Science and philosophy – 1

A couple of days back, in a comment on this video, I wrote

Unfortunately because of the philosophy of logical positivism, most scientists today are afraid or unwilling to accept the necessity of metaphysics at all.

Today, I started reading a book “dreams of a final theory” by Steven Weinberg. Early on in the book, he writes

Speaking of a final theory, a thousand questions and clarifications crowd into the mind. What do we mean by one scientific principle ‘explaining’ another? How do we know that there is a common starting point for all such explanations? Will we ever discover that point? How close are we now? What will the final theory be like? What will it say about life and consciousness? And, when we have our final theory, what will happen to science and to the human spirit?

A few pages later, explaining what the pursuit of a final theory means, he starts with “Chalk is white. Why?” Some answers (light, wavelengths etc.) and then another “why”. Some more answers (atomic structure, energy levels etc.) and then another “why” and so on until he comes to a point where he does not know the answers. Finally, he writes,

Even so, it is a tricky business to say exactly what one is doing when one answers such a question. Fortunately, it is not really necessary.

and then, a few paragraphs later,

Ludwig Wittgenstein, denying even the possibility of explaining any fact on the basis of any other fact, warned that ‘at the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.’ Such warnings leave me cold. To tell a physicist that the laws of nature are not explanations of natural phenomena is like telling a tiger stalking prey that all flesh is grass. The fact that we scientists do not know how to state in a way that philosophers would approve what it is that we are doing in searching for scientific explanations does not mean that we are not doing something worthwhile. We could use help from professional philosophers in understanding what it is that we are doing, but with or without their help we shall keep at it.

As an engineer, I can certainly sympathize with what Weinberg is saying. Philosophers such as Wittgenstein have betrayed science (and philosophy). But that is not a good enough reason for scientists to abandon philosophy. Proper science needs a solid base in philosophy. I dare say that without an explicit (philosophical) understanding of what “searching for scienific explanations” means, scientists will not discover a final theory. I think science has reached a level (based on some reading of quantum mechanics) from where it cannot proceed without answering some fundamental questions that are not just scientific.

Anyhow this is a fascinating subject, and I will return to it often. I have been fascinated by this subject for about an year now, and have been reading some books off and on when I find time. So far I have not written on this subject, because I do not like to write unless I have a clear idea of what I am writing. But it seems unlikely that I will find answers to questions like this without a lot of thinking. So I intend to think by putting my thoughts on this blog instead of doing it before going to sleep.

Moral Responsibility

Arguing that government should fund education T.R asks (somewhat rhetorically),

Isn’t it our social and moral responsibility to give equal opportunity to all?

Even if it were, that does not necessarily mean that government should fund education. Note that government funds come from taxation – they are not voluntary. Using the force of law to take my money and spend it without my consent can only be justified if I have a legal responsibility (such as the collection of a fine). A moral responsibility is not enough. For example, it is my moral responsibility not to spend all my money on drink. If I were to do so however, the government would not be justified in putting me in rehabilitation or preventing me from buying drinks. This is because I am not legally responsible for not spending all my money on drinks. However, I do not wish to get into the differences between moral and legal responsibilities. My point is that I do not even have a moral responsibility to “give” equal opportunity to all.

What does moral responsibility mean? The moral qualification restricts the scope of the term to those actions that are open to choice. Clearly that which is outside my power of choice cannot be a moral issue. Since it is individuals who have the power of choice, moral responsibility refers to the responsibility of individuals for the consequences of their choices. A collective can never have a moral responsibility. Only individuals can. Therefore the question should actually be “Isn’t it my (or your, but not our) moral responsibility to give equal opportunity to all?” (I have dropped social responsibility from the question. More on that later.)

