Monday, June 19, 2017

Why Should We Believe In The Truth

David Hume

There are two main rivers in modern thought. One is the English Philosophy based on a misreading of Hume. The English Philosophy emphasizes epistemology. What's the point of having weird objects if we can't learn anything about them? The other is the European Philosophy, and is - coincidentally - based on a separate misreading of Hume. It emphasizes ontology, the question of what kinds of objects exist. Epistemology is easy - if reliable witnesses exist the whole problem is solved.

Richard Rorty

Two sub flows within these rivers are called "ordinary language philosophy" and "pragmatism".

Pragmatism is primarily concerned with the reduction of the big concepts like Truth and Justice to simpler practical and evolutionary concepts. It began, like all philosophy, with the Socratic attempt to show that a truly good man will - by divine coincidence - be satisfied, if not happy.

Richard Rorty was one of pragmatism's ablest modern adherents. Rorty holds (with men like Peirce, James and Dewey) that, to quote Peirce, "The truth is a kind of efficiency.". Rorty gathered and sharpened weapons from all over philosophy and even science to defend his vision. He is almost infamous for using humor and sarcasm (saints be) to denigrate the "bad, old philosophy" that holds that there is something like Truth or even a first person point of view.

G K Chesterton

Pragmatist philosophy is reformist and scolding. You betta get rid of dis Truth jazz or you'll tie yaself in stupid knots. Contrariwise, the philosophy of ordinary language is conservative. The philosopher of ordinary language operates on the theory that languages and linguistic communities are highly evolved things and a lone philosopher far more likely to be muddleheaded than an entire linguistic community. Such a philosopher says, with Chesterton, "Dick, my friend, it will do you no good to tell me you don't what good Truth is. Only when you can tell me you do understand, will I let you fiddle around.".

To such a person, that Rorty, Peirce, James & Dewey's theories are wrong is as plain as South Dakota. The fact is, when ordinary people use the word "true". Let me give an example.



You can hear it, right? Darth Vader clearly says "Search your heart. You know it to be true!". He is referring to an event that happened in the past, not in the future. Certainly not future efficiency. All the pragmatist theories of the truth just don't correspond to a theory of how the word truth is used. All of Rorty's irony and sarcasm can't overcome the fact that this is the concept used and no other. He may as well mock those bad, old philosophers who have only two eyes.

Rorty the reformer comes in and says "Very well, sure he thinks he used that concept. But he really shouldn't. He certainly shouldn't say 'Search your heart.'. Vader should say 'If you think I killed your father, your fascination with the Dark Side will become mysterious and difficult.'. The important thing is not that Vader fathered Luke in the past, but what that means for the future.".

Charles Darwin

This is wrong. The concept of backwards looking capital T Truth did not evolve in this way or for this reason. Languages evolve in many ways. We know, for instance, that high dimensional signals are more stable in come signalling games than simple ones. In other words, mathematics teaches us that the birds sing beautifully. That sure is kind of it.

Math teaches us more than this. We know from the detailed analysis of signalling games by people like John Maynard Smith, David Lewis and Brian Skyrms when communities evolve meaningful signalling. Truth in language is a repeatedly evolved strategy for dealing with ambiguity. An ambiguous situation for a speaker & listener pair is one with many approximately equally likely outcomes. Communication becomes meaningful because the speaker can lead or mislead the listener.


Where Rorty is right is that the concept of Truth is instantiated in the world for pragmatic, evolutionary reasons. Forward looking ones. But he blunders by saying that it is thus for true sentences - blunders into ordinary, boring error. Backwards and outwards looking Truth exists and is useful - maybe even occasionally used in situations not so important.


Why does Rorty make this mistake? One is that if he were to admit Truth he would have to admit ethics. If backwards looking Truth is so dang useful, Truth ought to be made into a habit - this is the essence of pragmatism, the reduction of things to practicality. If Truth exists, then philosophy is not just a kind of writing, but an instructive kind of writing. Philosophy should encourage us to be reliable witnesses (not necessarily perfectly reliable). Heck, one might even say that if reliable witnesses exist, then the whole problem would be solved...

This would go against Rorty's biggest conviction. Rorty was a "structuralist". His view of society was that it was like a giant building, maybe a library. Sure, sometimes a book got out of place. Maybe there are mice or cockroaches to be exterminated. But overall, society as an organic whole is organized and everything has its place. He often talked of people being "programmed by their linguistic community" to use certain sentences. This is implicit social science ... the worst kind of social science.

In reality, communities are dynamic, evolving and structurally indeterminate. Further, even if a structure is in place, that doesn't mean that it implies anything on the individual level. A particle of water wanders randomly, perhaps quickly perhaps slowly, through a stationary cloud of fog...

Nannerl, Wolfgang, Anna Maria and Leopold Mozart

The so-called 'classical' style of music was meant to emulate the perceived simplicity and grace of ancient - or 'classical' - art (that it bore no resemblance to the music of those time was just a bonus). The best practitioners, such as CPE Bach, Joseph Haydn or Wolfgang Mozart, used stereotyped finger movements and chordal patterns to build large musical pieces quickly and have them played clearly. But it does not follow that a moderate amount of knowledge of this musical language makes Mozart's music predictable. Musical language is not a simple Markov process. Musical language sits on the top of Chomsky's linguistic hierarchy. Pretending that Mozart was just pushed by this social structure or that linguistic community is pseudo-scientific if it doesn't give us good hypothesis about Mozart's music.

Once we move beyond a structural equilibrium analysis, we can see that truth in signalling games is both common and observed. Individual and their problems come back into sight. Only then is the Truth plain.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Prolegomenon To Any Future Endogenous Growth: A Review Of Robert Solow's Siena Lectures

Robert Solow

This book is set of six lectures on the Theory Of Endogenous Growth given by Robert Solow at the University Of Siena in Tuscany, Italy in 1992. These lectures are extremely excellent: clear, perceptive and brilliant. Anyone who reads them will have a better idea what is right and (more importantly) what is wrong with this area of economics. Solow has a brilliant technical command of his subject, a philosophical wisdom about his profession and - it must be said - a brilliant way with words. I would strongly recommend this book to anyone, even if the only relationship with neoclassical economics they desire is spitting on its grave. The only caveat is that the lectures make fairly steep assumptions about the reader's ability to read math.

So, what is the Theory Of Endogenous Growth? To answer this, let's start with a simpler question - "What is Growth Theory?". To answer this, we will (somewhat artificially) divide all the thoughts and models of the broad economy into two parts: sickness and health. The theory of depressions & recessions, of inflations and deflations, of coordination failures throughout supply chains, etc. etc. etc. are the theories of sickness. One can study the sources of sickness - monetary & fiscal policy mistakes, movements of aggregate demand, unpredictable policies, sheer complexity of the economic system, unforeseeable economic shocks, etc..

Roy Harrod


This list of problems seem formidable obstacles to any economy, like mountains of disease. Back in the late 30's and yearly 40's, economist Roy Harrod formalized these ideas and found two major sources of illness in a (closed, growing) economy. These sources are: 1) the difference between expected investment and actual savings and 2) the difference between "natural" and actual growth rates. In 1956, Solow demonstrated that these two sources were actually one - if expected investment were always equal to actual savings (by some miracle), then the actual growth rate would also be the natural growth rate. By abstracting away from money and the business cycle, Solow was able to collapse all of the old theory into a few simple equations - simple enough to be checked against the data. The only problem is, of course, the assumptions of the theory are quite wrong...

