The Fallible Reason of Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard–Do Not Succumb to the Soft Bigotry of Low Intellectual Expectations Edition (Hoisted/Smackdown)

Clowns (ICP)

A correspondent reminds me of [a moment][] almost four years ago that powerfully drove home to me how low the intellectual standards are on the American right. This will be very important to remember over the next four years--especially since the Trumpists are not the brightest of the lights on the American right as it stands today, never mind how it stood before the ascendancy of George W. Bush fifteen years ago, and never never mind how it stood before the ascendancy of Newt Gingrich twenty-five years ago.

It takes some wind-up, however. Let's start with the (usually) very sharp Thomas Nagel:

Thomas Nagel (2012): Mind and Cosmos: "If I decide, when the sun rises on my right, that I must be driving north instead of south...

[a moment: is because I recognize that my belief that I am driving south is inconsistent with that observation, together with what I know about the direction of rotation of the earth. I abandon the belief because I recognize that it couldn’t be true.... If I oppose the abolition of the inheritance tax, it is because I recognize that the design of property rights should be sensitive not only to autonomy but also to fairness.... A theory of everything has to explain... the emergence from a lifeless universe of reproducing organisms... consciousness... [and] the development of consciousness into an instrument of transcendence that can grasp objective reality and objective value...

Thomas Nagel says that his reason and his consciousness are "transcendent" faculties with which he grasps:

  • the objective reality that the direction in which the sun rises is not the west, the north, or the south, but rather the east.
  • the objective value that a good system of property rights will take due account of fairness and so must include an inheritance tax.

Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard certainly does not believe that a good system of property rights must include an inheritance tax. Therefore it would seem to me--but I could be wrong--he is committed to the belief that human consciousness and reason (either Thomas Nagel's, or his own) are not transcendent faculties grasping objective value but rather the error-ridden mental gropings of the jumped-up monkey that is the East African Plains Ape.

I once saw the sun rise ahead of me due south. If I had concluded that I must have been going not south but east (and I admit I was tempted to, until I figured out what was going on), I would have been wrong. I am therefore committed--via my own iced experience--to the belief that human consciousness and reason (my own!) are not transcendent faculties grasping objective value, but rather merely the error-ridden mental gropings of the jumped-up monkey that is the East African Plains Ape.

You would therefore think that Andrew Ferguson and I would have agreeable things to talk about, no?

I certainly did.

But I was wrong! For it certainly appears to me that we do not!

Andrew Ferguson: The Heretic: "Almost before the ink was dry on Nagel’s book the UC Berkeley economist and prominent blogger Brad DeLong could be found gathering the straw and wood for the ritual burning...

...DeLong is a great believer in neo-Darwinism. He has coined the popular term “jumped-up monkeys” to describe our species. (Monkeys because we’re descended from primates; jumped-up because evolution has customized us with the ability to reason and the big brains that go with it.) DeLong was particularly offended by Nagel’s conviction that reason allows us to “grasp objective reality.” A good materialist doesn’t believe in objective reality, certainly not in the traditional sense.

All I can say here is that Andrew Ferguson is a loon: what could a good materialist believe in other than objective reality? To a good materialist, after all, there is nothing else out there. Or am I wrong here?

Ferguson continues:

“Thomas Nagel is not smarter than we are,” [DeLong] wrote, responding to a reviewer who praised Nagel’s intelligence. “In fact, he seems to me to be distinctly dumber than anybody who is running even an eight-bit virtual David Hume on his wetware.” (What he means is, anybody who’s read the work of David Hume, the father of modern materialism.) DeLong’s readers gathered to jeer as the faggots were placed around the stake...

Rather than agreeing with me that Nagel would profit immensely from a good dose of Hume, Ferguson eagerly embraces Nagel's certainly that he has transcendently and directly grasped objective reality (if the sun rises in front of you you are facing east) and objective value (you are morally obligated to advocate an inheritance tax). Back to Ferguson:

I... find Mind and Cosmos exhilarating. [Nagel writes:]

For a long time I have found the materialist account of how we and our fellow organisms came to exist hard to believe. It is prima facie highly implausible that life as we know it is the result of a sequence of physical accidents together with the mechanism of natural selection. I would like to defend the untutored reaction of incredulity to the reductionist neo-Darwinian account of the origin and evolution of life...

