologists to have a high success rate at instilling exactly the right type of group values to turn an ordinary teenage male into a controllable, team-oriented killer.

        On larger scales, I’ve found “offensive realism” to be a useful way of thinking about conflict. The basic idea is that everyone wants security, but security is zero-sum. If Alice is perfectly secure against Bob, then Bob has no way to punish Alice for anything she does and Bob is perfectly insecure against Alice. Our inability to ensure our own security without simultaneously threatening others is one of the major drivers of war.


        1. Hm – I’m not sure either police or soldiers count as exceptions. I’ll break down a few examples.

          Soldiers can exert violence against people of their same nation or people of different nations. If they exert it against people of their own nation, they get viewed as traitors, unbridled scum, and so on – in other words, they get classified as the outgroup. This is unsurprising, because they become a direct threat to various resources. Similarly, their motivation for doing what they’re doing is a resource grab – loot, rape, and power. When they exert violence against people of other nations, it falls into the familiar categories of just violence (when it’s proportionate to desire) or atrocity (when it’s disproportionate). What’s less obvious is that post-looting soldiers (modern military, which I believe started to develop around Napoleonic times – although Napoleon’s armies crumbled while looting Moscow) are fighting not for themselves, but as a direct military arm of the greater populace. That is, the wants of the entire ingroup – the entire nation – guide and fortify military action. This is what military training is all about: training people, very strongly, to be part of the ingroup. When this fails, soldiers become cowards and looters.

          Police, similarly, can exert violence against criminals and the innocent. When they do it against the innocent – but I think you can see where I’m going with this. We often call that corruption. When they do it against criminals, the outgroup – and again, it falls into the same two categories. Every act of violence is justified by some kind of want, and the want which dominates is determined by whether the police are properly brought into the ingroup, whether by concurrence of material benefits or a noble lie or whatever else might be at play.

          I think you do very well to mention protection and security. This is what I glossed over most heavily by describing violence-desires, competition-desires as “you have what I want.” The general form is actually something more like “your continued activities in the current trajectory preclude the possibility of me having what I want.” That is, “you threaten my resources” and “you have resources I want” are actually both formulations of the same primitive (and yet extraordinarily long-winded in natural language) logic. They’re one and the same, based on how animals and humans behave, which is why you see people feeling strong entitlement both to things they have and things they don’t – only limited in expressing, and perhaps feeling, by noble lies. Yes, like property.

          A final note: what I’ve been glossing heaviest of all is the existence of the ingroup, and why people don’t instantly devolve into winner-takes-all scrapping the second they get a chance. This is because, for whatever reason one wishes to quote (evolution is chic, so go with that one if you like), people are capable of completely identifying with other humans. As far as resource-needs and resource-desires go, people who are in one’s ingroup – a true ingroup, here, and not just the knife-hiding bargains of political parties – are literally identical to oneself. Consider a bosom friend, or your romantic partner, or your children. For all of these, you will give up resources, even go out of your way to supply resources, because in your mind there is literally no difference between the two of you. When they eat, you eat. When they succeed, you succeed. That is the end of it. You can talk about expected rewards all you want, but even if that is the result of it, that isn’t the experience that makes these relationships work – the experience that makes them work isn’t some in-depth calculation, because humans (especially the ones with strong group identity, like religion and fraternities) are terrible at math. What about the countless lottery-buyers, and the idiots sunk deep in debt because they don’t understand compound interest? We all know that humans will take the stupid short-term option almost every time, and will only take the wise move by mistake, or because they have no friends. But for some reason, the average pre-algebraic human makes this long-term expected-reward decision, like nothing else in their life. Sure, it may be “because of evolution,” but there are also backstabbing humans that end up searching for veins in McDonalds bathrooms and dying rich with no tears at the funeral and wandering on through empty and unfulfilled lives filled with cost/benefit analyses, and it sure seems all of them were created by evolution as well, meaning that the only real “because” here is “because I see the other as me, and myself as the other, and no separation between us.” That’s how ingroups are formed. Not to say there can’t still be competition, but it becomes much gentler, and it tends to spread out over different fields, so that all in the tight-knit group compete at different things – and amusingly enough, in the language of lame summer camp counselors and the terminally ironic, everyone’s a winner. Just not at the same time.

