Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Einstein the Philosopher

Einstein took so long to win a Nobel Prize because the committee saw the theory of relativity as philosophy rather than science. Walter Isaacson's Einstein biography tells the story.

William Ostwald nominated Einstein in 1910. He "cited special relativity, emphasizing that the theory involved fundamental physics and not, as some Einstein detractors argued, mere philosophy." One detractor was the anti-Semite Philipp Lenard, who had an "animosity to the type of 'philosophical conjecturing' that he often dismissed as being a feature of 'Jewish science.'"

This is why Einstein's Nobel Prize was for the photoelectric effect rather than relativity. Svante Arrhenius, presenting the award, said of relativity, "this pertains essentially to epistemology and has therefore been the subject of lively debate in philosophical circles." Arrhenius then continued, "Einstein’s law of the photoelectrical effect has been extremely rigorously tested by the American Millikan and his pupils and passed the test brilliantly."

Philosophers set themselves up to be wrong when they think of themselves on the model of Immanuel Kant, who got the wrong answers to the questions about space and time that Einstein got right. I'm happy to take what the physicists were willing to give us, and call Einstein the greatest philosopher of the 20th century. That would answer the question of whether philosophy makes progress.

Saturday, December 24, 2022

Edmonds on the Vienna Circle

David Edmonds' "The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle" is the kind of history that can change one's views of philosophical research programs simply through biography. 

For all its historical significance, the Vienna Circle was financially threadbare and short-lived. When it started in 1923, Austria was experiencing the economic hardships of post-WW1 Europe (German wheelbarrows-of-cash hyperinflation was just before that.) Good philosophers were barely getting by and not eating well. But it was still a convivial and energetic environment for working out a new empiricist approach to philosophy together. My favorite character in the book was Otto Neurath, the big warmhearted social scientist / social organizer / socialist who signed his letters with a cartoon of an elephant drawn to express his mood. 

Politically, they were the left-wing philosophical movement of their time and place, sharing an ideology of cosmopolitan scientific empiricism with people like Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein. Living in bohemian Red Vienna, many (like Neurath) joined up with lefty movements against the rising fascism of the era. Nazi-aligned obscurantists like Heidegger were their right-wing opponents. This doesn't map on to the analytic-Continental divide as recently understood – Rudolf Carnap's essay attacking Heidegger ends with praise for Nietzsche, whom Carnap admires for his empiricism and for the poetry of Zarathustra. 

Hitler ended everything. In 1936, Moritz Schlick was shot by a former PhD student who told the court that the murder was important for fascist ideological reasons, and thus avoided serious punishment. As Nazi power rose, Jewish members mostly got out alive, thanks to connections with academics outside. But everyone had to scatter, and the Vienna Circle was broken. 

In 13 ill-funded years, the empiricists of Vienna created a lot. But their empiricist project had barely gotten started before the Nazis showed up and everybody had to run. Many philosophical movements that later criticized logical positivism had far more funding and far more time, and many of those have left us with less. 

Their empiricism barely had time to develop. Where might it go if developed further? Verification conditions don't provide a good criterion of meaning, but maybe understanding? Does a phenomenalist metaphysics have more life in it than currently believed? Do the stripped-down epistemology and metaphysics of logical positivism allow for moral realism? I think the answer to the last of these is yes, and I think Carnap and Schlick and Neurath would be excited to find out.

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Anwar's Triumph Over Rectal Absurdities in Malaysian Politics

Congratulations to Malaysia and its new Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, at the end of a bizarre and triumphant 25-year journey unlike anything else I've heard of in politics. 

Back in 1998, Anwar was Finance Minister, and had won international recognition for getting Malaysia through the Asian financial crisis. Worried that Anwar might be getting too powerful, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed had him arrested on sodomy charges. The alleged victim testified under oath that the charges were actually false, and a semen-stained mattress that supposedly had Anwar's DNA was retracted from evidence when the chemist proved untrustworthy. Nevertheless, Anwar was sent to prison in 1999 until his conviction was overturned in 2004.

