Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 109

Here it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The world is relying far too much on a flawed psychological test to fight racism.

New species can take as little as two generations to form. I wonder what creationists have to say about this…

Epistemic vs ontic interpretations of quantum theory.

The Greeks were right again: two usefully different words for “freedom of speech.”

Make a fast million from bitcoin? No thanks, my soul is damaged enough as it is.


Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Also, keep ‘em short, this is a comments section, not your own blog. Thanks!

60 thoughts on “Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 109

  1. SocraticGadfly

    I’d seen other stories on the new species of finch. That said, since one of the traditional definitions of speciation from my high school days — lack of interbreeding — has now been shown to be untrue for species as longly separated as polar and grizzly/brown bears — while this does refudiate creationists, it doesn’t jazz my boat as much as it would have done a decade ago.


    I think the probabilism of quantum theory is real, not just a knowledge artifact. But, I think it’s real in a “realistic,” i.e., quasi-classical physics type of way. I’ve said here before that I tilt toward as “realistic” an interpretation of quantum mechanics as possible.


    When I started reading the Greeks article, I knew before I got there, that on parrhesia we would get to Diogenes! That said, on isegoria, the US Congress has those same rights as are mentioned for British MPs. But, Congress, not the president.


    Bitcoin I see as generally a libertarian idea for undermining nation-state currency.

    And, per the amount of electricity already needed to “mine” it, it’s an environmental catastrophe.


  2. labnut

    Finally, psychologists had found a way to crack open people’s unconscious, racist minds.

    I refuse to take responsibility for my unconscious mind. It has a mind of its own and seemingly does not mind what I think. Even mindfulness exercises don’t help. Some people think it my minder, I think it is a mindless delusion.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. synred

    Weatheral piece.

    I ‘looked inside’ his book on ‘The physics of nothing’

    He states that general relativity and quantum mechanics combined are Quantum Field Theory. This is not correct. General relativity and quantum mechanics are inconsistent. This makes me tend to discount his judgement and in particular his seeming fondness for hidden variable theories (a.k.a., epistemic QM) in the article.


  4. synred

    The anti-evolution piece posted by Robin makes some good points. I would not call this a new species. It’s a bit hyped.

    “Species” like any other word has fuzzy boundaries and this case is interesting and could lead to a well isolated species. It is not needed to refute creationism which is already refuted.

    To hype the observation to counter a creationist talking point is not useful.


  5. labnut

    Julian Baggini,
    Somehow, we’ve got to shut this gambling house down.

    That truly is the challenge. Does anyone have any ideas?


  6. Mark Shulgasser

    Baggini doesn’t evince the slightest interest in actually understanding or explaining cryptocurrency and the huge implications of digitized currency. Baggini admittedly knows very little about his subject, but feels privileged by his status as a thinker to opine emptily. The idea that cryptocurrency is primarily used for money laundering is introduced by Baggini almost immediately – no better way to prejudice the reader. It’s worth mentioning that crypto is only a tiny fraction of the world financial markets – that it facilitates all transacting, not just that of launderers, and that it eliminates unconscionable fee-taking all along the line by financial middlemen. A vast amount of laundering is already taking place through banks and off-shore havens. Crypto simply gives the little guy the ability to transfer (or launder) money the way only the very rich can do now. It’s as though Baggini would discourage improving automobiles because they are sometimes used as get-away cars. The assertion that crypto is a game for the financial elite is particularly uninformed – quite the contrary: anyone with a computer and a brain can buy and trade. When a professional philosopher descends to newspaper column writing he really ought to bring something more useful to the table. There’s not a word in this article that’s not the irresponsible regurgitation of already widespread misinformation. Finally the lurid implication that this form of investment is somehow Faustian and soul-destroying is disgraceful. As is his decision with nothing to back it that behind it all are ‘ruthless and shameless’ actors.


