Tagged: English

From Stanford to Monte Carlo and Beyond

In a Stanford interview, Tobias Wolff once said that – as a teacher – he tries to  focus on why individual stories are good rather than what it is that makes a story good in general.

The intuition here is similar to that of the Monte Carlo method; when the phenomenon of interest is too complex to describe in a deterministic fashion, one alternative is to feed a more basic and incomplete model with a large number of random scenarios and then analyze the distribution of the model’s outputs.

It is the same idea behind the claim “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like”. If a person holding this position exposed himself to a large number of works of art and noted his reactions, he would learn much about art and about what he likes in it. But would he learn what makes art good in general?

The adjective “good” begs the question “good for what?”: a theory that tells us what makes art good is necessary. There are as many theories as theorists, so we must choose one – we now need a theory that tells us what makes a good theory of art. Follow the chain and we end up wondering what makes any action or set of actions (such as a life) good.

So we arrive at Hume’s is-ought problem: no matter how much we learn about any particular area of human endeavour or how elegant our logic, any statement about what “good” is  will be arbitrary, just a reflection of a particular viewpoint. How do we agree – as a family, as a society, as a species – on which viewpoint to take?

There are two problems embedded in this question: (1) how will we agree on the best value system and (2) how we will find it.

For (1), the best thing we’ve come up with so far to aggregate preferences is Democracy (see here for a good discussion on democracy as a cognitive mechanism).

For (2), it is clear there is no closed-form solution. The space of possibilities is n-dimensional, so any narrowly systematic search will be very inefficient. Our best bet then would seem to be – that’s right! –  the Monte Carlo method.

These ideas suggest that our time would be best spent not in comparing belief systems (atheism vs. religion, Christianity vs. Islam, social liberalism vs. social conservatism, etc) but simply in evaluating our collective responses to each of them. Further, exploration is essential – we should experiment with as many different kinds of value systems as possible. We should take “successful” (i.e. democratically elected) components from value systems and reject the rest.

Crucially, we should abandon the notion that any currently existing value system will be the “end-state” system. Even assuming that as a species we will arrive at some agreement on a value system at some point in the future – a beautiful thought – this system will be different from any currently available. All options currently on the table are too flawed.

When considering what is a good life, then, let us not waste our time in arguing what should be. Instead, let’s expose ourselves to as wide a variety of lives as possible and observe our reaction. This will not only be more productive – it will be immensely more enjoyable.


I contributed the following post to the Pseudo-Economics blog today:

The use of the prefix “pseudo” with regards to economics is an interesting, paradoxical one; economics itself has often been accused of being a pseudo-science. What can be salvaged from the naive interpretation, namely a pseudo-pseudo-science?

Answer: that which is most valuable in science.

I like Popper’s idea of falsifiability of claims as a benchmark for what counts as science, so let’s go with that. In this regard, economics has not gotten very far, aside from a handful of results (e.g. net gains from trade) in the last couple of centuries. “Pseudo” looks about right.

There are many fundamental reasons for this dismal performance, but I like to keep causal density, unavailability of experiments and the reflexivity problem as my top three. Once you consider the obstacles, the failures begin to look a little more reasonable*.

Economics is in good company as well; all the humanities – at least when they attempt to understand humans – share these problems. We are outraged to see the natural sciences progress by leaps and bounds while the humanities are left behind. This seems natural to me, however, since the fundamental issues holding economics back have very little to do with computation – the availability of which made the natural sciences explode in the 20th century.

The fundamental challenges that make economics et al. pseudo-sciences are the same ones that we face while trying to make decisions in our daily lives. Even if pseudo-sciences are inefficient at arriving at useful descriptions of reality, they often yield insights into how one goes about learning about the world in the midst of seemingly irreducible complexity. If for only this, we should keep at it.

This then is how I reconcile myself with the idea of pseudo-economics; as long as the endeavor shares the desire to understand reality in an internally consistent way and to falsify this understanding empirically, then its discrepancies with economics or any other field are irrelevant. What matters is disciplined discussion.

*The natural sciences, of course, also face these challenges to a (in my view) lesser degree.

2nd Chance Ethics

In the socratic conception of morality*, all evil is born out of ignorance. Unless we want to reduce this to a naive determinism (current state knowledge -> actions -> future state knowledge) which eats ethical theories for breakfast, we must allow for some degree of indeterminacy at the individual level (free will / whatever). This indeterminacy would be observed via an individual’s actions.

Given some free will but lack of control regarding our current state, then only actions can carry a moral component. Therefore, ignorance is not the true source of evil – only unwillingness to learn.

As a toy example, imagine an ESPN commentator makes stupid remarks involving racial stereotypes. The remarks are reprehensible because they show a lack of understanding of “the good”. However, the commentator didn’t know he was ignorant, so it is inappropriate to condemn him for it. It is his reaction to the outrage that will reveal his moral character – if he refuses to correct his ignorance and thus his behaviour. Otherwise, it is just an honest mistake.

*Might be able to generalize to “objective” theories of morality, i.e. where there are moral absolutes.  Socratic conception incompatible with sophist conception of morality, no wonder. Of course, all of this breaks down when you step away from the Socratic model, i.e. towards reality. Also, only works for first-time offences.