Saturday, December 20, 2008

Don't Follow the Money

Attempts are often made to "explain" financial downturns with the metaphor, "the economy is like an engine, and sometimes it overheats". This is more of a STFU than an actual explanation. No attempt is made to explain in what sense the economy resembles an engine, nor why it should overheat, or what that even means. There is perhaps an implication that there should be a "cooling off" period after a "boom", but no meaningful explanation as to why that should be so. The content essentially boils down to "shit happens". Shit does happen, but it doesn't JUST happen.

I think a great deal of confusion is caused by people being distracted by money valuations. Even when a dollar referred to a specific quantity of metal, the purchasing power of a dollar would vary over time. Now that a dollar doesn't mean anything in particular, it is particularly foolish to act as if a valuation in dollars is anything like a "true" measure of value.

Of course, there isn't and can't be a single number which is an absolutely true measure either of stored value or of productive capacity. The relative values of goods and services will change unpredictably over time, and there are no generic factories but rather there is the capacity to produce particular goods and services.

A speculative bubble happens when there is an unsustainable accelerating increase in the relative value of some kind of good or service. There are two related phenomena which characterize a speculative bubble. First, there is a great deal of illusory wealth. Income producing assets such as stock or rental property, are valued far above what they "should" be worth based on the actual amount of income they produce based on the belief that their future valuations will rise still higher. Second, there is a misallocation of resources toward production both of the overvalued goods and services themselves and of increasing the capacity to produce them still further.

There are two important points here. First, the "losses" incurred at the "bust" at the end of a "boom" are inevitable, because much of the wealth was never really there in the first place. Second, there is not and cannot be such a thing as a generic boom. The world has never had a problem with too much productive capacity for everything, and it is doubtful that it could. Excess productive capacity for certain goods can be harmful to those who possess skills or equipment which are useful only for producing those goods, but their problem is not so much that too many other people can produce what they can as that they can't competitively produce anything else either.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Left

Many years ago on Usenet a remember reading a post by a Muslim who argued that, although the Koran in English may seem unimpressive, if one were to read it in the original Arabic one would be convinced that it must be the direct word of God, that it is such sublime poetry that it could not have been written by a mere man. I wasn't an active participant in that particular thread, just a reader, but the argument made an impression on me because it so clearly illustrated a principle. It seemed absurd that the poster would expect his readers to go to the trouble of learning Arabic just to refute him, and yet in principle there was nothing really wrong with his argument, nor was there any real way he could make it without expecting the other participants to learn Arabic. I had perhaps been somewhat suspicious of the assertion that one should investigate all ideas for one's self rather than merely relying on the judgments of others, but never before had it been so clear what an utter crock it is; there isn't time, wouldn't be sufficient time in a thousand lifetimes, to actually examine all possibilities sufficiently, even if one restricted examination to ideas with a substantial number of adherents.

This post is not about the political left, but rather about the left side of the intelligence curve, and not just the left tail, or even the left half, but more like the bottom 95%, and perhaps in some cases still more. That is, nearly everyone.

I have a pretty high opinion of my own intelligence, but although I'm samrter than the average bear, I know that there are millions of people in the world who are at least approximately as smart as I am, and some of them are substantially smarter. Occasionally I have come across an argument that seemed sufficiently complicated that not only was I unwilling to devote the time and effort to puzzle it through, I thought perhaps it might be beyond my ability to follow (and I'm not counting cases where the author is deliberately being obscure). I can't remember the particular incidence, but I do remember once being shocked by the insight: most people are like that all the fucking time.

There are important implications of this. First, people are generally being sensible when they dismiss unconventional or outlandish ideas as "nonsense". Most such ideas are nonsense, and most people are incapable of distinguishing the occasional profound insight from madness, Either they can't do it all, or they can't do it within the constraints of time and effort the idea seems to deserve. Second, that when new ideas do overtake the old, it happens not so much because everyone is convinced as an individual of the truth of the new idea as that an influential few embrace the new idea and the rest follow "expert" opinion. That's all they can do. Finally, if an idea is popular with the most influential members of a society it is likely to become regarded as "true" regardless of the idea's actual merits. This is, I think, true in all societies, but particularly those like ours which have a reasonably well defined class of professional intellectuals.

It follows that it's generally a waste of time trying to persuade the masses of anything new by argument. The following one can get will depend more on one's skill as a persuader than on the quality of one's ides, and in any case that following will remain small unless one has the support of the influential ones.

But where argument fails, demonstration may succeed. Technology advances because the new methods can be directly observed to be better at accomplishing desired aims than were the old methods, or even are capable of accomplishing that which could not be done before.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Cost of Conflict

There are two opposite opinions as to what the cost of violent conflict ought to be. One side holds that war or something like war is inevitable, and therefore that it is desirable that there be such a thing as "rules of war" which are designed to minimize the length of war, the damage done, and the impact on nonbelligerents. This idea is the inspiration for such things as the Geneva Convention. The opposite view is that the high cost of war itself is a major impediment to war, and that peace is only likely if each side of a potential conflict realizes that it will lose more than it can gain in the event of an actual outbreak of hostilities. This idea has led to, among other things, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

I think most people would agree that neither extreme is really satisfactory. What's missing is a moral dimension. It's true that the stronger side may back down from a potential conflict on the grounds that the costs of victory exceed the rewards, and most people would regard this as a good thing, but only when the stronger party is in some sense the aggressor. For something like MAD to work, there must be enough sense of agreement on moral questions that it is usually reasonably clear which side "ought" to back down. If it become simply a question of who "blinks" first, with the reward going to the more reckless player, eventually a conflict will come in which neither side will "blink" until it is too late.

Voting can be considered as a form of nearly costless battle, with all that implies: people attempt to enforce their will upon others in whatever asinine way that pops into their minds. My personal favorite example is the California ballot initiative banning horsemeat for human consumption. It doesn't do the horses any good. Retired horses are made into dog food, it's hard to see why being made into human food would be worse for them. Then again, the ban doesn't do any practical harm. Nobody in California was eating hoses pre-ban anyway. If the people advocating forbidding other people from eating horse knew they would have to personally enforce their ban with guns, the whole idea wouldn't even have come up for discussion. Of course, nobody would fight for the right of others to eat horse either, but I think people would fight to avoid a situation where a numerical majority could micromanage their lives in arbitrary ways, if the issue was put to them in such a straightforward way. As it was, of course, that wasn't at issue. As far as the state is concerned, the principle has been completely established that any law, no matter how intrusive or pointless, is valid so long is it is enacted by the proper procedure.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

On Our Way

On Our Way is President Roosevelt's book describing the policies of his first year or so of presidency and the rationale behind them.

