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Beverly Hills Tale

ArtsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Mon, May 04, 2015 22:15:30

I composed this little tale about fifteen years ago, and sent it to a couple of magazines which promptly rejected it. I then forgot about it until recently and thought of sending it to a few more, but upon re-reading it I see it is out of date in many ways but not yet ancient enough for retro appeal (“zero cool” still had a gleam at the time, but is now covered in verdigris). My first thought was that I might update it, but that would actually be a lot of work and I might never get around to it. So rather than just waste it entirely, I’m sticking it here.

I’ve never been to Beverly Hills, except in the sense that we all have.

KIND OF A POWER

By

DAVID RAMSAY STEELE

Lucy moved all her stuff into Dan’s old office. The last item she carried in was the “Under urgent consideration” pile of current scripts. She placed this in the tray on the left of her desk, then gazed with satisfaction at the Sony Pentium notebook, the phone, the bowl of polished stones, the herbal bouquet, and the purplish black candle in the little silver candlestick. This desk would never look so tidy again, until maybe, a couple years down the road, she had her next major promotion, probably to president of the agency. And then someone else would take over from her the office she had now taken over from Dan.

The phone rang. It was Fiona in Human Resources. “Lucy, I have an Officer Martinez here, from the police. Do you have a minute to talk with him? It’s about Dan.”

Ninety seconds later, Fiona appeared at the office door, with a young man, single by the look of it, who was wearing, not a police uniform, but a gray-green jacket and aqua shirt which went quite well with his dark skin tone. Not bad, thought Lucy.

This being her first day, in fact her first five minutes, in her new office, she had a choice of uncluttered chairs to offer Martinez. He was looking at her Welsh brooch.

“Is that . . .?”

“A spiritual symbol. Would you be a spiritual person?”

“No.” And then by way of explanation: “Catholic.”

“Oh.”

“Just a few points we need to clarify. This was Daniel Zegarac’s office? Ms. McGregor informs me you now have Mr. Zegarac’s job.”

Martinez’s black eyes darted about like a snake’s tongue. Lucy had been looking forward to a few minutes alone to gloat over her new corner office with the zero cool view and enough bookshelf space to encompass a basic herb garden in seven earthenware pots. It might have been better to have seen the cop in a conference room.

Martinez asked a few general questions about Dan and quite naturally slipped in a few about Lucy. She explained the nature of Dan’s job, now her job. She gave Martinez her routine little chat about the work of the agency, representing creative talent in the Hollywood jungle, getting the most promising scripts to the right people in the studios. Fiona should have taken care of this.

She vaguely wondered why the police were interested at all. Maybe they needed to rule out suicide for insurance purposes, though if she’d considered it seriously, she’d have known that wouldn’t be police business.

Martinez paused and Lucy picked up a hint of awkwardness. She thought she knew what he would say next. She almost helped him along by inquiring “Just what kind of a script is it?”

But she was mistaken. Martinez was not about to mention his screenplay, or his girlfriend’s or brother-in-law’s screenplay.

He said: “We now believe that Daniel Zegarac’s death was not accidental. Mr. Zegarac was murdered.”

His eyes had stopped their restless flickering. They were fixed on Lucy’s face. What he saw there was an instant of pure, unfeigned astonishment.

“We were told it was an accident,” said Lucy. “Wasn’t he working on a boat?”

“He was building a yacht. He fell and broke his neck. Since the autopsy, we now believe someone gave him a push.”

Deftly massaging the truth was second nature to Detective Martinez. He didn’t explain that a witness had seen someone leaving Dan Zegarac’s place close to the time of his fatal fall, and only because of that had the police and the coroner looked more closely for signs of foul play. There was nothing in the autopsy report to definitely indicate homicide. Once they looked, however, they found details of the fatal scene that were atypical in this kind of accident.

She said: “Wow, that’s . . . Why would anyone kill Dan? You have any idea who did it?”

Fortunately, Lucy had not yet put up her movie festival posters. Martinez was sitting in front of a plain peach wall, which made it child’s play to scrutinize his aura. Applying her well-honed technique, she could instantly make out that this aura had blue and turquoise points. Not a man to be taken lightly, but no signs of unusual potency, at least not of a spiritual kind. Years of experience had taught her that by a little deeper concentration she could see beyond the immediate manifestation, to a faint kind of secondary aura, invisible to all save the most spiritually discerning. She perceived a thin brown smoke, some underlying ominous quality, an emanation of violence. Not surprising in a homicide detective, given the kinds of experiences he must be familiar with almost daily. This whole analysis took less than two seconds. Lucy was very good at it.

“It’s early in the investigation,” said Martinez. How well did you know him? Would you know if he had any enemies?”

“Not really. Not that I can think of. A lot of people around here didn’t like him, but not enough to . . . want to hurt him.”

“Not mixed up in anything shady? Drugs or anything like that?” The purpose of this question was to ascertain whether Lucy would snatch the opportunity to send him off in an irrelevant direction; she merely shook her head.

“Did you personally like him? Did you get on well with him?”

He made my life a misery. When I heard about the accident, I felt like celebrating. “Dan could be very trying. We had our issues, work-related issues. But . . . I was just appalled that he died. I couldn’t believe it. I was really upset. We all were.” If Martinez had not already been informed that she had loathed Dan and fought him bitterly over the recent negotiations with Bernstein at Columbia TriStar, someone was sure to tell him.

“Okay.” Martinez made a slight movement in his chair, a hint that he was about to get up and leave. “Uh, one last thing. This is a routine question we have to ask everyone. Where were you on the night of May 6th?”

She checked her palm pilot. Nothing on that night.

“I must have been at home watching TV. Yeah, I’m sure I was. Then in bed. Asleep.”

“Alone all the time?”

“Totally.” She pulled a mock-dismayed face and added: “No alibi.”

Martinez didn’t smile, but his voice was soft enough to perhaps indicate sympathy. “It’s routine. We have to check on everyone.”

Not so routine was the call she took from Detective Martinez a few days later. He asked her to stop by police headquarters. He was ready to say that she needed to be there to look at an artist’s sketch of the person seen leaving the scene of the homicide. Surprisingly, she agreed to be there, without any need to invoke this contrived rationale.

When she showed at headquarters, Martinez had more questions of a general nature. Then: “Would you say you’ve been lucky in your career?”

Uh oh. “Some good luck. Some bad luck. A whole lot of hard work.”

“As a matter of fact, you’ve had some lucky breaks.”

Lucy guessed what was coming next. So they’ve noticed. Well, they can’t know anything. And even if they did, what could they do about it?

“As I look at the trajectory of your career, I see you’ve had three big breaks. And each one of those lucky breaks has been precipitated by the death of a colleague.” Trajectory. Precipitated. Definitely has a screenplay.

Lucy felt slightly dazed but not anxious. If she’d been even moderately perturbed she’d have gone straight into Great Pan breathing for serenity of soul, but this hadn’t been necessary.

