I have another guest post over at Let a Thousand Nations Bloom. In this one, I make a tenuous association between economics and cosmology -- but hopefully one that will set folks to thinking. A sliver:
Let’s just put it out there: There is an optimum range for economic dynamism, diversity and complexity determined by rules. If our economic rule-sets are too complicated and cumbersome, we won’t get flourishing. There will be distortions and perversions at best. If our economic rulesets are underdeveloped or ambiguous, economic actors will not be able to regularize their behavior so as to lower transaction costs and focus on innovation. As with the laws of nature, there is a sweet spot in the set of all possible rulesets, which gives rise to maximum complexity and diversity. If we can agree that a complex, diverse economy is likely to result in concomitant opportunity and prosperity, then maybe we should turn our attention to those rules in the sweet spot that yield complexity and diversity.
I just came across an ongoing debate between Bryan Caplan and Robin Hanson. The usually razor-sharp Caplan may be out of his element on this one, as he responds again to Hanson's response here. It will be fun to share some thoughts on this. First, here's a sliver of Caplan's position:
In any case, suppose we took neurology as seriously as Robin claims to. The right lesson to draw would be that thoughts and feelings require a biological brain. There's no way you can dissect a brain, then infer that a computer program that simulated that brain would really be conscious. That makes about as much sense as dissecting a human brain, then inferring that a computer program that simulated a brain could, like a real brain, be poured over a fire to extinguish it.
Philosophy is not for everyone. Nor is it, generally, for economists. But let me see if I can offer a few pointers to those, like Caplan, who would wade into these debates:
First, if you believe in disembodied souls, this is not the debate for you. Why? Because a commitment to the existence to non-physical substances is not something we can argue about unless we can agree on the meaning of terms like 'physical' and 'substance'--i.e. a basic agreement on what it means to be physical. A substance is a) something that exists, and b) something that is causally efficacious. Turns out both of these are necessary properties of physical things. The Cartesian would disagree with such tautologies for reasons of faith in souls. And faith is usually a philosophical conversation killer.
Now, let's see if I can dredge up basic criteria for physicalism (that way we don't have to trifle with lingering Cartesianism) and let the debate be about the relationship between mental and physical properties. I seem to remember some criteria, though admittedly it has been over a decade since I did any work on this: I) That which exists, is physical, which is also to be causal. For something to be physical is to exert itself causally in the universe -- some how, some way. Descartes spoke of "substances" that were non-physical, causally interacting with the world through the "penial gland". But as we said above, this is absurd. That which exists is physical. Similarly, the universe is causally closed--that is, no physical event has a cause outside of the physical domain (e.g. what's wrong with Cartesianism). Ps can cause Ps and Ps can cause Ms. But no Ms can cause anything. II) Supervenience.The mental supervenes on the physical. The relationship of supervenience is critical because it unpacks the tight ontological connection between some mental state M and the underlying physical state P (for, say, experience z). Any change in M will necessitate a change in underlying P, but not the reverse. The supervenience relationship is asymmetrical for the reasons Hanson suggests. (For example: silicon or other substances could instantiate certain causal-physical properties normally instantiated by biological gray matter. Bryan's software example is unideal because it intuitively distracts us from how M would be instantiated in the new P stuff (call it P'.) After all, lines of code are not instantiators, but information about what is to be instantiated in some physical stuff--like an android.
III) Dependency. The mental is dependent on the physical in the sense that no mental event can arise independently of some causal-physical substrate.
It may seem as if I'm being unfair with these criteria. But these seem to me to be basics of any respectable mind-body physicalism. So, Hanson may be correct that life extension is possible through replicating causal-physical processes a la functionalism. In fact, the real arguments lie in questions of whether mental properties are identical with causal-physical properties of the brain (rather than m/p identity of early physicalism). Hanson's life extension is basically a functionalist view, where the causal-physical properties of, say, "Bryan Caplan" are preserved (where "Bryan Caplan" is the sum of all the M(s)).
Now, there are associated problems of identity -- such as the persistence problem Hanson highlights in this video. But these are mostly separate problems. We may have to live with the fact that the referent "Bryan Caplan" is a collection of mental properties that are identical with certain causal-physical processes--all of which can be duplicated (even replicated time and again) in other forms of matter. (Imagine a bifurcating tree of Bryan Caplans, each of which will have their own superscripts (prime, double-prime, etc.) after replication.) In any case, I think all this boils down to the fact that Robin Hanson is a functionalist and Bryan Caplan is a dualist, who, unless he espouses some slippery (and obscure) form of dualism (like Chalmers's) believes in, well, spirits in the material world.
Sid and I were out walking today. We often come across the fairly large fire ant mounds. I showed my age once when I mentioned that I don't remember seeing them as a child. That's because they weren't here in North Carolina as I was growing up. But they're here now - having come from South America. And they're wicked little beasties (Sid's already had them swarm his foot twice and he's only 2.) So today, Sid and I threw rocks on them for the sake of a crude experiment.