Following Solow's ideas like greyhounds after a lure, the neoclassical theorists of growth - which is now Growth Theory tout court - abstracts from the business cycle and treats so-called "long run growth" (spooky scary scare-quotes roam across the land...). As a stylized fact, this growth is exponential, which simplifies analysis. All we really care about is the relations between various rates.



There are two unpleasant things about Solow's model.

One I've already outlined - it doesn't even talk about recessions, depressions and other moments of ill health. Why make the heroic assumption that all is right in the Keynesio-Monetarist side of the economy? Perhaps it Solow's natural Roosevelt-Truman WWII American optimism against Harrod's decline of the British Empire pessimism. Perhaps it was because Solow was just entering his 30s and Harrod was leaving his 30s. Whatever the cause, we will leave this alone.

The second is that the theory describes relations between the rates but doesn't give any reason that the rates should be one number and not another. No matter what stripe of economist you are, the natural growth rate of the economy should be given by something in the economy, not just postulated and "measured" (I hope you find these scare-quotes frightening!). When a parameter is given as part of the structure of a model it is called 'exogenous'. If a parameter is a exogenous to a model, then that model says nothing of interest about that parameter. Yet the growth rate matters to the central banker or politician as well - in the unemployment rate goes up or down how do we know it's because of a deep, permanent shift in the economy as opposed to a shallow slide that needs to be corrected so that it doesn't become an avalanche?

This second problem, of taking growth rate as a prediction instead of a predictor, would satisfy more souls. When a parameter is derived from it is called 'endogenous'. Therefore, this is the problem of 'Endogenous Growth'.


Trevor Swan

The Siena lectures begin with a lecture on merely Exogenous Growth Theory. The first chapter is a sort of refresher course with some subtle points that Solow will use in the other lectures. Solow exposits the now traditional Neoclassical Growth Theory from two perspectives: a "maximizing" perspective which emphasizes its Neoclassical & Theoretical aspects and a "behavioristic" perspective which emphasizes its Keynesian & Positive aspects

 In my earlier post, I talked about a textbook which emphasized the "behavioristic" Keynesian & Positive approach. The "behavioristic" approach has the disadvantage that some of the steps are purposefully arbitrary. It cannot really be extended, since every possible function is (in theory) allowed. Supposedly, we just filch a consumption function and check against the data. In reality, we take the consumption function from the other approach.

This arbitrariness is reduced very slightly in the "maximizing" Neoclassical & Theoretical approach. In this approach, the consumption function is derived by a bit of calculus from a utility function (a function which tells how satisfied the household is with a particular path of consumption over time) - which is itself arbitrary. Solow has some fun teasing the utility function ("a peasant household ... which goes on forever, with consistent preferences"). The only purely scientific advantage of the "maximizing" approach is that it suggests (to some) ways to extend to new theoretical vistae. Solow is forced to include the "maximizing" approach because such a vista is the goal of "Endogenous Growth Theory".

Solow concludes his exposition of Neoclassical Growth Theory with a brief summary. Consumption per head grows at exactly the rate of labor augmenting technological progress (given by the gods and the kings). The stock of capital grows at the rate of labor augmenting technological progress  plus the rate of population growth (given by the same folk). Output grows at the same rate.

Robert Lucas

Solow begins the development of Endogenous Growth Theory with a bit of a trick. He does not show Lucas's 1988 Endogenous Growth Theory model. Instead, he modifies the utility function (which, remember, is arbitrary) of that model slightly (perhaps Lucas would prefer "slightly" in scare-quotes). In Lucas's model, every moment not spent working is spent learning. That rate of learning feeds forward into the growth rate. The growth rate is now endogenous, determined by this learning rate. In this new Solow-Lucas model, consumers can enjoy leisure.

The result is illustratively disastrous. No matter how small the enjoyment rate of leisure is, the consumer will always take enough leisure to cancel out any endogenity of the growth. The model is not continuous in the parameter that gives the rate at which one enjoys leisure. At zero exactly, there is endogenous growth, away from zero - no matter how slightly - only exogenous growth is seen.

Solow demonstrates this very carefully and with great insight. But this result would not be shocking to anyone with mathematical ability. There is no reason to assume these extrema are continuous in every parameter. It doesn't take much thought to notice that fastest route between two points is teleportation. But it does spell grave difficulties for any supposed theory of endogenous growth. Without continuity one cannot have approximability. Even drunken man can approximate a straight line home but what does it even mean to approximate teleportation home? Nothing. This is destructive to the positive point of view. If you believe in the Lucas's 1988 Endogenous Growth Theory model, it no longer makes any sense whatsoever to think of the assumptions as maybe right-ish and test them out, one must be correct in a very divine way about the Solow Leisure Parameter being zero.

Paul Romer


In the third through fifth lecture, Solow examines and dissects various other endogenous growth models. This includes a Paul Romer model in which increasing varieties of capital goods determine growth, a Grossman-Helpman model where increasing knowledge allows one to make more and a greater variety of goods and an Aghion-Howitt model where innovations arrive randomly. All of these introduce further knife-edge assumptions to the stock neoclassical assumptions. Romer's paper is dependent on a particular institutional structure, Grossman-Helpma's paper demands a very particular function for the growth of knowledge on pain of producing infinite goods in finite time, the Aghion-Howitt model is contains many extremely arbitrary and unmeasurable elements - including the painful fact that endogenity is assumed rather than being a natural feature of the model.

Solow states and implies that these difficulties are representative of the endogenous growth theoretical literature. As far as I am aware, this is still true.

Robert Summers


In the sixth and final chapter, Solow looks over what was then the latest growth data. A cliche among investors states "Information is worth money, so macro data is free.". While not quite true, it isn't more misleading than a cliche should be. More over, since the endogenous growth models are related in very complex and non-continuous ways to exogenous growth models and each other, even with heroic assumptions the data do not distinguish among the models very well. It is my understanding that while the quantity and quality of data have improved significantly. However, this cannot fix the mathematical difficulties around discontinuity.



Robert Solow

This book has much to recommend it as an introduction and critique of the methods & minds within modern neoclassical growth theory. I feel that the real message of this book is that if we really want to understand growth, what we need is an empirically grounded micro-macro understanding of the actual process of innovation as it really occurs rather than piling arbitrary assumption on heroic assumption. Many - such as the philosopher Karl Popper - believe there is no scientific pattern to this across countries or over time. If so, a lot of high powered economists are chasing waterfalls...

Monday, June 5, 2017

Mozart, Wagner And Trash: A Review Of Shaw On Music

 George Bernard Shaw in 1894, when he ended his regular music column

There are two sorts of persons: Platonists and Aristotleans. A Platonist is the sort that has an idea of how things ought to be, whether it is a piano recital or a state. As such, every movie, book, nation, planet and computer program could be perfect but imperfection in execution prevents it. The critic is always and everywhere a Platonist, while res publica are not a person. An Aristotlean is an impassive sort who prefers what he likes and avoids what he dislikes not on any scale but simply as the offers vary. Platonists dominate our discourse despite probably not dominating us numerically. The only chance that Aristotleanism is allowed to speak up is when someone wants to give a Platonist view of what a critic "ought to be" - they should be strict Aristoleans when they oppose me and powerful Platonists when they are with me.

