Prediction and Primacy of Consciousness

I finished Leonard Peikoff’s Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand in 2015, and on the whole, didn’t get that much out of it. It took a long time to slog through, and didn’t answer some of my longstanding questions about Rand’s intellectual history. I’d recommend it as a reference text, but not as an introduction to Objectivism.

This isn’t a review of OPAR; I’ve discussed it elsewhere. Today we’re going to discuss one of the few good new ideas I learned reading it: primacy of consciousness.

Objectivism advocates a worldview based on primacy of existence. Rand holds that consciousness has no power over reality in and of itself—consciousness is the processes of identifying existents, not creating them. Now a conscious mind can decide to alter existents through physical action, or extrapolate the possibility of not-yet-existing existents, but the mere act of thinking cannot produce physical phenomena.1

Primacy of consciousness puts the cart before the horse. Perception can neither create a percept, nor modify it, nor uncreate it.2 Sufficiently invasive methods of inquiry may do that, but the mental process of observation does not.

Let us consider a technical example. When solving engineering assignments, it is often tempting to avoid checking my work. The correct answer is independent of whether I’ve made an exhaustive search for mistakes. Yet, on a certain level, it might seem that not looking will make an error go away.

But it won’t. As my structures professor often says, in aerospace engineering we have a safety factor of 1.5. In school, that’s just a target to aim for—if I screw up, the grade will point it out and I’ll feel silly for missing easy points. On the job, that’s not the case. If your work has a serious mistake, you’re going to kill people.

Or wreck the global economy.

Since starting Nate Silver’s book, perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve learned so far (besides an actually intuitive explanation of Bayes’ Theorem, contra Yudkowsky) was just how stupid the root causes of the housing crisis were.

I’d recommend reading the book if you’d like a properly comprehensive explanation, but the executive summary would be that, starting in the late 1990s, the value of houses began to skyrocket in what we now know was a real estate bubble. This was basically unprecedented in US history, which should have been a wake-up call in itself, but the problem was compounded by the fact that many investors assumed that housing prices would keep going up. They wanted to bet on these increasingly risky properties, creating all sorts of creative “assets” to bundle specious loans together. Rating agencies were happy to evaluate all of these AAA, despite being totally new and untested financial instruments. Estimated risk of default proved to be multiple orders of magnitude too low. And yet everyone believed them.

Silver describes this as a failure of prediction, of epistemology. Assessors made extremely questionable assumptions about the behavior of the economy and the likelihood of mortgage default, which are legitimate challenges in developing predictive models. Going back to my examples of structural engineering, it’s easy to drop the scientific notation on a material property when crunching the numbers. If you say that aluminum has a Young’s Modulus of 10.7, the model isn’t going to know that you meant 10.7 × 106 psi or 10.7 Msi. It’s going to run the calculations regardless of whether your other units match up, and may get an answer that’s a million times too big. Remember that your safety margin is 1.5.

I don’t think economic forecasters have explicit margins of error, but the same general principle applies. Using the wrong Young’s Modulus is an honest mistake, an accident, which is easily rectified if found early. Lots of errors in the rating agencies’ models weren’t so honest. They made what looked like big allowances for unknowns, but didn’t question a lot of their key assumptions. This speaks to a real failure of epistemic humility. They didn’t ask themselves, deep down, if their model was wrong. Not the wrong inputs, but the wrong equations entirely.

For instance, say I model an airplane’s wing as a beam, experiencing bending and axial loads, but no axial torsion. That’s a very big assumption. Say there’s engines mounted on the wing—now I’m just ignoring Physics 101. If I ran the numbers and decided that propulsive and aerodynamic twisting moments were insignificant for the specific question I’m considering, then it might be an acceptable assumption. But I would need to run the numbers.

Many people, at many organizations, didn’t run the numbers in the years leading up to the financial crisis. Now not all of them were given an explicit choice—many were facing managerial pressure to meet deadlines or get specific outputs. That’s an organizational issue, but really just bumps the responsibility up a level.3 Managers should want the correct answer, not the one that would put the biggest smile on their face.

In aerospace engineering, we have an example of what happens when you do that:


Just because the numbers look good on paper doesn’t mean they correspond to the real world. Empirical testing is where that comes in. Engineers do that all the time, but even then, it doesn’t prevent organization incentives from bungling the truth. If the boss wants to hear a particular answer, she may keep looking until she finds it.

Economists are worse, trying to predict a massively nonlinear system and, Silver reports, doing quite badly at it. Objectivism is very strong on the importance of saying I know, but rationality also depends on saying I don’t know when you legitimately don’t. Try to find out, but accept that some truths are harder to obtain than others.

Existence exists, and existents don’t care what you think.

1Outside of your body, that is. This is where the line between body and mind becomes pertinent and about where I give up over reducibility problems. Suffice to say that if you can create matter ex nihilo, there’s a lot of people who would be interested in speaking with you.

2Those of you with itchy fingers about quantum mechanics are politely invited to get a graduate degree in theoretical physics. We’re talking about the macroscale here.

