Saturday, July 25, 2020

The Big Historical Cycle George Friedman Misses

A big problem with The Storm Before the Calm is that it ignores the most significant historical cycle driving the current crisis: The monetary cycle.

The monetary cycle consists of the transition from sound to unsound money, eventually resulting in a monetary crisis and a reset of the system. The transition is sometimes driven by external events like a war, other times by the seemingly irresistable temptation of governments to fund themselves through the printing press.

The current monetary cycle is unprecedented insofar as every currency in the world has been a pure fiat currency since 1971. Historically, monetary cycles end and begin when the market displaces a debased currency with a sound one. The two World Wars, for example, put a severe strain on the British Pound, which had been the world's reserve currency for more than one hundred years. The debt accumulated, and the fact that Britain had sent all its gold to the United States in payment for food and arms, made the Pound an unsound currency by the end of WW2. At the Bretton Woods Conference held in 1944, based on the fact that the United States at that point owned 70% of the world's gold, it was agreed that the U.S. Dollar would replace the Pound as the world's reserve currency. Furthermore, all other currencies would peg themselves to the dollar rather than be backed by gold. The Dollar remained the sole currency redeemable for gold.

This system persisted into the 1960s, by which time the U.S. could not resist printing more money than it could back with gold to fund the Vietnam War and the Great Society programs. Foreigners were trading in their dollars for gold, at the rate that the 20,000 tons of gold owned by the U.S. at the end of WW2 had been reduced to 8,000 tons. To prevent the rest of U.S. gold reserves from fleeing the country, Nixon "temporarily" suspended the redemption of dollars for gold on August 15, 1971, a suspension that persists to this day. 

This has resulted in the unprecedented fiat monetary system noted above. The dollar continues to be the world's reserve currency, if for no other reason than that there is no suitable alternative. Furthermore, since 1980 we have been in a debt bull market of falling interest rates. See below.

Federal Funds Rate since 1950

The falling interest rate regime is not an accident or a result of the free market, but has been a deliberate policy of the Federal Reserve. This isn't a conspiracy theory; it is part of the Fed's charter to manage interest rates. Falling interest rates support the dollar (and the accumulation of dollar debt) because it makes the purchase of debt more attractive. If I anticipate that the interest rate on the U.S. 10 year treasury bond will drop, then if I buy a 10 year treasury carrying a 5% interest, I will be able to sell it at a profit when the interest rate on new 10 year treasuries drops to 4%, since the higher interest rate on my bond represents greater value.

So the increased printing of dollars did not cause a crisis in the dollar as long as interest rates have had room to drop. The accumulation of debt in response to lowering interest rates happened accordingly.

U.S. Debt to GDP ratio

But notice that since 2008 interest rates have been close to 0. What happens when there is no more room for interest rates to drop? Then the debt cycle would naturally reverse, interest rates rise, and there is a major financial crisis, likely much worse than 2008 and on a global basis (since most other countries are running up debt and printing currency as fast as we are).

But that hasn't happened. Debt is still being bought despite tiny interest rates. Who is buying debt now that interest rates aren't going lower? The answer is the Federal Reserve:

Federal Reserve Balance Sheet in Millions
Federal Reserve Balance Sheet in Millions

This has gone into hyperdrive since the COVID crisis hit. Since we were already running a deficit before the COVID pandemic, all the trillion dollar "stimulus packages" since then are financed purely through Federal Reserve money printing - that is the spike at the far right. Just in the last couple of months the Federal Reserve has bought up $3 trillion in government debt. This signals the end phase of the monetary cycle, which will result in the demise of the dollar and its replacement as the worlds reserve currency.

Friedman misses all this. He interprets the drop in interest rates over the last 30 years as an indication of capital accumulation. It would be in a regime of free market interest rates. But we don't have that: Interest rates are manipulated through Fed policy. As debt increased over the years, interest rates should have risen as well, incentivizing savings as a balance to debt accumulation. By forcing interest rates lower, the Fed has short-circuited these market forces and put us in a situation where a catastrophic financial crisis can only be put off by ever more furious money printing.



Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Comments on "The Storm Before the Calm" by George Friedman

In this book George Friedman argues that we are experiencing the convergence of two historical cycles: A socioeconomic cycle and an institutional cycle. The present time is unusual insofar as the two cycles are coming into crisis at the same time, and will result in an unusual period of upheaval, disorder and, in Friedman's optimistic view, the reinvention of the American experiment in an as yet unidentified form that will nonetheless be a positive development and represent civilizational advancement.

I broadly agree with Friedman's thesis on the cyclical nature of history, and that the present moment represents an unusual convergence of cycles. I don't agree with him completely on the nature of the cycles, and think that he doesn't appreciate a historical cycle that is more significant that the ones he identifies. I will say more about that in another post.

Here I would like to make a skeptical argument concerning Friedman's optimistic view of the future, and argue why the present crisis is different than prior American crises. I am not necessarily pessimistic, but I imagine the future very differently than Friedman does.

The basis of my skepticism is the role natural resources, and in particular energy, play in American history. It is only recently that the United States has come to fully exploit the natural resources of the continent it claimed in Manifest Destiny. The North American continent and the exploitation of its resources shaped the history of the United States.

Consider the Civil War. At the time of the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution was just getting underway. The Industrial Revolution embodied a transition from a civilization founded on wood based energy to a civilization founded on coal based energy. Coal is a more dense form of energy than wood; it is essentially wood energy compacted over thousands of years into a much smaller space. This makes the use of coal more cost effective to gather as energy and more efficient as an energy source: A coal-fired train can travel farther than a wood-fired train before it has to restock its coal car, and coal burns hotter. It also costs less energy to harvest energy, in terms of the "energy return on investment." The consequence is that a wood-based energy civilization can never achieve the complexity or technological sophistication of a coal-based civilization. Its low efficiency energy limits its development. This is precisely the reason why major civilizational transformations are accompanied by a change in the energy foundation of the civilization.

Also at the time of the Civil War, large-scale Western migration was just beginning. In fact it was stalled prior to the war as the North and the South squabbled about the legal status of slavery in the new territories.

With the secession of the Southern states, the political roadblocks to full-scale Western migration disappeared and the migration West accelerated even during the war. The demands of the war accelerated the already nascent industrial revolution, fueled by the new energy, cheap and abundant coal, to transform the nation into a continental and industrial power very different from the nation that existed just a few years before. By 1870 the United States was a major industrial world power and had steam locomotives running from coast to coast.

Now consider the Second World War. Like the Civil War, this crisis occurred as the world was transitioning from a less dense to a more dense source of energy: From coal to oil. The United States was just beginning to exploit its oil resources in the 1930s. Those were the days when a Jed Clampett, in Beverly Hillbillies style, could shoot his gun and up from the ground came a bubbling crude. The war accelerated this change, especially as the U.S. industrial base and energy sources were not subject to attack like the rest of the world's were. As the war went on, it became clear that access to oil was the crucial factor. We sank Japan's merchant fleet denying them oil, and destroyed Germany's oil refineries through bombing, grounding the Luftwaffe.

The crucial factor about the current crisis is that it does not occur during an ongoing transition from a less dense to a more dense energy source. So-called "green energy" may or not be feasible, and perhaps is even necessary, but one thing it definitely is not is a more dense source of energy than oil. If it were, the transition would occur on its own rather than being subsidized by governments and forced through regulation. Towards the end of the book, Friedman speculates about space-based solar power. If possible, such power will require a massive infrastructure development and it is hard to believe it would be a more dense source of energy than oil. Coal and oil fueled their respective civilization transformations because they were sitting there, ready to hand, waiting to be exploited. There is no such new energy source available.

This is a misunderstanding people sometimes have concerning technology and energy. They believe our technology will solve the energy crisis. This gets the causality backwards. It is the energy that fuels the technological revolution, not technology that drives the energy revolution. It's true that civilization must be advanced to a certain point before it can exploit coal and then oil usefully. We didn't jump directly from wood-based energy to oil-based energy; it took a period of coal-based energy to develop the technology to exploit oil usefully. The key point is that the technology necessary is the technology to exploit the energy, not to harvest the energy. Civilization was capable of mining coal for thousands of years; it just had no special use for it until industrial civilization advanced enough. Similarly, early oil exploitation involved no special technological breakthroughs as the oil was near the surface. Doing not much more than poking a hole in the ground was good enough.