Put this way, the question becomes much easier to understand. The simple fact is that it is not within my power to give equal opportunity to all. That men are born and live in different environments (geographical, social, political, economic) is an unalterable fact outside of my power of choice. Different environments necessarily mean different opportunities. Moreover the very concept of an equal opportunity is quite shaky. If A is taller than B, could they ever have an equal opportunity to succeed at basketball? Even if A and B are equally tall and are brought up in similar environments, suppose A works harder and becomes rich as a star player while B does not. Do A and B now have an equal opportunity to buy a house? Clearly not. You may say that this is not what you mean and A earned this so this is OK. Now take it further. Do A’s and B’s children have an equal opportunity in their lives? Would taking away part of A’s money and giving it to B make their childrens’ opportunities equal? No. A’s children would still have the advantage of being brought up by a hardworking and successful parent. There is no way to make the childrens’ opportunities equal. Equality of opportunity is merely a watered-down version of the concept of equality of outcome. As such it might appear more plausible on the surface but is just as unrealizable. Opportunities come from previous outcomes or from chance. Neither of those can be equalized.

You might argue that even if it is impossible to equalize opportunity, it is my moral responsibility to reduce inequalities as much as possible. But that arguement is worse than the previous one. A doctrine that holds the impossible as a moral standard is extremely destructive since it can never be successfully practiced. Consider what it means when put into practice. It means that I should redistribute values from the wealthy to the poor, from the hardworking to the indolent, from the wise to the foolish, from the talented to the ordinary, from the strong to the weak, from the fortunate to the unlucky – in short, from the “haves” to the “have-nots” – because the former have more opportunities than the latter. What can be more destructive than that? Most people realize (at some level) that putting the doctrine of equality into practice fully is destructive. And so they practise it inconsistently. But that is destructive too in another way. It destroys his self-esteem or causes him to reject all moral ideas as idealistic, leaving him with no moral guidance.

Where does this incredibly destructive doctrine come from? It comes from a misunderstanding of the difference between the metaphysically given and the man-made. That men are unequal is metaphysically given – outside the power of choice of any individual. It cannot be right or wrong, just or unjust. The metaphysically given forms the basis for concepts such as right, wrong, just, unjust etc. Labeling the metaphysically given as unjust is a perversion of all moral concepts. The existence of inequality, like the existence of the sun, simply is. It is neither right nor wrong, neither just nor unjust, neither fortunate nor unfortunate.

So, it is not my moral resposibility to give equal opportunity to all. What about social responsibility though? To me, it is an empty term, devoid of meaning. It is usually used to obfuscate an arguement rather than to clarify one. I have moral responsibilities (as long as I choose to live – moral responsibilities are always chosen) to act in a certain way. I have legal responsibilities to act in accordance with laws (atleast when the laws are just). Beyond that, I have no responsibilities to some nebulous collective.

Social planning

In a response to a forwarded post, a friend made the following argument (I am putting only its essence and in my own words, since I have not taken permission to make it public)

Market forces can produce outcomes that are worse off for everyone in the system. A social planner can, (in some cases at least) improve on the efficiency of the market. Pigouvian tax is an example.

In his response, he acknowledges that it might be difficult in practice for the social planner to obtain all the information required, but says that it would be very surprising if the social planners actions could never lead to efficiency improvement.

Consider the crux of the argument (emphasized above). There are three aspects to it that should be considered.

1) What are market forces? They are an abstraction that refers to all the judgements made by individuals interacting with each other under some conditions. If one is talking of a free market, these conditions are the absence of any coercion. Note that for the concept of coercion to be clear, a system of property rights (at the very least) needs to be in place (More on this in 3). If one is to prove the statement above (in a mathematical sense, which is what my friend meant), these market forces need to be modeled. This leads to 2.

2) How are choices evaluated? In actuality, every individual evaluates and weighs choices in a unique manner depending on the context of his knowledge, his hierarchy of values etc. This evaluation is neither necessarily rational nor quantitative. Yet if a mathematical result is to be obtained, both the evaluations and the decisions based on these evaluations need to be quantified. The evaluation (sometimes called “utility”) is quantified by assigning a monetary value to every “variable”. The decision making process is quantified by assuming that each individual acts to maximize utility (the sum of the monetary values of the results of all his choices).

3) What is the system? In actuality, the system is the set of laws that determine the kind of interactions that occur among individuals. In the model, this translates to assumptions that certain factors will remain constant over time.