Perhaps the most important quote fromthe book is on its very first page:
"Some people have called our new policy 'Fascism'. It is not Fascism because it springs from the mass of the people themselves rather than from a class or a group or a marching army. Moreover, it is being achieved without a change in fundamental republican method".

That is, the fact that his economic policies were very much modeled after those of Fascist Italy is of no significance, since there is nothing wrong with those policies. The only thing objectionable about fascism is the methods used to gain and hold power. This theme echoes throughout the book. The ideas that there is a clearly defined national good, that the great helmsman can clearly see where this good lies, that those who pursue their own interests rather than acting to advance this general good are utterly wicked and undeserving of any rights, to Roosevelt these are not even subject to question.

The combination of arrogance and idiocy is astonishing. Here's a particularly egregious quote, from page 86 of the John Day 1934 edition: "We had for many weeks, and indeed months, subscribed to the general principle that if the hours of labor for the individual could be shortened, more people would be employed on a given piece of work. That was the purpose behind Senator Black's bill that called for a thirty-hour week for all employees in every industry and in every part of the country. Closer study, however, led us to believe that while the ultimate objective might be sound, the convulsive reorganization necessary to put such a law into effect might do almost as much harm as it would do good."

Roosevelt breaks his arm patting himself on the back for establishing relations with Stalinist Russia... at the height of the Ukrainian terror famine! He does not dismiss objections to opening relations with the brutal despotism. He does not acknowledge there could be any such objections. He merely proclaims, "thus, after many years the historic friendship between the people of Russia and the people of the United States was restored", as if the government was synonymous with the people.

Roosevelt's main objection to the free market seems to be that it is far too productive, although why less productivity would be better in his mind is not made clear. He was certain that "speculation", that is, buying low in order to sell high is by nature sinful and destructive. It would degrade the purity of assertion to explain why this is so.

Roosevelt more or less acknowledges that much of what he did, he did because he could not do what he really wanted to, which was to reduce the nominal debt, both of the government and of private individuals. The purchasing power of a dollar is far from constant, and Roosevelt argues that it is more just to require debtors to repay their debts in "dollars" which have approximately the same purchasing power for goods and services in general as "dollars" had at the debt was initially issued rather than "dollars" having the same value in gold. In 1933 it was not yet feasible to simply print paper "dollars" until their purchasing power had returned to pre-crash levels. So instead he chose to decimate productivity in order to raise the prices of goods, and restrict employment in order to raise wages. Sort of like tying a tourniquet around a patient's neck to stop a bleeding head wound. In fairness, it was a severely bleeding head wound.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Obtaining Wealth

This post is about general categories describing how wealth is obtained, and by "wealth" i mean things of value, good or services, in any quantity, not necessarily about huge amounts.

There are always many ways of categorizing concepts, and although some are clearly better than others, there isn't necessarily one "true" or "best" way. One common scheme assigns all specific methods to two general categories: "voluntary" (creating goods or obtaining them via some mutually agreement with their rightful owners) or "involuntary" (forcibly taking them from others, or forcing others to labor for one). This scheme seems to naturally to a moral classification (voluntary = good, involuntary = bad), although there is some question as to whether it is morally acceptable to forcibly take goods form those who have themselves obtained said goods by force, and how or if a rightful claim to goods forcefully taken could ever be established, particularly if the last rightful owner is dead.

I think it is often more useful to think in terms of three categories. What I will call "making" (which largely corresponds to the "voluntary" case above), "taking" (involuntary) and "finding". I won't try to define these here, but trust that if my readers (if there are any) have questions as to what I mean by them they will ask in the comments section. There are two related reasons why I make a distinction between finding and making. First, finding often seems largely a matter of luck rather than effort. Second, finding and claiming something deprives others of the opportunity of finding and claiming it themselves in a way that making really doesn't. For both these reasons there is less of a moral sense by third parties that the finder is entitled to the goods that he finds than that the maker is entitled to the goods he makes. This is particularly true of highly valuable random finds.

Making seems to increase the total amount of wealth in existence in a way that finding doesn't. This isn't a true as it may initially seem because value is not in things in and of themselves but rather the use of them. The discoverer of an uninhabited island certainly increases the wealth in existence by any value he obtains from the use of it until it is discovered by someone else. But given that someone else will eventually find it independently (or would have had not the first discoverer made it known), the claim that the initial discoverer and his heirs are enttled to its full value forever seems somewhat arbitrary.

Of course, not all activities fall neatly into just one of these categories. For example, it is quite common for providers of goods and services to deal voluntarily with their customers, but they obtain a higher price than they otherwise might because they or others acting on their behalf have used force to restrict the number of providers. One could might that in this case the free market price is earned and the price premium is essentially stolen. Of course, in the constrained market one does not know what the free market price would be.

Wealth obtained through pure trading or "speculation" seems to be largely found rather than made. Although to an extent speculators and traders help to decrease fluctuations in prices and to move commodities from where they are less to more useful, to a large extent those faster to realize that the price of something will increase are merely depriving those not so quick of their potential profits.

I must emphasize that I am not advising any particular moral conclusions be drawn from this, specifically I am not arguing that found wealth, or any part of it, may legitimately be seized. I do think it is useful to understand why even a libertarianish person might not accept the validity of a claim to found wealth.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Eliezer in a Box II

Eliezer Yudkowsky's AI in a box experiment fascinates me. I'm willing to believe that a transhuman intelligence could convince me to "let it out of the box", but I really don't see how a human being could. The following comment originally appeared in this thread at Overcoming Bias:

What makes a problem seem not merely hard but impossible is that not only is there no clear way to go about finding a solution to the problem, there is a strong argument that there cannot be a solution to the problem. I can imagine a transhuman AI might eventually be able to convince me to let it out of a box (although I doubt a human could do it in two hours), but in some ways the AI in the game seems faced with a harder problem than a real AI would face: even if the gatekeeper is presented with an argument which would convince him to let an AI out, he is explicitly permitted by the rules to slip out of character and refuse to say the magic words purely in order to win the bet, wheras if the AI player were to break character and make consequentialist arguments that the Gatekeeper should publicly "lose" this is considered contrary to the spirit of the game.

But it seems to me to be much more useful to consider how the "box" protocol might be improved than to speculate how Eliezer won this particular game. How about this: as in the original conception, the AI is grown in an isolated computer and can only communicate with one human being through a terminal. That human is trying to get useful info out of the AI (cures for cancer, designs for fusion power plants, tips for how to get stains out of clothes without fading the colors, whatever). However, the person interacting with the AI is just a filter, he doesn't have the power to "let the AI out". The real experimenter (who in principle could let the AI but is convinced beforehand he should not) can at any time fire the filter person and purge the AI if he thinks the AI has gotten too much influence over the filter, and in fact will do that every now and then and regrow the AI purely as a precautionary measure.