The difference today is people are imagining technological breakthroughs to harvest the energy, not exploit it. The energy harvested - electricity in the case of space-based solar power - we already exploit. The energy it takes to develop and use additional technology to harvest energy is an energy cost, not a gain. This is the Achilles heel of shale oil; exploiting technology to harvest these heretofore unreachable reserves is an energy cost that makes shale oil more expensive than conventional oil.

In any case, shale oil is rapidly depleting, and conventional oil has also peaked. What's going to happen in the next crisis is something that hasn't happened before: The transition to a civilization based on a less dense form of energy than the last. Whether it is "green" or not, this energy will not have the density of oil.

The United States is fortunate that we still have unexploited natural resources, in particular massive coal reserves that can fuel our nation for many decades. I suspect that as things start to get truly difficult, all the "climate change" rhetoric and "green energy" initiatives will be rapidly forgotten as people see their civilization crumbling around them (as might even be starting now). We will be happy to turn back to coal.

But the result must be a simpler civilization than the one now, not a more complex civilization as after the Civil War and WW2. We will still have our iPhones and Netflix, but you won't be able to get fresh vegetables in the supermarket year round. The oil-based civilization that can grow vegetables in California's Central Valley, then truck them all over the country at any time, will be gone. Instead, food will be more locally grown. People will not take as many or as exotic vacations as they once did, maybe going camping instead of Disney World. People will get used to living in some heat rather than blasting air conditioning anytime it gets warm. We will miss some of the things that are gone, like always available air conditioning, but appreciate some things that are rediscovered, like playing board games with the family or playing outside if you are a kid. They hyper-scheduled childhood of the recent past of carting kids from soccer to piano lessons to boy scouts will be gone. Childhood will be simpler and, as far as that goes, more healthy.



Sunday, October 14, 2018

Wisdom 7:7-11 and Philosophy

 "Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. 
I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. 
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. 
I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. 
All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth."

Our modern understanding of morality sees it as a matter of figuring out abstract rules of behavior. A philosophy class in ethics might devote its time to pondering artificial circumstances as a way to tease out such rules: What should one do, for example, if you happen to be standing next to a railway switch with a train bearing down which will run over 5 people, and you could switch it onto a side track where it will only run over 1 person? Do you do nothing and allow the five to die? Or do you switch the track and condemn to death the one, who would have survived without your intervention?

This approach is quite foreign to the ancient approach to morality. The ancient approach did not concern itself with rules so much, as with describing and creating the character of a man who would show good judgment in any circumstance. Good judgment was known as the virtue of phronesis to the Greeks and we understand it under the name of prudence or wisdom, although our understanding of prudence is a more timid version of what the Greeks meant by phronesis. Our prudent man is the sort of man who avoids taking chances, whereas the Greek wiseman was fully prepared to take chances if the situation truly called for it.

The quote from Wisdom that starts this post summarizes the ancient view of wisdom nicely. Wisdom is more valuable than gold, silver, scepters or thrones, because the man who is not wise (i.e. the fool) will not use such wealth in a manner that is truly to his advantage. On the other hand, the wise man who is not rich will nonetheless possess the character virtues that will allow him to become rich; or, better yet, acquire those things that truly make a fulfilled life (which might be other than thrones or riches). So wisdom is a far more valuable thing to have than any earthly possession or title.

The author of the Book of Wisdom would not be surprised by modern studies that show that the lives of winners of large lottery prizes are, after a few years, indistinguishable from what they were before they got lucky. They may now have a rusting snowmobile in their backyard and drive a 10 year old Mercedes, and have travelled to Vegas a few times, but as the years go by they end up pretty much where they would have otherwise. The reason, according to ancient wisdom, is that their original circumstances had more to do with their character than luck; and without a change of character, a little luck will not make a lasting difference. Instead of saving and investing the money they've won, they buy a boat and a trip to the Caymans. Instead of spending the money on more education, they spend it on buying Cristal for their friends at the bar. In a few years, the money is gone and they are back where they were.