  7. Mark Shulgasser

    “Little distinguishes democracy in America more sharply from Europe than the primacy—and permissiveness—of our commitment to free speech.” I had no idea that was the case. Can anyone elaborate?


  8. synred

    “Little distinguishes democracy in America more sharply from Europe than the primacy—and permissiveness—of our commitment to free speech.”

    There is no first amendment protection in Europe or Britain.


  9. saphsin

    For Quantum Mechanics, although this may not be the most epistemically virtuous thing to do, I’m going to just assume the realist position as being probably the case, and that there is probably some lack of empirical understanding that prevents us from conceptualizing it clearly.

    Cryptocurrency is beyond Bitcoin, and block chain technology is beyond cryptocurrency. I admit that I’ve seen good criticism of the utility value of cryptocurrency and it’ll more likely end up little more than the fantasy dreams of right-libertarians, but Venezuela has been considering using cryptocurrency to overcome sanctions headed by the Trump Administration because it doesn’t go through international banks the same way, so I see potential.


  10. Thomas Jones

    Synred, keep in mind that “Evolution News” is brought to you courtesy of the Discovery Institute. Whether that perspective colors the article would be better addressed by experts in biological evolution.


  11. SocraticGadfly

    Mark — yes, the “little guy” has money to spend on bitcoin that’s bubbled its way up to $16,000 US each.

    “Bitcoin” + “money laundering” has 587,000 Google hits, Mark. Including this, from earlier today:

    Methinks you sound like a bitcoin/crytpocurrency guru/evangelist. I say that from having run into plenty on Twitter.


  12. Thomas Jones

    To clarify my point, I took it that Robin was sarcastically citing the article as reflecting creationist push-back since the Discovery Institute is generally considered a conservative think-tank.


  13. couvent2104

    What I miss in the free speech piece, is the historical dimension, and more specifically the role that WW II and the Holocaust play in the restrictions on free speech in Europe.

    In Europe – or to be more correct, in north-western Europe, in countries like France, Belgium, the Netherlands and in Germany – there’s a deep and justified feeling of guilt. France had the Vichy regime that eagerly collaborated with the Nazis (the horrible Vel d’Hiv), Belgium had highly anti-Semitic movements like Verdinaso (they thought Hitler was way too soft for the Jews) and movements like VNV and Rex that collaborated with the Nazis. The Netherlands had NSDAP and a remarkably low proportion of the Jewish population that survived.

    “Never again” is still alive in those places, and I think that’s one of the reasons why they are more open to certain restrictions of hate speech. I’m not sure this restricts free speech in general. The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany score higher than the US in the index of Reporters without Borders, and France is on the same level.

    I think history is important, but I’m aware that history is one aspect, not an explanation. After all, if history were an explanation, it’s hard to understand why free speech about race is so unrestricted in the US. Parts of America were an apartheid state until the 1950s or the 1960s, and it had its own pogroms – “lynching” is just another word for pogrom. All this without being occupied by the Nazis. The US did it all by itself.

    I don’t know why the reactions in NW-Europe and the US are so different, but I doubt that ancient Greek opinions on free speech are the deciding factor.


  14. brodix

    The implicit bias and ontic versus epistemic theories of QM both raise a basic question; What is knowledge/information/function of the mind.
    As I see it, it evolved to make distinctions and judgements, as a necessary function of navigation.
    So for the bias article, it’s not so much that we are implicitly biased, as we are compulsively judgmental.
    Can we “know” anything, without some element of variety? If there are not features, information, distinction, etc, then it would seem there is no information to judge. If it’s all black, or all white, how would our minds function? We need that good/bad, left/right, on/off, yes/no, up/down for our minds to work. It isn’t just a spectrum either, because we are distinct beings and can only go one way, or the other. If we come to a crossroads, with eight different directions, that’s one yes and seven no’s.
    We live in a complex reality, with multitudes of decisions, spectrums, choices, etc, so our response is than to slow down and dampen our impulse to make rapid decisions. Much as someone might realize their instinctive negative reaction toward another person is based on limited, primal knowledge and impulses, so choosing to seek a broader knowledge of that person would be a logical choice to make. Which is itself a binary choice, to not judge.