Martinez said: “Quite a coincidence.” He paused and looked around the room in an oddly unfocussed way. Lucy abruptly knew that colleagues of Martinez were watching her reactions from an adjacent room and—of course—videotaping them. Weren’t they supposed to warn you in advance when they did that? Or at least tell you they considered you a suspect? This is so LAPD. Either they would swear under oath that they had warned her, or, if they thought they had a case against her—not that this could ever happen—they’d swear that not informing her was a careless and deeply regretted slip.

Martinez had Lucy’s basic bio on a sheet of paper, and was checking off each item. Yes, in her previous job she had worked for the Tom Davenport agency. Yes, twelve years ago she had been assistant to Mary Nolan. She got on badly with Nolan, who had recommended that Lucy be canned.

“Business was bad,” Lucy recalled. “They were looking for headcount reductions.”

“Nolan’s body turned up in her swimming pool. So they got themselves a headcount reduction.” Martinez kept the irony out of his voice. He didn’t reveal that the drowning had been viewed at the time as suspicious and a police report had been generated. An unidentified DNA sample was on file. The report was inconclusive and the investigation had been shelved.

Lucy had taken over Mary’s job, an arrangement that was eventually made permanent. When business improved she got her own assistant.

Five years later, Lucy’s boss at Davenport was Eddie McInerny. Though she had been Eddie’s protégé—Martinez didn’t yet know she had also been his mistress—their relationship soured and they held sharply opposed views on the future direction of the agency.

McInerny’s house burned down. Something fatty had been left simmering on a kitchen stove. He slept through the thickening fumes and was dead of smoke inhalation before his flesh began to char. The body contained traces of cocaine and three other controlled substances.

“He could have been zonked on drugs and forgotten to turn off the stove. Or he could have had help.” Help with the zonking or help with the fire, or both. Still, there was no proof this wasn’t a typical accidental blaze.

So here was a second apparently accidental death of a colleague with whom Lucy had developed an acrimonious relationship. A second career boost, as it turned out, for Lucy had quickly concluded the deal that Eddie had been working on, the deal that turned the Davenport Agency around.

Opinions might differ on whether two deaths and two career boosts were or were not an extraordinary coincidence. Subsequently Lucy, with a number of lucrative movie deals to her credit, had moved into a senior position at the Paulsen Creative Talent Agency. And after five years here, bingo, we have a third seemingly accidental death of a colleague who clashed with Lucy, who quarreled with Lucy, and whose removal would likely help Lucy. Surely this is beyond ordinary coincidence.

Martinez had read about individuals who’d been struck by lightning on three separate occasions. Astounding coincidences could happen, were bound to happen once in a while. Or perhaps some persons had physical qualities or chosen habits that made them unusually likely to be struck by lightning. Could there possibly be people whose personal qualities made it fatal for others to get in their way? Detective Martinez didn’t think so. He was open-minded but not unduly credulous.

Martinez was an excellent listener.

“Yes. I did a good job,” Lucy was saying. “You can’t say I’ve coasted to the top by wasting the competition.” She didn’t intend to sound amused, but a little of that came through.

Martinez was thoughtful: “It could be fifty percent job performance and fifty percent luck.” He might have been speaking of his own career in the police department. “A person could do okay on job performance and still decide on some pro-active interventions to improve the odds.”

Even as he said this, Martinez couldn’t make himself believe it. The story just wouldn’t walk, it wouldn’t bark, it wouldn’t wag its tail. And whether he believed it or not, no one in the DA’s office would want to parade it on a leash in front of a jury. Some link had to be found between Lucy Armstrong and the death scenes. So far, nothing.

Looking at her soft countenance, long red hair, and nicely curved figure, Martinez briefly considered the possibility he was mentally exonerating her because he liked the look of her. He didn’t think so. Only six months before, he had not hesitated to pursue and arrest the mouth-watering Mrs. Mulligan, who had quite understandably, after more than ample provocation, hired a contract killer to dispose of her exasperating but well-insured husband.

Martinez could have placed Lucy as a serial murderer if she’d worn tight black pants, cropped hair, a leaner physique, a bonier face. Or, given her actual persona, if Nolan, McInerny, and Zegarac had been poisoned. Any type of person might commit murder, but he couldn’t see Lucy sneaking out to Zegarac’s house at dead of night and pushing him off a ladder. Also, the DNA found at the Nolan drowning was male. And the person seen leaving the Zegarac homicide scene was believed to be male.

Suppose pure coincidence is ruled out. Suppose also Lucy Armstrong did not kill these three people. What are we left with?

Lucy thought of mentioning that she’d been in Denver when Mary Nolan died, and in Paris when Eddie McInerny died. Did Martinez know that yet? He would find out about Europe first, then about Denver. Let him find out.

Martinez was trying a different approach. “You must have thought about this yourself. What did you think?”

A little shrug. “Coincidence?” There are no coincidences. Synchronicity is a law of nature, just like gravity. That was Zuleika, holding forth in her preachy way. Zuleika had been right about synchronicity, of course.

“Anyone else ever comment about this coincidence?”

One time, just before she’d left Davenport, when someone had gone quiet, tailed off in mid-sentence, and the other two people present had looked embarrassed. As though they had some knowledge in common—probably knowledge of a conversation in which they had speculated avidly about Lucy’s benefiting from two deaths in a row.

Then there was Laura. Laura had said: “So the spells worked, then.” Lightly enough to show she wasn’t concerned. Warmly enough that it could have been more than just a joke. Lucy smiled at the recollection.

“What?”

He’s sharp. “Someone joked about it. Said the spells work.”

“Spells?”

Why not? He can find out anyway. “I was into Wicca.” Blank stare from Martinez. “I belonged to a coven.”

“You’re a witch?”

“We called ourselves students of Wicca. This was a few years back. People around the office knew something about it. There were jokes.” Let the Cowans mock.

“You’re not into this anymore?”

“The coven was disbanded. I haven’t really kept it up.” Like the South Beach diet, except that she really hadn’t kept that up.

Disbanded. You could say the Spirits of Light Coven had been disbanded. Zuleika sputtering with rage, her lips positively frothing. “I offered you the world and you betrayed me, you loathsome creature, you rotten hypocrite.” Her Russian accent thickened as her adrenaline level rose. “Your pathetic little act is finished. You’re under my curse . . . yes, my curse!”

“You worshipped the Devil?” Martinez wanted to know.

A brief exhalation of amusement. The usual misconceptions. “Wicca has nothing to do with His Satanic Majesty. Really. It’s nature worship, not devil worship. Though I do know a couple devotees of Satan, and they’re, like, totally nice people who wouldn’t hurt a fly. . . .”

Lucy found herself parroting one of Zuleika’s set pieces: “Wicca sees the divine manifest in all creation. The cycles of nature are the holy days of Wicca, the earth is the temple of Wicca, all life-forms are its prophets and teachers. Wiccans respect life, cherish the free will of sentient beings, and acknowledge the sanctity of the environment.” That’s about all the Cowans need to know.