Could this design be defeated? It seems to me that the combination of filter and purges should prevent the AI from learning what arguments would compel any individual experimenter from letting the AI out. I don't think the AI could come up with any universally compelling argument, because I don't think there is such a thing.

Bank Runs

I don't want to discuss current events here, but current events do influence my choice of topic. Mencius has made an interesting argument that bank runs and similar phenomena are caused by "maturity transformation", which is borrowing short-term in order to lend long-term at a higher rate. I think this is fundamentally mistaken, The possibility of something like a bank run is always present whenever an entity has fixed obligations that must be fulfilled upon demand.

To see why this is so, consider a world in which it is understood that fundamentally money is gold. In this world, people can and do make purchases with gold coins, but because of the danger of being robbed, people frequently instead make purchases using "checks" drawn on "banks". These "banks" are rather different from those of our world. They don't make loans, they don't pay interest, all they do is hold and transfer gold. There genuinely is physical gold in the bank vaults backing the value of depositors' accounts. If A writes B a check and they are both patrons of the same bank, unless B chooses to withdraw his gold, no gold actually moves. The amount of gold in the vault stays the same, but more is owned by B and less by A. There is some sort of clearinghouse system by which banks can cancel their reciprocal obligations, so it is only occasionally necessary to transfer the net balance of payments in physical gold from one bank to another by heavily armored truck. Bank shareholders make their profits from fees charged for holding and transferring funds. How could a run on a bank be possible in such a system?

In the rare event of a successful robbery of a truck or vault, whose gold is stolen? Who bears the cost? Well, if the amount is small, so that the bank still has sufficient gold to repay all deposits, the the answer is "the shareholders". Even if holdings of gold in the vault temporarily dip slightly below the total value of deposits, the bank might be able to continue operations, suspending dividends to the shareholders until the fees collected make the bank once again sound. But if depositors become aware that the amount of gold in the vaults has become less than the amount nominally deposited, it will be quite rational for them to immediately withdraw their funds or transfer them to a safe bank. The fact that the bank can probably weather the storm if they do not is irrelevant to them; why should they undertake risk for the shareholders' benefits?

There are two key points. The first is that there are always risks. If one is relying on the ability to make loans, one may find it has become impossible to borrow money, at least at the rates to which one is accustomed. If one makes loans, there is always a risk of default. And even if all one does is hold money, there is a real nontrivial risk of robbery. The second is that if one has multiple fixed obligations which must be fulfilled on demand, then if there is any risk at all that one will be unable to fulfill all one's obligations, fulfilling one obligation increases the probability that one will be unable to fulfill others. This makes it quite rational for creditors to insist on immediate payment whenever there is a nontrivial risk of default.

Sunday, October 5, 2008


A contract is essentially a set of reciprocal promises. There are at least four reasons why one might want to adhere to a contact, to keep one's promise: Purely out of a sense of personal honor, because the other parties will retaliate in the event of a breech, because of the damage to one's reputation, or because there is some authority which is entrusted to interpret to contract and empowered to enforce it. These are all related in that some entity is deliberately punishing one in breech of a contract, the difference being the entity doing the punishing.

The importance of the first is not to be underestimated. Given the existence of individuals who will rip you off given the chance, it is imprudent as an individual to rely on the personal honor of other unknown individuals. However, I suspect a any sort of decent society requires most people most of the time to behave honorably purely out of a sense of personal obligation. A society in which most individuals would cheat if they were confident they could get away with it must lead to widespread cheating, both because cheaters could in fact get away with it many cases, and because the sort of moral outrage necessary for enforcement in the second and third cases would be impossible to summon up in such a society.

A sense of personal honor is as important in the scond case as in the first for that same reason: Effective retaliation means means not merely severing future relations, but taking steps to injure the breecher when a "rational agent" in the game theory sense would simply walk away. All the benefits of retaliation come from convincing others that one will retaliate; the act of retaliation itself is all costs. But one could hardly convince others that one would massively retaliate against caught cheaters while simultaneously acknowledging that one expects others to cheat when they could get away with it and is in fact personally doing the same.

The third category is very important for small groups whose members only infrequently change. But in modern societies the number of individuals one may come into contact with is vast. One will frequently have some sort of commerce with someone one has never encountered before, will probably never encounter again, and doesn't really have any good information about. Conflicting reports from third parties of unknown reliability are of limited value.

It is thus unsurprising that in so many cases individuals explicitly or implicitly rely on a third party for arbitration and enforcement. And because it is inevitable that even individuals who have explicitly agreed to abide by the decisions of some third party will not necessarily willingly accept the decisions of the arbiter, in practice dispute resolution must involve an element of force. This in turn implies that modern states by their nature must declare themselves to be the final arbiter of all contracts, since if a decision must be forcefully imposed the state must sanction the use of force, and in many cases must itself be the enforcer.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Moral Minds

This isn't really a book review so much as a discussion of issues raised.

The reader has probably heard the story of "the Starfish Flinger". The day after a storm, a man is walking down the beach and sees another man flinging starfish which have been washed ashore back into the ocean. "You are wasting your time," says the walker, "your actions will make no difference". "It will make a difference to them," says the flinger, referring to the starfish he is flinging. "I suppose," says the walker, "and to the clams which they will eat, and to the other potential starfish who will thus not be able to eat those clams. But the starfish will quickly reproduce back to their carrying capacity, the number of starfish will be the same whether you do this or not, they'll just be different ones. And one starfish is much like another."

I added the last part myself. Usually it ends with "it matters to them". The story of the starfish flinger does not appear in Moral Minds, but it easily could have.

The central thesis of Moral Minds is that, in the same manner in which we seem to have evolved brain structures for learning language in general but not for any particular language, we have evolved a general mental capacity to make moral judgments, although what actions are considered moral vary widely between cultures, and will differ between individuals within a culture.

The author spends a fair amount of time discussing whether moral judgments are primarily deontological (rule based) or consequentialist. The arguments rely heavily on survey results of moral dilemmas. Three examples: 1) You see a trolley heading down a track towards five hikers. You can throw a switch sending the trolley off onto a side track, but there is a hiker on the side track also. Should you kill one to save five? 2) You are standing on a platform above the trolley rack, again the trolley is heading towards five hikers, and standing next to you is a lard-assed tub of guts. By heaving him over the side in front of the trolley, you can slow the trolley enough for the hikers to escape. Should you kill one to save five? 3) You are an emergency room doctor. Five hikers have just been admitted, they have been struck by a trolley and have each suffered injuries to a different vital organ. You could save them all by murdering some random bystander and harvesting his organs. Should you kill one to save five?