          Anyway, let me know if I missed other cases. I can think of one big one that I missed, which is spite. I could easily just put spite under adolescent disproportionate response, but in some cases it’s proportionate and has absolutely nothing with regaining resources for oneself. Spite generally is born when someone is dealt a wrong that they can never recover from – which is extremely rare, meaning that in most cases it’s a total overreaction to something dumb, but a couple good examples are someone murdering a loved one or destroying one’s home (like incinerating a familiar and beloved village, more than just knocking down a house). In those cases, the wrong cannot be righted with earthly means, so the spiteful gives their remaining life and energies to the divine, in this case less the kindly shepherd and more the Furies or Nemesis. There is literally no way for the debt to be repaid, so the spiteful soul goes totally insane with violence, which is the plot of the Iliad. At the end of it, the destruction wrought serves as a kind of cleansing fire that eradicates the imbalance by reducing everything to nothing and both parties to death. That’s one of the cases where humans transcend the material and aspire to the divine. Yes, once again, it’s possible to attribute evolutionary motives to it, but that doesn’t explain or predict so much as it explains away, and as such doesn’t deserve to be called science. Motives are more interesting to think about when you grant those experiencing them agency; also more useful.


        2. Sam – two comments:

          Saying that conflict is waged over resources leads to a focus on the aggressor; you’re basically thinking of war as robbery. Saying that conflict is waged over security leads to a focus on trust: building a willingness in both parties to tolerate the possibility of an unexpected attack by the other. In general, I think a focus on trust is more often useful, but it depends on the circumstance.
          Identification is rarely total, more often fractal. The Arabs have it right with the saying “Me against my brother. Me and my brother against my uncle. Me and my uncle against the stranger.”


  2. This seems related to Scott Alexander’s concept of Moloch, a principle by which “In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before.”

    A good example, that Alexander doesn’t mention, is South Korean secondary school students. The competition for college entry is so intense and preparation so lengthy that their saying goes “If you sleep four hours a night, you’ll get in to college. Five hours a night, you won’t”. Koreans wanted to use education to get good jobs and better lives for their kids, and they built a system that ruins their kids’ lives to do it, and they know it, and they could stop any time if they all stopped at once, but they can’t.

    I’ll also note that much of culture is anti-communication designed to bring peace at the expense of understanding. Leaders often use words like “freedom” and “equality” not because they mean something, but they mean different things to everybody. This allows them to create the illusion that we have no important disagreements about terminal values, which leaders often find useful.

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    1. Jay, this article I read a little bit back seems to touch on similar things you are talking with respect to Koreans. It is about America’s less-than-1% elites dutifully maintaining the old class barriers by painting the iron bars with a thin coat of meritocracy. And that thin coat of paint means a lot more work from everyone, but the barriers are just as rigid as before. The author knows its bad for his kid and bad for the country, but he still plays the game:

      It seems we are in a dangerous Nash equilibrium. Its not properly valued in the payoffs but we all know something very bad is eventually going to happen. War, economic depression, environmental collapse, take your pick. Or maybe nothing bad happens but we keep knowing its going to happen so we feel like we feel now, which is by some consensus: not good. If even people that are hyper-aware of the problem, like the author and us, cannot act differently (I don’t mean giving to charity a bit more; I mean radical, systemic change that nullifies this issue), we are just waiting for that very bad payoff to come and blowup the whole decision tree. That’s the real maddening bit: we have to wait for it.