The neo-Darwinian materialist account offers a picture of the world that is unrecognizable to us--a world without... free will or consciousness or good and evil or selves or, when it comes to that, selflessness.... Reductive materialism doesn’t account for... the fundamental beliefs we rely on as we go about our everyday business: the truth of our subjective experience, our ability to reason, our capacity to recognize that some acts are virtuous and others aren’t.... On its own terms, materialism cannot account for [these] brute facts....

Our moral sense... developed a complexity far beyond anything needed for survival, even on the savannah—even in Manhattan. We are, as Nagel writes:

beings capable of thinking successfully about good and bad, right and wrong, and discovering moral and evaluative truths that do not depend on [our] own beliefs.

And we behave accordingly, or try to. The odds that such a multilayered but nonadaptive capacity should become a characteristic of the species through natural selection are, again, implausibly long...

But had Nagel been on Lufthansa Flight whatever with me that December day, when we exited the north polar shadow the earth casts at local noon and so saw the sun rising due south, his transcendent reason and consciousness would have directly grasped objective reality and concluded that we were flying not south but east--and Nagel would have been wrong. He would not have thought successfully about which way he was going.

And--to Ferguson--when Nagel concludes (as he does) that a good system of property rights must include an inheritance tax, this is--to Ferguson--not an instance of a human thinking successfully about "good and bad, right and wrong... moral and evaluative truths" using his "multilayered but nonadaptive" moral sense that "should [not have] become a characteristic of the species through natural selection." It is (to Ferguson) an example of the jumped-up East African Plains Ape that is Thomas Nagel getting it wrong. (And I, of course, think that here Nagel is right, and that it is the jumped-up East African Plains Ape that is Andrew Ferguson who is getting it wrong here--but I could be wrong.)

There is a big problem, you see--at least I think there is (but I could be wrong)--with those who think that our reason and consciousness must have non-material causes because they enable to us to transcendently and directly grasp objective reality and objective value. It is this: If our reason and consciousness allow us to transcendently grasp objective reality and objective value, how come we get it wrong so often? Why do we think that we must be flying east when we are in fact flying south? Why do we think that the dress is black and blue (white and gold)? Why do we think an inheritance tax is morally required (forbidden) when in fact it is morally forbidden (required)? Transcendent faculties directly grasping objective reality and value don't get it wrong. We do.

And Ferguson ought to recognize this point--for Nagel's disagreements with Ferguson on matters of moral philosophy are grave. (There is one more possibility: perhaps Ferguson agrees with Nagel on things like the inheritance tax, but there is money to be made if he pretends he doesn't? But I think it far more likely that Ferguson's fallible jumped-up East African Plains Ape brain is just not thinking clearly here.)

That we think as well as we do is a great puzzle--one that science has (so far) done next to nothing to solve: East African Plains Apes are much more than mere mindless beasts of the field in very interesting ways that we today do not have a clue of understanding.

That our consciousness and reason are as fallible as they are--that we are wrong so far and so often--is, from the standpoint of those who regard as as much closer to angels than beasts, an equally hard problem that neither theology nor non-materialist philosophy has done anything to solve. And Andrew Ferguson's poor consciousness and reason are so fallible that he does not grasp even that this might be a problem, or that this brute fact of our mental fallibility is the heart of my argument: he has no idea and no clue as to what my argument really is.

Nagel, however, does--dimly--grasp that there is a problem here. But when he tries to address it, his argument collapses into incoherent word salad:

Relying on one’s vision and relying on one’s reason are similar in one respect: in both cases, the reliance is immediate. When I see a tree, I do not infer its existence from my experience any more than I infer the correctness of a logical inference from the fact that I can’t help believing the conclusion. However... in the perceptual case I can recognize that I might be mistaken, but... am nevertheless justified in believing the evidence of my senses for the most part, because this is consistent with the hypothesis that an accurate representation of the world around me results from senses shaped by evolution to serve that function....