Martinez considered this. “So. Did you nature worshippers put spells on people you wanted out of the way?”

“We were so totally not about that. Wiccans believe for every action there’s a reaction. If you send out evil energy, it’ll return to you threefold.” Only if your enemy is protected by a sufficiently strong charm. “Using spells to coerce or injure is always evil.” But possible. And evil’s kind of a relative thing.

“Didn’t stick pins in voodoo dolls?”

The absurd preoccupation with physical props. “Oh no. I respect voodoo as an authentic grassroots religion of the Haitian people and an expression of community solidarity in the face of neo-colonialist exploitation.” Lucy had majored in Sociology at Berkeley. “Voodoo is a totally valid kind of folk tradition; Wicca is different.”

She didn’t mention that the Wicca tradition does involve acquiring some of the enemy’s hair or fingernails, and burning them over a black candle with appropriate incantations, on four consecutive nights when the Moon is waning. Let him do his own research. Why do I pay property taxes? But this was a portion of the tradition that she had repudiated, and the online record of her dispute with the Reverend Zuleika LeGrand would attest to that. In any case, it was all totally academic. The DA’s office was not going to indict anyone, in the twenty-first century, for casting spells.

The meeting had been a formality, the concluding handshake to months of negotiations. In the Paulsen Agency’s glass conference room, amid blue sky and green palms, business was over, the chit-chat was winding down, lunch was in the offing, and there came an unexpected voice.

“Ms. Armstrong, do you have a moment, please?” It was Martinez, standing in the doorway, lithe and springy on his feet.

Around the table were Paulsen’s president, Jay Maxwell, Bill Rescher from Public Relations, the writer Joss Whedon, and, in a rare appearance, the legendary Clyde Paulsen himself. Whedon would rewrite his story along the lines agreed to, and the agency would pay him half a million for the option.

“Just a couple of questions.” The voice was as gravely courteous as ever. Maxwell and Whedon didn’t seem to notice: Martinez might just as well be the limo driver. Rescher looked distinctly annoyed at the interruption. Paulsen appeared fascinated, but then, he always did.

Lucy found Martinez’s feeble ambush both mildly diverting and mildly irritating. For him to appear like this, without prior warning, while she was with other people, was a planned attempt to disconcert her. She was slightly embarrassed for him because it wasn’t very well done.

“How can I help you this time? Why don’t we go to my office?” A warm smile and a cheerful lilt, but in that moment Lucy decided this would be the last interview. Before saying goodbye to Martinez, she would let him know that all future communications had to go through her lawyer. One-on-oneing with Martinez had been fine, but she wouldn’t be Columboed, even ineffectually.

Over the next few weeks, Lucy’s attorney Steve Gordon heard from Martinez a couple of times with what seemed like trivial inquiries. Martinez appeared at the Paulsen offices more than once, and she heard of other people who had been questioned.

Laura was away in Cannes, lucky Laura. In the evenings, there seemed to be more squad cars than usual, making more commotion than usual, near Lucy’s condo. Before going to bed, she would call Laura—it was early morning in Cannes—and exchange reports. They would enjoy a good chuckle about agency office happenings, who was doing what to whom in Cannes, Laura’s own hair-raising adventures, Hollywood scuttlebutt, the hunk Martinez, and the strange investigation into Dan Zegarac’s demise.

The day before Laura was to get back in LA, Gordon took a call from a female cop named Bennett, asking to set up a meeting. Bennett said just enough to convince Gordon that his client was not a suspect, and that she would personally benefit from being present. When Gordon called Lucy, she immediately insisted on co-operating.

So here they were. The two cops, Lucy, and her lawyer.

“We requested this meeting,” said Bennett, “because of a few points we need to clarify, and because we have information Ms. Armstrong needs to be aware of. Let me say right away that Ms. Armstrong is not a suspect. We’re grateful to her for her co-operation. We do have a few questions for her. Then we’ll explain the latest developments in this case.”

Gordon turned to Lucy and was about to whisper something; she held up her hand and shook her head. “I’ll answer. Go ahead.” But don’t trust them.

Martinez asked: “How well do you know William Rescher?”

What the . . .? “I’ve known him for yea long. He was with Davenport.”

“You both worked at Davenport, and now you both work at Paulsen. He followed you here.”

“Yes. He joined us a year ago.”

“Do you know him well?”

“Don’t see much of him. He’s not involved directly with the talent side of the business.”

Bennett asked: “On May 4th, did you tell William Rescher you were leaving town for several days?”

Lucy remembered sharing an elevator ride with Bill. He’d asked her if she was leaving for the airport, “for that Nebraska thing.” She’d said yes. She had been selected as one of the judges at the new Nebraska festival. But the festival had been called off, some scandal about funds.

“I was in a hurry. Conversations with Bill tend to go on too long. I was taking a taxi to LAX but that was to say goodbye to a friend who was leaving for Europe. I didn’t want to take the time to get into the convoluted messy story of why the Nebraska festival was cancelled.”

There was actually a little more to it. She had lied on impulse, not just to save the time of explaining, but because she somehow instinctively didn’t want creepy Bill to know where she was or what she was doing.

It occurred to Lucy that if she’d gone to Nebraska as planned, she would have had a way solid alibi for all three deaths, not just the first two. Yet still the significance of this fact didn’t dawn on her.

“Did you ever date William Rescher?”

Where’s this going? “Yeah. A long time ago. That was, let me see now, twelve years ago.” The week after she started at Davenport. Bill was already there, and that’s where she had first met him.

“Who terminated the relationship?”

“There was no relationship.”

“Can you recall whether one of you wanted to go on dating, the other didn’t?”

“Oh, that would be him kind of wanting to go on, me wanting to stop.”

“He upset about that?”

She had given it barely a thought for twelve years, but now it came back to her. Bill had been younger and cuter then. She’d felt a bit mushy about being so brutal. God, there were tears in his eyes. He was all, “I can’t go on without you. You mean everything to me.” Sweet, at the time, but what a loser. Surely he got over it quickly. Four months later he married that anemic blonde at the front desk, was still married to her, as far as Lucy could remember.

Lucy’s next date was Brad Pitt. It was only once and that was six months before the release of Thelma and Louise, so he wasn’t big BO. But there was a picture in Hollywood Reporter. That kind of publicity never hurt an agency, and Eddie McInerny had been impressed. So much for Bill Rescher.

“William Rescher is in custody, said Bennett. “He has confessed to the murder of Daniel Zegarac.”

What? That’s way wacky.”

“He did it,” said Martinez. “We have independent corroboration.”

“He’s totally putting you on. Did he even know Dan?”

“You’re right. He barely knew him.” It was odd that Martinez said this as though it clinched the case against Rescher.

Lucy sensed that they were now getting to the whole point of the interview. What kind of a trick is this? Lucy was absolutely sure that Bill could not have killed Dan. This just had to be a smokescreen. But why?