Anwar returned to politics as a forceful critic of Mahathir's successor, Prime Minister Najib Razak. In 2008, Anwar was accused of forcible sodomy by top aide Saiful Bukhari. When people asked burly 24-year-old Saiful how the slender 61-year-old Anwar had physically overcome him, Saiful downgraded his former accusations to "homosexual conduct by persuasion", still a serious crime under Malaysia's Islamic government. It was soon revealed that Saiful had gone to Najib's apartment on June 24, shortly before the alleged sodomy of June 26, two days before he filed the police report and was medically inspected on June 28. 

The case went to trial in 2010, with the contents of Saiful's rectum becoming the central topic of Malaysian politics for over a month. I will spare you the gory details. But if you want to look up articles with headlines like "Saiful’s rectum was EMPTY, doctor tells court" and "Saiful inserted plastic in anus, court told" and consider the expert testimony on how the contents of rectums change over time, the internet is open to you.

Anwar was acquitted. But in 2014, a Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal. Anwar was imprisoned for five years without a new trial, because this is Malaysia. 

Around that time, Najib stole $700 million from the government's national investment fund. (When people asked why $700 million had suddenly appeared in his bank account, he tried to pass it off as a gift from a Saudi royal.) He was denounced by former Prime Minister Mahathir, whose own corruption hadn't risen to such extreme heights.

Anwar wanted to defeat Najib, and there was one way to do it. He teamed up with Mahathir, who had imprisoned him on false sodomy charges 20 years before. The men agreed on a deal where Mahathir would become Prime Minister first, and make the still-imprisoned Anwar his successor. As the 2018 elections approached, fear arose that Najib wouldn't respect a close election defeat, and violence would result. But Anwar's reformists and Mahathir's old connections proved unstoppable. Their new Harapan coalition won 121 out of 222 seats, a resounding victory that Najib had no way to overturn. Anwar was freed from prison.

In 2020, Harapan fell apart, and Malay ethnic nationalist leader Muhyiddin Yassin became Prime Minister. Anwar became Leader of the Opposition, in part because Mahathir was 95 years old. On November 20 of this year, new elections resulted in a hung parliament, with Anwar's regenerated Harapan the biggest party at 82 seats. On November 24, Mahathir had lost his seat in Parliament, Najib was serving his corruption sentence at Kajang Prison, and Anwar became the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Saturday, October 29, 2022

"Reliable Route" in Erkenntnis, Hume's is-ought gap successfully crossed

 I'm delighted to announce that “The reliable route from nonmoral evidence to moral conclusions” has been accepted for publication in Erkenntnis. Here’s how it begins:

"There is a reliable route from nonmoral evidence to moral conclusions. Progress through its three stages relies fundamentally on inductive inference. First, we divide up the psychological processes generating belief so that their reliability in generating true belief is statistically predictable. Second, we measure their reliability – the proportion of true beliefs they generate. Third, we infer probabilities of truth for moral propositions from the reliability of the processes generating belief in them. The three parts of this paper map out the three stages of the reliable route."

Part 1 discusses what processes of belief-formation are, how to individuate them, and how to use their reliability in reasoning. Processes are things like visual perception and wishful thinking. Since we know that visual perception is more reliable than wishful thinking, we change beliefs that we think were formed by wishful thinking, but we generally keep beliefs that we think were formed by visual perception. James Beebe and Jack Lyons’ work on the generality problem for reliabilism helps one imagine such belief-forming categories defined with scientific precision, perhaps with equations predicting how likely it is that beliefs caused through various processes under various environmental circumstances are true.

Part 2 discusses how to determine the reliability with which moral beliefs are formed. We can’t assume any moral truths in determining the reliability of the processes, or else the reliable route would be circular. I offer two ways to infer the reliability with which nonmoral beliefs are formed, beginning from entirely nonmoral information. First, reliability can be inductively inferred from that of similarly generated nonmoral beliefs. (Most metaethical theories have the same or similar processes generating moral and some nonmoral beliefs, often a form of intuition or perception.) Second, contradictory moral beliefs push processes generating them towards unreliability, regardless of which belief is true. 

Part 3 begins as we've derived things like this in the first two parts:

Process P, which generates belief in moral proposition M, has truth ratio T.