      It makes me feel a begging question: how far away are we from the ideal outcome? If we are so reluctant to change, maybe we are on top of it already? I guess I come back to a restatement of my other post: I would be very worried if leaders dropped the illusions and instead started demarcating the differences in our terminal values. Philosophers, thinkers, bloggers, talkers: I’m fine with them doing that. But leaders? Those actually in positions of power? Makes me uneasy. Maybe its the fear of change talking, or maybe its actually the survival instinct…

      Also, I wanted to thank you for sharing that link. I have not seen that post by Scott before.


      1. I think the reason that philosophy has a reputation for uselessness is that we can never seem to get broad agreement on any philosophical proposition. In fact, that is probably the best definition of philosophy – it’s what’s left over when the answerable questions have been assigned to other fields. Science used to be natural philosophy; computer science used to be the philosophical field of symbolic logic. Socrates’ ethical debates are still happening in dorm rooms worldwide, so ethics is philosophy. In the world of practice, a quick answer that’s workable goes farther than an endless search for truth.

        Of course, the post is about what happens when the quick answer stops working.

        A historian once told me that it’s difficult enough to predict the past. With that disclaimer, the best model for that sort of historical crisis that I know comes from Discordianism. No, really. Yes, the one with the fnords.


  3. Darwinian logic creates survival and homeostasis as terminal values without justification. Human mind requires philosophical explanations. Circular reasoning in (1) is what this clash looks like. See also: The Myth of Sisyphus.


  4. Hm, ok, I like this all a lot. I’m not sure I would like it as much if I weren’t already thinking along these lines; otherwise, it would probably be much less intelligible, because you’re right that it’s dense. Also, on the factory-lever analogy: I now get how you’re using it to illustrate clashing paradigms, and the “same thing” serving a different role based on context. But readers might be distracted by it (as I was on first reading) and think that you’re gesturing at the question of continuity of identity through time (à la the Ship of Theseus), which I don’t think is your intent. Extra explication of that metaphor, and others like it, might be helpful.

    About the actual content: if there’s one thing I want to push back on, it’s that philosophy can never drive itself into crisis empirically. I think it can probably do so in much the same way as the sciences can, even if actual instances of this will be rare. I hang out around analytics a lot, and they toss out “reflective equilibrium” quite a bit; I’m sure you know it well: you observe your intuitions about thought experiments and hypothetical principles, then you take all your evidence and patch it together into a grand network. If you’re willing to count those intuitions as evidence, then it seems like you can get an empirical crisis for philosophy. Nozick’s Utility Monster isn’t a problem for utilitarianism: it’s a problem for utilitarians, most of whom also make the observation that they don’t like giving the UM all of the utility. That evidence then sends their system into crisis.

    Of course, you’re gesturing at a totally different question. By the time you’re even having “intuitions” which constitute “evidence”, you’re phrasing them in terms of a network of concepts (i.e. you need to have the concept of “utility” before you can care about the utility monster). And when two different networks of concepts collide, sharing a language but differing wildly in their structure, everything gets fucked, and it’s not a question of “evidence”, it’s a question of not being clear on what the pre-evidential concepts even mean anymore. So insofar as that’s what we’re discussing, I agree with you. That’s a big problem, not an “empirical” one solvable through “falsification”, and especially common when it comes to philosophy.

    But insofar as you’re claiming that philosophy generally can’t be driven into crisis empirically… beg to differ. Within paradigms, there’s still “evidence” being gathered and paradigms being improved on and/or discarded, just like in science. Do you think there’s an asymmetry here, where the intuition-driven process of philosophy is less “empirical” than the observation-driven process of science? Or did I miss a subtlety in your argument?

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    1. I’d say that your distinction between “a problem for utilitarianism” and “a problem for utilitarians” points the way to your answer; the empirical crisis is not a philosophical crisis. As we pour resources into a Utility Monster, utility keeps going up while our lives keep getting worse. This creates a gap between people who believe in/are heavily invested in utilitarianism, who argue for staying the course because total utility is going up, and a growing number of people who come to think that utilitarianism is horrible and the Utility Monster needs to die.