It is not possible to think:

Reliance on my reason, including my reliance on this very judgment, is reasonable because it is consistent with its having an evolutionary explanation.

Therefore any evolutionary account of the place of reason presupposes reason’s validity and cannot confirm it without circularity.

Eventually the attempt to understand oneself in evolutionary, naturalistic terms must bottom out in something that is grasped as valid in itself--something without which the evolutionary understanding would not be possible. Thought moves us beyond appearance to something that we cannot regard merely as a biologically based disposition.... It is not enough to be able to think that if there are logical truths, natural selection might very well have given me the capacity to recognize them. That cannot be my ground for trusting my reason, because even that thought implicitly relies on reason in a prior way....

Reason can take us beyond the appearances because it has completely general validity, rather than merely local utility. If we have it, we recognize that it can be neither confirmed nor undermined by a theory of its evolutionary origins, nor by any other external view of itself. We cannot distance ourselves from it. That was Descartes’ insight.... The distinctive thing about reason is that it connects us with the truth directly.... Something has happened that has gotten our minds into immediate contact with the rational order of the world.... That enables us to possess concepts that display the compatibility or incompatibility of particular beliefs with general hypotheses.... This applies in the domain of value as well as of fact. The process is highly fallible, but it could not even be attempted without this hard core of self-evidence, on which all less certain reasoning depends...

A "highly fallible" faculty and process", but one that nevertheless has "completely general validity", that "connects us with the truth directly", that "has gotten our minds into immediate contact with the rational order of the world", and that "applies in the domain of value as well as of fact"?

I don't know. I could be wrong. But this seems to me to make no sense whatsoever. My mind--my consciousness and reason--does not seem to me to be in immediate contact with the rational order of the world. And if Angel is right about the powers of my consciousness and reason, how could I possibly be wrong about this?

Not, mind you, that I am certain--or even that I think--that Descartes was wrong about this. I certainly think that I think. And something is--I am. But I do not think that I adequately understand those terms. "Think", "I", "is", "am", "something"--these all seem to me to be very difficult and complicated concepts.

But why should I believe that the brain of a jumped-up East African Plains Ape is capable of understanding consciousness and reason? I think of the late Richard Feynman on how we do not "understand" the quantum mechanics underlying even a photon or an electron--let alone a hydrogen atom or a chlorophyll molecule. He would say: I don't understand it. You don't understand it. None of us understand it. But we can do calculations with it. And when we do experiments they check out.

That is what we should hope for. And it is the mark of how flawed is the typical thinking of the jumped-up East African Plains Ape that some of us find ourselves wishing for more, and some of us even think that they have accomplished more.

On a Thousand Year Timescale, the Human Race Really Is Just One Big Unhappy Family

Hoisted from the Archives: 470 years ago, in 1543, King Henry VIII Tudor of England married his sixth and last wife, Katherine Parr. He also:

  • allied with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V Habsburg "of Ghent";
  • declared war on France;
  • imposed the English administrative grid of counties, shires, boroughs, and House of Commons representatives on Wales;
  • made yet another short-lived treaty with Scotland;
  • burned the three Protestant Windsor Martyrs; and
  • named the composer Thomas Tallis a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal.

A busy king, for one so sick and mad.

Westmill hertfordshire england Google Maps

Also in 1543 a woman named Katherine was born around 1543 in Hartfordshire--in a place called, simply, "West Mill".

West of what it does not say.

Google Maps tells us that West Mill today has an establishment called The Tea Room, and another called the Sword Inn Hand--demonstrating that no pun is too weak for the Englishmen and Englishwomen of the Home Counties to think it absolutely hilarious. Google Maps tells us that West Mill stands west of the River Rib and the A-10 road beyond, partially shielded from the noise of passing cars taking the alternate route to the M-11 from London to Cambridge by Langley Wood and Norwich Grove.

Westmill hertfordshire england Google Maps

Zooming out reveals that West Mill lies three km north of the East Herts. Golf Club…

Westmill hertfordshire england Google Maps

and roughly 20 km west by northwest of Bishop's Stortford and Stansted Mountfichet, which is better known today as the home of Stansted Airport, London's other other airport…

Westmill hertfordshire england Google Maps

and 50 km north of London.