(T is the proportion of true beliefs generated by P, with parameters filled in)

We can now revise beliefs in M accordingly. There’s some kind of probabilistic Moore’s Paradox in saying “M, and there’s an 0.1 probability that M.” If we’ve always been confident in M, but P alone generates belief in M and it has truth ratio 0.1, P is essentially a cognitive bias on moral judgment and we should give up belief in M. Similarly, if we discover that one of our moral beliefs is formed by processes especially reliable in generating nonmoral belief, we should become more confident in it. If we gave it up because it conflicted with another moral belief that we now discover was unreliably formed, we should return to it. 

Inductive inference takes us all the way to moral truth. We empirically discover the reliability with which we generate various nonmoral beliefs, inductively apply these observations to similar cases in which moral beliefs are generated, and infer probabilities of truth for similarly generated moral beliefs.  Using the reliable route, we cross Hume's famous gap between is and ought, on the power of induction alone. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Mikhail Gorbachev, rest in peace

Geopolitical events are always work of many, but the end of the Cold War was above all the decision of one man – Mikhail Gorbachev. He made the ending much better than it could have been for the world as a whole. For that, he deserves the world's thanks.

Gorbachev rose to power in 1985. The power he held was like that of a medieval king surrounded by nobles. He was capable of autocratic rule, but he needed the Politburo's support to operate successfully and avoid overthrow. His most distinctive policies were generally aimed at making Communism less bad. The buzzwords of his early rule were glasnost (openness, largely meaning freedom of speech) and perestroika (restructuring, often involving decentralization of power away from Moscow). 

As things progressed, he let the Eastern European nations ruled from Moscow go their own way. Germany appreciates him for letting the East reunite with the West. With a few exceptions close to home (the Baltic states and South Caucusus) he generally avoided using violence to maintain a Moscow-ruled empire. Nations outside the USSR left the Warsaw Pact, and most became democracies. The other Soviet Republics became independent from Moscow, and generally seem to have done better than in the USSR days, but with a wide range of outcomes.

Things went badly for Gorbachev and for Russia in the early 1990s. He overcame an attempted coup with the support of frequent rival Boris Yeltsin, who thereby gained the upper hand. Yeltsin set himself up to rule 1990s Russia, while Gorbachev would be out of power as the USSR vanished under him. Yeltsin's rule was marked by economic chaos, corrupt privatizations, a return to autocracy, and the choice of Vladimir Putin as his successor.

While things in Russia went poorly, the collapse of the USSR was good for the rest of the world. Letting most of the former Warsaw Pact go its own way without a fight dramatically reduced the amount of violence that Moscow could order. The time of the US and the USSR sowing proxy wars across Asia, Africa, and Latin America came to an end.

Ending the Cold War reduced risk of total nuclear annihilation. Obviously the nuclear weapons are still there, but conflicts between two sides with big nuclear arsenals are the most dangerous, because that's where the apocalypse logic of Mutually Assured Destruction gets all the missiles in the air. Gorbachev simply disbanded one of the sides, so we're less likely now to die in nuclear war. 

Overall, Gorbachev was as good a man, and much a force for good in the world, as one could hope for a leader of the USSR to be. He loved his wife Raisa. He made a more peaceful world; may he rest in peace.

Friday, May 20, 2022

Renegotiate NAFTA, get baby formula shortage

America's baby formula shortage is the result of Donald Trump's cunning approach to the politics of trade. He kept his promise to renegotiate NAFTA by putting sweet deals for all his favorite corporate interest groups into NAFTA's replacement, the USMCA. The dairy farmers wanted the US baby formula market to themselves, and they got it.

Why were they so focused on baby formula? The main ingredient in baby formula is powdered milk, the unusual dairy product that lasts forever. Dairy producers have natural advantages in their local fresh milk markets since the product is perishable, but powdered milk can come from a much wider range of places and times. So they want trade restrictions to block out foreign powdered milk. (This is from Sarah Taber, a wonderful source of agriculture-related political information.)

What happens when you've restricted baby formula imports, and one of your major baby formula production plants gets contaminated? We're finding out now.