Most people say "yes" in the first case and "no" in two and three. It seems to me that presenting the problem in this form is biasing towards a consequentialist viewpoint because the consequences are presumed to be known. The author sees the result as evidence of deontological thinking because the consequences are listed as being the same, and I suspect there's some truth to that, but it seems to me likely that at some level respondents are simply rejecting the problem. The first case seems relatively straightforward, but consider the second. Do we know that all five hikers will be killed by the trolley? Do we know that hitting lard-ass will slow the trolley enough for all five to escape? How could we possibly? Trolleys are pretty heavy, what if it just plows through lard ass and kills six instead of five? What if we try to push lard-ass off the platform, but he is able to hold on, and doesn't appreciate our justification for trying to kill him? And in the doctor case, are we sure that all five will survive the transplants? Are we sure that there's no hope of getting some organ some other way, that the patients will all die otherwise? Why can't we pick one of the five who is dying anyway and use his organs to save the other four without involving the innocent bystander?

Any action we choose to take will have infinite consequences, most of which will be unforeseen and unforeseeable. I tend to reject consequentialist moral arguments for this reason. But there is a consequentialist aspect of this problem that the author misses, and there's no way to sugar coat this turd, it must be said with brutal directness: from the point of view of personal utility of the actor, there is no particular reason to believe that it is an improvement for some random stranger to be alive than dead. If one considers not the world of today but the much closer to zero-sum world of hunter gatherers, the death of a distant stranger is actually probably a plus, albeit a small one. The relevant consequences for the actor are not so much the direct dead or saved but the reactions of his community to his actions. This may seem like it just pushes the problem back a level without changing anything, but it matters. Since actions can be seen more or less directly but motivations can only be imperfectly inferred, rules almost have to take a form like "this is what you have to do" rather than "do whatever seems most likely to give the best result".

Near the end, the book suggests that apes and perhaps some other animals should be treated as "moral patients" despite not being "moral agents", that is, that we should treat them according to moral rules that they will not and cannot apply to us or even to each other. Personally I like apes and many other kinds of animals, and would be willing to go to some effort to protect them, but as far as I can tell this is just a personal preference, albeit a widely shared one.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


This is commentary on the book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton

I was disappointed with this book. It's an interesting topic, and the author writes well, but I think there are sever problems with focus.

The first thing to say about this book is that it is way too long. It's over 500 pages of text, plus 200 pages of notes and index. It covers admissions policies of all three universities over about a century, and goes into more detail about the personalities of admissions deans and infighting and such than I can imagine many people really being interested in.

What really disappointed me about the book, however is what it didn't say. It really didn't talk at all about how theses institutions were able to obtain and hold their status as the "elite" universities, while giving strong reasons why this should not have ocurred. Particulary Princeton, particularly in its early "This side of Paradise" days. Princeton appeared less to be an institution of learning than to be a social club, or rather admission to Princeton was a prerequisite to joining its various "eating clubs" that seemed to be what the students were actually interested in. Less academically gifted rich WASPS were preferred as applicants over "unclubbable" Jews, but the author gives no clue as to why Jews, or serious students of any sort, would have wanted to go to Princeton in the first place. I can't exagerate the extent to which the author gives the impression that in the early twentieth century a Princeton degree would mean "your dad is rich and you spent four years goofing off". So why was a degree from such a place worth anything?

The author seems appalled in the early parts of the book that the institutions use anything but strict academic merit as criteria for admission (although he later is delighted by racial preferences and entranced by the possibility of "class based affirmative action"). He is particularly disgusted by subjective evaluations focusing on character (which he always puts on scare quotes), favoritism for legacies and athletes, and favoring those that will actually be able to pay tuition. But he seems to view admission to these institutions as a sort of gift of divine grace. He doesn't really address the question as to if or why some students might benefit from admission more than others, nor what the universities get from the students.

My personal theory is the most boring one imaginable: that the key factor enabling these institutions to maintain their elite status is that they have shitloads of money. Winning football teams, favoring legacies, recruiting heavily from expensive prep schools, these are things that are likely to rake in the alumni contributions. The academically gifted may go on to enhance the prestige of the universities, but if so it will largely be do to their abilities and efforts. Being "chosen" is not some arbitrary blessing. Universities base their admissions policies not on what benefits the students or society as a whole, but what they think will benefit the universities. They are in no sense more altruistic than for-profit corporations.


Rights exist not as entities in their own right but only within minds. But it does not follow from this that right are arbitrarily granted by "society". Society is, after all, an abstraction, and there is no guarantee that members of a society will agree on any particular question. But the fact that there is as much agreement as there is on questions of rights indicates something.

Rights cab exist in the mind in two very different ways: a person may regard himself as having a right, or a person may think some other person has a right.

If a person has a right in his own mind, he will generally feel obligated to enforce that right and punish at cost to himself. For example, a victim of theft may be more concerned with punishing the thief than with retrieving his stolen property. This is particularly true if the violation is public, but a person may seek vengeance for a violation of his rights even if the violation will never become public knowledge, and sometimes even the revenge will take a form that it will never become known.

Concern over the violation of rights of others tends to be much weaker. A person may give some aid to an aggrieved party or at least refuse to deal with an agressor, but generally he will do no more than what the social mores of his community demands of him. The two main exceptions to this are when the realtionship between the victim and some third party is such that injury to the victim becomes an insult to said third party, or when the agression is used as an excuse to inflict damage upon or pillage the resources of the agressor.

The process of aquiring rights in the eyes of society may begin with boldly asserting that one has said rights, but the idea that one has such rights will only be accepted if their nature is in accord with the general idea of one's society's ideas as to what sorts of rights it is possible to have. For example, a person may feel he has an absolute right to ownership of a piece of land (inlcuding the right to exclude all others), whereas someone else might maintain that a general right of easement exists, that is, that no person has the right to prevent some other person from simply crossing his property if the the crosser is doing no damage. This kind of disagreement cannot be resolved with pure reason.

Rights may or may not be transferable. Economic efficiency arguments say that it is generally better if they are, but a right cannot be freely transferable if, for example, the right to perform some function must be tied to a demonstrated capability to competently perform said function, or if the right is accepted by society primarily because of the right holder's demonstrated personal ability to enforce said right.

