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Knowledge, Reality, and Value: Rejoinder to Huemer, Part 1

Summary:
After a long hiatus, it’s time to finish the Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club.  Here, I respond to Huemer’s responses to me (in two parts).  Then I’ll give the author the last word.  As usual, Huemer is in blockquotes; I’m not. Rejoinder to Huemer’s Response, Part 1 Consequentialism vs. deontology isn’t one of them, though. I don’t see any discussion of that in the ancient philosophers. You can maybe trace the consequentialist/deontological debate to Hume and Kant, but they are not clear about the issue. Why doesn’t the Ring of Gyges thought experiment count?  At least one common interpretation of the debate is that we should practice justice as an end in itself, not because of its consequences.  Yes, you could argue that they’re really debating about

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After a long hiatus, it’s time to finish the Knowledge, Reality, and Value Book Club.  Here, I respond to Huemer’s responses to me (in two parts).  Then I’ll give the author the last word.  As usual, Huemer is in blockquotes; I’m not.

Rejoinder to Huemer’s Response, Part 1

Consequentialism vs. deontology isn’t one of them, though. I don’t see any discussion of that in the ancient philosophers. You can maybe trace the consequentialist/deontological debate to Hume and Kant, but they are not clear about the issue.

Why doesn’t the Ring of Gyges thought experiment count?  At least one common interpretation of the debate is that we should practice justice as an end in itself, not because of its consequences.  Yes, you could argue that they’re really debating about less-obvious consequences – like “Whether an unjust man can be truly happy?” – but it still seems plausible to frame this as an early consequentalist/deontological debate.

Is the rule of thumb about subjective claims redundant? I don’t think so. Consider Caplan’s two examples:

(Subjective)        Being mean to children is worse than being mean to adults.

(Objective)        Communist governments murdered millions of people.

The second one is a better premise for an argument than the first one, right? It looks to me like that is best explained by the fact that the latter is more objective.

The second one is a better premise if Communism’s historic crimes are well-known.  But they aren’t.  In the real world, that makes the former premise a better way to craft a convincing argument, especially if you don’t have time to give a remedial history lesson.

Rejoinder to Huemer’s Response, Part 2

In Bayesian terms, this has the effect of increasing your likelihood (P(e|h) in Bayes’ Theorem). It also reduces your prior (P(h)) by the same ratio (or more). So there’s no free lunch.

In other words, now the problem is just going to be that the new theory (B&A) has a low prior probability, because it stipulates that the scientists program the computer in a particular way, where this is one out of a very large number of ways they could program it (if there were such scientists).

Lower, definitely.  But why “low”?  In fiction, after all, the main use of the Brain in a Vat is to simulate reality.  I still say that everything hinges on the high prior probability of the Real World story relative to all alternatives.

Rejoinder to Huemer’s Response, Part 3

Bryce Canyon is not really very ordered (though admittedly more ordered than just a big junk pile); you could move large parts of it around in lots of ways and not upset any salient pattern or activity. This is very unlike a watch: If you move parts of the watch around, for almost all ways of doing so, it stops working.

The rock carving has a simple order. But I don’t understand how Bryan thinks we know that it was carved by a person. I don’t know what “independent knowledge” he’s referring to. Maybe it’s the knowledge that a lot of people like heart shapes? Maybe it consists of having seen people drawing such shapes in the past?

Not heart shapes specifically.  I’m thinking of the independent knowledge that so far, things that look like carvings have always been man-made.  If that sounds circular, I say it’s just the problem of induction all over again.

I’ve never seen that shape before I found it on the internet just now. I bet a lot of readers haven’t either. I also have not looked up what that is, or whether it is natural or man-made. This one object is my entire sample of surfaces with that shape etched into them.

Q: Can I tell whether that’s man made? Yes, I can. I have zero doubt. This doesn’t rest on background knowledge about instances of that shape.

How about a sphere?  It’s awesomely “ordered.”  Perfectly symmetrical.  Perfectly smooth.  It perfectly satisfies the formula (x – a)² + (y – b)² + (z – c)² = r².  By your reasoning, it seems like you would have “zero doubt” that it’s human-made (or perhaps alien-made).  But I bet you think the opposite.  Why?  Because you have independent knowledge that e.g. liquids in outer space naturally assume a spherical shape.