Once these three aspects are modeled, one ends up with a set of equations that can be solved to determine what utility each individual will be able to achieve. The solution represents an outcome. In certain cases, feasible outcomes may exist that are better for each individual. (This usually happens when there are “externalities” which can be considered mathematically as non-linear effects). The most obvious problem with this argument is that it involves a huge number of variables, so man variables that no human (or computer) can solve the set of equations in any meaningful time. That however, is not my argument. My friend already acknowledges this fact and claims (plausibly) that in certain cases, a social planner may find an approximate solution that is still better than the free market one. My arguement is that: The fact that a (mathematically) feasible better solution exists, does not mean that it is possible to achieve in actuality. The reason is that the sort of actions required to achieve the feasible solution change the system (point 3) that was analyzed. In actual terms, such actions necessarily involve violating the property rights of individuals, thus changing the interactions between people, the monetary values they attach to different choices and the strategies they adopt to maximize their values. In plain language, attempts to achieve the “optimum” solution are lost in a host of unintended consequences. The information that says a better solution is feasible exists not with any single individual but with a vast number of individuals. To put that information to use, even if a social planner is able to approximate it, he needs to communicate it to all the people who will need to act on it. But force (and social planning is all about force) is a very destructive way of communicating. Successful communication is done with persuation and persuation is what the free market is all about.

Now consider a much simpler moral argument. Every value that man achieves is a result of using his mind. And the essential requirement for the mind to work is freedom. When man is free to act as his mind instructs him to do and is responsible for the consequences of his actions, his mind works the best. When he is forced to act against the judgement of his mind, his mind becomes passive and he loses the motivation to use his mind (something that never figures in a mathematical model). In the most fundamental sense of the word good, force can never be good for man.

In his response, following my post on propaganda, my friend clarified that what he meant by propaganda was a one-sided presentation of an idea that does not consider all sides of an issue. The moral idea (in the paragraph above) when supplemented with the practical arguments and all the evidence of the past century becomes a fundamental political principle. And there is no other side to the issue left. As I wrote in this post, as long as one is unsure of something and has not integrated ideas into principles, it is good to be circumspect and consider all pros/cons of all sides of an issue. But on issues on which it is possible to have relevant principles, there is only one side. Fundamental principles do not allow any evaluation in shades of gray. Whether I should be free to act on my own judgement or whether I should allow a social planner to force his whims on me or whether I should become a social planner myself is not an issue where I will weigh the pros/cons of the alternatives.

Finally for the sake of completeness, consider the Pigouvian tax/subsidy to correct for externalities. The first point to be noted is that most externalities go away when property rights are properly defined and implemented. And in fact a tax on pollution is actually quite close to what a property-rights solution to the “problem” of pollution would be. As for the subsidy on education, one can just look at the state of subsidised public education in the U.S. to see how it works. Externalities cause problems in model-based economics because they are non linear effects and most models are linear (eg, price = marginal utility) (for the simple reason that non-linear models are untractable). Man’s mind is not a linear device however, and a linear model does it no justice. Just think of the salesman who negotiates a price (= marginal utility?) or the investor who depends on a virtuous cycle where increase in supply creates a non-existant demand to recover his investment.

Laws vs Regulations

Recently Diana Hsieh (of NoodleFood) raised the question “What is the difference between laws and regulations?” Since I consider myself opposed to all regulations but firmly believe that laws are necessary, this is an important question.

Before I get to law or politics, the first thing to note is that the word regulate derives from the word regular as in regular behavior, regular schedules etc. Anything that is regular is easier to understand, easier to predict, easier to work with. Regularity therefore is a desirable state. But it is not desirable in itself. It is not an end. It is desirable because it usually makes the achievement of actual ends easier. Consider an example. Fixed (or regular) office timings make it easier for people to collaborate, to plan their work, to plan their personal lives etc. But there can be any number of good reasons to break the regular schedule. And the decision to adhere to or ignore a regulation is based on a lot of narrow context. Laws on the other hand are inescapable. Consider the laws of logic or the laws of physics for example. They are general principles inherent in the nature of reality. In a legal or political context, laws are the principles that are necessary for men to live together in a society – necessary because of the very nature of man and society. Without laws, society would break down.

Since the role of a government is to preserve men’s rights and since rights only have meaning in a social context, it is the role of a government to establish laws. Since laws are general principles, there can’t be too many laws. Moreover they rarely need to change over time. Unless a fundamental change occurs in the nature of man or of society (it is conceivable that advances in technology might lead to such changes) laws do not need to change. This is the reason for measures such as checks and balances, separation of powers etc.. in good political theory.

