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.


On Feeling

It’s no real secret that I’m not a particularly emotional person. That clickbait is still a halfway viable business model honestly confuses me—after the eighteenth time you read a listicle called “19 $whatevers to blow your mind” and coming away bored if not actively annoyed, one would think you’d stop. Even when I heard of John Glenn’s passing yesterday, my reaction was more solemn than somber.

This doesn’t particularly bother me because not spending time reading clickbait doesn’t even qualify as a First World Problem. But I’m also not bothered because of what does emotionally engage me.

For example, Jai’s post on Smallpox Eradication Day:

A whisper became a voice; a voice became a call; a call became a battle cry, sweeping across villages, cities, nations. Humanity began to cooperate, spreading the protective power across the globe, dispatching masters of the craft to protect whole populations. People who had once been sworn enemies joined in common cause for this one battle. Governments mandated that all citizens protect themselves, for giving the ancient enemy a single life would put millions in danger.

And, inch by inch, humanity drove its enemy back. Fewer friends wept; Fewer neighbors were crippled; Fewer parents had to bury their children.

At the dawn of the 20th century, for the first time, humanity banished the enemy from entire regions of the world. Humanity faltered many times in its efforts, but there individuals who never gave up, who fought for the dream of a world where no child or loved one would ever fear the demon ever again. Viktor Zhdanov, who called for humanity to unite in a final push against the demon; The great tactician Karel Raška, who conceived of a strategy to annihilate the enemy; Donald Henderson, who led the efforts of those final days.

The enemy grew weaker. Millions became thousands, thousands became dozens. And then, when the enemy did strike, scores of humans came forth to defy it, protecting all those whom it might endanger.

The enemy’s last attack in the wild was on Ali Maow Maalin, in 1977. For months afterwards, dedicated humans swept the surrounding area, seeking out any last, desperate hiding place where the enemy might yet remain.

They found none.

35 years ago, on December 9th, 1979, humanity declared victory.

This one evil, the horror from beyond memory, the monster that took 500 million people from this world – was destroyed.

I don’t cry particularly often. These words reliable bring me to tears. Now to be fair, there is plenty of other stress in my life lately, but I’d rather cry over global successes than local failures.

Local failures don’t really affect me in the same manner, though. The idea of millions struck down, helpless against a force we’ve conquered yet they could not resist, strikes me far more strongly than supposedly heart-wrenching tales. Maybe the thousandth sob story made me numb. All I know is that dissatisfaction is my preeminent emotion when hearing about individual cases of distress, like homelessness or disability. My understanding is that presenting specific people in need is an effective tactic for raising charitable donations. For me, empathy takes far longer to kick in—I’ll be looking for solutions (so I can move on to more interesting problems) well before that happens.

Which is fine. Empathy didn’t cure smallpox. Rationality did. Human compassion alone is useless against the pain and suffering of the world. It is by our dedication, our intelligence, our creativity that disease and starvation will be overcome. Values direct your course of action, but will not carry you on the journey.

This is a systematizing mindset at work.

Not even ten posts into this blog and a certain theme is appearing. I’m interested in big, species-level projects. Eradicating smallpox is such an endeavor. We’ve nearly done the same with polio and are making significant progress with malaria. Such projects permanently address the root causes of human suffering. We seek to cure the disease, not treat symptoms, both literally and metaphorically.

I am not an altruist. Humanitarian work is worthwhile not because helping is good but because suffering is evil. Observe the world, do the math, and choose the projects which will objectively eliminate or prevent the most pain and death. We’ve done it before, we’re doing it now, and we’ll do it again until the last of our enemies has been vanquished.

500 million, and not a single one more!