Archive for November, 2005

Ken MacLeod

I recently came across the science fiction writer Ken MacLeod. He has been writing for some time now, but for some reason I never read any of his work until a few months ago. He has a political slant which is, these days, unusual among science fiction writers: very left wing, taking communist ideas quite seriously while not being at all doctrinaire. His characters tend to be very politically aware, not merely in the sense of practicing politics but in the sense of understanding how their societies truly function. It makes for an interesting read, jarring assumptions in the way that the best science fiction can.

A sample quote, said by Gail Frethorne in Engine City: “Drawing lots is fair, even if it sometimes throws up a freak result. With elections you’re actually building the minority problem right in at every level, and lots more with it–parties, money, fame, graft, just for starters. What chance would that leave ordinary people, what chance would we have of being heard or of making a difference? Elections are completely undemocratic, they’re downright antidemocratic. Everybody knows that!”

The obvious comparisons I see are to Iain M. Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson. MacLeod differs from Banks in using near future settings (of course Banks also writes contemporary novels, but they are not science fiction and have different concerns). MacLeod differs from Robinson in focusing on the practice of politics rather than on science.

Of the MacLeod novels I’ve read, the most polished one is the most recent, Newton’s Wake, which is actually also the least political one.


Future generations

How much should we care about future generations?

We take many actions which will dramatically affect future generations. For example, we are in the process of burning most of the oil on the planet. We are changing the atmosphere and the weather. We are in the process of massive deforestation. Et cetera.

Some people argue against these things out of a pure love for the natural environment. However, I suspect that most people who argue against them do so out of a concern for future generations: we must preserve the earth for our children.

On the other hand, some people who don’t care about these things do so because they explicitly do not care about future generations. For example, James Watt, the Secretary of the Interior under President Reagan, reportedly said, in 1981, “I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.” If you believe the world will end reasonably soon, then future generations are not a concern. I don’t happen to believe that, of course, but it is a difficult point to argue against.

Many people have children, and are likely to plan on leaving the world a good place for them. We can also consider grandchildren. What about great-great grandchildren? Very very few of us will ever meet them. How much should we consider their needs and desires? The Iroquois famously said “In every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” That is a difficult standard: seven generations is nearly 200 years. The world of 200 years ago–before the industrial revolution–was very different from the world today. However, this saying does have the advantage of making matters concrete: perhaps it is sufficient to care only about the next seven generations, and not necessary to consider generations beyond that point.

In finance, when considering the future, we normally apply a discount rate. In this view, the money I have today is worth more than the money I will have ten years from now. Can we reasonably apply that to the environment? Is the oil we have today worth more than the oil we have ten years from now? (Mind you, it’s probably not financially worth more, even after applying a discount rate–in fact, hoarding oil is likely to be a good medium term investment, if you have a cheap place to store it.) Somehow it seems wrong to say that our needs today are more important than the needs of our great grandchildren. On the other hand, we can hope that our great grandchildren have access to technology which we do not have. Is a discount rate the right balance?

I don’t have good answers to the problem of future generations, and it troubles me. Derek Parfit tackled the issue in his book Reasons and Persons, and was not able to solve it. Seven generations seems like a reasonable goal to aspire to, and is probably more than I achieve in practice. But what is right? How much should we care about future generations? Is there any way to really know?


Just So Stories

People who like sociobiology or evolutionary psychology often use just so stories to explain why certain things are as they are. The name “just so stories” is taken from Rudyard Kipling’s book of that name, in which he wrote stories for children about how, for example, the camel got his hump. A typical evolutionary psychology just so story is to argue that women seek higher status men as mates in order to ensure that their children will be protected.

A just so story can be useful and insightful. Unfortunately, it can also be easily mistaken for the truth. In evolutionary theory, the way to ground a just so story is the concept of an evolutionary stable strategy, developed in detail by John Maynard Smith. A just so story can suggest an evolutionary stable strategy; if you can demonstrate such a strategy, then you have a good theoretical explanation for why things are as they are.

However, it is essentially impossible to develop an evolutionary stable strategy for human behaviour. The number of variables is too large, and people will quickly understand the strategy and may seek ways to subvert it. Animals can’t keep track of a hundred individuals and treat them all differently, but people do it routinely. And you can’t run a controlled experiment for human behaviour.

The effect is that for humans a just so story is unfalsifiable. Moreover, human behaviour often has several possible causes. Therefore, in telling just so stories people tend to pick the stories which appeal them on a personal or political level. The fact that one plausible just so story exists may make one think that is the answer, but it’s easy to forget that there may be another just so story which is just as plausible.

As far as I can tell, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are largely concerned with guesses as to why people act the way they do, mixed in with a considerable set of assumptions as to just how people act. There is very little science to it. I don’t know why the fields get so much attention, beyond the fact that we humans find our own behaviour endlessly fascinating.

When you read a claim like “women seek higher status men so that their children will be protected,” you have to ask yourself some questions. Is that true? Do women really seek higher status men? In particular, is that true across all cultures?

Also, is there another plausible explanation? Perhaps one reason some men have higher status is that they have more charisma–are more likeable–from the point of view of both men and women. Or perhaps women seek higher status men to get more for themselves, without regard to their children. Or perhaps higher status among men is defined by having women pursue them, rather than the other way around–that is, the characteristics we look for when saying that men have higher status are simply the things which we observe cause women to seek them out.