This book, a collection of writings on music written by George Bernard Shaw - the mad genius of the Fabians - is full of the indignant Platonist howling that the loftiest love song of Mozart must vibrate through a stuffy prima donna's undeserving vocal chords. Such a collection is valuable for two reasons: First, because Shaw is equally comfortable analyzing, contextualizing and criticizing Mozart at his best as he is among the submucousal glands of the throat; Second, because Shaw is a great writer whose venom and sweetness would have value even if he used them like Pauline Kael (randomly and without accuracy).

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart


Bernard Shaw claims multiple times in this book that he learned drama from music - from the evidence he gives this is likely true. But he worms music halfway to drama by having little patience for instrumental music. Shaw's interest is in singer/actors and his demands are rigorous: they must sing both Mozart and Wagner both perfectly and easily, they must show absolute selflessness by never requesting a bit of musical show off nor a bit of ham acting, they must always both mentally be in the scene artificed around them and of course they absolutely must have the same Platonic concept of the work as Shaw. Shaw, like most critics, can forgive any of the sins except the last.

I am of the opposite opinion, musically (and on a great deal besides). I think singing is somewhat annoying and doubt that any piece of singing longer than a few minutes could ever be worth hearing. Meanwhile, I could listen to hours of "absolute music" - as music without singing is so inaccurately called - without boredom. I have no interest in opera or music drama and positively dislike musicals.

When Shaw says "The music of the 18th century is all dance music", he speaks the truth as far as the sentence goes. But when he extends beyond this he finds that it must imply that all "absolute" music is without ideas. This is just misplaced concreteness. One might as well say that because books were originally written speeches they can contain no ideas. If we followed Shaw's rationalization to its end, the only piece of absolute music is Handel's "Water Music" - a bit of background music for some wealthy landlord. And maybe it is. If so, we need some new word for the work of Bach, Brahms or Duke Ellington.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner


Anyone for whom music is primarily a dramatic art form must believe that singing is the supreme art and composing lyrics for the voice the best possible poetry. Shaw, compelled by this logic, compares Shakespear (Shaw always spells the English Guillaume's name in this fashion) to Wagner to Shakespear's loss. When Juliet comes to stage to moon over Romeo she launches into a quite unrealistic mannered legalistic musing on the nature of names and naming. Shaw, who presumably has much experience in this area, tells us not what a young lady would do in this situation. Wagner, meanwhile, may have Isolde merely sing "Oh Tristan, Tristan, My Tristan, Tristan!" over and over again in pleasant metrical pattern. Much more realistic, says Shaw.

This is not a high standard for realism.



Shaw's dramatic music love is not just for drama but specifically German drama. For him, opera essentially begins with Gluck who taught the Italians not to bow to their prime donne and write appropriately dramatic music. The opera then reached its height with Mozart, for whom form and expression were as simple and affectationless as breath and defecation. Opera was then fortunately destroyed by Wagner, who - instead of worrying terribly about which chord followed what and smoothing out rhythms - simply played whatever music the poem called for at a moments notice. If this should be in D and that in E-Flat, so much the worse for D and E-flat.

Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi

Shaw's dislike for Italy is so deep that he has difficulty praising Verdi (incapable of writing for the voice) even as he grudgingly admits Falstaff is a masterpiece. This essay is a masterpiece in the form of "the critic angered by greatness". Nothing sets up the ire of the Platonist as the brilliant and successful pursuit of someone else's goals.

To give another example, it is obvious that Shaw's immense dislike of Rossini is a dislike not of Rossini's methods (which he disparages extensively and accurately) but of Rossini's goals. Rossini is writing neither for himself, musicians nor for thinkers but for that hideous abstraction "the common man". Shaw detects that Rossini thinks even less of the common man than even Shaw himself - this is more certainly more true and more damning than any technical detail Shaw hauls out.

Shaw in 1879, when he published his first novel

Shaw is an inveterate author, which is rather different from being a writer. He doesn't just fill up column space. Shaw is always noticing something concrete when listening to abstract music and deriving abstract thought from the concrete scenes. Anyone who has read The Perfect Wagnerite has seen the second but it is the first which occupies most of this volume. A trip to Bayreuth in 1894 brings pages of invective against the shoddy craftsmanship of German instruments and attacks on the competence of German singers (though he praises their instructors - the first essay makes clear why this seeming contradiction holds). As a result, Shaw is often most interesting when he leaves behind his subject. For instance, during an essay on Beethoven, he gives the best and only definition of jazz - "the old dance band, Beethoveniszed". This is no defect.

Shaw was - as a matter of course -  completely mad. But he was also brilliant. This pose isn't a general review of his thought and writing. If I could take the time, I would recommend The Perfect Wagnerite, his brief but excellent Fabian Essays on economics, the 1938 movie Pygmalion and a bit of forgiveness for an old Irishman who wrote far too much & lived far too long.


Shaw On Music itself, meanwhile, is an excellent book for anyone with an interest in music, drama or the arts in general. In these cranky old essays I can detect the enthusiasm of the fan and lover despite the Platonistic personality burning through. Anyone who can read criticism for pleasure will enjoy this book, even if (like me) they have no interest in music-drama. People with an interest in "pop culture" reviews will also gain by this book, I think, because of its de-mystifying approach to works that are now considered classics. If you imagine a book of essays by the average music blogger who was also a Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, then you have a good estimate of what this book is like.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Macro Textbook

Alexander Douglas, a professor of philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, recently posed a group of interesting questions on Medium. The first question is the more interesting one. Douglas tortures a pair of equations from a fairly modern macro textbook, but finds they will not confess. That equation pair is

\[ b_t =  \frac{b_{t+N}}{(1+r)^N}+ \sum_{i=1}^{N} \frac{s_{t+i}}{(1+r)^i}\]
\[ b_t =  \sum_{i=1}^{\infty} \frac{s_{t+i}}{(1+r)^i}\]

where \( b_t \) is the value of outlaying government bonds, \( r \) is the real interest rate (assumed given & constant) and \( s_t \) is the primary surplus. These equations say*, respectively:

The current value of outlaying government bonds (of a finitely lived government) is exactly the present value of the lump of remaining government bonds at the end of its life plus the present value of government surplus over that time.

The current value of outlaying government bonds is exactly the present value of its surplus over time.

The book treats these as more or less accounting terms, though since they involve value they aren't really accounting. Douglas asks how the second equation relates to the first. I give my answer in the paragraph with the underlined sentence. What seems to have given Douglas fits is the following sentence:

"The governments solvency ... condition can therefore be seen to be ... that ... debt must be backed at all times be backed by primary surpluses with a present value equal to the debt's face value."


This sentence in it's full version refers to a "transversality condition", a name that comes from optimization models but is a meaningless meme in the textbook's approach.