Bennett cleared her throat and said: “Ms. Armstrong, we have to tell you . . . because this may cause you some embarrassment when he goes to trial. William Rescher committed murder because of you. He’s seriously . . . infatuated with you. He has been obsessively in love with you for fourteen years. His motive for killing Daniel Zegarac was to help you out.”

Lucy’s head was spinning. She instantly went into Great Pan breathing.

A long pause. Martinez asked, “Did you have any idea he felt this way about you?”

“But that’s just . . . He must be . . . totally out of his mind.”

Lucy was rapidly computing. Numerous little recollections of subtle oddities in Bill’s speech and behavior, at rare intervals over the past twelve years, suddenly made sense. What the police were telling her struck her with stunning force as true, even obviously true, a truth screaming for recognition.

Yet it had to be false, because it contradicted her certain knowledge that she could bring down her enemies by the sheer force of her mind. She knew perfectly well that she had deliberately caused the deaths of Mary Nolan, Eddie McInerny, and Dan Zegarac by her own unique magickal hexing power. Therefore, Bill Rescher could not have killed them.

“This must be a shock for you, and also disgusting, like a violation,” said Bennett, seeking to soften the blow by empathizing. “However the evidence is that you’ve been the center of William Rescher’s thoughts for the past fifteen years.

Don’t panic. Need to think. “You’re saying he did those other killings too?”

“He may never be charged with them, but . . . yes, we believe he did them.” Martinez chose not to reveal that a DNA trace from the Nolan death matched Bill Rescher. Rescher would be offered concessions for confessing to at least two of the three homicides, preferably all three. It didn’t matter anyway: Rescher would likely be acquitted by reason of insanity and incarcerated for life in a mental institution.

In kind of a vertigo, Lucy heard Bennett’s voice, as though from the other end of a long, winding corridor: “Did Rescher ever tell you what he did before he got into the agency business? He worked for an insurance company, investigating claims. Before that he’d been a small-town sheriff for a few years. He knew something about domestic accidents and crime scene investigations. So when he . . . developed this psychotic obsession about you, he could easily see a practical way to help you out.”

It took less than three minutes of turmoil for the mist to be dispelled, for the simple truth to shine forth in all its clarity, and for Lucy to feel once again completely in control. If Bill had directly engineered the deaths of Mary Nolan, Eddie McInerny, and Dan Zegarac, this showed, not that Lucy didn’t have the power to kill at a distance by the trained exercise of concentrated thought, but that this formidable power of hers worked through a human intermediary. Of course. She should have known it. Hadn’t she known it?

Zuleika had once said: “All occult powers work through the human world; all human powers work through the natural world.” Actually the gross old manatee had said this more than once. It was one of her irritating little sayings, as if she could have attained to some kind of privileged wisdom. At the time, of course, they had all hung on Zuleika’s every goddamn word.

All occult powers work through the human world, the mental world. It was true enough, and obvious enough, and therefore it was something Lucy must always have known. Of course Bill was besotted with her and consumed with the mission of serving her interests. Bill was an instrumentality of the hex.

Within a few seconds of this surprising thought, she began to feel that she had never been surprised at all. She conceived that she had been struck with fresh force by a fact she had always taken for granted. The only surprise, it now seemed to her, was the identity of the human agent. And she would soon begin to recall that she had known all along, on some deep level of her being, that it was Bill.

She could picture herself one day explaining the principle of the thing to Laura and a select inner circle of devoted followers: “What’s more in keeping with Wicca wisdom? That a witch might cause the death of an enemy by using mental power to make a ladder collapse? Or that a witch might cause the death of an enemy by influencing the mind of a third person who then kicks over the ladder?” The answer could be no less self-evident to Lucy and her followers than it had been to the sorry old fraud Zuleika.

Now Lucy had Bennett figured out. She was the kind of sympathetic cop who would be first choice to talk to a rape victim or to a witness who had seen a loved one blown away. Probably had a degree in social work.

Okay now, what would they expect me to say in this situation? “This is just awful,” Lucy wailed. “I thought I’d made it this far by my own efforts.”

“It would be unproductive to let that distress you.” Bennett’s tone was almost maternal. “Chance enters into everyone’s life. Many people fail to get the promotion they deserve because someone doesn’t like them, for instance. You didn’t ask Rescher to do any of the things he did. And as far as we can see, he was not mainly concerned about helping your career. It seems he was thinking that each of these victims, at the time, was getting you down, causing you severe emotional pain. The way he thought of it, he couldn’t bear to see you suffer.”

Detective Martinez felt good about the case. Everything, or almost everything, had clicked into place quite smoothly. A week after his first meeting with Lucy, he’d found she had a cast-iron alibi for the death of Dan Zegarac, an alibi she evidently didn’t even know about.

On the afternoon of May 6th, Jordan Pirelli, actuary, e-trader, body-builder, occasional model, and currently unbooked actor, had gone out of town leaving a faucet trickling in his jacuzzi. When wet stuff came through the ceilings of the condos below, the janitor, Frank Vucovic, had to make sure of the source of the flood. Since Pirelli was a security-minded person who had installed additional anti-theft devices, janitor Frank needed to have the fire department break into Pirelli’s condo through the window. Before going to such lengths, Frank wanted to be very sure of the source of the flooding, so he had called the neighboring apartment, Lucy Armstrong’s, at 12:30 in the morning, and when she answered and said she was still up, he had personally gone into her apartment, talked with her, and checked around for any signs of leakage. This had taken about a minute. It wasn’t remarkable that Lucy didn’t recall it—some people do forget unimportant occurrences in the few minutes before they fall asleep. Frank vividly remembered the whole sequence of events, which he was obliged to report in tiresome detail to the building management later that morning.

It was a perfect alibi. Not only did it place Lucy two hours away from the scene of the crime, it was also a purely chance event; there was no way she could have engineered it, certainly not with the required precise timing. This ruled out the possibility that she had arranged to provide herself with an alibi, knowing in advance that the murder would take place. It tended to eliminate her as an accomplice or accessory.

When Bill Rescher displayed an interest in the questioning of Lucy, Martinez, in a reflexive impulse to sow misdirection, hinted that she was the hot suspect. The calamitous look on Rescher’s face intrigued Martinez, who began to feed Rescher with suggestions that Lucy was the investigative target, and to ostentatiously pull her in for questioning. Then Martinez had staged his arrival at Paulsen to confront Lucy in Rescher’s company.

Bill’s pathetic eagerness that Lucy should come to no harm, skilfully manipulated by Martinez, had soon prompted Bill to confess to the killing of Dan Zegarac. Bill knew many details of the fatal scene. It was a couple of days before Martinez mentioned to him that he was also a suspect in the Nolan and McInerny killings. Once this matter was raised, Rescher became exceedingly cagey. He knew that Lucy had excellent alibis for those killings, so he had no motive to confess to them. Martinez had not yet informed him that DNA placed him at the scene of Mary Nolan’s drowning.

Hours of questioning of Rescher and of Lucy had convinced Martinez that they had not been working together. Rescher had acted alone and without anyone else’s knowledge.