There is no way to test any of these observations, so we don’t really know. The effect is that evolutionary psychology becomes a validator for various theories of folk psychology, rather than a source of insight in itself.



I occasionally run across someone who thinks that gold is the only real form of money. These people call dollars “fiat money” (or “fiat currency”), and argue that real money is based on gold.

In fact, this makes no sense. All money is a social convention: money is something which people will normally accept in exchange for goods. That is just as true for gold as it is for dollars. The difference between gold and dollars is that dollars are just paper, which is essentially worthless in and of itself, while gold has some inherent value (it has industrial uses, and artistic uses). In fact, though, there are many things which have inherent value, and any of them could in principle be used for money (e.g., oil, corn, etc.).

The advantage of using gold for money–the reason that it has historically been used as money–is that it is solid and durable, while still being easy to manipulate. That is, it does not rust or otherwise degrade. It can be separated into pieces when convenient, and you can use fire to combine pieces of gold. These are all desirable properties in money. All the precious metals (gold, silver, platinum, etc.) have these properties.

Paper dollars, by comparison, do degrade. Using dollars as money requires a bank which can hold values denominated in dollars and can exchange new dollars for old ones. Fortunately, we have such banks.

Of course, in principle, the government might collapse, and banks might disappear. In that case, would it be better to have gold? At one time, it would have been, but today it would be useless. Nobody would know how much value to attach to the gold. A new form of money would be developed over time. It might be based on gold, but it might not. Barring a complete collapse of civilization, it would be more likely that some new form of paper money would be developed, since that is now familiar to everybody.

An interesting aspect to using gold as money was that you could literally dig money out of the ground. Of course today you can almost do that by drilling for oil, but you can’t actually buy things directly with oil. The ability to dig money out of the ground means that the size of the money supply can change if somebody happens to find a new mine. When William Jennings Bryan famously said, in 1896, that farmers were being crucified on a cross of gold, he was arguing for a shift to the silver standard (i.e., to use silver as money) because the more plentiful supply of silver would mean an increased money supply and hence lower interest rates and easier credit terms.

These days most people would consider letting the money supply vary unpredictably would be a disaster for the economy. Currently the size of the money supply is more or less controlled by the central banks in each country, by setting key interest rates, by requiring banks to keep a fraction of their deposits available for withdrawal, and by selling and buying government bonds. The process is rather complicated and indirect, but in principle controlling the money supply permits the central bank to chart a course between serious inflation and serious recessions.

Gold was a good form of money in the much simpler economies of the past. Today, gold, while still valuable, is not and can not be money.


Free will

I recently got in an e-mail discussion about the philosophical problem of free will. Here are some notes on it.

In general I think Daniel Dennett has correctly described the issue in his books Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves (of the two, I prefer the older Elbow Room). The issue is: given a materialistic universe, what does it mean to say that people have free will? The answer is: we are free to do as we choose to do.

At first glance it may seem that free will requires some sort of unpredictability or uncertainty, and it is far from obvious how that can be part of our actions. After all, our brains are just atoms bouncing around according to the laws of physics, so where does the unpredictability come in? However, this view of things is misleading, and I think one way to see this is to consider the issue of free will in Christian doctrine. Most people don’t have a real problem with believing in both human free will and an omniscient diety. Since God is omniscient, God knows what you will choose to do. But since God also gave you free will, this knowledge does not mean that your choice is not free. While there are obviously other issues with free will here, I think one can see by analogy that free will is not inconsistent with predictability in principle.

So in the materialistic universe, focusing on unpredictability is wrong. The important thing to ask is whether, when you make a choice, you can carry out that choice. In normal circumstances, the answer is yes. That is what it means to have free will: to be able to act freely. Metaphysical concerns about how your will can affect the physical world simply cloud the issue. (There are reasonable concerns about consciousness and making choices in a materialistic world, but I’m not going to tackle those here.)

Is it possible that we merely have the illusion of making choices? I’m not sure the question is even coherent. In order to make sense of it, we would have to explain how we are being fooled. It’s not enough to say that we are predictable: a predicted choice is still a choice. It’s only not a choice when it is forced by something outside ourselves. But what could that thing be? I think the question is really just a meaningless rathole.

In daily life the most important issue related to free will (insofar as free will is important at all in daily life) is whether we bear moral responsibility for our actions. I am only responsible for the actions which I choose to do, not for actions which I am forced to do or for actions which I have no control over. So free will is closely tied to responsibility.

I believe that the essence of moral responsibility is that if you understand the possible consequences of your act, or if you deliberately avoid thinking about the consequences, then you are responsible. Again I don’t think that metaphysical notions are required. While the topic of how our understanding works in a material universe is a complex one, the fact that we do understand things is undeniable, as is the fact that our understanding guides our actions. That is what makes us moral agents. (I should note that we can and do write laws which punish people for actions for which they are not responsible, because the results are better for society: “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” I don’t think there is anything necessarily wrong with that, although I think that in general society runs more smoothly when the legal system approximates morality.)

Obviously I haven’t discussed how one can tell whether an act is moral or not. I’m just arguing that it is possible to have moral responsibility for actions.

This is all a bit sketchy, but the important points are: Can you make choices? Can you act according to those choices? If so, you have free will.


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