These ants are examples of evolutionary perfection. To those who fully understand evolution, "evolutionary perfection" is a bit oxymoronic. To be alive on this planet here and now is evidence of Darwinian success. But what I mean is: to see these quick, vicious, constructive and highly cooperative ants in action? It sure is a sight to behold. I am simultaneously repulsed by them, of course. Admiration and revulsion all at once is a strange feeling. But at least now I understand E. O. Wilson's lifelong preoccupation.
Ant colonies are complex systems. That remarkable level of coordination is carried out by chemical signals firing among them rapidly. The chemicals and pheromones are like code and they are like distributed hardware nodes in a network of constructive or destructive behavior--as it benefits their colony. I see lots of good analogies with human organization, but important differences, too (agency).
In any case, I thought I'd share my reverence for these nasty little creatures with my handful of readers.
Apparently some physicists at Duke and Penn have unified some structural/functional laws of living creatures and inorganic features of our world:
What they believe connects the two worlds is a theory that flow systems - from animal locomotion to the formation of river deltas -- evolve in time to balance and minimize imperfections. Flows evolve to reduce friction or other forms of resistance, so that they flow more easily with time. This view has been termed the constructal law, which Bejan first stated 13 years ago.
With the help of Marden, Bejan believes that he has now unified both the biological and geophysical principles of nature's design through the constructal law, which can also be viewed as the physics of evolution.
Read the piece. Now if we could get a unifying theory of human organization and complex systems, which I've been pimpin' on this site for a little while now... I like that this theory has to do with FLOW. I also like the concept of "friction reduction"' for society, as well, which I believe institutions based on non-harm would give rise to (if we could evolve past the linear notions of power and control by governments, towards full voluntary association). Hat tip: Mark Frazier.
... which I wrote originally for the Fund for the Study of Spontaneous Orders Conference (on Spontaneous Order). Anyone interested in complex systems, economics and needs some bathroom reading, please feel free to download and print.
I've been writing about the free will issue for a while and, by gum, I'm still a determinist libertarian. I may be the only one. Passing over the apparent paradoxes, I recently came across this piece thanks to Tom Clark of Naturalism.org. In it Sue Blackmore of TheGuardian writes:
For example, our legal system is largely based on belief in free will, which leads us into all kinds of tangles. For example, we accept that people who are too young or mentally disturbed are not responsible for their actions and should not be punished, while everyone else is. But then along comes evidence that, for example, Mr G carries the "murderer gene", or Ms T's kleptomania was caused by pre-natal trauma, or that Mr F couldn't resist the advertisements for sweet foods that made him violent. What do we do? We try to protect the idea of free will, while the possible space for its operation shrinks. The combine harvester comes round again and the terrified field mice squeal "But you can't take away our consciousness and our free will! The world will fall apart, our legal system will be destroyed, all hell will break loose."
Like many naturalists, I say it won't, and it is high time we faced up to the changes we need to make. We can do this personally by practising not thinking in terms of free will. We can do it communally by realising that our legal system can punish wrongdoers not because they could have done otherwise and freely chose to be bad, but because some punishments are effective. Indeed, I believe this approach would be better. Instead of asking how much punishment someone deserves, we should ask what actions we can take to make this person behave better in the future, and others not follow this bad example. More constructive use of prison and other kinds of sentences might even result.
I largely agree. I might even take it further: I think it's high time we pass to a condition in which we moved away from the criminal and toward the clinical. That's not to say there won't be "tangles" here too, but it's to argue that if, in principle, there are physiological underpinnings (whether due to nature, nurture or a mix) to violent or harmful behaviors, then these are in some sense "curable." Just as not all diseases are curable in practice, not all criminal pathologies/congenital illnesses will be either. But they are in principle at least--which should should set us on a path to looking for remedies. Therefore, it's also time we moved ourselves closer to a research paradigm in which people are actually investigating these "illnesses." Whether we look at violent offenses as the result of moral failings or psycho-chemical compulsions, offenders should still be removed from society. So what does mens rea add in these instances?
Lest I run afoul of any Szaszians, let me say that the relationship between neurochemistry and behavior is very close and this relationship offers us something more than folk psychology (cum the 1950s lobotomy) to justify treatment. Indeed, that's the whole idea. Science has come a long way and can go a lot further. Anyway, more on this later. I should admit I am somewhat uncomfortable with the idea of a board of appointed neuroscientists empowered to determine folks' fate outside the judicial system. I agree this presents problems of a legal and political nature. Though ones not insoluble, perhaps.
Note: I like seeing all these evangelical atheists like Blackmore and Hitchens in the press lately, though I'm not one. Spread your wings. My Christian friends and I prefer that we tolerate each other mutually, which is good for me being in an athiest minority. But I did squirm enough as a child being "witnessed to" and so forth by fundamentalists--enough to appreciate a little theological tit for tat in the press. In any case, Sue Blackmore, who has a great combine harvester metaphor in the piece cited above, would have much more fun writing in the States than in Britain. There's just so much more fodder here. Or should I say there are more "field mice"? Our free market in religion (separation of church and state) has ensured religious flourishing, for better or worse. In any case, trying to convince the deluded that they may also be delusional is much more important when it comes to those who worship Government. Those who worship God aren't really doing anyone any harm, these days.