There were no major loose ends. Something felt not quite right about Lucy’s failure to volunteer her alibis for the Nolan and McInerny deaths. But she was, after all, a deeply spiritual person, which Martinez quite benevolently took to mean: occasionally out to lunch and in need of a little practical guidance. For all her quick shrewdness, her mind could sometimes be way off someplace on a broomstick.

The Council of Thirteen, the trustees of the coven, were all there. Zuleika screeched: “You’re under my curse . . . yes, my curse!” and slapped Lucy’s face. The next few seconds of intense silence made that slap seem like the snapping of a bone, though some eye-witnesses later argued about whether any blow had actually landed. Lucy didn’t flinch but just glared. Most of the onlookers felt awkward as well as awed. Wiccans don’t talk much about curses, and when they cast them, the entire rigmarole is decorous and painstakingly slow. Yet Zuleika was Zuleika. The members were embarrassed but also filled with foreboding. They fully expected something bad to happen to the delinquent Lucy, though possibly not for years.

That night, Zuleika, never at a loss for captivating words, was paralyzed and rendered permanently speechless by a stroke. Within hours, self-effacing Ben Goldberg, Zuleika’s reliable lieutenant—and heir apparent now that Lucy had vacated this role—was hit by a truck and put out of action. From the following morning when she heard the news, Lucy never doubted her own awesome gift.

No member of the Spirits of Light Coven had any doubts about what these events signified. Lucy didn’t have to say anything. For a few days, she thought she might assume the throne vacated by Zuleika, but most of the members melted away. They were impressed, even intimidated, but having been Zuleika’s apostles they were not ready to switch allegiance to this disconcerting young witch. Only Laura remained. And then, over the years, contacts were made with a few more interested seekers: a new coven was discreetly in the making.

Martinez turned the steering wheel. Bulky shoulders and taut arms, an efficient instrument of justice. He spent some time in Dave’s Gym, no time in Dunkin’ Donuts. He wore a demeanor of solemn dignity like a ceremonial robe. His ancestors, Lucy divined, had been priests of Quetzalcoatl. They could be relied upon to hack out the hearts of an endless procession of sacrificial victims to gratify their ineffably potent god. Lucy was enough of a postmodernist to feel at home with her vision of this vanished mystical empire, with its pitiless established church ever thirsty for more daily gallons of fresh human blood. Our own society is brutal enough in its way, just kind of a different way, what with corporate greed, global warming, and all.

Martinez thought he was beginning to know Lucy better, to pierce beneath her unruffled surface. She had never acted as upset as he’d expected. She was calm; most of the time she radiated an awesome sense of calm; he couldn’t help admiring her amazing calm. Inside of her, she undoubtedly did experience turbulent emotions. Learning of Rescher’s sick obsession had shaken her. The observable signs were subtle, subdued, yet there was no mistaking the juddering impact of tremendous shock, an eight on her personal Richter scale, at the moment when she had learned of Bill’s confession. She definitely had been shaken. She was still shaken. Better see her right to her door.

“For me this is another case to be filed away. For you it must be a little bit traumatic.”

He for sure has a script. Detective Martinez stopped the car right on the corner by Lucy’s condo building.

She said: “I guess you come across some, like, really weird stuff in your job. As weird as anything in the movies. Or even weirder.”

“As a matter of fact . . .,” began Hugo Martinez.

© 2001 David Ramsay Steele



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Misunderstanding Memeplexes: Where Andy West Goes Wrong

SociologyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Sun, September 21, 2014 21:01:02

Andy West analyzes climate catastrophism as a ‘memeplex’. The most complete version of his argument is presented in a long essay titled ‘The Memeplex of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming’, available at his blog <wearenarrative.wordpress.com/>. This essay, or fragments and summaries of it, have been widely circulated and some climate skeptics have welcomed West’s conclusions.

I’ll begin with where I agree with West. Despite the occasional description of climate catastrophism by Rush Limbaugh and a few others as a ‘hoax’, the term ‘hoax’ implies that the perpetrators don’t themselves believe in it, whereas it’s only too obvious that in this case they do believe in it. Climate catastrophism is no more a hoax than Marxism, Islam, psychoanalysis, or Seventh-Day Adventism. Or, if we want to take examples from institutional science, cold fusion, Martian canals, or Lysenkoism.

Climate skeptics have often likened catastrophism to a religion (and catastrophists sometimes liken climate skepticism to a religion—when they’re not claiming that it’s all paid for by the oil companies and is therefore a hoax). West maintains that this likening of catastrophism to a religion is a basically correct insight, but slightly misdefined, in that global warming catastrophism and, say, Mormonism, are both instances of a category broader than that of religion, a category West calls the “memeplex.”

Up to this point, I completely agree with West, though I more often employ a different terminology. I would say that climate catastrophism and Mormonism are both instances of an enthusiastic belief system. (Come to think of it, Mormonism began with a hoax, when the con artist Joseph Smith dishonestly claimed he’d gotten The Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni, but it’s not a hoax today and has millions of sincere adherents.)

Now I’ll explain where I think Andy West goes wrong. According to Richard Dawkins, who coined the term ‘meme’ in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, a meme is a unit of cultural transmission, just as a gene is a unit of biological transmission. Anything culturally transmitted is a meme. All of literature, science, religion, music, common-sense wisdom, and technology consists of memes, and nothing but memes. The first law of thermodynamics is just as much a meme as the story of Eve and the Serpent (or we can view each as a set of memes; this makes no difference). Andy West’s writing, like mine and like Al Gore’s, consists of nothing but memes. Any idea, belief, or practice, capable of being picked up by one human from another human and thus perpetuated culturally, is a meme. No exceptions: this is the definition of ‘meme’.

I’ll be focusing here on beliefs, so I’ll equate a meme with a belief. Since it doesn’t affect any of the issues, I’ll ignore here the fact that some memes are not beliefs—a meme may be a practice or an idea that is not believed in, because it does not assert anything about the way the world is.

If every belief is a meme, it follows that every assemblage of beliefs is an assemblage of memes. Andy West, however, wants to exclude some assemblages of beliefs from his category of ‘memeplexes’. He doesn’t see climate skepticism as a memeplex and he’s not going to agree that his own theory of memeplexes is itself a memeplex.

It seems likely from his essay that he even refuses to recognize some transmissible beliefs as memes, and there are certainly numerous passing remarks indicating that West confines the term ‘memeplex’ to a very restricted range of belief systems. Take West’s reference (p. 58) to “Both the laudable and the lurking memetic content” (p. 2) in an essay by Pascal Bruckner (a French philosopher, author of The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse, critical of greenism or what he calls “ecologism”). How can there be a “lurking” memetic content in Bruckner’s essay when every idea in that essay, and in every essay ever penned, including every essay by Andy West, is a meme? And notice how “laudable’ is counterposed with “memetic.” West tells us that “Memeplexes wallow in uncertainty and confusion” (p. 3). I’m guessing he wouldn’t say that quantum mechanics wallows in uncertainty and confusion. He does tell us that “If done properly, science is anti-memetic” (p. 63).