    How does that tie into epistemic, versus ontological interpretations of QM? This process of navigating our reality and learning from it might create a subjective and epistemic viewpoint, but the process is based on an ontological reality. Knowledge is a function of distinctions and distinctions physically, ontologically exist in our environment. Since we can only know in terms of distinctions, we seek them out, as the basis of knowing reality. Consequently everything is quantized. We keep looking for smaller and smaller units and we find them, but what holds them all together? That must be units of energy as well.
    Yet as I pointed out recently, processes and entities go opposite directions of time. As in the production line in a factory is consuming material and expelling product, so it is going from prior to succeeding units, thus past to future, while the product goes the other direction, from being in the future before it is produced, to being in the past, after it is used.
    So it is the process which ties all the units into a larger whole, just as our body is a process of creating and shedding cells.
    Now in QM, there are fields, but the only way we can detect them is the effect of their particles. Even temperature is a quantized effect of all the particles bouncing around, so one might argue it’s really just lots of particles, but that’s bit like saying there are not really forests, only lots of trees. Yet the forest, like the production line, persists, while individual trees sprout, grow and die. Even if one buys into the multiverse, presumably there is some field, or process giving rise to these entities.

    So why is it mathematically predictable when quantum effects will occur and that’s when the space and energy for them reaches the point the network/process forms another node. Events have to occur, in order to be calculated and determined. The future remains probabilistic.

    The problem with currency in general is that it is a social contract, that has been commodified, not a commodity. We want it to the degree everyone else wants it.
    To really understand how it originated and evolved, think community credits.
    If we can ever get around to understanding that, then possibly we wouldn’t be destroying our communities and environments in order to manufacture infinite amounts of commodified credits.
    Another point no one seems willing to consider/debate.


  15. Alan White


    Not the physicist you are, but as a life-long student of the relativity side of things, I agree on the inconsistency claim. I know about Hawking’s work on black-hole-event-horizon radiation and the fact that it consistently invokes both GTR and QT in an explanatory way, but that doesn’t entail that the theories themselves are logically consistent.

    The epistemic/ontic duality presents a paradox. If epistemic accounts of QT are true, then the world in itself ontically is inaccessible to knowledge, much like Kant’s noumena; if ontic accounts of QT are true, then there is no way to show that epistemic accounts are false (as the end of this article implies). Both of these conditionals together imply an impasse that is epistemically insuperable–one can only tentatively adhere to an epistemic or ontic interpretation of QT without hope of further progress. While that may lead to a kind of hyper-skeptical wisdom, it eviscerates hope of finding anything of truth beyond it.


  16. Massimo Post author


    The finch case is genuine, and there’s are actually several other known cases of very rapid speciation, but they tend to occur in plants and insects, which is what makes this instance special, regardless of the bullshit coming out of the Discovery Institute.


    It’s funny, I actually have looked quite a bit into bitcoins, including talking to knowledgeable friends who actually own some, and my conclusions are exactly the same as Baggini’s.

    And Sapshin’s example reinforces my conclusion. Sure, it may sound good that Venezuela is going to avoid Trump’s sanctions, but that also means North Korea or any other nation. And sanctions are one of the very few diplomatic means we have at the international level. It is very possible that in the long run this will lead to increased military interventions.


  17. synred

    Yeah, I know that. It is very clever and exploits the hype of ‘new species’ in two years which I presume is meant to counter the oft made point that we don’t see evolution happening (least was not on the macro/mammal level).

    So it’s NOT that I believe the Discovery institute article!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. SocraticGadfly

    Per Thomas’s links, the issues of online trust and online security are important. And, some cryptocurrencies have been hacked. Now, when credit card passwords have been hacked, under protection of law, the banks, card companies, retailers, etc., have had to make good the losses.