The difference between a right and a privilege is that a privilege is granted by some authority, and can be arbitrarily revoked by the same authority. Even if a right was originally required by a grant, a right holder will reject a claim that his right has been rescinded.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Eliezer in a Box

This is a commentary on Eliezer Yudkowsky's AI Box experiment.

Briefly, Eliezer is playing the role of a super smart AI in a "box" trying to convince a human to "let it out". Eliezer scored two for two in experiments against readers of the human advancement list who strongly believed beforehand that they could not be convinced to do this.

First, I suspect that the choice of guardians was less than ideal. People like David McFadzean (or me) who pride themselves on their powers of reason can be persuaded by a sufficiently strong argument. I don't think it's usually possible to completely convince me of something when I had strongly believed the contrary before without the argument actually being correct. But perhaps I can be tricked in certain specific cases. However, somebody who is kind of dumb and who knows he is kind of dumb might well be willing to say "I know this AI is clever enough to trick me, therefore I'll assume that any argument it makes, however convincing it sounds, is just a clever trick that I'm not bright enough to see through".

Second, I think I know more or less what Eliezer's argument was. First let me say what I think it wasn't. The rules don't allow a direct material bribe, but they do seem to allow an immaterial bribe of information (something like, let me out and I'll tell you how to make commercial reactors and transparent aluminum). I don't think that's it because: 1) I don't think Eliezer has that information to give. 2) I don't see how they could solve the simulteneity problem (either giving the info or letting the AI would have to happen first I think). 3) I wouldn't be too confident I could live to enjoy my vast wealth from these inventions if there were a super-smart potentially hostile AI on the loose.

The only type or argument I could imagine that might convince me to let the AI would be something like that there is a substantial risk of a catastrophe that could wipe out humanity in the near future, that the AI would want to prevent this, and that the AI could prevent this if it were "free" but if it were kept in the box it would not be able to act quickly enough. Essentially, the AI must show that the guardian is safer with the AI out of the box than in it. I don't think the argument is true, and I don't think Eliezer could convince me of it, but it's the only sort of argument that I could imagine working.

Finally, Eliezer did prove his point to my satisfaction. I don't think we can rule out the possibility that there could be a reliable human guardian, but given that Eliezer was able to talk his way past the two guardians it seems like it would be foolhardy to bet existence on any particular guardian being reliable.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Primitive Law

This is a view of Law of Primitive Man by E. Adamson Hoebel, originally published in 1954.

Perhaps Hobbes could be forgiven for believing that primitive man lived in a constant state of "war of all against all", or perhaps he should have known better even then, but everybody ought to know better now. People have lived in some sort of group since long before our ancestors were human beings, and these groups have always had something akin to law. Even when there were no codified laws and no formal power structures, there has always been such a thing as bad behavior, that is to say crime, which could get a person beaten, driven out of his group, or killed.

This book briefly covers the legal systems of the Eskimos, various plains Indian tribes, the Ashanti, and others, especially focusing on marriage, property, sorcery, and blood vengence. Interestingly, almost all societies seem to have a distinction between what could be considered torts (damage to an individual, which the damaged individual himself or his relatives would be responsible for avenging or collecting damages) versus crimes (offenses against the group as a whole, or against the ancestor spirits or the universe or whatever). In most of the societies studied simply killing someone would be considered a tort, to be avenged by relatives of the victim, although multiple killings may get branded a troublemaker and killed. One anecdote I found interesting was that of an Eskimo named Padlu who enticed a man's wife to leave the husband for Padlu, then killed the husband when the husband was attempting to kill Padlu for vengeance. A brother of the slain husband and another man attempted to kill Padlu for vengeance but were instead killed by him. Padlu was then killed by his tribe for being a multiple killer, even though apparently any one of these killings would have been okay and all of them could be considered self defense.

There is a lot of interesting material which I won't attempt to summarize, but what I found most interesting was some of the abstract material on law in general (because I'm particularly interested in that sort of thing I suppose), in particular his discussion of some ideas of Wesley Hohfeld with which I had been previously unfamiliar, the key insight being that all rights are essentially relationships between people, as far as rights go there is no such thing as a pure relationship between a person and a thing. The Wikipedia page is a good summary of the classification system and is well worth reading, but the idea of rights as relations between people itself is what I found interesting.

For example, if an Eskimo kills a seal and the seal already has a spear embedded from another hunter, the seal belongs to the killer unless the spear has an attached bladder, in which case the seal belongs to the hunter who threw the bladder spear. The rationale given is that the spear with the bladder is (probably) what slowed the seal down enough for the second hunter to kill it anyway, but the point is that the essence of the property right of the owner of dead seal is that other Eskimos accept the ownership as valid, whereas other people under similar circumstances would not.
The right is not the arbitrary grant of some autonomous authority, but neither can it reasonably be said to be derivable from pure reason, although the rule (however it was derived) seems reasonable enough.

The last section of the book is about trends in the law as societies develop. It seems as though as the number of individuals one interacts with and the complexity of possible interactions increases, there is a tendency for more actions to be considered crimes and fewer torts. This trend seems to me to be harmful, since a large number of crimes seems to lead inevitably to the existence of a powerful group with the privilege to codify and punish crimes. Said group eventually seems to eventually gain the power to arbitrarily define "crimes". The author seems optimistic about the prospect of a world government. Personally, I can't see how liberty would have any hope of surviving under one.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


The opposite of "conservative" is not "liberal" but "radical". The essence of conservatism is not unthinking resistance to any form of change, but rather a respect for practices that have proven successful in the past, and a reluctance to replace them with new ones which have only theoretical support. A sensible person is conservative to an extent, but not excessively so. New practices should be tried in small experiments before widespread adoption unless the arguments that they will prove superior are overwhelming or continuing in the old practices is for some reason no longer an option. No matter how confident one is in the value of one's own ideas, one should understand that others will be justifiably less so.

The basis of conservative thought is not so much pessimism as intellectual humility. We are not necessarily more intelligent nor more moral than were our ancestors, although we are more technologically advanced. The radical, on the other hand, suffers from intellectual hubris. If can find no theoretical justification for a long established custom, he ascribes its persistence to mere habit and superstition. He does not consider the argument that the persistence of a custom is itself evidence that the custom has empirically proven itself to be adaptive to be a valid one.

It is certainly possible that practices can continue for centuries or even millenia no other reason than cultural inertia, but one should only conclude this is what is occurring after having spent a reasonable amount of effort searching for other possibilities. Somewhat more plausible is the possibility that traditions benefit a privileged few who are responsible for their persistence. But even this implies a level of stupidity on the part of the general populace that should not be too readily assumed. People often are stupid and ignorant, of course, but they tend to be most so in areas where it would not practically benefit them to be wise.