A parallel would be if someone wanted to say that not all bits of a chromosome carrying information about the organism’s structure and behavior are to be called ‘genes’. Some are to be called ‘genes’ and others are not to be called ‘genes’, and we are then going to discuss the baleful influence of these ‘genes’ on the way the organism works, the implication being that the heritable bits of information we’re not calling ‘genes’ (but leaving unnamed and undescribed) are somehow healthy and unproblematic, while the ‘genes’ are a seriously disturbing influence. (And this might even have a popular resonance. A survey of why some people are nervous about genetically modified vegetables found that the main reason was that these people had heard that the vegetables in question contain genes!)

Andy West is not alone. The term ‘meme’ has achieved a currency beyond that of scholars interested in cultural transmission, and as so often happens, the term has changed its meaning as it has passed from specialized to more general usage. So today we often come across the definition of a ‘meme’ as something mindless, something non-reflective, something perhaps even irrational. West has simply adopted this popular modification of the meaning of ‘meme’.

It’s one thing to say that beliefs may sometimes survive for reasons other than their appeal to reason and evidence. It’s quite another to say that only beliefs which survive for such reasons are to be called ‘memes’. One thing that Dawkins’s concept of the meme alerts us to is that an idea may spread for reasons other than the ostensible ones. That is true and can be illuminating, but it does not help to then confine the concept of ‘meme’ to those case where the actual reasons for its spread differ from the ostensible ones. And, let’s never forget, an idea may spread for reasons other than the ostensible ones and still be correct, while an idea may spread for exactly the ostensible reasons and still be incorrect.

I haven’t done a thorough check on whether any other serious writers on memes have adopted, as West has, the more popular meaning. But I do have Susan Blackmore’s fine book, The Meme Machine (1999), sitting on my shelf. This is the book that popularized the term ‘memeplex’ (employed in 1995 by Hans-Cees Speel as a contraction of ‘co-adapted meme complex’, though apparently Speel wasn’t the first to use it). Blackmore makes it clear in several passages in The Meme Machine that she sticks to the original Dawkins definition of ‘meme’, as applying equally to all kinds of beliefs, including those comprising science and technology. For example she writes that “Science, like religion, is a mass of memeplexes,” and “Science is fundamentally a process; a set of methods for trying to distinguish true memes from false ones” (p. 202). So Blackmore accepts that a meme, if it is a belief about a matter of fact, is either true or false, that we can take steps to distinguish true memes from false memes, and that science is composed of memeplexes and therefore of memes.

Now, someone might try to defend Andy West as follows: If West wants to define ‘memes’ and ‘memeplexes’ in a way that differs from Dawkins’s and Blackmore’s original definitions, who is Steele to say that he shouldn’t? True, there may be some verbal confusion caused by the fact that some kinds of cultural transmission are excluded from the memes, and not given an alternative name. But that could be taken care of by clearly distinguishing memes from non-memes.

Unfortunately, however, West never gives a clear explanation of what separates memes from non-memes or memeplexes from other assemblages of memes. And no such distinction can seriously be made—not one that will withstand a few seconds’ scrutiny.

The division of belief systems into those which appeal to reason and evidence and those which do not is a hopeless task. If there are two incompatible points of view, x and y, then an adherent of x will always say that y does not appeal to reason and evidence, or at least does so to a lesser extent than x. And an advocate of y will say the same, only reversing the terms.

Climate Catastrophism and the Actual Climate

West intimates that climate catastrophism has little or nothing to do with the facts of what’s going on in the climate (pp. 1–5), and this is no doubt one reason he has for viewing it as a memeplex in his derogatory sense. But CAGW adherents would not agree with this judgment. They would say that climate skeptics, including West, are the ones who disregard the facts. I disagree with CAGW and agree with West on this issue, in fact I go further, maintaining (as West explicitly does not) that CAGW has been refuted. But the point is that people like West, seeking to distinguish memeplexes from other belief systems, are always going to classify as memeplexes those belief systems they disavow or dislike, and refuse to classify as memeplexes those belief systems they agree with. In other words, once we set out to distinguish memeplexes along these lines, we can’t classify CAGW as a memeplex without swallowing a whole chunk of the arguments of its opponents. Discussing CAGW as West does becomes a way of denigrating it without addressing its arguments. It can easily become an excuse for ad hominem attacks, masquerading as study of memetic processes.

Where have we come across this kind of thing before? Most conspicuously in the case of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysts had the habit of diagnosing their opponents instead of addressing their arguments. If you read Ernest Jones’s life of Freud, you’ll notice how everyone who had a falling out with Freud turned out to be seriously mentally ill, which explains why they adopted the theoretical positions they did. There was therefore no need for Jones to outline these positions or to offer a refutation of these positions.

Perhaps someone might think that the distinction between memeplexes and non-memeplexes can be made by asserting that memeplexes are insulated from reality. Perhaps West is gesturing in this direction with his claim that CAGW has little to do with what’s going on in the climate. I agree with the gist of West’s claim—that catastrophists tend to give insufficient weight to the many observations which appear to go against their theory. But we need to be careful here.

It’s characteristic of scientific theories—virtually all of them—that their adherents tend to brush aside apparently contrary considerations in a way that seems arbitrary to dissenters from the theory or to outsiders to the field. There are many examples of this phenomenon in the history of those scientific theories that we all consider acceptable. For instance, when Pasteur revived, reformulated, and corroborated the theory of infection by germs, numerous experts said something along the lines of: ‘We can see that this theory must obviously be false, because we observe that when several people are exposed to the same conditions, and therefore presumably the same germs, some become sick and some don’t.’ Refutation by observations (or more strictly, by reports of observations) is not necessarily simple or straightforward. The theory tends to dominate the observations, selecting and interpreting them in a distinctive way. When West says that memeplexes “manipulate perceptions” (p. 1), he may not realize that this applies to all theories without exception. This is why there can be paradigm shifts. This is why someone as clever and well-read as Paul Feyerabend can advocate ‘epistemological anarchism’ or ‘anything goes’ as the rule for science.

Can we really say that CAGW has nothing to do with what’s going on in the climate? Surely there would have been no CAGW if global mean surface temperature had not shown a net increase over the past hundred years. If we look at the reaction of CAGW proponents to the ‘Pause’—the fact that global mean surface temperature has not risen in the past ten to thirty years (depending on your favorite dataset)—we certainly do not observe that they are unconcerned about it. They manifestly see it as something troublesome that needs to be accounted for. When the Pause started, many of them denied that it was happening. When this denial became impossible, many of them said it could not possibly last much longer: just wait a year or two, and then you’ll see a big spike in temperature! Wrong again. As the Pause has continued, they have responded in various ways, many of these mutually incompatible. They’re visibly troubled about it. And they will no doubt become increasingly troubled with every year that the Pause continues, especially if we see statistically significant cooling (as many skeptical climate scientists predict). So I think it’s simplistic to say that CAGW is sealed off from what’s actually happening in the climate.