BC:      I say this is an obviously terrible argument, and I don’t say such things lightly. Why? Because we have zero evidence that the anyone can “set the parameters of the universe”!

I don’t know why Bryan thinks we have no evidence of that. The theist cited the evidence: the fact that the universe has life-friendly parameters. To say that we have no evidence of anyone being able to set the parameters of the universe, you have to assume that the evidence the theist just cited is not in fact evidence of what the theist says it is evidence of. That begs the question.

Why do I say this?  Well, we’ve looked around the universe a lot, and never seen anyone “setting its parameters.”  We haven’t even found a securely locked control panel with a “parameters of the universe” label.  And the very idea sounds totally fanciful, so we should assign it an ultra-low prior probability.

I’ve never seen anything labelled “made by God”, so I’m not sure what things Bryan is referring to. Of course, if I saw an ordinary object, like a shirt, labelled “made by God”, I would think it was made by a human being.

That’s what I had in mind.

This, however, was not a plausible explanation in my example, because (i) there are no people on Mars before the astronauts go there, (ii) it was stipulated that the formations are consequences of the laws of nature.

My bad, I missed the latter stipulation.  But then it’s practically circular, because anything that’s a “consequence of the laws of nature” is by definition not human-made (or even alien-made).

MH:     [Firing squad example]

BC:      My reply: Entertaining such hypotheses only makes sense because we have independent reason to believe that people normally don’t survive fifty-man firing squads.

Again, I don’t know what independent reason Bryan is talking about. Explain it to me like I’m a baby.

I think it makes sense to entertain hypotheses for how you survived, because it is initially extremely improbable that you would survive the 50-man firing squad. Is that the independent reason Bryan is referring to?

I’m tempted to say “exactly,” but your use of the word “initially” makes me wonder if we’re talking past each other.

It is weird for us to exist, once you know about the incredibly specific conditions required for us to exist. It’s weird because, well, it’s extremely improbable.

It’s only “extremely improbable” if you think the parameters of the universe could have been “set differently.”  And as I said, that seems totally fanciful to me.  There’s no sign that a cosmic control panel exists.

But I’m not sure what counts as “fantastical”. In particular, I’m not sure whether the idea of a conscious being that can adjust the parameters of the universe is fantastical. If it is, then I’m not sure why we should think all “fantastical” things have a low prior probability.

I’m not sure what counts either, but in practice it’s not hard to perform the classification.  Biblical miracles are fantastical.  The existence of rocks isn’t.  Marvel superpowers are fantastical.  The ability to breathe isn’t.  Spells from Dungeons & Dragons are fantastical.  Math isn’t.  Alien abduction is fantastical.  Sleeping people aren’t.  What distinguishes all these cases?  (a) We only hear about the fantastical stuff from unreliable sources or in fiction; the other stuff we either see first-hand or hear about from reliable sources.  (b) The fantastical stuff appeals to the human emotion of wonder; the other stuff is boring by comparison.  Put that together, and extreme (though not insurmountable) initial skepticism is the sensible reaction.

Another example: I find someone living in a penthouse in Denver worth $3 million. I offer that person 50 bucks for the condo. I can predict, with very high probability, that the owner is going to turn down my offer. Surely that doesn’t mean that the owner’s decision to reject my offer is not free.

6. Degrees of Freedom

BC:      I say, for example, that alcoholics are fully free to stop drinking. They rarely do, but they absolutely can. Indeed, there is strong empirical evidence that I’m right, because changing incentives changes alcoholics behavior; and if changing incentives changes behavior, that is strong evidence that you were capable of changing your behavior all along.

I would say that changing the incentives changes how difficult it is to stop drinking. The more difficult it is to stop, the less free the alcoholic is. The extreme of difficulty (the maximum level) is impossibility, and that is where the person is not free at all. Being “fully free”, or “maximally free” would be at the opposite extreme, where it is completely easy to stop drinking.

I think that view coheres with the fact that changing incentives sometimes alters the alcoholic’s behavior. It also explains why we blame someone less for bad actions that were, as we say, “more difficult” to resist.

By the logic of your alcoholic story, it seems like the more money we offer the condo owner, the “less free” he is to turn it down.  That seems bizarre to me.  I say you are fully free to reject a billion-dollar offer on your condo.  And the alcoholic is totally free not to drink.  Wanting something more or less doesn’t change what you’re capable of doing.

Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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