Katherine married Richard Duxford, and they begat Katherine Duxford the younger. Katherine Duxford the younger married Thomas Richardson the younger, who moved to West Mill, and they begat Thomas Richardson the youngest. They became or already were Puritans--we judge so because they then begat Ezekiel Richardson.

Ezekiel Richardson moved from Hartfordshire to Massachusetts, and married Susanna Bradford, the daughter of Governor William Bradford of the Mayflower Pilgrims--the man who commanded his people to be a City Upon a Hill, a Light Unto the Nations of the World. Ezekiel Richardson and Susanna Bradford begat James Richardson. James Richardson married Bridget Henchman, and they begat Thomas Richardson. Thomas Richardson married Hannah Colborn, and they begat James Richardson the eldest. James Richardson the eldest married Mary Nelson, and they begat James Richardson the elder. James Richardson the elder married Mary Arnold, and they begat James Richardson the younger.

And so from Katherine Duxford the elder of West Mill, Herts., to James Richardson the younger is seven generations--taking them from Hertfordshire to Massachusetts via Holland in a complete cycle, for seven is the number of completion, and perhaps more relevant to us the number of generations in which the expected genetic influence of one of your 128 great-great-great-great-great-grandparents on your genes falls below 1%

James Richardson the younger married Sarah Clark, and they begat Solomon Richardson. Solomon Richardson moved from Massachusetts and dwelt in New Hampshire, married Hannah Currier, and they begat the elder of yet another run of James Richardsons, who became a pharmacist, married Laura Clifford, lighted out for the territory in the form of Pittsburgh, PA, and then before the Civil War took the riverboat down the Ohio and up the Mississippi, to where the Mississippi and the Missouri diverged, and settled in St. Louis.

James Richardson the elder and Laura Clifford begat James Richardson the younger. James Richardson the younger married Florence Wyman, and they begat Florence Wyman Richardson called "Fonnie".

And they started a run of eldest-daughter Florences.

Florence Wyman Richardson lived in St. Louis, became an aggressive and active suffragette as a teenager, was cut by St. Louis society in spite of her status as a Veiled Prophet Debutante, and has a plaque in her Name in the capital of Missouri, Jefferson City, to this day. Florence Wyman Richardson married Roland Greene Usher, Professor of Early Modern English and Religious History at Washington University in St. Louis.

We hope Roland Greene Usher knew much more about what was going on at the court of Henry VIII Tudor than Katherine Duxford--for it would have been very dangerous for her and hers to have known too much.

Florence Wyman "Fonnie" Richardson and Roland Greene Usher begat Florence Richardson Usher called "Fonchen", continuing the run of eldest-daughter Florences. Florence Richardson "Fonchen" Usher moved to Massachusetts, took what she described as the most boring course ever, "The British Industrial Revolution", from Roland's brother Abbot, and married William Lord. Florence Richardson "Fonchen" Usher and William Lord moved to South Paris, Maine. they wanted to continue the run of eldest-daughter Florences referred to by nicknames to distinguish them from their mothers--but decided to cut out the middleman, and so they begat Fonya Usher Lord.

Fonya Usher Lord married James V. DeLong, whose great-great-great grandfather James DeLong, who, before the Civil War and before he left his bones in Wichita, had used his status as an Ohio judge to free three slaves whose masters had been unwise enough to briefly set them on the north bank of the Ohio River.

And they begat me, James Bradford DeLong.

From James Richardson the younger who married Sarah Clarke and whose son Solomon left Massachusetts to me is another complete cycle, another seven generations, another diminution of genetic influence by a factor of more than 100. This run has taken this component of my genes from Massachusetts to New Hampshire to Missouri to Maine to Florida to Massachusetts to California to Washington DC to Massachusetts to Washington DC again to California again, and now back to Missouri again.

Katherine Duxford the elder occupies one--or perhaps more than one, who knows?--of the 16,384 ancestral slots in my family tree at the fourteenth generation. The odds are less than 0.3% that any one of my 46 chromosomes is integrally and recognizably one of hers (though as I understand it the odds are overwhelming that some of my DNA-base pairs are). She is just one of a bit less than 16,384 people in 1550 running around northwest Europe (plus, we think, a very few on the Guinea Coast and in North America) who would regard me as "family" in some relevant sense.

