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”