Updates for 2019

This is a brief update to let you know that I’m still alive. I appreciate the inquiries.

I considered writing a question-and-answer section here, but it was completely insufferable. Needless to say: I haven’t been writing, now I am. I had to spend some time remembering first. Feel free to ask questions in the comment section. I’ll answer them. I’d also appreciate suggestions, by which I mean things I promised to write and didn’t and/or whatever else you’re interested in.

The rest of this is housekeeping.

I replaced the list of history books with a Top Posts & Introduction section, because it felt like there needed to be a directory of some kind. Feel free to offer suggestions or critiques of what I chose to put there.

The history itself was moved to a side-blog, Tauromachy. There are only a few posts there – you’ll notice it stops at around the same time this one does – but I’ll be picking that back up, too. I was waiting to announce it until there were more posts (I did post it on the patreon feed, just not publicly). It will be much shorter pieces, mostly just updates on books. Broadly, the interest is still in forcing myself to actually read the history I should read. More granular interests are 1) historiography and philosophy of history, 2) the history of mathematics as applied to social phenomena.

Samzdat writing plans:

I’m going to finish the Plato series, though it may take some detours. I wasn’t satisfied by the explanation of valuation at the heart of modern policy. Given that this blog is entirely about valuation, that’s a problem. At some point after that I’m going to return to the main mathematics series. I started that prematurely, and the tempo wasn’t correct.

The scraps posts were a good idea I didn’t stick with. That was foolish. I’m bringing them back.

The best book I’ve read lately is Stone Tools in Human Evolution. Other contenders are The Passions and the Interests, and some of the essays in Statistical Models and Causal Inference (e.g. here).

The blog will continue now. Ask or suggest below.

Love and Happiness

irving finkel

You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.
-Yogi Berra


The previous essay was inescapably dense, the abstract territory was by nature abstract, the subject matter happened to be the entire past year of this blog. I think the technical language of the past blog was necessary, but it’s a good habit to try to parse things more carefully, and a few readers have asked me to do so. Moving slowly and picking at specific claims:

We care more about “love” than we care about “the number of desks in Montana with gum stuck to the bottom.” Here’s your question, it’s so basic you want to avoid it, but avoiding it is the entire problem: why?

“Words don’t have set meanings” isn’t anything close to an original thought, but it’s very easy to forget. If you bother to read [anything], you’ll find a shocking number of people coming to terms with that fact. I won’t be able to write anything better than SSC’s The Categories Were Made For Man, so I’ll just link that. Keeping that in mind: Properly speaking, you mean one specific thing called love, it may have a material correlate, may have an action associated, whatever. All that means that whatever is “valuable” there isn’t the word itself, nor another group’s definition of the word, but [this specific definition of love]. The question is this: how do you study that?

I generally dislike the phrase “presumption of objectivity,” because a) the stronger form applies to 16 year olds and almost no one else, and b) the weaker form isn’t a very interesting observation. Overconfidence is bad, sure, but certain types of knowledge are more or less accurate, and some might even be truer. All of the really interesting parts of epistemology come from trying to figure out how that is possible without objectivity, not blankly stating that objectivity don’t real. I think of this as the equivalent of yelling about hypocrisy without ever putting forth a positive platform, but your mileage might vary with that metaphor.

Still. Presumption of objectivity is a problem, but it’s a problem in a particular way. Everyone knows that presuming an end will color the entire study, and about 5% of academics even try to avoid that. Fewer people recognize that assuming a certain method of studying something does the same thing. One reason I prefer the language of “paradigms” for philosophy is that paradigms imply a methodology, and methodology is where this sets in. Different philosophical schools have different standards of evidence – falsifiability for the Popperians, apodicticity for the Aristotelians – that imply what you can know about a thing. In turn, this is going to change the meaning of the concept being investigated. You can’t investigate the same “God” under Popper that you can under Aquinas, but the God of Aquinas is much more important to people.

Show, don’t tell, let me give you a basic example. Continue reading “Love and Happiness”

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. Continue reading “Slightly less than truths. IV-V.”

Footnotes. 1.

plato without platonism


On Plato’s Republic, parts I-IV

Fuck it.

Nathan Robinson asks, “Can philosophy be justified in a time of crisis?” He elaborates:

One of the most important, but least asked, philosophical questions is: which philosophical questions are worth asking and which are a waste of time? I think, as I argue in my (non-existent) academic paper “Can Philosophy Be Justified In A Time Of Crisis?”


Every area of thought, then, has some implicit hierarchy of what constitutes a useful addition to the sum of human knowledge. What’s strange to me, though, is that even though every field quite clearly distinguishes between thoughts that are worth having and thoughts that aren’t, there’s often little inquiry into how those notions of “the thoughts worth having” are built and whether they are sound.

Yeah, I know.

I’m going to deal with this seriously and under the assumption of good faith, so let’s be uncharitable at first. Robinson has gotcha’d the field of philosophy with a bunch of classic questions from the field of philosophy, which is hilarious, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being trolled. I’m pretty hot headed, so far be it for me to accuse anyone of being comically arrogant. Let me offer a life hack instead. Since these questions are hard, reading a few books is often faster than reinventing epistemology, making philosophy, at the very least, a good way to avoid embarrassing yourself. There, done.

This style isn’t unique to Robinson, he doesn’t deserve special blame, he’s just loud and sometimes I read him. Feel free to hunt down the same sentiment [literally anywhere], or tell me that I’m wrong because some sadsack humanities puppet gets 1000 words on “critical thinking” sandwiched between the culture war and the Gell-Man ammunition. At that point you may as well give up. Equally bad arguments: “to debate the value of philosophy is philosophy,” which is true, but fighting fire with fire is less desirable than not having a fire in the first place. “Science wouldn’t exist without philosophy,” which is also true, but one-and-dones are just that. Chemistry also needed baths of hazardous chemicals but I don’t see anyone volunteering to chug Hg when they pop an aspirin. Robinson et al. deserve a serious answer from someone without mercury poisoning.

As a line of last resort, you have “ethics,” which is wrong. Current Affairs et al. aren’t against practical philosophy, they’re against hyphenated philosophy, which is a distinction everyone but philosophy professors understand. You can tell that they don’t understand it because their justifications are always in favor of philosophy’s import for “ethics” and “also ethics,” without considering the relationship of “even more ethics” to the ontological status of sets.

crude human caricature (Ivory, 2011) sneers that “philosophy is its own justification,” but this is not philosophically or historically true. Philosophy books traditionally went out of their way to justify the practice, and the traditional response is the correct one. It’s also a long one, I’m going to take my time narrating how it comes to be before explaining why it comes to be that, so this part holds much tighter to Plato than others. For the purposes of this article, Plato and Socrates are identical thinkers. I’m contractually obligated to point out that this is academically unjustifiable, but I’m not an academic nor a philosopher. Ok.

First, why do you care about anything? Continue reading “Footnotes. 1.”

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”

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