Economist Nick Rowe gave a very nice response - his point of view was that too answer Douglas's question the best thing to do is to throw out the book situation and give an example tailored to Douglas's question. Brian Romanchuck have another nice response, it seems to be his idea also to throw out the book's description but with more force.

My own initial response was displeasure that Douglas (and Romanchuck) seem to criticize the very idea of infinite mathematical objects. In these modern days of lazy evaluation, even constructive finitists shouldn't do that! But Douglas and Romanchuck have had time to lay out their objections in more detail and I don't think pure math is the relevant issue.

I think the relevant issue is economics.

There is an implicit causality to the story in the textbook that doesn't come through in the equations. The causality - in both equations - is from left to right. The sequence \( s_t \) is the cause and the sequence \( b_t \) is the effect. The desired story is "Governments can only increase debt by promising surplus in the future.". The story of how \( s_t \) evolves is the model, if it fits the equations then we accept it - otherwise reject it.

There's an implicit institutional structure there, that \( r \) is determined by an independent and fierce central bank. In the US and Europe, of course, \( r_t \)  is actually determined by cybernetic feedback process by a politically constrained central bank (the constraints seem weaker in Europe for some reason).

On the bottom of page 185, the story suddenly stops being about \( r \), \( s_t \) and \( b_t \) and suddenly starts being about \( r - g \). Implicitly \( g \) is an independent variable set by technological process, as in the Solow models**. This is a strong, but common assumption. In reality, even "just" technological growth is a complex process that involves discovery, distributional concerns, government backing of science and lots and lots of complex non-linear feedback.

The textbook implicitly assumes we're looking at a 'long run' in which both these feedback processes have settled down.

In the finite story, \( N \) is outside the model - the government implodes on a predetermined date. The implicit institutional structure sets \( r > g \) so that \( b_{t+N} \)  will have a positive value - but its present value is proportional to \( r - g \). The implicit Central Bank chooses that variable. If \(N = \infty \), the implicit Central Bank is constrained to choose \( r \) such that the second equation comes out of the first. This is the answer to Douglas's question.

Romanchuck has a further objection - there's no optimization in this model (it's not just macro, it's very macro). That doesn't matter to this textbook - it doesn't care because \( s_t \) and \( b_t \) are assumed to be measurable. If you have a microfounded theory that gives the wrong values (such as infinity), who cares, that just means that either the theory is wrong - or that the implicit theories of the equations are wrong. Both are valid answers.

Is this good economics? Well, it's definitely standard economics. The ideas were invented by Irving Fisher and reinvented many times after him. This model isn't perfectly general. There's an implicit institutional structure patterned on the US and Europe. Maybe in the previous six chapters, the textbook went over all these implicit assumptions. In the immortal words of Dom Mazzetti "Doubt it".

One helpful question is "What would it mean for it to be wrong?". Well, for one, bonds can be worth more than the present value of government surplus. This is probably true but due to risk and uncertainty, which are left out of this model.

This is all that I can get out of these poor equations. But I'll end on one slightly more "philosophical" (maybe I should be careful with that word around a philosophy professor!) observation:

In macroeconomics, there is no data, only models.

*There's no uncertainty or randomness in these equations, so I'm not gonna keep saying "under rational expectations", "assuming expected value exists", "certainty equivalent", "common knowledge", blah blah blah. That's all under the rug.

** Fish don't see the water they swim in. To many economists, Solow is just accounting. C'est la vie.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Accounting For Cultural Appropriation



In today's web-media-nerd environment, a lot of people complain about "cultural appropriation" without explaining what it is or why it's bad. If you know, good job! You don't have to read this!

But, still, even if you know what "cultural appropriation" means, the concept can be hard to explain. I know what "Lebesgue measure of a set of real numbers" means, but that doesn't mean I can explain it quickly. Some people don't think "cultural appropriation" exists at all! I think they're wrong. I think there is a useful concept around this phrase.

Gilbert Ryle


What is so complicated about explaining "cultural appropriation"? It just means taking from another culture, right? No, I don't think that's right. You might say that you can define anything you want how you want it - if you say "cultural appropriation" means "sausage" then it does. I disagree, at least in this context. The smarter thing in this case to do is to see how people actually use, get offended etc, not self-importantly prescribe some arbitrary definition and chase its implications. Ryle-Wittgenstein-Anscombe ordinary language is more useful than Hilbert-Frege arbitrariness of sign.

Counterexamples to the "taking [anything?] from another culture" definition about in ordinary usage. Samurai Jack is an American cartoon about a Japanese man, is it culturally appropriative? I don't see people complaining! Wikipedia says that K-Pop incorporates "Western pop music, rock, jazz, hip-hop, R&B, reggae, electronica, techno, rave, nu metal, folk, country and classical on top of its traditional Korean music roots.". Is that culturally appropriative? Again, I don't see people complaining...


 Ernest Gellner

The simplistic, but wrong definition makes it sound like we have to define "culture" first, then "appropriation". Both of these are hard to do (if possible at all), boring and have nothing to do with the task at hand!

This definition seems to assume that a "culture" is a well-defined and monolithic object, which is just untrue. Cultures are created by politically motivated elites suffering from false consciousness (which doesn't make them bad! All of the greatest works of art of all time were made within cultures!). Gellner, to take one arbitrary name out of an entire discipline, extensively documented this process in Nations And Nationalism.

This is true even for supposedly "insular" cultures. "Bushido" - a supposed traditional warrior ethic - was created by Japanese Confucian scholars in peace time. Jamaicans have been toasting over drum heavy tracks since the 50's - but New Yorkers duel over who "created" hip hop.

Well, I think of New York as an insular culture anyway. They sure talk about themselves a lot!

Similarly "appropriation" must be well-defined and monolithic for the simplistic definition to work, which is - again - just untrue. Appropriation, in this sense, means stealing (basically). Stealing what? Ideas? This is impossible to define clearly. Fela Kuti & Toots Hibbert were inspired by soul music. Did they "steal" from American culture? Of course not, that's stupid. But then what does theft even mean in this context?

 Daniel Dennett

The name "cultural appropriation" is an uninformative meme. We don't get the best names every time. Do you know what Von Neumann-Bernays-Godel Set Theory is? "Set Theory With Large Classes" would be a better name. We don't get that name.

Cultures don't have to be monolithic for "cultural appropriation" to exist. Cultures don't have to exist for "cultural appropriation" to exist. Justice doesn't have to be monolithic for "cultural appropriation" to exist. Justice doesn't have to exist for "cultural appropriation" to exist.

Herbert Simon, apparently???

Cultural appropriation is about ... *extremely economist voice* incentives. Please, stop booing and throwing Molotov Cocktails, I'm going somewhere with this!
 
"Little" Richard Penniman

After that lengthy kung fu battle, let's go back to the original example of cultural appropriation - the bedrock case upon which all others are conceived. The complex career of the above pictured Richard Penniman was fraught with bad incentives which lead to an enormous undervaluing of his considerable musical genius. He started out in the gospel scene, where it was impossible to make money. He moved on to the gay nightclub scene (!!!) which was both dangerous and impossible to make money. Finally he moved on to the R&B scene, where it was conceivable that he could make some scratch, at least in the abstract.

These may have been "bad incentives", but they weren't "cultural appropriation". That didn't start until the center of the 50's.



