Category Archives: Letters

#37 On free markets

Dear Mat,

Good questions. I guess I am being ideological, in the sense that it’s impossible not to be. I take it that more freedom for more people is better ex ante: that’s an ideology. But I claim it’s an open-ended ideology that can lead to more goals being explored in the future and even re-writing or discarding older goals. Hence I think — in a necessarily changing world — it’s a superior ideology to any static ideology (theocracy, communism, agrarian utopianism, etc.). We agree on this basic liberalism.  Do you see that as an ideology?

I also like a  free market. It increases freedom, ratchets down people’s incentives to kill the shit out of each other, opens new options, etc. Obviously I think there should be some rules that prevent ruin or exploitation: contract laws, workers’ unions, punishment for white collar offences, no corporate welfare, etc. Capitalism with a human — neither male nor female — face. Continue reading #37 On free markets

#36 On freedom and equity

Dear Master F,

We should just deal quickly with this notion of “rigidity” but then I think we can move on. If I understand you correctly you call M/F rigid because it has a broadness and simplicity that makes it difficult to change or to cope with the subtleties.* Whereas I take rigid to mean something so precise so as to be either very useful when applied correctly or very unuseful (or damaging) when incorrectly applied. So the fact that the M/F categorisation is so rough and barely adds any information makes it unrigid in my view but rigid in yours. You used the word reliable, that’s more what I meant.

Our earlier letters spent a lot of time on science and physics and I worried about their asymmetry. You’d spend most of your time asking questions and I’d spend my time rattling off opinion. But we’re moving well into your territory, so I look forward to stumbling through with mostly questions. I used to be on the same page as you but Continue reading #36 On freedom and equity

#35 On representation

Dear M,

Our representations of the world are of roughly two kinds: innate (you call them “toolkits”) and ideological (which you call “maps”)*. The problem with maps, you say is that they’re rigid and predictable.

But surely our innate representations of the world — folk psychology, moral instincts, heuristic decision making — are more rigid. They’ve been honed by natural selection’s trial and error solutions that allow organisms to do a good enough job, in a limited but relevant domain. Maybe they work 90% of the time and there would be a massive opportunity cost to improve the other 10%, so they leave it at that.

One has to wait many lifetimes (generations) for our innate toolkits to change but one can change maps many times in a lifetime. Continue reading #35 On representation

#34 On frameworks around complexity

Dear Jamie

The “innate maps” you talk about are the same toolkit I meant when I said “‘Heuristics, rules of thumbs, feel your way around locally, learn from error.” But I don’t think these have the weaknesses of the other frameworks and so aren’t maps in my analogy. These innate responses can definitely, definitely be wrong. And how. But the point I want to stress is that they in principle don’t exclude any physically possible course of action. While maps can be defined by the course of actions they exclude.

A map is a guide, an explanation, a rule, a representation but what makes it a map is that it is static and predictable. Like a good explanation it is fragile, it’s strength comes from its reproducibility. Innate responses are not consistent, often irrational and maybe even random. Which at least reflects how the world is. Maybe the right way to go is Continue reading #34 On frameworks around complexity

#33 On scepticism


Dear Mat,

Even if we cast aside our ideological, manufactured maps it doesn’t quite mean that we’re mapless. Surely the process of evolution endowed us with a series of inherited maps.  Our heuristics are maps that have been charted by our forebears’ efforts at navigating the world. Can these innate maps be wrong? The extinction of more than 99% of all species that have ever lived is ominous.

I submit that even the doubtful sceptic is really a confident sceptic, whose confidence is based on a good run of relatively stable ancestral environments, but whose inherited map is hard to amend when the environment changes rapidly. I also submit that we have been in an especially rapidly changing environment the last 400 years, meaning our maps are out of date. Continue reading #33 On scepticism

#32 On acting on maps

Dear Jamie

I’m forced to skip over those first few paragraphs based on “economic “modelling because as you said, a little bit of information changes the outcome completely. This is a symptom of a bad model, and bad models do more harm than good. My favourite demonstration of this is the following (originally Taleb’s).

Imagine you find yourself, for no real reason, waking up in the middle of unknown wilderness. Then imagine you stumble upon a map. Should you follow it?

Once I proposed this online in response to an Effective Altruism question about how to act on economic models). Someone took the bait by responding “It depends if the map is reliable or not”. Well that’s a wise application of scepticism, but its missing something as we’ll see. Continue reading #32 On acting on maps

#31 On tyranny

Dear Mat,

There’s a bet involved here. For me the odds are very bad that any serious change will improve the system. For me. I flourish in a liberal democracy where I can lampoon the government, assert my rights, fight businesses on social media, act like an ass in my private life and never get ostracised or imprisoned.

But if you’re marginalised within a democratic system obviously the gamble might look more attractive. Continue reading #31 On tyranny

#30 On honesty

Dear Jamie,

I agree about the evil in everyone. As Soljenistsyn wrote, the line cuts the heart of each individual:

Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil.

It takes real courage to say that you Continue reading #30 On honesty