      IMHO, this seems to match the history of many social movements, from communism to libertarianism to social justice to fascism to (in many countries) democracy.


    2. You know, I was less clear than I should have been. Some of the issues with empiricism would’ve been more clear from the piece meant to follow this, but then I got distracted by starting a piece clarifying this one, and then I got distracted by moving (this summer has been very busy).

      I was being much stricter about “empiricism” there than usual, and I should’ve been more explicit about that. I meant to point out that different paradigms are going to be accepting different kinds of evidence, and empiricism is one of those. Critically, not even empiricism can really disprove itself empirically – as with all epistemology, it’s a pre-empiricial commitment. Certain commitments within it can be proven or disproven, but it’s not really clear to me that the broader paradigm can be.

      Even with the specifics, the situation seems important to me. I think, broadly, philosophy/intuitions can disprove (or at least out-argue) other philosophies, and I don’t really buy the argument that one can’t argue on metaethical grounds. Simply that those are qualitatively different from empirical experiments – for instance, let’s say that I think “love” is “an action towards one you care about,” but you think that “love” is “a feeling within you, often provoked by those actions.” I think we can argue on the grounds of intuitions and values (e.g. “what would it mean to privilege the effect over its apparent cause?”) and on certain thought experiments (seems likely to get into, say, wireheading’s preference for internal state over action), but I can’t see an experiment that could “prove” one side.

      These may be analogous in certain ways (I think intuitions often function like data points), but since this series is about the place of philosophical argumentation in the modern world (i.e. “why is philosophy important when science?”) I wanted to make the distinction clear.


      1. I’ve been mulling it over, and my current thinking goes like this:
        – Humans do have natural terminal values. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a decent statement of them.
        – An ethical, social, and/or political philosophy (hereafter “philosophy”) is ultimately a theory of how to satisfy the higher-order needs (belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization).
        – Philosophies can be working in their own terms but fail in human terms. A Utility Monster satisfies the demands of utilitarianism by creating utility but leaves almost everyone miserable. South Korean schools succeed at educating kids to a very high standard; it can take years of sleep deprivation and massive expense to gain enough education to become a janitor in South Korea (so I hear).
        – Since philosophies get their power from popular acceptance and everyone has been taught the prevailing philosophies, society finds it very hard to adjust when its philosophies start to fail in human terms. If we’ve all been trained to view rising GDP as progress, we usually ignore signs that it isn’t working (e.g., a rising Gini coefficient).
        – Ideally, we’d have a society where the guiding philosophies are entrenched enough to inspire common purpose but not so entrenched as to be unchangeable; threading the needle between anarchy and stagnation. That balance seems very difficult to strike.


        1. The trouble with Maslow’s hierarchy is the problem with justice; physiological needs and safety are roughly equivalent across paradigms, but social belonging, esteem, and self-actualization are going to be enacted wildly differently by a devout Chinese Christian janitor and an atheist white woman from Vancouver. They can both call what they’re doing “gaining esteem” or “achieving self-actualization” but their paradigms are different enough that their means and ends can’t be said to be the same. A philosophy doesn’t tell you how to get those things, it tells you what those things are and how to know you have them.


        2. @Anonymous: I would distinguish between the “needs” and the “theories”. The needs are emotional and are more-or-less panhuman; nearly everybody wants to believe that they are good people, that other people like them, and that their lives have meaning. The theories are rational and are used to judge (really, justify) ourselves to ourselves and each other.

          If I want esteem (i.e., if I’m not pretty far out on the autism spectrum), I have to adopt* the theory that people around me use**. As a member of a highly organized society, I rely on others for most of my physical needs; I have no idea how to hunt a buffalo or what to do with a dead buffalo if I succeed. So in practice I need esteem to get food, and I am rewarded according to how well I can emulate my culture’s theory of what a person should be.