Since regulations (a set of rules intended to make things regular) are highly dependent on context (both in their formulation and in their use), a government is completely unsuited to either formulate or enforce them. Regulations are best created and enforced by the particular set of individuals who need them. More importantly, when a government enforces regulations, it necessarily violates the rights of men to judge what is in their best interests.

Finally, there were some comments on Diana’s post to the effect that “Once Congress passes a law, agencies must write regulations to put the law into effect”. This is a badly wrong idea. It is like saying that the laws of physics are implemented by using rules of thumb. What is needed to put a law into effect is an interpretation of the law to specific cases. That role belongs to the judiciary, not to the executive.

Terrorism and democracy

If The Times of India is to be believed, the mood of the public after the latest terrorist attack is different – it is one of outrage and anger.

…this was one outrage which finally snapped the endurance and infinite generosity of India. In the past, every assault on Mumbai — where, at times, the death toll was higher — had produced a flicker of anger, followed by an astonishing display of fatalism…
The mood is different this week; it is palpably angry…

So a country of men who look to the state to solve their personal problems is outraged that the government they have elected has failed to solve its problems? A country of men who cannot take personal responsibility in social and economic matters is outraged that their government has failed to take collective responsibility in political matters? A country of men which believes in a political system that grants voting rights to men who perpetrate honor killings and communal riots is outraged that their government lacks the moral courage to take appropriate measures?

Jug Suraiya writes

This is why 26/11 is tantamount to a blood-drenched referendum on India: which of the two Indias the world’s largest and most irrepressible democracy, or the world’s most corrupt and cynical mobocracy will emerge from the ordeal?…
It’s referendum time for India. Are we going to remain weak and vulnerable to repeated assault because of our inner divisiveness? Or are we going to beat the bastards, are we going to triumph over terror by surviving it, not on its dehumanising terms but on our own terms of a proudly free society and a strong and cohesive democracy impervious and unsusceptible to the exploitative politics of caste, creed and ethnic division? It’s time to choose.

Indeed it is time to choose. But what are the two choices that Suraiya is writing about. I see only one choice there. Suraiya is calling for a strong, free and cohesive democracy. Sounds good, except for the fact that the meaning of these words will be decided by a vote. And among the voters will be the men who perpetrate and condone honor killings, who kill their new-born daughters, who participate in riots, who indulge in violent strikes and hold cities to ransom. And manipulating these voters and ruling over them will be the men who are best able to play ruthless games of power. And cheering them on and waxing eloquent will be fools like Suraiya who believe that there is some magic in a democratic vote that turns vice into virtue. No, we will not achieve either freedom or security by going down this path. The path of democracy is what we have been following all this while. And this is where it has brought us. Care to see where it will take us next? We will have stronger laws and more teams of trained commandos. And when the next terrorist strike happens, these commandos will be busy raiding a party of teenagers high on drugs or settling some political score in a country that will have turned into a police state.

What is the alternative? It is to develop the moral courage to assert that political principles are not open to a vote, to assert that the right is a matter of fact and not of consensus, to reject a system of government that allows the least scrupulous to grab the most power, to develop a sense of personal responsibility for our problems, to value our lives and freedom enough to reject any interference.

So long as we do not value our own lives and allow our freedom to be chipped away in small pieces – by laws that ban smoking and make helmets mandatory – and large ones – by laws that enforce reservations, ban the setting up of educational institutes for profit, ban people from selling their property on their own terms – we have no cause to be outraged that the government does not value our lives either.

It is time to choose – freedom, responsibility and security or democracy, corruption, paternalism and terrorism. And if we make the wrong choice we will find that the rejection of all principles in a democratic free-for-all does not magically turn into sound politics. The last century saw the collapse of socialist governments under the weight of their flawed principles. Democracies do not have that risk – they have no weight to collapse under. But that will not prevent them from being blown away under the onslaught of Islamic terrorism which does have an ideology, believes in it and is committed to do whatever it takes to establish it.