In 1955, Penniman's composition "Tutti Frutti" went to number 17 on the charts - a top 20 hit! The record company pressured Pat Boone to record a cover, which he eventually did. Boone hated the song and made no effort to hide it. This version went to number 12, despite being just the worst.

There's no reason that Boone and the record company should have gotten so rich off this performance. Not only Boone's singing generally awful, he's not even pretending to try. The arrangement is bland. Boone didn't get what the song was about but wouldn't have even sung it if he did.

This is a misaligned incentive. Boone is being rewarded for his astonishing ability to not be Little Richard. To not be black, gay or flamboyant. That he sucked on ice was not a detriment, maybe even helpful.

This is what "cultural appropriation" is - making it hard for innovators to capitalize on their innovations because of, essentially, politics. Like all discrimination, cultural appropriation is a form of so-called "market failure" (because such markets fail certain models, not because people fail on those markets! It's a weird name). It presumes that certain actors have a form of power - which may not be "market power" strictly but is strategically related.

Wocka Wocka Wocka


If we pretend justice exists for a bit, cultural appropriation is unjust - it robs innovators of their due. If we pretend morals exist for a bit, cultural appropriation is bad - it reduces the incentive to innovate (which is very important). If we pretend that airplanes in the sky are like shooting stars then they'll burn up in our minds or something.

Fela Kuti


This explains why Fela Kuti isn't cultural appropriation - his sales don't detract from Motown's sales. He took ideas, but didn't realign incentives. If he had somehow realigned incentives, it might have been unfair and unjust cultural appropriation. There's nothing logically impossible about this, even though it didn't occur and there are reasons it didn't.

Thinking about Fela Kuti further shows why the simplistic definition isn't just incoherent and contrary to use, it's actively pernicious. Not only does it create an outrage culture where using innovative ideas is bad, but also completely fails to point toward the underlying economic and political problems. Anger and impotence are unwelcome bedfellows.

Rupert Sanders



Here's a 10 cent question - is the new Ghost In The Shell cultural appropriation (by this definition)? I don't think so. Something tells me that the innovators - Shirow Masamune, Oshii, etc - are gonna be just fine. This movie is not gonna reduce their sales etc. Oshii in particular is an innovative filmmaker and I hope he is able continue without incident. The new Ghost In The Shell did get caught up in Hollywood's representation problems, which is a seperate issue.

Also, the new Ghost In The Shell is really bad.

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Paradoxical Life

Raymond Smullyan

It's been a month now since the death of Raymond Smullyan. Wikipedia calls Smullyan a "mathematician, concert pianist, logician, Taoist and philosopher" - for brevity they leave out writer of chess puzzles, amateur magician and I am sure much more besides. Smullyan belongs to a select group of writers - the masters of illogical logic. Others in this group are Lewis Carroll, G K Chesterton and Zhuangzi. Of these writers, if Carroll was the best pure writer and Zhuangzi the most poetic, it must be admitted that Smullyan was the brightest, the most gentle and had the strongest technical philosophical machinery. Nothing could be more pleasant to me than an admiring stroll through his life's work.

Raymond Smullyan

On a technical level, Smullyan's greatest achievement is probably his contributions to the interpretation of Gödel's Theorem. Working along the same path as Quine, Tarski and Rosser, Smullyan reworked the technical machinery of Gödel into a more elementary context.

Readers of Gödel's proof will note its difficulty. His proof involves quite complex operations on arithmetic and assumptions whose relevance to ordinary logic was deeply unclear (\( \omega \)-consistency being the most important). Gödel's arithmetization of logic was extremely inefficient - it involved nested exponentials and used factoring in interpretation - and inefficiency matters. Human beings who are not Kurt Gödel have difficulties working with at this level of abstraction.

While working out his Ph.D. thesis, Smullyan found he was able to work out Gödel's proof without inefficient number theory operations. The technical device that allowed him to do so was what he called a "norm" and what is now called a "quine".

What is a quine? Smullyan gifted us with a simple scenario in which a quine may occur. Imagine you are holding Smullyan's first book of logic puzzles. You may then think to yourself:

"What is the name of this book?" What Is The Name Of This Book?

A quine then is an expression preceded (or followed) by its quotation. The distinction between a sentence and it's quotation - analogous to that between an object and a representation of an object - is extremely deep and powerful.

Smullyan introduced the quine to the world in his 1957 paper, which is still worth reading. By replacing the exponential diagonalization function with the simpler norm function, Smullyan wrote Gödel's theorem in a complexity class that could be realistically worked out by a computer. Smullyan is able to arithmetize logic by working with strings of numbers directly instead of by working through exponentials.

Next to this, Smullyan's biggest techincal contribution is simplifying and formalizing "Analytic Tableaux", which are an alternative to Hilbert-style logic... well, that needs some clarification. In a Hilbert-style logic, one has many axioms and one rule for producing tautologies. A  Hilbert-style proof is more or less syntactical, of the form \( A \to B \). In an Analytic Tableaux, one systemically generates the models in which \( A \) and checks if \( B \). If this happens, we get that \( A \vdash B\). This is equivalent to \( A \to B \) but found by examining models instead of using syntactical rules. These systems have their roots in the unfortunate Gerhard Gentzen's "Sequent Calculi" and Gödel's proof that a provable sentence was true in all models.

This method greatly simplified work with "Modal Logic", in which each model is identified with a possible world. If it turns out that in all models where it is raining I stayed indoors, then necessarily if it is raining then I stayed indoors. These sorts of things were not easy to work out with merely syntactical methods! Further, modal logic allows one to not just have a logic of possible worlds - and therefore a metaphysics - but also a logic of knowledge and provability! (This program also begun by Gödel - ol' Kurt really was the greatest logician in history.) Smullyan's informal introduction is a great classic.

Smullyan's literary brilliance extended to his technical work. The set of textbooks he wrote in the 90's are the greatest textbooks on mathematical logic and set theory ever written.

Raymond Smullyan

Unlike many famous mathematicians, Smullyan was not a child prodigy in mathematics. Smullyan did not publish until he was 38 and got his Ph.D. at 40. To compare, Gödel published the incompleteness theorems at 25 and essentially stopped publishing in his 40s.

Perhaps because he had a life before mathematics, Smullyan wrote very ably on subjects unrelated to these austere subjects. In fact, Goodreads lists Smullyan as "author of The Tao Is Silent" rather than as the man who sped up diagonalization. The Tao Is Silent is a book on philosophy in the old fashioned sense of worldview or whatever German words one likes to use. It's a very light book, a purposefully light popularization of the school of thought embodied by Lao Tse or Zhuangzi.

Smullyan concieves of that ancient school as not being so different from the so-called "ordinary language" philosophy popular in Oxford in the 60's. A typical trick of the Taoist-Rylean might be to proclaim

Thought does not exist!

The Taoist-Rylean is then questioned by the student or upbraided by a phony logician. How can one think that thought does not exist? The Taoist-Rylean can then explain (in their loopy way) that thought is not an action, but a collection of actions and a rather dubious collection at that. When one ceases to think of thought as a unitary action that one does separately from visualizing, speaking syllables to oneself, doing mental arithmetic, etc., one will find the world more comprehensible.