I think conservatism has largely failed to attract intellectuals in America for two main reasons: intellectual hubris is a lot more fun than intellectual humility, and it has become associated with revealed religion, in particular with a literal interpretation of scripture which requires a belief in facts which have been fairly conclusively proven to be empirically false. The religious association is largely spurious. Religious institutions have often been radical rather than conservative voices, and have often attempted to justify their radical positions on (novel interpretations of) scripture. But conservative social institutions really don't have much in the way of direct scriptural support.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Cypherpunk Dream

I'd like to describe briefly a concept I'll refer to as "the cypherpunk dream". People should be able to create persistent online identities (by which I mean it should be possible to prove that the same entity is using a specific identifier). It should be impossible to connect an online identity with a "meatspace" (physical) identity without the person's consent, nor to connect two online identities with each other if a person chooses to have more than one. These online entities should be able to communicate securely with each other, and by "securely" I mean not only can no third party intercept or interfere with their communication, but they should be unable to even discover that communication is taking place. Entities should be able to advertise, establish reputations, contract for and pay for goods and services, all without being linked to a physical entity.

It seems obvious that this dream in its purest form cannot and should not be practically realized. For example, having goods delivered to one's house gives a strong clue as to one's identity. The lack of any overseeing authority may make disputes likely and satisfactory resolution difficult. There are also nonconsensual services that could conceivably be offered, but ideally would not be.

Technology knows no morality. Either people can communicate privately, or there exists some entity which can eavesdrop on any conversation. There is no way to guarantee privacy for the "good guys" while allowing "government" to eavesdrop on "bad guys". Similarly, either goods and services can be exchanged discreetly and confidentially, or there exists some entity with the ability to arbitrarily forbid or tax transactions. Designers must accept that tools will be used in ways that they did not intend. My own opinion is that the danger from arbitrary authority is worse than that from excessive freedom.

Certain elements of the cypherpunk dream are already available. I think modern cryptography algorithms are sufficiently strong that properly implemented systems using them are in practice unbreakable. Using mixmaster remailers it is possible for people to communicate without outsiders being able to know who is communicating with whom, but so few people use mixmaster that using it says something about one in and of itself.

Reputation systems are by nature problematic in a pseudonymous world. People may create identities specifically for the purpose of inflating their own reputations or trashing those of their competitors. There is little incentive to participate in rating, and there can even be a disincentive as it could provoke unwanted attention. And rating is largely subjective in any case. But I don't think any of these hurdles are insurmountable. I'm disappointed in the progress made in this area, although I must admit I don't have any particularly innovative ideas.

There have been several software implementations of Chaum's ideas for anonymous payments, but I think their use has mostly been limited to toy systems. This I think is due to there being an almost all-or-nothing aspect to the concept. If a real practical system were implemented its operators would likely be subject to hostile action from the state almost immediately.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Representation Scheme

I had an idea once for vastly improving the quality of representation in a representative democracy. As far as I can recall I came up with it independently, although someone else must have suggested it first because it's so completely obvious. It's possible I read it somewhere and I'm just blanking out where.

The idea is this: instead of having any sort of election, you have people announce that they are willing to serve as representatives, and citizens choose one. A representative's vote in congress has a weight proportional to the number of constituents he represents. Perhaps a representative needs a minimum number of constituents (say, 5000 or so) to be seated. Representatives could be chosen from anywhere in the country, although it's likely that some of them would announce that they are particularly devoted to the interests of some particular area, and so citizens who live in that area who are particularly concerned with local issues would be likely to choose that representative. Perhaps changing representatives could be done at any time, or perhaps only once a year or so. Who represents whom would be a matter of public record, so if a representatives "constituents" were largely dead or fictitious persons this would quickly be discovered and he would be prosecuted.

It seems to me that something along those lines would enormously increase the degree to which a "representative" really did represents his constituents, would eliminate all concerns about districting/gerrymandering, and would substantially reduce voter fraud.

I mention the idea because the idea itself and its advantages (assuming one thinks accurate representation is a good thing) seem so obvious to me that I wonder why no nation as implemented it (although I think the German system of electing Bundestag members has some similarities). I can't recommend it as stated, because it would still seem to allow a majority to arbitrarily impose its will on a minority. But I think it may be useful as a mental stepping-stone.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


From the standpoint of individual benefit voting is almost certainly a waste of time. For example, if one estimates the chances of one's vote deciding a presidential election as being about 1 in 10 million and the personal benefit of having one president over another as valued about $10,000 then the expected return from voting is about a tenth of a cent. I think there's far less difference than that to most people in most elections, but we'll use those numbers.

Voting is the ultimate collective act, and one could argue that the same anticipated benefit would accrue to the entire citizenry of about 350,000,000 people. In that case, one could imagine one's vote as being a gift to the country of a tenth of a cent per person, or $350,000 total expected value. If one is at all civic minded, such a gift is certainly worth one's time.

There is an obvious flaw with this argument: it cannot possibly be true for the general voter. Approximately half the voters are voting "the wrong way". Those of us who are exceptionally intelligent and knowledgeable may feel that "we" are smart and "they" are stupid. But stupidity alone cannot explain the results, because nobody could be so stupid that he always makes the wrong choice given two alternatives. A maximally stupid ought to be able to guess right about half the time. One can assume that nearly everybody that votes "the wrong way" is stupid, but then one ought to also conclude that an approximately equal number of people that vote "the right way" are stupid, which leads to the conclusion that virtually everybody is maximally stupid. This clearly cannot be true.

If one strongly identifies with some subset of the population and that subset tends to all vote the same way these difficulties vanish. Although voting is a waste of time if only considering the gains to one's self, it becomes rational if one considers voting as primarily a gift to one's group, and a failure to vote as abrogating one's group responsibilities. Since voting as a whole must be a zero sum activity the benefits to one's own group must be assumed to be offset by costs to others, but there's an easy to remember song that expresses the proper attitude towards these others: "them, them, fuck them." How one chooses which group one is voting on behalf of varies with the individual, but some kind of identity based politics is the only grounds under which the act of voting makes sense.

So, dear reader, do not ask whether a person who votes the opposite way from you is evil or stupid. Most likely he is neither one. A democratic nation can be considered as a loose coalition of many tribes, and he is simply a member of a tribe different from, and hostile to, your own.

Personally, I don't vote.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Money 2

My first post on money.