Now I have a right to reputation

The Times of India reports

The Supreme Court has ruled that a person’s reputation is an inseparable part of his fundamental right to life and liberty and hence, the police and other authorities with the power to detain should be very sure of their facts against an individual before taking him into preventive detention and lodging him in jail.

“The reputation of a person is a facet of his right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution”

Let me reiterate some facts that I noted in an earlier post. Under the Indian constitution:

I do not have the right to express my thoughts freely. The state may impose “reasonable restrictions” on my expression “in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” (article 19)

I do not have a right to my property. (The right to property is not a fundamental right)

I do not have a right to my body. “Nothing in this article (article 23) shall prevent the State from imposing compulsory service for public purposes”

But now I do have a right to reputation – a right to what others think of me, a right to others judgement. And this is what the Times has to say about it

It should be welcomed by those who are disturbed by the rampant trend among cops to send the accused to jail even for bailable offences or when the evidence has not fully firmed up. Anxious to appease the chorus for swift justice and to be seen as discharging their law enforcement brief, cops and other detaining authorities see jailing the accused as an easy option.

There is no need to invoke a right to reputation to keep the police from abusing their powers. In the earlier post I wrote,

“This mess of contradictory and concrete-bound articles institutionalizes an approach of rampant pragmatism to governance. It institutionalizes the idea that there are no absolute rights, no absolute principles and no absolute limits to the actions governments can take.”

This ruling and its purpose serve to underline that.

Book Review: NEXT

NEXT is a novel by Michael Crichton. Or atleast it claims to be. It has a disorganized plot, too many characters with too little characterization and gratuitous sex. Just about two weeks after reading it, I can hardly remember the characters or their roles in the plot. The main plot describes the efforts of a biological research company engaged in creating genetic drugs to recover some cells that could be used to fight cancer. The cells have been obtained during a routine treatment and the patient is unaware that his cells are special. The doctor who treats him discovers that the cells are special and continues his research without informing the patient. When he decides to commercialize the cells, the patient sues his company but loses the case. He then gets an offer from a competitor for his cells and goes into hiding. Meanwhile the cell samples are stolen and the company attempts to obtain cells from the patient’s daughter and grandson, providing enough material for all the action. There are also some sub-plots. There is a researcher who discovers a “maturity” gene, accidentally gives it to his drug addicted brother who comes out of his addiction, then tries out the gene on some other people, only to discover that the gene actually causes premature ageing and death. There is another researcher who inseminates a female chimpanzee with his own sperm with some genetic process (I don’t recall the details) and lands up with a humanzee kid, resembling a chimpanzee in appearance but capable of human speech. He takes the kid home and sends him to school disguised as a child with some rare medical condition. Overall, the plot is somewhat incoherant and one has to make an effort to remember the characters when they reappear after a few pages. As a novel Airframe was much more engaging and Prey was a lot more exciting even though the plot in Prey was much worse. (Airframe and Prey are the only other novels by Crichton that I have read). If NEXT were just a novel, it would be a waste of time. But NEXT is more than a novel. It raises serious questions about patent laws in the domain of genetics, intellectual property rights, what it means to own ones body, commercialization of genetic research, role of universities and government in research etc. In fact, Crichton has a 7 page note at the end of the novel, explaining his views on these issues. Since one of the purposes of this novel (perhaps the primary purpose) is clearly to raise these issues, let me present a summary of some of the issues from the novel and Crichton’s views.

Crichton presents a world that is almost out of control, a world in which the state of the art in genetics has far surpassed the state of the relevant laws. Here are some examples:

The lawyer representing the doctor and his research company tells the patient’s daughter after winning the case, that it would be futile for the patient to appeal the ruling. “UCLA is a state university. The Board of Regents is prepared, on behalf of the state of California, to take your father’s cells by right of eminent domain.”

The CEO of the research company wants a divorce and custody over his children but his wife doesn’t. His wife’s grandfather died from a fatal genetic disease and there is a chance that she might have it too. The CEO’s lawyer demands that the wife be genetically tested and gets a court order. The wife is unwilling to be tested since a discovery that she carries the disease would ruin her life.