Smullyan's case for this type of deflation and relaxation is quite good. Like Wittgenstein, Smullyan often points to the quietist of this ordinariness but it is much more believable that Smullyan actually achieved this sort of inner peace. Smullyan even discusses morality in insightful ways, such as his famous dialog Is God A Taoist?.

However, there is much to complain about Smullyan's exposition of Taoism. Smullyan was much too peaceful and gentle to describe the life of the classical Chinese. As Laozi said

Heaven And Earth are not beneficent,
Neither is the sage beneficent.


Of course, Laozi believed that men would be good if they followed their nature and only illusion causes them to be ill. But Laozi would also admit the terrible force of illusion. Life is difficult, except for the sage, and in the context of that difficulty great wickedness can become justified. It is for this reason that the Japanese government prescribed Zen Buddhism - the branch most influenced by Daoism - for samurai.


Smullyan was a very capable philosopher. Not only did he do great work on technical logic, but also wrote some of the few Socratic dialogs worth reading in the 20th Century. Let's look at one of his dialogs as an example.

Did you finish reading it? Okay, I'll wait.

There, wasn't that interesting? The subject of this dialog is whether we have transcendental and unquestionable access to our stream of consciousness. Smullyan gives a common sense example that we are not - and it is common sense in spite of Smullyan's attempt to wake us up with a fantastical machine. This is an amazing feat of anti-phenomenology - even Daniel Dennett in Consciousness Explained admits of transcendental access!

I don't think anyone could have written this who was not a magician. Feeling out the distinction of what we think we think and what we think is easier to a serial trickster. Frank says that "[The book] seems red to me", his phrasing (as the psychologist - who is really just the thought reading machine in flesh and blood form - points out) reveals instantly that he doubts his own vision (for good reason as the introduction points out).

Frank sees red but has residual doubts about his own eyes, then grows frustrated when told he doesn't have transcendental access to his own seeing of red. The second situation with the psychologist - which, again, is identical to the machine - he finds that he can accept this.

It is the ordinaryness of the psychologist's language that makes Frank able to accept the results, not any change in situation. This captures, I think, both the difficulty people have with Dennett, despite his brilliant expositions and heterophenomenology's essential correctness.

Raymond Smullyan


I shall end this tribute with perhaps the deepest Smullyan of them all - Smullyan the concert pianist:


Sunday, February 26, 2017

Vive Le Difference: A Review of From Bacteria to Bach and Back

Daniel C. Dennett

In this intelligently designed book, philosopher Daniel Dennett retraces the themes of his philosophical and scientific research & speculations which have afforded him so much acclaim over the past four decades. He develops a definitive version of his account of how human culture went from blind variation - "bacteria" - to extremely intelligent design - "Bach". Dennett also takes the time to extend, revise, correct and edit his thought, engaging fruitfully with many of his critics and admirers (not distinct sets to be sure). Luckily for the reader, all of intellectual heavy lifting is set out in Dennett's characteristic immaculate prose - which alone would be sufficient for me to recommend the book highly.

You may be asking "Who is Daniel C. Dennett and why should I care about his philosophical nonsense?". The most pressing reason is that Dennett's subject: consciousness. Dennett's purpose is to protect consciousness from her suitors - both those that treat her roughly (such as the Churchlands) and those who treat her with suspicious reverence (such as David Chalmers).

Dennett's methods and tools are much like Father Brown's in "The Absence Of Mr Glass", which contrasts Father Brown's uncommon common sense with the deductive powers of a certain (in both senses) Dr Hood. Dr Hood, incredibly brilliant but primed towards certain reactions by his background, looks at an improbable scene and "sees" a murder - a single thing of great moral importance. Father Brown looks at this same scene and "sees" a series of unlikely events, each of which has no moral importance but the accumulation of which is, after all, a man's life.

In the same way, Chalmers looks at Le Penseur and sees him "thinking" - a singular act of great moral importance - but Dennett looks at Le Penseur and sees him wheeling through an enormous number of possible activities. Dennett sees that Le Pensuer might be visualizing, sounding out ('murmuring syllables under his breath' in Ryle's unforgettable essay), doing simple algebra or arithmetic, deploying models of other minds ('What would Jesus do?' or 'When my father was young, he had it worse.' or 'Batman wouldn't be afraid.') or even attempting to be deliberately mentally random in order to shake his thoughts in new directions (like the dadaists in one direction or the Chan Buddhists in another). Each of these activities may or may not have any "moral importance" for its own sake. I would be sad to lose my memories of my parents and other mentors - they have moral importance to me - but I would not be so sad to forget an obscure scrap of algebra, real analysis or biology - I have books to grab these tools should I need them. I think that Dennett's point of view - that the thick, morally drenched world is made of the thin merely physical world - is not only substantially right but even right in most details. So let's get to discussing it.

Anyone who has read Dennett knows that though he is well-versed in philosophy, he considers many of its traditions to be shackles - as full of tricks and traps as it is of useful goods. Still, it is useful to see how Dennett sits in the philosophical traditions that spawned him. Further, anyone who has even heard of Dennett knows that "evolution" (whatever that is) plays an important role in his philosophy. This has to be gone over is some detail. Finally, anyone who engages critically with Dennett can sense that his affection for "memes" are the weak link - I share this view so I want to develop what Dennett means by "meme" and what are the holes in his exposition. And because I'm polite, I'll even do this in that order.

Plato

Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop.
- Alice In Wonderland

Daniel Clement Dennett III was born, like most human beings are, to parents. His father - whose name can be deduced from hints already given - was an OSS spy in Lebanon who knew Kim Philby and died under mysterious circumstances when Daniel the third was quite young. His mother raised him in Massachusetts & New Hampshire until he became of age. Dennett's philosophical curiosity and ability were noticed quite young. As an undergrad at Harvard, he was taken up by logician/mathematician/philosopher W V O Quine. For his graduate studies, he moved to England and studied with Gilbert Ryle, then in the midst of working on Plato's Progress.

This is the only logical - perhaps I should say reasonable or practical - place to start with comparisons, but it is not easy. Ryle and Quine were quite different philosophers. From Quine, Dennett took the idea that philosophy is continuous with science. Not over, to the side or under, but simply an attempt to use the same kind of reasoning as seen in science to a different variety of question. But Quine was interested in not just intelligently designed systems - but in incredibly intelligently designed systems of terrifying logicality. Dennett has never shared Quine's interest in axiomatic systems or in "reduction" in the sense of replacing a successful theory with another theory with one less kind of relation.

It is from Ryle that Dennett absorbed the phenomenological point of view that was the precursor to his own. What is "phenomenology"? To tell a just-so story, phenomenology begins, like all of Western Philosophy, in Ancient Greece. To Aristotle, it was clear that the point of life - the aim that one should set one's mind toward - was a life of mild pleasure, physical and intellectual. The Great-Souled-Man would have a wife, a boyfriend, wine, slaves, money, land, a lyre and scrolls. There could not be many Great Souled Men and this life of mild pleasure could not always be achieved, to be sure. But it was the goal of the state and of private life to make this possible. When developing his grand synthesis of the Greek and Christian point-of-view, Thomas Aquinas could not accept this in total. But he could accept part of it - that there was an aim to life. This "intentionality" was properly aimed at God by Aquinas's lights, not stable worldly pleasure. The Catholic priest, proto-psychologist and philosopher Franz Brentano took the concept of intentionality and made it central to the description of the conscious mind - the "stream of consciousness" in William James's famous phrase. From this environment, Husserl took the concept of intentionality and attempted to construct the entire scientific method from reflection over the object of intention. And that is what phenomenology is: the study of the stream of consciousness when it is directed at something.