Friday, May 13, 2022

Carrick Flynn, cryptocurrency, and pandemic prevention

Carrick Flynn is running for Congress in Oregon, with a focus on preventing pandemics. Many Southeast Asian countries protected their people from COVID-19 better than America did, because they had faced the threat of SARS and come up with a plan for addressing the next pandemic. As COVID-19 continues infecting people in 2022, America remains far short of the leadership it needs on the issue. Congress is full of ex-military people who can advise on war, but it’s light on experts in preventing viruses from killing us. 

Carrick worked on preventing pandemics and other world-destroying disasters as Research Faculty in Emerging Technology at Georgetown. He contributed to the Biden Administration's Pandemic Prevention Plan. This expertise convinced me to donate to his campaign earlier this year. 

It’s also why Carrick has attracted the financial support of cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried. Sam and his brother Gabe are heavily involved in anti-pandemic causes, and are influenced by philosophical views that I share. As Bitcoin looks like a useless bubble, and pandemic prevention is one of the things the world needs most, cryptocurrency money focusing the US government on pandemic prevention is trash becoming treasure. Of course, it looks like lots of other things to other people who have an understandable fear of cryptocurrency billionaires funding obscure causes. 

I was gearing up to write a blog post explaining the situation, but Ian Ward at Politico did it for me. I strongly recommend it to anyone trying to figure out what’s going on here. The article even explained longtermism! (And now there's yet another good article on the matter – an interview of Carrick by Dylan Matthews and Miranda Dixon-Luinenberg.) This is one of the deep philosophical reasons why I’m so heavily focused on pandemic prevention. Ward does a good job, but I’ll briefly explain it in my own terms.

As COVID-19 showed, the world isn’t well-defended against pandemics. And with technology getting cheaper and more easily accessible, the ability to design your own highly transmissible lethal virus at home might soon be widely available too. There’s a serious risk that the human species ends soon after that point. 

While it’s pretty important to prevent lots of people from dying, it’s extra important to prevent literally everyone from dying. That cuts off any possibility of a future where the human species makes massive technological and social progress, and achieves a stable high-tech peaceful society where everyone is happy. Obviously that’s a long way off, but if we get there in maybe a thousand years, the next millions of years could be loely. We could use our futuristic technology to enjoy ourselves, explore space, and make all the other earthly beings happy too. If you count value in bits of happiness as we utilitarians do, and you don’t care about when that happiness exists in time, creating that future looks like the most important thing to do.

That’s why preventing humanity from ending just as we acquires the technological power to destroy ourselves looms as the greatest task of our era. We survived nuclear threats in the Cold War. We’ll spend this century grappling with the threat of climate change, and while powerful forces block progress on that issue, there are also many powerful people who understand its seriousness and how to address it. On pandemics, we’re woefully underprepared. If money from the cryptocurrency bubble is going to defend humanity from destruction by killer viruses, so much the better.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Russia invades Ukraine: geopolitical strategy for the aftermath

Russia has invaded Ukraine. Seven years ago, Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Crimea, the part of Ukraine that projects into the Black Sea. There’s no telling how far he plans to go this time. Russian cruise missiles have struck the capital city of Kiev, and Russian troops have begun an amphibious assault on Odessa.

The best practical suggestions for the international community that I’ve seen come from Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba, who tweeted the following “to do list”:

1. Devastating sanctions on Russia NOW, including SWIFT

2. Fully isolate Russia by all means, in all formats

3. Weapons, equipment for Ukraine

4. Financial assistance

5. Humanitarian assistance

Kuleba notably doesn’t call for the West to directly attack Russia or even Russian troops in Ukraine. He just asks for more assistance for his own government and whatever resistance it puts up. If the democratically elected Ukrainian government wants to fight the Russians or operate a resistance movement, the West should support them in all the ways Kuleba suggests. I’ll leave further immediate suggestions about Ukraine to those knowledgeable about the situation on the ground.

Ukraine's President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is best known to Americans from Donald Trump’s impeachment. Just after being elected, Zelenskyy asked Trump to deliver the Javelin anti-tank missiles that Congress had bought for Ukraine’s defense. Delivery of the missiles was part of a US defensive commitment in return for Ukraine agreeing to nuclear nonproliferation treaties. Trump responded by asking for a “favor”: incriminating information about Hunter Biden.