    Note to Mark: Who makes good the losses when a cryptocurrency is hacked? I think you know the answer. So, there goes the issue of security.

    And, if people recognize that, there goes the issue of trust.

    Beyond that, bitcoin and all cryptocurrencies, despite the digital version of Ron/Rand Paul type goldbugs claiming otherwise, is a fiat currency no less than dollars, pounds, euros, etc.


  19. SocraticGadfly

    On the IAT, since I have been the biggest defender of implicit biases here, I will accept that the IAT lacks a fair degree of scientific rigor. I will also accept that the reason some nonleftist liberals defend it is for reasons largely spelled out in the article.

    Do I reject the idea of implicit biases — calling them SUBconscious not UNconscious contra what the IAT’s creators may say — in general? No.

    On a multiple subselves idea of consciousness, not to necessarily buy fully into Dennett’s version, such things are quite likely. My college speech communications class, based on a textbook from before Dennett’s “Brainstorms” let alone any of his books on consciousness, talked about the self another way, a la Donald Rumsfeld’s known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

    There’s the public self, known to both us and others. There’s the private self, what we knowingly (we hope) keep hidden. There’s the unknown self, things that we don’t recognize in ourselves that others do see. And that portion of self includes more than racial, sexual, or other biases. Are we more aggressive or talkative, even a lot more so, than we would like to admit? Others may see that in us. Or they may see capriciousness, callowness, untrustworthiness or other things.

    The fourth “quadrant,” I believe my textbook called the “null self” or similar. It’s things we may not know about ourselves and others may not know either. Example? A degree of heroism that’s never shown until we rescue a drowning person from a pool.

    So, if the IAT is wrong, or at least more wrong than right, so be it.

    I’ll stand by the idea of subconscious biases, and call the issue a subset of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. synred

    The epistemic/ontic duality presents a paradox. If epistemic accounts of QT are true, then the world in itself ontically is inaccessible to knowledge

    It seems to be that ‘the world in itself’ is ‘inaccessible to knowledge’ in either case. We simple do not directly sense ‘ding-an-sich’. Starting with assumptions about the origin in of our images and other senses in a physical world we can construct a model of what the world is like, but that’s about it.


  21. SocraticGadfly

    Thomas, this SciAm piece s “funny,” per the subheaders at top, especially the second. It seems the author is not fully taking into account the old GIGO. With cryptocurrencies of various types, the garbage in of course would include not just coding mistakes, but deliberate manipulation of the system. Even with bitcoin itself and its alleged digital version of double-entry bookkeeping, I’m sure that digital clipping of coinage and getting away with it is possible, if done slowly and carefully.

    Oh, and while I’m there, per a previous comment, arbitrarily changing how much “mining” is needed for a bitcoin? That’s how it’s fiat currency, per a previous comment of mine.

    The whole thing seems to be another tech-neoliberal to libertarian utopia. I’m surprised that an Evgeny Morozov hasn’t written more about it.

    Anyway, here’s the one SciAm piece I’m referencing

    Liked by 1 person

  22. saphsin

    Let me explain my previous comment on QM which was blurted out without justification. I just happen to be much more skeptical that we’re drawing hasty philosophical conclusions from an incomplete empirical grasp of the subject than the equations themselves being a human limitation at portraying physical reality.

    The word diplomacy is used as a euphemism to describe sanctions. I call it economic warfare, quite literally as they were used in a way that lead to half a million deaths in Iraq in the 1990s. I mean, staving off the trade North Korea does with China leads to increased malnutrition among its population while its political leaders live lavishly at the very top, and yet the consequences of this tactic isn’t talked about.