          On a personal level, problems come when I am forced to follow a theory that does not meet my needs for self-esteem or self-actualization. Those needs are emotional; the theory may tell me how to gain them, but if the theory’s prescriptions don’t feel like they’re working, then my needs remain unfulfilled. I’m doing all the things that are supposed to make me happy, but I’m miserable. This is very common.

          On a social level, the problems come when people are rewarded according to theories that no longer meet the needs of many people. These needs can be basic (let them eat cake) or deeper (are we the bad guys?). People start to opt out of the theory and attempt to meet their needs in other ways (see: the alt-right). Other people start to think that everything would be fine except that some people aren’t loyal to the theory. Hijinks ensue.

          *Or pretend to adopt, but that’s difficult. The challenge of detecting disloyalty was common during our evolution, and humanity has become rather good at it.

          ** Of course, it’s hardly uncommon to be associated with two or more groups organized along different theories. People can sometimes reconcile them (it’s no challenge to be both a Methodist and an accountant), and sometimes navigate the tensions (known as “code-shifting” in some circles), but sometimes we go full Romeo-and-Juliet.


        3. tl;dr version: You don’t need a philosophy to know if you’re happy or not. A philosophy is a claim about what will satisfy you, and that claim can be wrong.


        4. Oops, posted reply in the wrong place. Pinging you here in case you have email notifications set up.


  5. @Jay this might be unfairly pithy, but it seems to me that you’re suggesting that “a list of inputs that produce a feeling of happiness” is sufficient to describe someone’s personal philosopy (or perhaps I’ll continue to use the word “framework”). I don’t think it’s true that one has to adopt the, uh… happy list of a society in order to gain esteem. In order to gain that-which-I-call-esteem, It’s only necessary to provide other people with their happy list inputs, which is not the same as adopting their happy list.

    But see, here’s the problem: I have a feeling that we’re talking about different things. When you say “esteem” and describe how it works, that doesn’t match my framework. It doesn’t resonate, and I leverage my framework to discuss that-which-I-call-esteem, and suddenly we’re faced with a fundamental incompatibility that we can talk around, but not through. And that, I think, is what Lou is talking about here. We can drill down further into what we think of as “esteem” if you want (I mean that sincerely), but I think that as we do we’ll find that our ideas of what it is, what it does, and what you need to get it diverge quickly.

    This is almost exactly the same as what Lou was saying about love upthread. My SO and I have different ideas about what love is, but we do a good job of making each other feel loved, because her idea of “what a good partner should do” overlaps with my “what makes me feel loved,” and vice versa. But still, those ideas remain fundamentally unreconciled.


    1. On the one hand, we probably are talking about somewhat different things. I am well onto the autism spectrum, and my need for esteem is different from (and generally weaker than) most people’s. I basically need just enough esteem to maintain employment.

      On the other hand, although we experience needs emotionally, we need theory as a tool to understand and think of them. When our theory doesn’t match our needs, we are unhappy but unable to explain why. When our theory doesn’t match someone else’s theory, we are unable to communicate effectively about our needs. For example, above I assumed that you knew about or could Google the autism spectrum, and would interpret it in more or less the same way as I did. There will always be limits to our ability to understand one another.

      On the other hand (I have a lot of hands), I was using the word “theory” to refer to something in between a need and a “happy list input”. A “theory” generally includes an understanding of what it is to be a good person (or society, as applicable). A theory is also therefore an understanding of what it is to be a bad person (or society). In my experience, people get pretty defensive when you question their theories. They take it as an attack on themselves because they’ve based their self-esteem on their theories. I live in the South; I know a lot of evangelicals. If you believe in Christianity, they think you’re a good person. If you believe in something else, they think you’re a bad person, but they’re all too happy to believe in bad people and they’re generally okay. If you explain to them in clear, deductive reasoning why you don’t believe in an afterlife (and I have), they mostly just get confused and upset. After about half a dozen tries, I decided to go along with the whole anti-communication thing. It was easier.


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