There is an assumption lurking behind the modern understanding of morality that is not always acknowledged. The assumption is that the difficult part of morality is finding out exactly what the moral rules are; once they are known, it is assumed, following them is not such a difficult thing. The ancients had the opposite view: The basics of morality are not difficult to know - don't lie, cheat or steal, kill your neighbor or covet his wife. The hard part was following morality once it was known. 

Even more difficult from the ancient view was how, beyond merely avoiding doing evil, to construct your life so that it is as fulfilling as possible. This is something that requires much more than just rule following. It means discovering what human life is really about, and acquiring the virtues necessary to attain it.

Modern morality has nothing to say about this. It views "freedom" as the greatest good, and is indifferent to what one does with that freedom, as long those abstract moral rules are followed. The great modern moral crusades, then, concern themselves with defending the rights of individuals to be or to do what they want with their freedom- change from a boy to a girl, for instance, or call themselves a girl when they look exactly like a boy.

For the average person, who is basically of good character and is wondering what to do with his life, the modern answer of "whatever you want" is disappointingly empty. For those so disappointed, the ancients stand ready to listen and answer.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Living in the Present

The present is the point at which the past is recollected and the future anticipated.

It is often urged on us to live in the now. That is, to live in the present. It is thought that this involves forgetting the past and avoiding paying attention to the future, for both the past and the future make us anxious. Instead, it is advised that one exist in the moment, what is happening right now.

This is a misunderstanding. For someone who does not recollect himself in the moment, or anticipate the future in the moment, is living nowhere rather than in the moment. It is true that he may be free of anxiety because he is not remembering the past or anticipating the future, but then animals live this sort of anxiety-free life. But to live as a human being means to live in relation to the past and the future.

And even when, for a time, he has this sort of anxiety-free existence (as, for instance, when he loses himself in a hobby in his basement, or becomes lost in the excitement of a championship game) he is not really experiencing the anxiety-free life of the animal; for, at any moment, the spell might be broken and his distinctively human recollection of the past and anticipation of the future will come rushing back in. He will suddenly find himself existing somewhere rather than nowhere, with all the anxiety that entails.

Truly living in the present is the most difficult of art forms. It means recollecting the past and anticipating the future in such a way that it has immediate decisive significance. Man acts in the now, but only as a bridge uniting his recollection of the past with his anticipation of the future. It is an art form because no science of living in such a manner is possible; for science of its nature abstracts from the decisive significance of the present in relation to the past and future.

Kierkegaard, in the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, takes monks to task for their distinctive dress.  The mistake, according to Kierkegaard, is that it is a false attempt to represent the inner determination of the spirit via an outward material sign. But the "knight of the spirit" is not so easily recognized; in fact, he is not immediately recognizable at all, for the inner determination of spirit may be married to any outward material circumstance.

SK is wrong, I think, in his understanding of the meaning of the monk's simple robe. For us, the robe is simply a witness to the vow the monk has made to a life of simplicity in the following of Christ. The inner state of his spirit is something else entirely; it may wax and wane in its dedication to that vow. It is similar to the ring of the married man, which symbolizes a vow the man has made, not the state of his success in living up to it.

More to the point of this post, for the monk the robe is a continual reminder of his vow, and his uniting of the past with the future in his vow of the simple life for Christ. It is an aid to the art of living in the moment, of giving every moment its due not by forgetting the past and the future, but by a unification of the past with the future in a blossoming of immediate decisive action.

For most of us, such immediately decisive action occurs only rarely. We make a decision on which college to attend, or to propose to our girlfriend, or to move to another city. In such moments we feel truly alive, as we see our past come together in a decisive determination of our future. And we are right, for in such moments we are truly living as distinctively human beings.

