The Morality of the Invisible Hand

There is a story that a high-level Russian official visited America during the Reagan presidency and was shown the abundance of goods in American stores. He was astonished at the bountiful display and how it compared to the meager offerings in his home country.

“Who planned all this production?” he asked.

“Nobody,” his hosts replied. “People just decide for themselves what they want to produce and sell.”

He thought they must be concealing something. “No, seriously. Tell me: what authority is behind all this?”

“We assure you, this did not come from a central plan. People are free to go into business as they like and produce what they want, and what you see on the shelves is the result.”

Continue reading

The Intuitions of Artificial Intelligence

Does your intuition tell you that computers can’t develop intuition? If so, then you might want to reconsider in light of this week’s news.

Computers have been better at chess since Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov in 1997, but this week Google’s AlphaZero, a general-purpose artificial intelligence (AI) absolutely crushed the reigning computer champion, winning 28 games out of 100 and drawing the rest (no losses at all). It did not win because it computed faster or with a better brute-force algorithm. It won by having better chess intuition than any human. And it developed this intuition all on its own.

Continue reading

How to Assess a Website’s Trustworthiness – Part 5

how_to_thinkI wrote the first four parts of this series a year ago, but something I recently read in How to Think brought the subject to mind again so here is another way to separate the internet’s wheat from its chaff:

Rule #5 – Does the website engage with the best arguments of its opposition?

In a chapter of How to Think titled Repulsions, Alan Jacobs warns that animus toward our opposition “disables our ethical and our practical judgment.” We have such an emotional investment in believing that they are wrong that we harp on their weakest arguments and ridicule their most loony representatives.

Continue reading

Of Islam, Confederate Monuments, and Roy Moore

As the controversy over Confederate monuments played out this year, I came to believe that Muslims had it right: don’t render an artistic likeness of anyone, least of all our heroes, lest we slip into idolatry.

General_Lee

If we had followed that principle, we would still have the dispute over whether General Lee was a good man, but there would be more room to be honest because all sides could admit that he was good in some respects but flawed in others. A statue makes the issue more black-and-white: either we pull the statue down, or we leave it up. Nobody wants half a statue. And the statue itself is only going to portray the general in a one-sided manner, most likely in a noble pose on a stallion.

Continue reading

Like-Minded vs Like-Hearted

how_to_thinkIf you want to find the truth, then the most dangerous place for you to be is in a group that already agrees with you.

This is particularly true if membership in that group is based on shared thinking, such as the sort of church where you must all recite the same creed, the faculty of a school where there are written or unwritten expectations for what you will teach or publish, or a political party whose “platform” you must support.

The reason is obvious, isn’t it? As Alan Jacobs says in his book, How to Think,

…the pressures imposed on us by Inner Rings [of people who control such groups] make genuine thinking almost impossible by making belonging contingent on conformity.

He continues with the solution:

Continue reading

Thinking with Other People

What hope could there be for someone who is such a devoted member of the infamous Westborough Baptist Church (“God Hates Fags”) that she tweets missives such as this one:

Thank God for AIDS! You won’t repent of your rebellion that brought His wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse!

And what if that evangelist for hate had been steeped in it since infancy, being the granddaughter of the church’s founder?

how_to_thinkIn How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, author Alan Jacobs tells the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, whose social-media campaign to spread Westborough Baptist’s message ultimately backfired in a spectacular way.

Continue reading

The Gentleman and the Jester

James HamblinJames Hamblin of The Atlantic is one of my favorite columnists. He’s a 35-year-old medical doctor who looks like a teenager and has a wonderfully dry sense of humor. For example, he wrote a piece this summer called The Eclipse Conspiracy:

On August 21, the “moon” will pass between the Earth and the sun, obscuring the light of the latter. The government agency NASA says this will result in “one of nature’s most awe-inspiring sights.” The astronomers there claim to have calculated down to the minute exactly when and where this will happen, and for how long. They have reportedly known about this eclipse for years, just by virtue of some sort of complex math.

…Meanwhile the scientists tell us we can’t look at it without special glasses because “looking directly at the sun is unsafe.”

That is, of course, unless we wear glasses that are on a list issued by these very same scientists. Meanwhile, corporations like Amazon are profiting from the sale of these eclipse glasses. Is anyone asking how many of these astronomers also, conveniently, belong to Amazon Prime?

Let’s follow the money a little further. Hotels along the “path of totality” — a region drawn up by Obama-era NASA scientists — have been sold out for months. Some of those hotels are owned and operated by large multinational corporations. Where else do these hotels have locations? You guessed it: Washington, D.C.

Continue reading