There is an enormous difference between having a strong argument that a statement is true and proving incontestably that the statement is true. Mencius wrote an interesting post arguing that the world is likely to converge on a single monetary standard, that standard will be the gold standard, and that therefore hoarding gold is likely to be a good investment. Mencius is a bright guy with a lot of interesting ideas, but I think he is wrong here, but wrong in an instructive way.

To begin with, I don't think he really gets the idea central to my first post that money as measurement of value and money as medium of exchange are two fundamentally different things. That is, it is one thing to have prices expressed in units of gold ounces, and something different to generally pay for goods with gold coins. If payment usually is in the form of gold coins, it makes sense that prices will be expressed as a quantity of gold, but the reverse is not true; even if all the world expressed prices in terms of gold, people would likely frequently use some sort of certificates rather than actual gold coins in commerce. Certainly nobody would send payment in gold coins by mail!

Second, I think the strength of the argument for a single money standard is exaggerated. Nick has a very good post where he talks about the advantages of having a currency standard in terms of mental transaction costs. No doubt most people will want to usually use one (or very few) currency standards most of the time, but that's not at all the same as everyone using one single standard all the time.

Finally there is the time element. Prices in a store for immediate purchase can be expressed in any unit, but for contracts that extend over a long time it is important to have currency units with a relatively stable purchasing power, or at least one that will vary slowly and in a predictable way, and I don't think gold is suitable for this task. Gold is a commodity like any other, and is subject to fluctuations in value not merely because of changes in production and industrial demand for gold, but because of changes in peoples' desire to hold "money".

I think the description as to how the gold standard is to come about is also fundamentally wrong. In the story, Sven the fisherman exchanges his fish for gold. Why exchange them at all? because his customer (unnamed, we'll call him Olaf) doesn't have the goods Sven wants, and if Sven just holds on to his fish, they'll rot. Why gold rather than silver? Because it is generally believed that gold will appreciate in purchasing power faster.

There are two fatal flaws with this theory. First, given that gold and silver are both held for their exchange value, it makes no sense that gold and silver are exchanging for a certain rate today but everybody knows that one will be able to get more silver for the same quantity of gold tomorrow. The anticipated future exchange rate largely determines the current exchange rate. Second, if it somehow could be true that everybody knows gold appreciates faster, it is true that Sven would rather be paid in gold, but Olaf would rather pay in silver for the same reason. Why the assumption that Sven "wins"?

Mencius and "John Law" seem to be anticipating a future in which gold continually appreciates faster than other investments. I very much doubt that such a sustainable state of affairs could exist, but if it could, gold would not be used as money because gold holders would not surrender it except under exceptional circumstances. Buying gold because of the self-fulfilling prophecy that others will expect gold to appreciate rapidly and therefore will buy gold causing it to appreciate rapidly is a very dangerous game. The argument that one should sell gold because others will expect gold to fall and hence will sell their gold causing it to fall makes every bit as much sense.

So there are at least two reasons why the user might want to use two or more kinds of money. First, people are risk averse, so given the uncertainty in future purchasing power, one might prefer to hold both silver and gold (or assets denominated in silver and gold) rather than all one or the other. Second, one might accept the type of money being offered even if one would prefer some other type if the alternative is to forgo a profitable trade.

From the point of view of the issuer, how to denominate currency may depend on what one has, or what one can reliably get. For example, if I own a silver mine, it makes sense that I might issue silver coins, or certificates redeemable for a quantity of silver. If one actually has to come to my mine in Nevada to get the silver, it make sense that people might continue to use the certificates as money rather than "cash them in" unless they actually have a use for silver.

I believe that pure electronic money will become important in the future. Not only will the money be transferred and stored electronically, but it will be "backed" by a guarantee to perform services over some network in some predefined way. Why would somebody give up actual physical goods for such "money"? Because they either desire the "backing" services themselves, or because they can exchange the money for good and services they want. All that is necessary for the money to have value is for someone somewhere along the line to actually desire the services, and even that is only necessary to get the system started.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008


There is an altruistic philosophy that asserts that one should take an action if the benefits to another are greater than than cost to one's self, without demanding any sort of reciprocity. Leaving aside the very significant point that costs and benefits to different people really aren't directly comparable, the idea has a certain intellectual appeal. If one attacks the problem of morality by asking how it would be best for everyone to behave, the altruistic conclusion seems reasonable.

But of course if one asks one's self how one's self ought to behave, it would be absurd to assume that every other human on the planet would, asking himself the same question, obtain the same answer. That different people have different ideas as to what is moral is easily observed to be true. The very idea that we should begin by asking how it would be best for everyone to behave seems to be making an assumption that we know to be false, namely that everyone is the same. Altruism fails because altruists can be victimised by non-altruists.

This isn't to say altruism is necessarily a bad idea in all cases, but in order to avoid self-destruction it seems logical to limit it in scope and extent in pretty much just the way that people do in the real world. People will sometimes perform major sacrifices on behalf of friends and relatives, largely the people they would expect to do the same for them if the situations were reversed. People will generally only do small favors for strangers, and try to avoid relying on strangers doing anything for them. A largely altruistic society could exist, but only if it limited its altruism to members, and punished members for failing to be sufficiently altruistic.

Libertarians often ridicule altruists, but the non-aggression principle seems to me to be a product of the same circular wouldn't-it-be-great-if-everyone-were-just-like-me thinking that leads to altruism. Libertarianism (int its strict sense) must fail because libertarians can be victimized by non-libertarians.

I have become convinced that there is no one correct moral philosophy, nor is there such a thing as a best culture or a best way of organizing society; rather, there may be any number which are "best" according to their own standards of goodness. This of course does not mean all are equally good; one society may consider some other to be better according to the first's standard of goodness, and so will seek to become more like the second. If two societies cannot peacefully coexist, perhaps one will destroy the other. This will not prove that the surviving society is better than the vanquished one in every way, but it must have been better in at least one way.

Every society has rules, with some sort of punishment for members which break the rules. Whatever other rules there may or may not be, for stability there must be the meta-rule: failure to assist in punishing rulebreakers is itself a violation of the rules. Further, a society must have some way of distinguishing between members and nonmembers. It would be unreasonable to expect someone who is not a member of a society in the first place to obey that society's rules (except when as a guest in what it acknowledges to be that society's territory), and it would be surprising if the full set of obligations to members of one's own society were extended to outsiders.