3Not that responsibility is a thing that can truly be distributed:

Responsibility is a unique concept… You may share it with others, but your portion is not diminished. You may delegate it, but it is still with you… If responsibility is rightfully yours, no evasion, or ignorance or passing the blame can shift the burden to someone else. Unless you can point your finger at the man who is responsible when something goes wrong, then you have never had anyone really responsible.
 —Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, USN

Book Review: Atlas Shrugged

“Achieving life is not the equivalent of avoiding death.”
—Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

I first picked up Atlas Shrugged in 2009, and despite re-reading it obsessively for several months afterwards, never gave it a full cover-to-cover treatment in the seven years since then. This summer, as I worked my way through House of Leaves, I decide that Rand’s testament to human rationality was the appropriate counterpoint to cosmic horror, and decided it was finally time.

I finished Atlas Shrugged first. Oops.

My initial impression, during those early chapters, was that the book’s spirit still endured. Despite all my jading and cynicism these last few years, I found the story still inspired optimism, ambition, and confidence in rational thought. That sentiment is ultimately why Atlas Shrugged is worth reading. The explicit message is important, but the attitude it expresses, moreso. Or to put it in Rand’s terminology, the sense of life versus the philosophical system.

But about the explicit message–that’s why I reread the book. When you’re skimming through it for fun, it’s easy to overlook important passages that deal with some of the serious philosophical issues. Rand was meticulous in crafting an expression of her philosophy, countering all sorts of criticisms before they could be made. I’ve heard many arguments against Objectivism which John Galt or Francisco d’Anconia already tackled in 1957. For this reason, utilitarians and true altruists should still read Atlas Shrugged to know thy enemy.

That’s not to say that Rand’s reasoning is entirely airtight. I had my doubts in 2009, and I still have doubts now. This shouldn’t really be all that surprising–after finishing Atlas Shrugged, she turned to writing non-fiction explanations of various specific issues, particularly relating to metaphysics and human nature. The book covers a lot, but not everything. Discussions of Objectivism have a lot of room yet for progress.

What I love about this book are the tiny details. One-off characters, like Mr. Ward, referenced in passing hundreds of pages later, reveal so much about the story’s world as a whole. Almost every sentence is crafted to precisely communicate the relevant aspect of the theme, each word to describe a specific image or idea. These aren’t apparent on first reading, or even the second in certain cases.

Nevertheless I second-guess many of Rand’s choices. The way Cherryl’s story arc ends, for instance. Or Eddie Willers’. The sheer number of Dagny Taggart’s suitors seems like overkill. At several points, issues with the pacing that overshadow important thematic elements (especially regarding Rearden’s development).

Much of this comes down to the fact that this story is, ultimately, about Dagny’s journey. Do not be confused by the shifting third-person view: this book is about her. It’s not possible to pack every idea into her life, necessitating the support cast. I think this emphasis on her makes it hard to see the ways other individuals are responding to an irrational existence. Maybe that’s not the point of an egoist-individualist story, but communicative efficiency is valuable when crafting a propaganda document.

And to be clear, Atlas Shrugged is capitalist propaganda. I rather suspect that a population adhering to Rand’s philosophy would operate much less smoothly than Galt’s Gulch. On the whole, my suspicion is that it would be superior to our own, but not perfect. Most men wouldn’t react so calmly as Hank and Francisco if their true love chose someone else. Of course, the rational(ist) thing would be going poly, but Rand doesn’t apparently consider this an acceptable solution. This probably has to do with the Objectivist conception of love, but that’s another essay.

But this is a problem you can handle, given a small enough group and good enough people. The meta-problem is that the Objectivist society modeled for us employs a conflict-resolution system that doesn’t scale well.

Going to a neutral arbiter which you’ve agreed upon beforehand is, like, the ideal justice system. Unfortunately, at least one of those components is missing in the general case, usually both. The residents of Galt’s Gulch agree that Judge Narragansett will mediate their disputes. Ostensibly he’s a neutral party. In practice this may not be the case–he may be an interested party, or biased towards one of the contestants, and therefore nonobjective in his rulings. We don’t know, because we’re told that his faculty has never been called upon. This itself seems unlikely, but suppose it’s true. How big could the Gulch get before conflicts do arise? The current population is highly rational, highly intelligent, self-driven, and not in direct competition with each other. Sure, a new striker will arrive and put an old-timer out of business, but the Gulch has a huge labor shortage and there’s plenty of things to be done instead. What happens when competition for resources, or customers, or territory arises? How about interpersonal conflicts?

I suspect Rand would have a fancy answer for this, but in the latter case I don’t think there’s a neat philosophical resolution. Personality is only partially malleable, especially in adults. Not everyone gets along perfectly.

But perhaps that’s why Ayn Rand needed to write this book. We can be better. Human beings do not meet their potential as rational, productive, self-satisfying agents, not even slightly. This is what Atlas Shrugged is trying to convey: the possibility of a world made happier, not through wishful thinking, but through intelligence and conscious decision-making.

And that’s the message I think readers should take away. The world makes sense. Our problems are tractable. A joyous existence is possible.

Atlas Shrugged is not a perfect outline for utopia, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.