Go back not two cycles, 14 generations, but 4 cycles, 28 generations, back to the reign not of Henry VII Tudor but of Richard II Plantagenet "Lion Heart". There are back then 267,845,632 family-tree slots for my ancestors to occupy.

And here is the punchline: We think that the human population of the earth in the eleventh century was 270 million.

Everyone alive in 1080 was not my ancestor. There is, of course, at the 28-generation scale, substantial intermarriage. And those people unlucky enough to have left no descendants who reproduced after 0, 1, 2, or however many generations cannot be among my ancestors.

But it is hard to see how any of the 50 million living in Europe in 1080 who has left living descendants today is not my ancestor.

And if that doesn't work, how about 610, when Heraclius ascends the throne of the Roman Empire in Constantinople, when there are 4.3 trillion slots in the family tree to occupy? Even the 32 or so of my ancestors who we guess were on the Guinea Coast in 1550 have 8.5 billion slots to fill back in 610. The 64 or so of my ancestors among the Native Americans of 1550 have 17 billion.

On a thousand-year time scale, the human race really is just one big unhappy family.


APL AEG APT CAJ CTE EaW GEH MGW PoP AOT TPS TCEH Grasping Reality with the Invisible Hand… 2016-08-27 21:30:16

Must-Read: Richard Mayhew: A Thousand and One Posts:

Wow, that last post was my 1,000th post here at Balloon Juice. I was not expecting that when I first got started here...

I saw a lot of good questions about the ACA and how it would effect our community. I... asked if I could write a couple of posts to answer a couple of questions.... I figured that I would twenty to thirty thousand words in forty or fifty posts and then I would be done. Over the past three years, I have eight hundred or more health insurance posts with about half a million words written. That was a slight miscalculation....

My education has deepened as the community here and a second community of wonks, advocates and researchers. If I need to know about anti-trust law, I have a couple of world class experts who share their time with me. If I need to know more about Medicare, I can talk to people who are on it, I can talk with CMS techno-wonks, and national level advocates. If I need to learn more accounting, there are plenty of people who will share their knowledge and expertise with me. I never thought I would have written here for more than a couple of months. But between all of you, the community and John’s amazing ability to let things flow, I am more energized than I ever thought I would be a thousand posts ago. Grasping Reality with the Invisible Hand… 2016-08-11 23:59:32

Must-Read: Nikola Koepka and Joerg Baten (2005): "The biological standard of living in Europe during the last two millennia":

Www jstor org stable pdf 41378413 pdf 1463315921186

Nikola Koepka and Joerg Baten (2005): "The biological standard of living in Europe during the last two millennia", European Review of Economic History 9:1 (April), pp. 61-95 Grasping Reality with the Invisible Hand… 2016-08-09 17:12:35

Must-Read: Aaron Carroll: Helpless to Prevent Cancer? Actually, Quite a Bit Is in Your Control:

Of the nearly 90,000 women and more than 46,000 men, 16,531 women and 11,731 men fell into the low-risk group....

Over all... Minyang Song and Edward Giovannucci found 25 percent of cancer in women and 33 percent in men was potentially preventable. Close to half of all cancer deaths might be prevented as well. No study is perfect, and this is no exception. These cohorts are overwhelmingly white and consist of health professionals.... This also isn’t a randomized controlled trial, and we can certainly argue that it doesn’t prove causation.... “Low risk” status required all four healthy lifestyles... never having smoked or having quit at least five years ago... no more than one drink a day on average for women, and no more than two for men... a B.M.I. of at least 18.5 and no more than 27.5... 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity.... I was surprised to realize that I’m already “low risk.” I bet many people reading this are “low risk,” too. Grasping Reality with the Invisible Hand… 2016-07-28 23:14:44

Must-Read: Cosma Shalizi (2014): Review of Oliver Morton (2008): "Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet":

Of Heliophagy: I cannot remember the last time I read a popular science book with such enjoyment, or learned so much from it....