It occurred to me at the time that Putin won whether Zelenskyy agreed or not. Either his ally Trump would get political advantage, or his tanks could move across Ukraine with fewer rockets aimed their way. Now the tanks are rolling.

Over the longer term, It’s becoming increasingly clear that the great foreign policy conflicts of the 21st century will pit authoritarian empires against liberal democracies. I hope this doesn’t return international politics to its state in the Cold War, full of brutal proxy wars and danger that humanity might be annihilated with nuclear weapons. The authoritarian empires will have to grow more powerful for that to happen, but for now they’re on the rise.

My best idea for holding off the authoritarian empires is for liberal democracies around the world to band together in mutual defense alliances. NATO is a regional model for military cooperation, and the world could use some sort of new SEATO for southern and eastern Asian nations. The democracies can also give each other favored trade and immigration status, empowering their people to gain from the benefits of global coordination. The significance of national boundaries between liberal democracies should be reduced, hopefully with EU-like or US-Canada-like relations between all.

Exactly where mutual defense alliance should draw its line in the sand, beyond which a Russia can’t cross without triggering war, is not an easy question to answer. But unless a line is drawn somewhere, empires can just keep conquering small countries one by one until only the large countries are left. Ukraine borders 4 NATO member states, and if Putin conquers it, he’ll be right at the line we’ve already drawn.

A liberal democratic alliance has important structural advantages over ethnic nationalist authoritarian empires. Russia and China can’t win together at world domination. They won’t be able to agree about whether the capital of the authoritarian world government should be Moscow or Beijing, or whether its racial aristocracy will be Russian or Chinese. So there will always be dividing lines between them, with enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world on each side of the line. The world survived a similar arrangement for several decades during the Cold War; we might not be here today if that had continued.

Things are different if the liberal democracies win and create a world government to deal with global problems like pandemics and climate change. Then there won’t be a racial aristocracy (it’s liberalism, there are equal rights for all races) and people won’t really care where the capital is (it’s democracy, you get one vote wherever you are). Authoritarian empires can’t create lasting world peace because they create inequalities of rights that engender violent conflict. A global liberal democracy could institute universal human rights, and use the technology of the future to provide for all. With enough resources for everyone and no more enemies across borders, the weapons of war could be put away forever.

I don’t know whether Ukrainian democracy can be saved. But the international community should try, in part to show authoritarians that trying to take over liberal democracies doesn't go well. A resistance led by Zelenskyy should have all the support Kuleba asks for.

The future of humanity is in many more hands. In the long run, the two most likely endings for the era of independent nation-states seem to be lasting world peace through global liberal democracy, and the total destruction of humanity by people using terrifyingly powerful technology at odds with one another. For those who wish for peace, preventing the authoritarian empires from gaining strength is a central task of our geopolitical era. 

Monday, February 14, 2022

Einstein thanks Hume for help with relativity

In 1915, Albert Einstein wrote to Moritz Schlick praising "Hume, whose Treatise of Human Nature I had studied avidly and with admiration shortly before discovering the theory of relativity. It is very possible that without these philosophical studies I would not have arrived at the solution."

Decades later, Einstein would reiterate that "In so far as I can be aware, the immediate influence of D. Hume on me was great. I read him with Konrad Habicht and Solovine in Bern" And 1949, Einstein would write that Hume helped him reject the "axiom of the absolute character of time, viz, simultaneity". Einstein continues, "The type of critical reasoning required for the discovery of this central point... was decisively furthered, in my case, especially by the reading of David Hume’s and Ernst Mach’s philosophical writings."

According to John Norton and Matias Slavov, Hume's empiricist account of concepts was the important thing Einstein found in the Treatise. If time is an a priori form of sensibility with absolute simultaneity built in, as Kant suggested in replying to Hume, relativistic time dilation is impossible. But if the concept of time is empirically acquired and conventionally codified, absolute simultaneity can be a mere approximation suitable for slow things, which fails closer to the speed of light.