To avoid misunderstanding, I should point out that even without the Pause, the predictions of the CAGW crowd have always been for more warming than has actually occurred. In every case, reality has turned out to be cooler than what they confidently asserted would happen (or, in cases where they gave a wide range of probabilities, the subsequent observations have been at the extreme low end of the range, never close to the central values). Thus, even without the Pause, observations have always told against their theory. And if warming were to resume next year at the rate of the late twentieth century, the new observations would continue to contradict the predictions of the IPCC models. But the Pause is such a contemptuous rebuff by Mother Nature, and something the broader public can so easily grasp, that the CAGW zealots cannot escape the awareness that their theory has landed in deep doo-doo.

West Forays into Functionalism

West asks: “what are memeplexes for?” (p. 18). He thinks it very likely that they must be ‘for’ something. They can’t just be a precipitate of human activity but have to possess a function or telos, if not a purpose.

So he tries to answer this question. His answer is that memes are “for” benefiting society, and we can show this by tracing some of the benefits which various memeplexes have conferred on society.

His chief example is pyramid building in ancient Egypt. Pyramid building used up a lot of resources and yet Egyptian society was successful by various measures. Given that the burden of pyramid building was so huge, West reasons, “it seems highly likely that the overall social payback must be very positive indeed, in order to offset or exceed the huge efforts involved” (p. 20). He assumes that every major social phenomenon must pay. He then checks off some of the indirect apparent benefits that resulted from the building of pyramids. Belief in retribution for bad deeds in the afterlife encouraged altruistic behavior, which contributed to social cohesion and therefore helped society (p. 19).

The logistics of pyramid building “might well have been the catalyst that triggered the formation of the Egyptian super-power civilization from pre-existing tribes, with all that a civilization implies: central administration, writing, a managed food-supply and economy, a large and formally organized professional army, . . .” And so on (pp. 20–21).

West goes on to offer a more general social benefit, maintaining that it causes difficulties for society if people’s beliefs are too dissimilar, and that therefore something that makes beliefs more uniform will be helpful. So societies with strong memeplexes will tend to outcompete societies without them (p. 23).

Where have we heard this before? In Durkheim, of course, and in a whole brood of social anthropologists and sociologists, most conspicuously people like Bronislaw Malinowski. This theory is called functionalism, and it embodies certain misconceptions. (Functionalist theories are not all the same; Durkheim’s functionalism for instance holds that practices are functional inasmuch as they adjust to equilibrium, which is not guaranteed to be nice. We don’t need to pursue these differences here.)

West supposes that if a memeplex exists, it must be because it confers some benefit. (In his case, the benefit seems to be increasing the strength and power of the polity.) He then casts around for what this benefit might possibly be, and hits upon one or two imaginable ways in which the existence of this memeplex had helpful consequences for the population. But the initial question is misplaced. We will always be able to find good (or functional) consequences of any belief system (it’s an ill wind that blows no one any good), and there’s no reason to suppose that this explains the prevalence of that belief system, especially as these consequences may arise centuries after the beliefs have caught hold.

When the Egyptians were trying to secure their prospects in the afterlife by protecting their corpses, what selective mechanism could look ahead and foresee these remote consequences of the prevalence of such beliefs, encouraging them to proliferate and discouraging the alternatives (such as the belief that nothing of your personality survives in your corpse, and when you die that’s the end of you)? There’s no such mechanism. The prevalence of a belief cannot be properly explained by remote and unknown (to the believer) consequences of many people holding that belief.

West looks for a functionalist explanation of the prevalence of certain systems of belief, but such explanations are generally fallacious. This is not to deny the commonplaces of historical enquiry. A group of people may certainly become more or less successful because of some aspect of their beliefs. National Socialist beliefs led to the driving away from Germany of Jewish scientists and to such poor decisions as the refusal to activate Ukrainian nationalism against Moscow. Thus, National Socialist beliefs helped Germany to lose the war. In a famous example, Bertrand Russell maintained that one of the reasons early Christianity prevailed while Mithraism disappeared was that following Mithraism involved undue expense: you frequently had to find a live bull to slaughter. There’s no mystery about these kinds of explanations, and they do not imply functionalism.

Sometimes people may take deliberate notice of the consequences of belief systems, and this may affect their decisions. For example the patricians of imperial Rome applied certain rules of thumb about religious movements. One was that old religions (like Judaism) were to be warmly tolerated whereas new religions (like Christianity) were to be less tolerated. Another rule of thumb was that religious movements focused on following a particular person (again Christianity) were likely to be dangerous, since any such person or his designated successor would automatically become a rival to the emperor. Political leaders have always paid attention to the purely factual consequences (in their judgment) of various belief systems and have acted appropriately, to encourage or discourage those systems. This is not functionalism: in this case someone consciously recognizes the consequences of the belief systems and acts accordingly. The selective mechanism is deliberate, conscious choice by specific individuals. Both social institutions and belief systems evolve partly by cumulative rational selection, as opposed to blind selective processes.

There are also minor quibbles with West’s argument. For example, he tacitly assumes that building pyramids is an outgrowth of preoccupation with the afterlife. No doubt this is true, but it goes against his argument, because if pyramid building is explained by being a result of people’s preoccupation with the afterlife, then there’s no need to explain it by its impact on military organization and the like. We have an explanation: pyramid building arose because of preoccupation with the afterlife, end of story. And if, in the functionalist perspective, pyramid building is a burden, while encouragement of altruistic behavior is a benefit, then the most functional memeplex would be something that encouraged altruistic behavior without building huge stone structures. There’s no logical necessity that a belief system encouraging altruistic behavior must also encourage the building of huge stone structures. Furthermore, the building of huge stone structures clearly indicates that the pharaohs believed that something other than altruistic behavior (to wit, the building of huge stone structures) would benefit them in the afterlife. Therefore belief in the building of huge stone structures represents a denial of the exclusive importance of altruistic behavior: it’s an expression of people’s skepticism that altruistic behavior could be enough, and so it undermines the altruistic ethics which West claims pyramid building exists to promote.

What Are Memeplexes For?

What are memeplexes for? Strictly, this question is absurd. It’s like asking what the aurora borealis is for. The correct answer is that it is not for anything and could not possibly be for anything. Systems of belief do not exist for any purpose, except to assuage the believer’s thirst for truth. Nor do systems of belief exist because they perform any social function.

To bring out the absurdity of this kind of enquiry, consider the following example: Many story plots involve the ‘eternal triangle’ theme of a man’s romantic involvement with two women. What’s the social function of this fictional theme? In other words, what benefits does it confer on society, which benefits can account for the fact that it exists? The answer is that the prevalence of this literary theme, and of other common ‘dramatic situations’ arises automatically from certain basic, all-pervasive facts about human life. It is therefore simply an elementary misunderstanding to ask what it’s for. It’s just not ‘for’ anything and could not be ‘for’ anything.