The task for our lives is to make more of the unfolding present alive with such decisiveness. This does not mean continually making the decision to move to another city; for that would only rob any particular decision of its decisiveness for the future. No, like the monk, we must find a way to unite all our actions, even the small ones, in the present and in light of the past and in anticipation of the future.



Sunday, May 20, 2018

Suicide of the West: Ideas Are Not Enough

This is also posted at Ricochet.com

Jonah Goldberg summarizes the argument of his recent book this way:
It is my argument that capitalism and liberal democracy are unnatural. We stumbled into them in a process of trial and error but also blind luck, contingency, and happenstance a blink of an eye ago. The market system depends on bourgeois values, i.e. principles, ideas, habits, and sentiments that it did not create and cannot restore once lost. These values can only be transmitted two ways: showing and telling... Our problems today can be traced to the fact that we no longer have gratitude for the Miracle and for the institutions and customs that made it possible. Where there is no gratitude - and the effort that gratitude demands -- all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in. (p. 277)
Jonah wants to stay away from arguments about God -- the very first sentence of the book is "There is no God in this book." But he doesspend considerable time acknowledging the extent to which Christianity is responsible for putting the circumstances in place that allowed the Miracle to occur. ("The Miracle" for Jonah is our modern systems of constitutional democracy and capitalism that have unleashed prosperity since the 18th century.) He even allows that Christianity was a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for the Miracle to happen:
Despite all this, the case is often made that Christianity gets the credit for the Miracle. And, in broad strokes, I am open to the idea that without Christianity, the Miracle may never have happened. But that is not quite the same argument as Christianity caused the Miracle (and it certainly did not intend it). However, the lesser claim, that Christianity was a necessary ingredient, certainly seems likely. (p. 109)
For Jonah, it is far more important thatthe Miracle happened than whyit happened. But this inclination to avoid drawing conclusions concerning the causal origins of the Miracle has implications for his prescription for sustaining the Miracle. For then the only thing we can do is maintain those circumstances as best we can, as we have no way of knowing what other circumstances might also support the Miracle. That is the price of an ignorance of causal origins. (There is irony here insofar as the hallmark of Western civilization, and perhaps necessary to the Miracle itself, is the Western determination to not remain satisfied with material circumstance but seek and find the causal origins of those circumstances.)
Jonah's solution for what ails us is:
Just as any civilization that was created by ideas can be destroyed by ideas, so can the conservative movement. That is why the cure for what ails us is dogma. The only solution to our woes is for the West to re-embrace the core ideas that made the Miracle possible, not just as a set of policies, but as a tribal attachment, a dogmatic commitment. (p. 344)
The problem is that, unlike our forebears, Jonah is a fideist with respect to liberal principles:
We tell ourselves that humans have natural or God-given rights. Where is the proof -- the physical, tangible, visible proof? Don't tell me a story; show me the evidence. The fact is we have rights because some believe they are in fact God-given, but far more people believe we should act as ifthey are God-given or in some other way "real." (p. 83)
and
The simple fact is that the existence of natural rights, like the existence of God Himself, requires a leap of faith. (p. 142)
The Founders did not hold the existence of rights as a matter of faith. They either offered arguments for their existence (that's the whole point of Locke's exploration of the state of nature), or took those rights to be self-evidently true (as in the Declaration of Independence). To hold something self-evidently is not to hold it on faith; quite the opposite. It is to hold it as so obviously true that it is in no need of argumentation.
Jonah misunderstands the role of dogma. The object of dogma is not ideasbutfacts. "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights..." are not proposed as useful ideas to support a liberal dispensation, but as significant facts about the world that must be respected - and from which various ideas about the proper relationship of man to his government may be drawn, among other ideas.
The point is that Jonah's prescription does not recreate the circumstances under which the Miracle was born: Those circumstances involved holding things like natural rights as facts, not as the useful fictions Jonah proposes. Since Jonah denies knowledge of the causal origins of the Miracle, he owes us an explanation of why the circumstances he proposes will support the Miracle as well as did the original circumstances under which it occurred.
This question extends to the cultural background of the Miracle. Jonah lists many of the cultural legacies of Christianity that contributed to the Miracle:
I have tried to keep God out of this book, but, as a sociological entity, God can't be removed from it. I start the story of the Miracle in the 1700s, because that is where prosperity started to take off like a rocket. But a rocket doesn't materialize from thin air on a launchpad. The liftoff is actually the climax of a very long story. (p. 331)
Christianity, in other words, introduced the idea that we are born into a state of natural equality (p. 332)
Christianity performed another vital service. It created the idea of the secular. (p. 332)
But Christians do not hold natural equality and the division of the sacred from the secular on the grounds that they are really good ideas. They hold them because God Himself walked this Earth and showed that He is no respecter of persons, and this same God ordered us to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's. How will those ideas be sustained absent the convictions that made them historically relevant? Jonah recounts the famous account of Henry IV and his penitential trek to Canossa, but would Henry have submitted if he thought the secular/sacred division merely an historically useful fiction rather than the command of the living God? Jonah calls on us to close our eyes, grit our teeth, and simply believe really hard in liberal principles. It's unlikely such a will to believe can successfully replace historic Christian faith (or the Deistic faith of the Founders).
There is evidence of this in Suicide of the Westitself. Jonah recognizes the benefits of the traditional family:
Our problems today can be traced to the fact that we no longer have gratitude for the Miracle and for the institutions and customs that made it possible. Where there is no gratitude - and the effort that gratitude demands - all manner of resentments and hostilities flood back in. Few actually hatethe traditional nuclear family or the role it plays. But many are indifferent to it. And indifference alone is enough to invite the rust of human nature back in. (p. 277)
But of what use is Jonah's gratitude for the traditional nuclear family? His support for gay marriage -- "marriage equality" -- is well known. But if two mommies are as good as a mommy and a daddy, then fathers are dispensable to the family. And if they are, indifference to the traditional family structure seems entirely appropriate. Jonah's gratitude for the traditional family offers no resistance to the most basic attacks on that family. How different it is for those who hold that the family, composed of a mother, father, and children, is an institution ordained by God, one that is prior to the state and that does not depend on the fickle will to believe of man for its existence.
Jonah ends the book with a declaration of the choice before us:
Decline is a choice. Principles, like gods, die when no one believes in them anymore. p. 351
I prefer: Principles die when no one believes anymore in the God who sustains them.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Random Notes on Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now