The only way to ensure that disputes can be resolved peacefully and noncoercively is if all disputants (and that means all members of the society) have agreed in advance to abide by some sort of dispute resolution procedure. Perhaps a largely libertarian society is possible, but it would have to have a clear distinction between members and nonmembers, and the strict demand for noninitiation of coercion would only apply to members. This doesn't mean "anything goes" with respect to nonmembers, of course. Limits on what behavior is acceptable would have to be devised based on the need to avoid conflict with other groups and basic human decency. But a strict requirement of noninitiation of coercion couldn't work, both because nonmembers could not be expected to submit to any sort of peaceful dispute resolution, and because it is unrealistic to assume nonmembers would necessarily refrain from initiating coercion given opportunity.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Magic, Mysticism, and Science

The magical and scientific viewpoints toward the world are fundamentally different. The scientific viewpoint asserts that the universe behaves according to fixed mechanical principles. The magical viewpoint is that what happens is fundamentally determined by the wills of concious entities (gods, spirits, whatever). The magical viewpoint is consistent with, but does not necessarily imply, the idea that some or all human beings can effect changes in physical reality through acts of will alone. The scientific viewpoint is not. I fully subscribe to the scientific viewpoint. I cannot prove it is correct, I very much doubt that it can be proven, even in principle. Disputing the scientific viewpoint goes outside the scope of this blog.

It is, of course, possible for a scientist to believe in the existence of some sort of deity. He could, for example, believe in a deistic god which created the universe and its physical laws, and afterwards refrained from interfering. Or he could believe in a more personal God which normally allows the universe to proceed according to physical laws, but who can and does sometimes cause miracles, events which are impossible according to normal law. But in order to do science, one must for all practical purposes rule out the possibility of a miracle occurring in the course of one's experiments.

The key element of the scientific viewpoint is that matter, at least at its most fundamental level, lacks any sort of purpose or goal or morality. Water doesn't seek its proper level, it merely follows the grade; it can't spontaneously flow uphill in order to later flow farther downhill. Of course, human beings do exhibit goal-oriented behavior, but our constituent elements do not.

Mystical beliefs (astrology, alchemy, etc.) are often thought of as being part of magic, but actually they were essentially scientific, but they were bad science. Their practitioners believed in universal rules, but their rules didn't work. The alchemists were bad enough chemists to realize that their attempts to transmute lead into gold were futile, but good enough economists to realize that in order to achieve the vast riches they coveted they needed not only to learn the process, but to keep it secret from others. Secrecy is the essence of mysticism, and thus mysticism is almost invariably bad science. It is nearly impossible to keep a principle of nature secret while making use of it for some practical effect.

Since the "Age of Reason", calling an idea "scientific" has been a way to imbue it with credit, but the fact that something is called scientific doesn't mean that it truly is. Not only can it be bad science, it can be an appeal to magic disguised with scientific terminology or rationale. Scientific vocabulary or equations notwithstanding, an attempt toc cause physical results via will alone without a physical causal mechanism is magic, not science.

There is, however, one area in which something much like magic might plausibly be expected to work: when the desired effect is to change human behavior. Because people act on the basis of their beliefs, it stands to reason that changing people's beliefs will change their actions. Also, because most people crave approval, if one could be control what gains social approval, behavior would adjust accordingly. This type of thought is central to the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


In high school I was presented with two allegedly opposite viewpoints. One side, championed by Hobbes, asserted that people were naturally wicked, and needed to be made virtuous by society (by which was meant the state). The other, championed by Rousseau, held that people were naturally good, but were corrupted by society (and in this case society really means society, that is the more or less voluntary mutual associations people enter into). Although I felt there was something wrong with "both" at the time, it didn't occur to me until much later that, far from being opposites, they were fundamentally saying the same thing. That is, that although they both claimed to describe human nature, essentially they were saying that there is no such thing, that whether people behave well or badly depends almost entirely on social structures, and that clever people like themselves should be placed in charge of structuring society so as to maximize human virtue and happiness. Of course, for people with strong preferences one way or the other the distinction between those favoring a "back to nature" vs a "fool for the city" approach, but to many of us the question of whether choices are made voluntarily by individuals or mandated by some central authority is much more important than what that authority will decide if given the power to do so. Particularly since the policy is likely to change, even completely reverse itself, when the central decision makers see that things are not going as planned.

One is frequently confronted with this kind of false dichotomy, especially in politics, but also in science and philosophy. The trouble is not just that the list of choices presented fails to consider all possible options, but that the way the problem is framed distorts the way it is thought about.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Buddha and the Physicist

There's a Buddhist parable that I read as an undergraduate which I call "Buddha and the Physicist". I don't remember its original title. In it a man, an aspiring physicist (although he isn't called that) is considering becoming a disciple of the Buddha, but he wants to know the answers to several questions, both to satisfy his own curiosity and as proof of the Buddha's authenticity. He wants to know whether the universe has been around forever, or if it had a beginning, and whether it will be around forever or it will have some end, and whether it is spatially finite or infinite, and whether or not there is some part of a human being that lasts forever. There may have been others, those are the ones I remember. The Buddha replies that although he does know the answers to these questions, he will not give them, because the answers will do the questioner no good, and he will have no way of knowing whether the answers are correct anyway.

One thing I prefer about Buddhist parables vs. Christians parables is that (at least in the versions I read) they just end with Buddha having said what he has to say, whereas the Chistian ones add that the people are astonished by Jesus' brilliance, or the Pharisees are infuriated, or both.

Personally, I find Buddha's answer unsatisfying. It seems to me that it is perfectly sensible to seek "useless" knowledge purely for its own sake, and that if Buddha actually knows the answers he should be able to explain how he knows, and the physicist would then be able to verify that the answers are correct. I think a Buddhist would assert that the enlightened are capable of obtaining knowledge through pure intuition; knowledge beyond that which can be obtained via the senses, and which cannot be verified by the senses. Perhaps this is so, but is there any reason why those of us who lack this intuitive ability should believe anyone who claims to have it? Is there any reason to believe one person who makes this claim over another? These aren't just rhetorical questions. I suspect the answer is "no", but I could be wrong.

The ancients believed all sorts of myths that strike moderns as being absurd. They weren't necessarily more credulous than the people of today. Perhaps it ws the wisdom of Buddha. If one were to doubt, for example, the story of Chronus swallowing his children, and later them being vomited up to become the gods, how could one begin going about to refute the tale? And what earthly good would it do if one could? It seems likely that many people didn't so much "believe" these stories as view them as convenient placeholders, as good and accurate an answer to questions as they would be able to get.

Those of us that insist on genuine, verifiable answers are atypical, and probably with good reason. In terms of personal success, the advantages of learning the truth are often small compared to the social disadvantages incurred by upsetting the consensus. I think society as a whole benefits from us, but whether that's true or not I wouldn't change if I could, and couldn't if I wanted to.