Our global civilization runs at something like 40 terawatts.... Tidal and geothermal energy are too localized and small-scale.... Nuclear fission looks more attractive when one compares long-lived radioactive waste to long-lived carbon dioxide as a pollutant, but there are very real practical obstacles. All our other options are ultimately solar.... Morton is very hopeful about the last two, and especially about what real molecular engineering might be able to do in the space intermediate between photovoltaic plates (high efficiency, but also high cost) and naturally-occurring leaves (low efficiency, but they grow).... A marvelous book, filled with wonders: I strongly urge you to encounter them for yourself. Grasping Reality with the Invisible Hand… 2016-07-26 00:46:21

Permian Triassic extinction event Wikipedia the free encyclopedia

Live from the Phanerozoic: Sarda Sahney and Michael J Benton (2008): Recovery from the Most Profound Mass Extinction of All Time:

The end-Permian mass extinction, 251 million years (Myr) ago, was the most devastating ecological event of all time....

Ecosystems were destroyed worldwide, communities were restructured and organisms were left struggling to recover. Disaster taxa, such as Lystrosaurus, insinuated themselves into almost every corner of the sparsely populated landscape in the earliest Triassic, and a quick taxonomic recovery apparently occurred on a global scale. However, close study of ecosystem evolution shows that true ecological recovery was slower.... Taxonomic diversity at the alpha (community) level did not recover to pre-extinction levels; it reached only a low plateau after each pulse and continued low into the Late Triassic. Our data showed that though there was an initial rise in cosmopolitanism after the extinction pulses, large drops subsequently occurred and, counter-intuitively, a surprisingly low level of cosmopolitanism was sustained through the Early and Middle Triassic...

See also:–Triassic_extinction_event Grasping Reality with the Invisible Hand… 2016-07-24 20:12:52

OUTDOORS Sea otter madness close to Hoh Head Port Angeles Port Townsend Sequim Forks Jefferson County Clallam County Olympic Peninsula Daily NEWS

Live from the Olympic Peninsula: Sea otter population: 500,000 pre-fur trade, down to 1-2,000 in early 1900s, now back at 100,000...

Michael Carman: Sea Otter Madness Close to Hoh Head:

THE CALLS POURED in. To the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, to the National Parks Service and to the Olympic Coast Marine Sanctuary. Have you seen all those sea otters? What visitors were spying off the Pacific Ocean coastline, a raft of hundreds upon hundreds of sea otters, was unusual in both scope and location.

“They just look like a dark brown carpet when they are going up and down on the swell,” said Steve Jeffries, a research scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's Marine Mammal Investigations unit. “It's a pretty spectacular sight.”

And an unusual one so close to shore. “Typically these large group are further offshore near Destruction Island, so people at Kalaloch and Ruby Beach don't ever see them,” Jeffries said. “There were almost as many otters in that one raft as we counted for the entire range in Washington for 2004.”

The sea otter sightings dovetailed with the annual aerial and ground surveys of the species conducted late last month by Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, the Seattle Aquarium, Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium and the Makah and Quinault tribes.

Jeffries said he came upon the large raft of sea otters near Hoh Head, a point of land jutting into the Pacific Ocean, just north of the mouth of the Hoh River. “This group of 687 animals is the largest group, the largest raft of sea otters I have seen,” said Jeffries, who participated in the first such count as a grad student in 1978 and has worked on the surveys as a Fish and Wildlife employee since 1980. Grasping Reality with the Invisible Hand… 2016-07-20 19:51:08

Live from the Warming Planet: Barack Obama: This map says it all:

Underappreciated Weblogger of the Month: A Baker’s Dozen from Richard Mayhew


Another in my series of webloggers who I think are underappreciated--of people who, by accidents of chance and historical contingency, are just as smart (or more) and are as (or more) worth reading as I am. Richard Mayhew of Balloon Juice is doing some of the very most interesting blogging-from-the-trenches of our health care financing system.

Here's a baker's dozen of worthwhile reads:

Read him, you should. Be much smarter, you will. Hmmmm?



Readings: Link Sluttage

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