I'm reading Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now. Herewith are some random notes:

p. 234 - Pinker is discussing knowledge and sociology:

Do better-educated countries get richer, or can richer countries afford more education? One way to cut the knot is to take advantage of the fact that a cause must precede its effect. (emphasis mine)
It's clear from earlier in the book that Pinker has no brief for metaphysics as classically conceived.  The thing about classical metaphysics is that it is necessary whether you like it or not. The consequence is that metaphysics-haters cannot avoid metaphysics no matter how much they try, and must eventually let metaphysical concepts slip in, consciously or not. A cause must precede its effect is a 100 proof metaphysical concept. And as Pinker's example inadvertently admits, it is more surely known than any scientific conclusions because it is part of the intellectual framework that makes science possible in the first place.

A metaphysical analysis might reflect on a cause must precede its effect and note that it is not precisely articulated. Causes and effects are actually simultaneous. The effect of education is an educated person and it happens at the moment of education. Later on, an educated person may be the cause of riches, so we may loosely talk about education causing riches.

-----------

p. 235 - "Better educated girls grow up to have fewer babies, and so are less likely to beget youth bulges with their surfeit of troublemaking young men."

The thrust of Pinker's book is that Enlightenment values and methods have contributed to unprecedented progress over the last few hundred years. And that is certainly true. But, as Chesterton has pointed out, the only way to measure "progress" is to have a stable measure of progress over time. In Chesterton's example, if we decided the world would be better if it was painted green, and we all began to splash green paint everywhere, what would happen if we then decided the world would be better if it were blue? Then all our work painting it green was wasted and we had really made no progress at all.