An insurance company cancels a person’s coverage based on some genetic information about his father who died in circumstances that caused a legal enquiry. Someone at the company that performed the genetic tests says “Anyway the son is saying he did not authorize the release of genetic information about himself, which is true. But if we release the father’s information, as we’re required by state law to do, we also release the son’s, which we’re required by state law not to do. Because his children share half the same genes as the father. One way or another, we break the law.”

“The COX-2 inhibitor patent fight was famous. In 2000 the university of Rochester was granted a patent for a gene called COX-2, which produced an anzyme that caused pain. The university propmptly sued the pharmaceutical giant Searle, which marketed a successful arthritis drug, Celebrex, that blocked the COX-2 enzyme. Rochester said Celebrex had infringed on its gene patent, even though their patent only claimed general uses of the gene to fight pain. The university had not claimed a patent on any specific drug.”

Op-Ed commentary: “Columbia University researchers now claim to have found a sociability gene. What’s next?… In truth researchers are taking advantage of the public’s lack of knowledge… Geneticists will not speak out. They all sit on the boards of private companies, and are in a race to identify genes they can patent for their own profit…”

At the end of the novel, Crichton presents his views in the form of a 5 point course of action

1. Stop patenting genes: Crichton writes that genes are a fact of nature and such cannot be owned or patented.

2. Establish clear guidelines for the use of human tissues: Crichton writes that there should be legislation to ensure that patients can control the purpose for which their tissues are used.

3. Pass laws to ensure that data about gene testing is made public: Crichton suggests (not very clearly or convincingly) that there should be some genuinely independent verification of findings and full disclosure of research data.

4. Avoid bans on research: Crichton essentially argues that “To the best of my knowledge there has never been a successful global ban on anything. Genetic research is unlikely to be the first.”

5. Rescind the Bayh-Dole act (an act permitting university researchers to sell their discoveries for their own profit, even when that research had been funded by taxpayer money): Crichton laments that thirty years ago, universities provided a scholarly haven, a place where disinterested scientists were available to discuss any subject affecting the public. Now universities are commercialized, the haven is gone and scientists have personal interests that influence their judgement. Also “Taxpayers finance research, but when it bears fruit, the researchers sell it for their own institutional and personal gain, after which the drug is sold back to the taxpayers.”

I agree with points 1, 2 and 4 and strongly disagree with points 3 and 5. In fact I believe he has got the issue backwards.

In his support for point 3, Crichton writes “Government should take action. In the long run there is no constituency for bad information. In the short run, all sorts of groups want to bend the facts their way. And they do not hesitate to call their senators, Democratic or Republican. This will continue until the public demands a change.” This is true but his conclusion doesn’t follow. An “independent agency” in charge of verifying findings has to be under the control of politicians who will be all too willing to oblige the groups who who want to bend facts in exchange for backing. This phenomenon is not new at all. It is called lobbying. Requirements for disclosure are even more ridiculous than bans. You can force a person from doing something with limited success. How do you force a person to disclose what no one else knows? And most importantly, government has no moral right to <i>require</i> someone to do anything. Men are not slaves.

About the Bayh-Dole act, again Crichton has the facts right and the conclusion wrong. Universities are certainly commercialized today. And researchers who are funded by public money and allowed to make private profits certainly act in unscrupulous ways. The incentives are definitely wrong. But the solution is not to de-commercialize research. That is neither possible nor desirable. It ignores the context of why the act was passed in the first place. It was passed because non-commercial research does not work.

Describing a character who is a director of NIH (National Institutes of Health), another character says: “Rob’s a major player at NIH, He’s got huge research facilities and he dispenses millions in grants. He holds breakfasts with congressmen. He’s a scientist who believes in God. They love him on the Hill. He’d never be charged with misconduct. Even if we caught him buggering a lab assistant, he wouldn’t be charged.” and again “It was classic Rob Bellarmino. Talking like a preacher, subtly invoking God, and somehow getting everyone to push the envelope, no matter who got hurt, no matter what happened. Rob can justify anything. He’s brilliant at it.” The solution to unscrupulous researchers (in as much as the problem can be “solved”) is not to have more such men like Rob. It is to make them impossible, or more precisely to make it impossible for them to enjoy political clout and arbitrary powers to grant millions in grants. It is to divorce research from government.

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