The picture is of the mathematician Conrad Habicht, the philosopher Maurice Solovine, and Einstein. They formed a little philosophy reading group in Switzerland and read Hume's Treatise as well as works by Mill, Poincare, and Spinoza. At one point Solovine missed a meeting that was held in his apartment to attend a concert. Einstein and Habicht trashed the apartment, taunted Solovine, and made sure the next meeting lasted until morning to make up for lost time. They remained friends for the rest of their lives.

Well over a century after Hume remarked that his Treatise "fell dead-born from the press", Einstein used it to discover the nature of space and time, and the shape of the universe. It gives me optimism for the power of empiricist philosophy. Many great mysteries may remain to be solved by those carrying empirical data in one hand and Hume's Treatise in the other.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Green Chambers for better color vision in the brain

If scientists had offered me a pill that would make me see green like people with normal color vision and also grow a tail, I would’ve taken it. Then I could see an amazing new color. And when people suggested more experiments that could give me cool powers, I could wag my tail. 

Nobody came to greenpill me, but I did get the new Enchroma glasses. The pictures are of what I see when I’m blasting my eyes full of the most intense green light possible. I think this might be having good long-term effects on my brain’s ability to process green. 

My color vision problem is deuteranomaly. I have a poorly functioning form of the medium-wavelength opsin, a color-receiving eye protein. This is the receptor essential to the famed “green cone”, though it catches a wide range of wavelengths. The effect of my defective opsin that my eyes have limited sensitivity to pure medium greens and reds. The greens get washed out; pure dark green fades quickly into black. I also get fewer brilliant varieties of red; I might be getting more shades of khaki instead. 

Enchroma glasses correct deuteranomaly with notch filters, which cut down specific wavelengths of light. Given the complexities of visual processing, it’s not clear how removing light in the 480-490nm (red-orange) and 580-590nm (blue-green) wavelengths affects the total picture. Probably my system takes these wavelengths as evidence for things not being bright red or green respectively, but I don’t know how that story will go. It’ll start off with photons colliding with receptor molecules, which could be an unpredictable collision. I don’t know how it goes from there through the rest of the visual system. 

But I do know that the story is full of things blocking light. The defective opsin that isn’t doing well at catching medium green is somehow blocking bright red as well. To deal with it, I block two other 10nm bands of light with the Enchroma notch filters. The glasses generally darken everything in a way that may go beyond the mere loss of the two 10nm wavelength bands – they are sunglasses of a sort, blocking other wavelengths too. The old-model Enchromas I had before made this clear. My first big “wow” moment with them was looking at a green traffic light bright enough to shine clearly in the California daytime. With all sorts of things in the system blocking light, I could get strong results only from very bright things. 

The Green Chambers depicted, in little suburban groves, are the best places I’ve found for seeing green. Dead center in each picture is the strongest light source around here: the sun. You can't see it because it's filtered through perhaps the most paradigmatically green thing on Earth: leaves. More leaves all around filter the light to bathe the whole environment in green. Wearing the Enchroma glasses, I stared into midday sunlight through leaves under treetop canopy for periods of around 5-20 minutes over the past month. It’s probably been over six hours of having that green photon cannon blasting through my Enchromas into my retina. 

I’ve had brilliant and vivid experiences of green. My guess is that the brain is able to receive some sort of bright green-signal if it comes in, but the defective opsin prevents that signal from ever coming in, because no light can make that opsin generate it. The glasses block enough muddling wavelengths to give green a fighting chance even with the eye pigments as they are. And with a green photon cannon blasting right into my eyes for minutes on end, green has the firepower to win.

As the experiences became more intense over time, I began to think that the light was conditioning my brain to see green better. After all, what’s outside of me was basically the same. So what’s inside of me had to be changing. 

Why would this happen? My guess is that visual perception generally gets better at processing stuff as it goes from never having had it before to getting more of it. Most of you finished up with visual processing of color quite early, but those of us who just didn’t get the stimuli because of bad eye proteins didn’t get our brain parts excited. The solution is to put on special glasses and go to a Green Chamber.

My neurons may have awaited a signal that strong for 41 years. Get them going, and maybe they'll respond more.