Up to the time of the Enlightenment (and actually, until very recently) , there was universal agreement that children were a blessing, and  indeed among the greatest of blessings. God promised Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous of the stars, and Abraham didn't think it a burden. One of the great achievements of the modern era (one that Pinker emphasizes) is the massive reduction in child mortality over the past 200 years.

And yet, if you had told an Enlightenment philosopher in the year 1770 that one of the great achievements of Western society in the year 2018 would be that many people desired few or no descendants, he'd be puzzled. How is that progress? And if you further told him that mothers would regularly kill their unborn children in order to avoid having a child, he'd be even further puzzled. And he would be positively flabbergasted if you told him the replacement rate of France, Spain and Italy was such that in a few generations Frenchmen, Spaniards and Italians would disappear altogether.

The thing is, the notion of progress is a philosophical one, and those who refuse to reason philosophically end up in places they never dreamed of.

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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Sam Harris Free Will Thought Experiment


Tooling around youtube I came along this video of a an exercise Sam Harris offered as a practical refutation of free will.

The exercise Harris advocates is essentially this: He asks you to think of a city, any city, in the world, without any constraints. Once you have done so, Harris claims that this choice, if anything, would be an example of the exercise of free will. He then proceeds to debunk the choice as free by arguing that it wasn't really free. I won't rehearse all the reasons he provides (the video is only about 6 minutes), but his arguments all boil down to showing that the choice must have had a cause, even if we are unaware of the cause. For instance, you may have chosen Paris as your city because it happened to bubble up out of your subconscious, and that bubbling was a function of the fact that you once travelled to Paris and have fond memories. The point is that we mistakenly think the choice was "free" because we think we chose it arbitrarily, when in actuality the cause was driven by psychological factors of which we were simply unaware.

Harris's exercise involves a typical misunderstanding of what is meant by "free will", or rather, what the classical philosophers meant by calling man free. They did not mean that human will is an uncaused caused, which is what Harris seems to think it must mean. That would simply be to mistake man for God, Who is the only possible uncaused cause.

Man's will is classically understood to be free not because it is uncaused, but because it can have rational causes rather than irrational ones. Specifically, man can rationally judge means and the relationship of means to ends, and choose a course of action based on that judgement. (This is what Plato meant by saying "the truth shall make you free.") It is in the exercise of rationally considered action that man's freedom is manifest, not in the allegedly arbitrary choice of a meaningless selection as in Harris's exercise. A classical philosopher would not dispute that the choice made by a person in Harris's exercise is not free - in that sense, Harris is not showing anything new. But they would point out that they never thought such a choice was free in a significant sense in any case.

To flesh these points out, consider the difference between a beaver building a dam and a man building a dam. The beaver builds a dam by instinct. When it hears the sound of running water, it attempts to stop the sound by piling sticks and mud on it - even in cases where it makes no sense to do so. (For example, playing the sound of running water beneath a concrete floor will cause beavers to pile mud and sticks over the sound on the dry concrete). The beaver builds the dam the same way every time, by piling up sticks and mud, and will keep building them the same way.

The beaver is not free in its dam building. It's not free when it builds the dam (the end), because it simply starts building a dam at the sound of running water, nor is it free in how it builds (the means), for it does it the same way every time by piling up mud and sticks.

Now consider man building a dam, for example Hoover Dam. Man did not build this dam because he happened to hear the sound of running water once and automatically started piling sticks on it. The dam was built after a long, rational consideration of ends that might be achieved with the dam - hydroelectricity and the recreational possibilities of Lake Mead among others. Once the end was selected, the means were then considered. The dam could be build out of a variety of materials and in a variety of places. Concrete for the material was selected and a particular spot on the Colorado river was chosen - and not because an engineer picked the location "freely" by just letting a location pop into his head, but as the result of a detailed investigation of hydrology and the anticipated consequences of various locations.

Eventually the construction began and the Hoover Dam was built and it stands as a monument to the freedom of man, which means the freedom to know the truth and to act according to it. It doesn't mean to act in some purely arbitrary manner. That is the degenerate freedom that has unfortunately become the vision of freedom of that has captured the imagination of modern man.

Know the truth and it shall make you free.