    That being said, cryptocurrency has a lot of potential problems for replacing money. Doug Henwood’s piece is worth reading:

    “There are big reasons to think, however, that neither Bitcoin nor any of the myriad cryptocurrencies emerging online will ever pose a serious threat to the state monopoly on money. In the nineteenth century, the United States did have competing currencies: all kinds of little banks issued banknotes that often turned out to be worthless because they were accepted only within a small radius and weren’t actually backed by anything. Some Bitcoiners drag this out as a worthy precedent anyway. But Bitcoin could never establish itself as a currency in any serious way without regulation and some sort of insurance scheme, because investors and consumers would not trust substantial savings to it. But were Bitcoin to legitimate itself through regulation and become a serious money, it’s impossible to imagine that states would tolerate it for long. It would be simple to outlaw cryptocurrencies, enforcing a ban at the point of conversion from state money to cryptomoney without attempting to crack the coin’s infinitely complicated algorithm.

    Bitcoiners share with other hard-money proponents a fear of inflation and financial collapse. But there is no inflation, and government money has proved far more stable than its alternatives, either gold or Bitcoin. No bank deposits were threatened during the financial crisis of 2008, because they were FDIC insured; you can’t say that about Bitcoin in its short life. But libertarians—and there are a lot of them in tech and finance, the two parents of Bitcoin—are always worrying about inflation. They worry about it the same way that hedge fund titans see talk of eliminating their tax breaks as a rerun of Nazi Germany.”

    Liked by 3 people

  23. Massimo Post author


    “bitcoin and all cryptocurrencies, despite the digital version of Ron/Rand Paul type goldbugs claiming otherwise, is a fiat currency no less than dollars, pounds, euros, etc.”

    Worse than that, considering that at least dollars, euros etc. have actual economies and state power behind them. Bitcoin is purely out of thin air, working only on speculation.


    Thanks for the link to The Nation article. Still, you can call sanctions “economic warfare,” but often times they are justified and work, and economic warfare is preferable to actual warfare.


    “I’ll stand by the idea of subconscious biases, and call the issue a subset of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.”

    But the author doesn’t seem to doubt the existence of subconscious biases. The skepticism is about the IAT, and moreover on the general consequence of emphasizing conscious biases, which people may easily use as an excuse for not working on their very obviously conscious ones.


    The relevant species concept here is the classical one based on reproductive isolation, which works well enough for most species of vertebrates, especially birds and mammals.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. SocraticGadfly

    Massimo, that’s a good point, if you’re saying, per Paul / Augustine moderized: “My subconscious biases made me do it!” I would, with you, reject such claims.

    I think that good, honest, introspection, can bring some parts of our blind spots to light. So, too, can good, honest, listening to others, of course.


    Saph: Per Henwood, et al, yes, that’s why I made my Ron/Rand Paul goldbugs comment. And, also per Henwood, yes, it’s the type of tech-libertarians who hate gummint AND think that Silicon Valley can do better, in general.


  25. labnut

    Nothing excites people as much as the prospect of free money. The excitement is such that it blinds them to the impossibility such a concept. All speculative bubbles depend on:
    1) excitable cupidity;
    2) a deeply embedded tendency to believe we are the chosen few to first find the golden future;
    3) clever obfuscation that enables the above;
    4) early and rapid gains reward the first movers and confirm the obfuscation;
    5) self generating mass mob momentum that follows the early movers.

    It is a mechanism for transferring money. The mistake is to see the mechanism as money. Money derives its value from its linkage to the transfer of goods and services. But a mechanism that is not anchored to this transfer becomes an illusion that facilitates the transfer of money from the pockets of many to the pockets of a few.


  26. labnut

    Money is a fiction(Noah Harari, Sapiens). Fictions persist when they are useful and money is an extraordinarily useful fiction because it facilitates the transfer of goods and services. Fictions which are not similarly useful become short lived.


  27. synred

    consistently invokes both GTR and QT

    As I understand it Hawking’s calculation is a patch work and not strictly rigorous. As a mere experimental, I don’t understand it other than in broad outlines.


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