Book Review: The Foundations of Morality

Henry Hazlitt is popular in libertarian circles for his book Economics in One Lesson. His other works are usually an afterthought, which is a terrible shame because I think libertarians could greatly gain from his insights on ethics.

I picked up this book, along with a bunch of others, from the free literature that Young Americans for Liberty chapters are always awash in, thanks to generous donors and uninterested university students. It went on my reading list for summer 2014, and like all the other books on that list didn’t get read. By the end of the year, however, I was beginning to seriously doubt my Objectivism-based deontology. The Foundations of Morality, the back-cover blurb promises, derives natural rights from utilitarianism. How could I pass that up?

The book doesn’t exactly deliver this. Rather, Hazlitt develops a particular type of utilitarianism–a eudaemonic, mutualistic form of rule-utilitarianism. Hazlitt terms this philosophy cooperatism, as he sees social cooperation as the crucial element missing from the many moral theories he’s studied.

And the reader is left with little doubt that he’s studied well. He quotes extensively from Bentham, Hume, Adam Smith, and his fellow Austrian economists, plus dozens of writers I’d never heard of. Not all of them agree with his positions; Hazlitt makes an effort to argue in good faith and present the best opposing viewpoints. A good 23 pages are dedicated to citations.

I could write considerably about the process of Hazlitt’s derivation, but thankfully he’s written a summary for us in the concluding chapter, which can be read for free on the Mises Institute website. Allow me, though, to indulge a few words about the more personally interesting parts of his philosophy.

As mentioned above, Hazlitt puts a premium on social cooperation. Interestingly, his method seems to be a feature of human psychology which has been much maligned by modern utilitarians: scope insensitivity. Rather than focus on trying to do the absolutely optimal thing on the global scale, he says, we instead have a stronger obligation to those around us–families, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.

This seems a partial solution to the problem of effective altruism: the “most effective intervention” may remain effective while monopolizing all charity resources for years if not decades. Some have expressed concern that widespread success of the EA movement could have extreme negative effects that nevertheless are outweighed by the needs of the absolutely worst-off1. Hazlitt’s approach routes around that, putting our first priority on our selves and families, then on those close to us, and then whatever surplus energy or funds still available are allocated to helping those further away.

Additionally, Hazlitt makes the claim that we cannot expect to make significant moral progress in our lifetimes. The common law has been developed over the course of centuries by generations of ethicists, and for the most part it works. While there are some areas which could be improved, he believes that the importance of adhering to general rules should temper our enthusiasm for modifying the moral code. Firstly, it’s essential that everyone operate in relative unison, and disrupting that suddenly would have a large deleterious effect on society as a whole. Secondly, we cannot be sure our interventions will actually be an improvement.  Even if we have identified a legitimate problem, the prescribed solution may not make things better. We should exercise extreme caution and modify the social contract slowly to avoid making things worse.

This Burkean notion is one of the best arguments I’ve seen to date against Ayn Rand’s view that most classical, altruism-based ethics should be thrown out simply because they are wrong2. While I’m still sympathetic to that approach, Hazlitt has a point. There’s a huge amount of essential social protocol which we would have to rederive from first principles if everyone switched to egoism wholesale. The social code, despite being built on erroneous foundations, is still  of value because of the adjustments/correction factors which were introduced to make it work.

Now such new ethics would likely be a lot simpler. Unlike the Keplerian revolution, however, switching from the old and overcomplicated carries a tremendous cost. Thus we should approach the problem gingerly, doing our best to leave a better moral code to our grandchildren, while not making things drastically worse for their parents.

In the end, Hazlitt’s argument for rights is not that they are inviolable consequence of the natural order, but rather a form of outcome-maximizing social cooperation. The essential ingredients of capitalism, property rights and freedom of exchange should be respected not because of ontological interdiction, but because they maximize human well-being. Were some variant socialism a better system for procuring humanitarian needs Hazlitt would give it a fair hearing, but the evidence of the last century suggest both that it cannot meet such needs, and that the transition costs would be prohibitive even if spread over generations. Capitalism, by comparison, is delivering the goods reasonably well now, and we should be hesitant to disrupt something that works.


The Foundations of Morality by Henry Hazlitt

1This is, basically, Nozick’s concept of a utility monster, extended along the temporal axis. Instead of treating the choice of where to allocate resources as a one-off decision, Effective Altruism’s emphasis on change means that we could spent decades pulling people out of poverty faster than anyone else while still seeing a net decrease in utility. Or the situation might be reversed, depending on the preferences of the altruist. Moreover, if we narrowly confine ourselves to what works quickly, then we may miss the most effective interventions simply because they require considerable capital investment. Vaccine development comes to mind.

2Rand is mentioned only once, noting her position as one of the few modern ethical egoists. Hazlitt’s concern is more with proving that helping self and others is non-contradictory (i.e. mutualism). Objectivists should still find something to appreciate in the chapter devoted to asceticism.  Hazlitt goes in depth discussing the gory details of medieval monks and religious devotees starving and torturing themselves while nevertheless depending on others for their survival. He does his best to present defending arguments, but concludes that self-discipline in the pursuit of moral ends is a more reasonable approach to ethics.