But Dennett is not a phenomenologist. He has described his position as "heterophenomenology" - the study of another person's stream of consciousness when it is directed at something. As his paradigm case of heterophenomenology in his book Consciousness Explained, he takes experiments on measuring the speed of mental rotation. And Dennett is not a Rylean - Ryle's insistence that the Ancient Greeks had a realistic view of mind as a thing used for action is simply unimportant to Dennett.

Dennett shares much with J L Austin and the subsequent school of "ordinary language philosophy". Like them, he uses analysis of ordinary use of words to defuse artificial theorizing about their meaning, a deflationary attitude towards axiomatization and a belief that history of philosophy is not its most important aspect. But he implicitly rejects their conservative attitude that he meanings in ordinary language are the distinctions worth making - he proposes that experimental science from Newton to Darwin to Einstein to Gibson can and have enriched us with new distinctions and concepts, so there's no special reason to suppose philosophers cannot do the same.

Dennett shares with the pragmatist postmodern Richard Rorty a skepticism that mere "conceptual analysis" in the mode of Bertrand Russell (or WVO Quine) could settle anything meaningful and a love of deflating and differentiating. But Rorty took the fact that meaning was language relative to "explain away" the idea of truth and Dennett desires to always explain and never to "explain away" - especially not truth. For Dennett, there may be many stories, many mirrors which are true as Rorty says - but there are many more which are not true. For Dennett, biological evolution plays an important role in explaining the subjective differences experienced by humans. For Rorty differences are not things that need explaining. Further, Rorty believes passionate political engagement is terribly important, Dennett is faintly uninterested in politics except in so far as it intrudes on his work.

There is an obvious connection between Dennett and the French postmodern Gilles Deleuze - both would agree with the formula "monism = pluralism", that subjective différence is grounded in biology and perhaps more (I'm no Deleuze expert). But Deleuze accepts a primitive Freudian psychology (this is giving Deleuze credit), believed it was important to have extreme leftist politics, a faintly dismissive view of science (except as metaphor) and a deep interest in the history of philosophy. On all of these counts Dennett is opposed - in addition to the deep distinction between Dennett's clarity and Deleuze's unclear style.

Dennett's greatest philosophical influences (except for Ryle) are certainly Wittgenstein - like all post-war philosophers - and Wittgenstein's student GEM Anscombe, who was the first to subject intentionality to a withering Wittgensteinian criticism. But Wittgenstein and Anscombe do not really form a school - not one bigger than themselves anyway - and even then Dennett does not share their dismissive view of experimental science.

One can see from this brief survey that Dennett is not precisely in any school of philosophy - other than generally "the guys what study the mind". So what is Dennett's story? How does he go From Bacteria To Bach And Back?


All stories begin in the middle but some middles are very far away. I'm going to be very vague - for more information see Maynard Smith and Szathmary's The Major Transitions In Evolution. Before there were living things there were autocatalytic reactions, which I will call "circular processes", since they go from state A-> B-> ... -> A. One example is the RNA replication proces A->B->A. Any such circular process is provably impossible in or near thermal equilibrium, so these process must have been receiving energy. From the sun, from heat vents, from other chemical process, from the churning of tides, etc. To the extent that these differences in energy source etc. are perceptible, different theories become testable. One example of a thermal process would be a chunk of RNA - a ribozyme - that organizes another chunk of RNA to grab an atom of iron then stick it near an oxygen molecule. The iron would then oxidize and heat would be released, creating energy that the ribozyme could then use to reproduce itself. This ribozyme would be respiring - it would have a metabolism and heredity. Of course, if it was too good at making heat, it might want to be near another ribozyme that does nothing but take in heat and reproduce itself - that second ribozyme would help the first by dissipating heat. The balance between active respiring ribozymes and passive heat dissipating ribozymes would be spatially asymmetric - too many passive ribozymes and there won't be enough heat, too many active ribozymes and there won't be enough oxygen. A rybozyme can have some control over what rybozymes they are near by, for instance,  literally linking together. These RNA strands are the precursors to life as we know it.

These RNA strands are differentiated - they have different chemical properties. The differentiation between long RNA strands is potentially infinite - rybozymes are non-periodic crystals. As noted earlier, ribozyme -> ribozyme chains of creation can be circular. As they respire, they therefore have a metabolism. Finally there are (chemical) laws that govern the relative density of their activities - there are combinations of rybozymes that do well (replicate) in their environment and those that do poorly (run out of energy or build up so much energy as to disintegrate). Non-periodic difference, circular replication and blind selection are the building blocks of "natural selection", Darwin's most important contribution to the theory of biological evolution. If a rybozyme tends to be attached to another rybozyme, their fates become linked, so that they are the first "genes" and the RNA strands the first "organisms". After this, the second "major transition", to use Maynard Smith's terminology, was the discovery by a ribozyme that it doesn't have to create energy for catalysis via other rybozymes, but could use a more chemically active amino acid. Once the amino acid was discovered, the ribozyme became the ribosome - no longer a laborer but a capitalist. They would hold the knowledge capital of which amino acids to choose, the amino acids would create the proteins and the proteins would create, among other things, ribosomes. Again, a circular process is achieved and evolution by "natural selection" occurred.

Dennett now skips in the story with a mere "and so on in that fashion" all the way to the most recent major transition of evolution - the invention of language. I think Dennett feels he has covered this territory in other books, however I still find this disappointing. The distinction between the cell - with its milieu interieur - and the naked ribosomal process is not merely thermodynamic (though it is rooted in that) it also fundamentally altered the law of motion (it is the forth "major transition in evolution"). The primitive bacteria was just a bubble of protein protecting an RNA strand or two - letting in a bit of raw materials, keeping out harmful chemicals & foreign RNA. It would have been very useful to compare and contrast this first evolutionary discovery of an milieu interieur with another one - the discovery of the mind. But I digress.

Language starts - in Dennett's story - with a discretization of knowledge in order to make it transmittable. This is called "signalling". Discretization is a trick that evolution has been forced, by Pontryagin's Principle, into over and over again (unfortunately, Dennett does not use Pontryagin's Principle to explain the repeated discovery of discretization). The simplest way of remembering Pontryagin's Principle is that the shortest path between two points is teleportation, but if this confuses there are plenty of stories to be told with it. Let's look at a bacterium. It wants to stay a certain temperature, not too hot and not too cold. If it's in a temperature gradient, then it should head in the direction of the temperature it prefers. By Pontryagin's Principle, the best way to do this is to go as fast as it can in the right direction, then stop entirely once there. The control is digital - not because it is made of digital DNA/RNA/Protein parts but because that is the best possible control.

With signals discretization starts all over again. The first chemical signals between ribozymes looking to cooperate might have been single ribozymes. The same discovery might have been made by ribosomes looking to cooperate by sending out amino acids. In either case, an arms race would have instantly taken off, with signals becoming more complex so as to be more difficult to fake. Cells can also gain from cooperation - those signals went through the same arms race. Organisms may desire to cooperate - once again the arms race takes off. By the time hominins began evolving, it's probable that they had - if anything - overly complex signal making apparatus. We cannot assume, for instance, that voice box moved in the throat that this was for "language".

But what is a language? A language is a signalling system - a structure capable of making and translating incredibly complex signals. Some of these (such as words) have a certain structure, others (such rude hand gestures) do not. Those with a logical structure are considered language proper, those without are mere signals. Language and signals are both used to transmit information from the speaker to the listener. The words of language have meanings (somehow) and the sentences of language can be - among other things - true or false.

The study of the structure of language is called "linguistics".

The study of the structure of truth values is called "logic".

For Dennett, the study of meaning in language is (a special case of) "memetics".



Science must begin with myths and the criticism of myths.
- Karl Popper

If it is anything, the study of "memetics" must be the study of the "meme". The prototypical meme is the word "meme", intelligently - or not-so intelligently, as he has come to regret its use - designed by biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. This is confusing, so I'm going to look at another, less loopy case - the speakable term "macro".

You might think that "macro" is descended from the Ancient Greek word "makros" meaning long. This is a mistake. The speakable term "macro" is a collection of phonemes. It is not the phonemes ˈmæk.ɹoʊ because in England, Russia and South Korea it is pronounced differently but identifiable as the same. A US economist can say ˈmæk.ɹoʊ.iː.kə.nɑ.mɪks and a UK economist can say ˈmæk.ɹəʊ.iː.kə.nɑ.mɪks with no loss of meaning. They can talk about a procedural macro or a keyboard macro with perfect understanding. Further, the speakable term "macro" isn't an instantiation of a collection of phonemes. It could be, by a remarkable coincidence, that nobody on God's Grey Earth spoke the collection of phonemes "macro" on the 26th of February 2017 at 17:00:00.00 at all, but the speakable phrase "macro" didn't go away. The speakable phrase "macro" can be a word (as in the shortened version of macroinstruction) or a part of a word (as in macroinstruction).

Dennett argues that what "macro" is must be a kind of meme. A meme is a mentally representable distinction. Not all memes are speakable phrases (what Dennett, with some imprecision, calls "words"). Colors are memes or perceived through memes (depending on how you want to define things). To you and me, the sky and the sea are blue - to Homer the sky is sun bright and the sea is wine dark. The sky and the sea didn't change their electromagnetic frequency, what changed is the distinctions that are made.

But this isn't enough. That there are mental distinctions is unavoidably true, what Dennett would mean when he says "macro" is a meme is that it is a small collection of mentally representable phonological distinctions that is in competition with other small collections of mentally representable phonological distinctions. Now that we understand that "macro" is a mental distinction, we can talk about what it does to its users. When early programmers call something a "macroinstruction" they meant that it was an instruction that was large - large as in made of many instructions. This was not the only possible speakable term. The meme "macro" was in competition with, for instance, the meme "meta" (which is also a speakble term). It is equally descriptive - in the given intellectual niche - of macroinstructions to call them metainstructions - instructions made of instructions. One can easily imagine that "meta" may have actually fought against "macro". Its possible that at sometime in the 40's or 50's, two distinct engineers developed the same idea - one calling it a macroinstruction and the other a metainstruction. In another possible world, metainstruction won and we talk about syntactic metas and there is a constant struggle between users of vi and Emets. The vomit puns in this struggle alone wouldn't be worth it.

We can now return to the loopy "meme" meme case if we want. The phoneme "meme" was chosen more or less intelligently by Richard Dawkins with more or less the meaning I have given it above. But the speakable phrase doesn't care about Dawkins and quickly found a new niche. The speakble phrase now also means Internet memes. The meme "meme" is selfish and cares not one whit that this isn't its intended place - no more than a gene instantiated in Dawkins's body cares one whit about Dawkins's desires.

There are two objection to memes that are left undeveloped by Dennett in From Bacteria to Bach and Back. He points out that most of the objections don't hold water. Dawkins can intelligently design "meme" and Ragnar Frisch can intelligently design "macroeconomics". But so what, farmers have intelligently designed chickens - flightless birds - to have gargantuan flight muscles (called "breasts" in a quite memetically pleasing but inaccurate analogy to human mammaries). This is no proof against Darwinism or genetics. The real objection is that genes are potentially immortal and selfish - a genetic disease wants (Dennett extensively discusses and praises the practice of using phrases like "wants" here - even though these reasons and desires are not represented by any genetic diseases mind) to be in as many animals as possible, never mind detriment to the creatures it lives in. The metaphor to a businessman who wants to own shares in every business to hedge against his self-destructive capacities is a sort of pragmatic deduction from the well-established and uncontroversial models of genetics. Sex and dying of old age are examples of biological phenomena clarified by this metaphor. They are both attempts by genes to disassociate themselves from other genes that they work poorly with or are parasites. Sex and death are to a gene is like a contract with an exit clause.

But with the "meme" meme, Dawkins does the opposite. He starts with the immortal/selfish metaphor and then proposes scientific work be done. We have every reason to be stricter with the metaphors that precede new sciences than with metaphors to describe established work. What memes want is to be instantiated, so if picking up meanings will help they will. It does not follow that we are as mayflies to the meme, that when we are of no more use to the meme, we die out as the mayfly dies out so its genes may associate more freely. Dennett and Dawkins attempt to push this, but I find their examples to be not entirely convincing. Many of their examples are far too complex. Religions are not memes - neither are bacteria genes. The 124 year Wars Of Religion period was not caused by a memetic difference in the way that sickle cell anemia is a caused by a genetic difference. A person with sickle cell anemia cannot stop having sickle cell anemia, but a person can change religion.

The other objection is that the social sciences have every reason to be suspicious of biology and biological explanations. It is not that they have not yet been tried - rather they were extensively tried from 1851 to 1911. The almost entirely negative influence of Herbert Spencer (who was not at all a Darwinian, of course) was not a trickle, but the dominant flow of social science for decades. One can see it captured in amber in Marshall's Principles and other economic and sociological books of its time. Franz Boas and others did an enormous amount of intellectual labor to free sociology from the shackles of biological and pseudobiological metaphors. Dennett writes as if fear of biology was tied to a need for skyhooks and miracles, not a worry that an extensively mined field bottomed out a century ago. In order to convince people of the ripeness of their fruit, memeticists need to prove they have done this intellectual labor. The best and only way to counter this criticism is to show that working with memes is too fruitful. They must run when other theories may walk.

This book is one of many instances of Dennett working in this direction.

 Daniel Dennett

And so...
- Mayor Poopenmeyer, Futurama

The direction taken, the concepts discussed and the wonderful clarity of argumentation make this an excellent book, but I don't think it's good as a first Dennett book nor do I think it is his best. A neophyte Dennettier should start with Conciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea, his best and most important books, after which reading him in any order is acceptable. In the absence of time for that, I still highly recommend this to anybody, no matter what their opinion on Dennett & his work is and even if they don't have a background in it.