Given a different interpretation, however, the question “What are memeplexes for?” can be answered simply and conclusively. Let’s restate the question. Why is it that humans have beliefs, especially enthusiastic beliefs to which they become fiercely devoted? And why do groups of beliefs have a tendency to clump together into systems of beliefs?

People have beliefs because they have an appetite to believe. This appetite is stronger than hunger, stronger than thirst, stronger than sex. It’s innate in the human makeup, ineradicable, and dictated by the genes. The human mind is so constructed that it must believe. A belief is taking something to be true. There is no such thing as believing something you think is untrue—this is a straightforward contradiction, because believing something is exactly equivalent to thinking it true. So, people’s appetite for belief always appears to them as (and is in fact) an appetite for the truth.

What’s the nature of this voracious, all-consuming appetite? It’s a demand to have the world make sense. What you believe is always what you think is true, and the demand that you come up with something you think is true (the reason you’re interested at all, so to speak) arises from the categorical imperative to be convinced of a theory about the world. This imperative is hardwired, it is observed in babies (recall Alison Gopnik et al., The Scientist in the Crib) and cannot be shut down except by unconsciousness.

To take the question back a stage further, why are babies born with such a fanatical, dogmatic, uncompromising conviction that the world absolutely must make sense? The answer to this is not obscure—because humans born with such a ferocious hunger for the truth do better at passing on their genes than humans born without any such appetite. Surely this is more or less what we would expect.

Why do beliefs clump together? Anyone trying to make sense of the world will come up with numerous beliefs, and these cannot always be isolated from each other. One reason is that we may have several beliefs about the same thing, and there is the possibility that such beliefs might be inconsistent. We automatically strive to remove inconsistency and harmonize our beliefs. If two of our beliefs are incompatible, we recognize that something is wrong; we feel uneasy and look for a way to make the incompatibility disappear. It’s impossible to believe anything without tacitly acknowledging the rudiments of logic. Just as the whole of arithmetic is implicit in the act of distinguishing two from one, so the whole of logic is implicit in holding that one belief is true and its denial is false.

Another reason is that beliefs are often useful to us, and where they are useful, they are often more useful if they are more general. It may be useful to believe that this tree will bear sweet fruit every summer, but it could be even more useful to believe that all trees with this shape of leaf will bear sweet fruit every summer.

As a child grows up, it will frequently have the experience of learning something that explains a lot, a single insight that puts a myriad of things in a different light, making more sense of them. Thus, the drive to believe automatically tends to encourage the appetite for beliefs of wide application, the limit being all-embracing beliefs which explain everything.

The existence of belief systems (or memeplexes) can be seen to follow automatically from innate factors in the human constitution. With the development of language and other media of communication, most of an individual’s beliefs come from the culture—from what other individuals say. We all believe that there are kangaroos in Australia and that it’s cold at the North Pole, even though most of us have never visited either place (or spent any time or effort investigating the plausibility of these tales we’ve been told). This doesn’t mean that we’re bound to believe everything ‘the culture’ (other people) tells us, though we very often do so until some acute problem makes us question a received belief.

I have given a brief account here of why belief leads to belief systems, without assuming that there is some genetic predisposition to embrace large systems of interlocking beliefs. But, of course, there certainly is some such predisposition, and more generally there is likely to be, not merely a genetically programmed drive to beliefs of wide generality, but a genetically programmed drive to hold certain kinds of general beliefs rather than others. Still the most brilliant stab at such a theory of how the mind strives to order its understanding of the world in a particular way is the identity theory of Émile Meyerson.

The Myth of Irrationality

I surmise that West subscribes to the common view that there are rational and irrational reasons or motivations for believing something. This misconception is criticized at length in Ray Scott Percival’s book, The Myth of the Closed Mind (2012). I believe that the main thrust of Percival’s argument is correct. West may think that adopting a memeplex is irrational. But adopting any belief system is never irrational—though it may sometimes be mistaken or even foolish. Humans just can’t help being rational; they are forever condemned to be rational.

The misconception that humans can believe things for irrational motives often arises from the tacit definition of ‘rationality’ as absence of error. Certainly, humans often commit errors; we all make mistakes. In fact, only a rational being can commit an error; the existence of error (in the strict sense) is proof of rationality. Errors can, as we know, be corrected, and very frequently are.

Some systems of belief are more passionate than others. You could put together all my beliefs about transportation in and around Chicago and call it a belief system. For example, my belief that I can get from the Loop to Logan Square in about half an hour by taking the Blue Line from any of several stations along Dearborn is one belief among thousands. If I had to revise some of these beliefs, it wouldn’t upset me very much.

Other belief systems involve a more visceral attachment. My belief in neo-Darwinian evolution, or in any major part of that theory such as genetics, could not be changed without an intellectual upheaval accompanied by emotional turmoil. I call this kind of belief system an enthusiastic belief system, and I maintain that enthusiastic belief systems, be they religious, philosophical, or scientific, all have common characteristics.

To mention a few: they all involve ‘confirmation bias’; once you accept the system you tend to interpret evidence so that it fits the system. They all dismiss or explain away apparent counter-instances with great facility. They all involve privileged texts (scriptures) and accredited spokespersons, which become imbued with authority. They all exhibit emotional attachment on the part of their adherents and strong feelings of aversion toward people who dispute the system. Attachment to a belief system is very much like attachment to a person; just as love is blind, so our attachment to the belief system makes us overlook its possible faults. All these features are just as much in evidence in belief systems we agree with as in belief systems we reject. In fact all these features are inevitable: science, no less than religion, could never have developed without them (as Percival makes clear).

Why We Should Resist the Temptation to Diagnose

People often disagree with each other. There are many competing and incompatible theories (I view any religious doctrine as a theory). This disagreement arises ineluctably (in human groups of more than a few hundred) because the world is big, complex, and messy and because individual humans are each equipped with nothing more than strip-maps of the world. When an adherent of one belief system encounters adherents of another belief system, there is a feeling of incredulity: surely they can’t possibly think that?

When we encounter a belief system we disagree with, we can criticize it. We can try to show that it is contrary to observed facts, or that it involves inconsistency and is therefore self-contradictory. We can also criticize it simply by finding flaws in some of the arguments in its favor. But having stated our criticisms of the belief system, we observe with amazement that its adherents do not instantly accept our arguments and abandon their belief system. They persist in their erroneous ways, by ignoring what we have said, or by misrepresenting what we have said, or by replying to what we have said with blatantly unsound counter-arguments. This is the age-old pattern of differing beliefs, in science just as much as in religion.

In this situation, it’s tempting to conclude that we have not done enough. Instead of simply refuting these people’s arguments, we may feel we need to try to show that their erroneous beliefs arise from some deep-seated disorder in their thinking. We then try to show that they are guilty of some kind of irrationality.

The temptation should always be resisted. Once we have stated the arguments against their position, and worked on improving these arguments, we just have to keep on restating them and wait for the penny to drop. The arguments against their position (assuming these arguments can’t for the moment be improved) are everything we could possibly have; there’s nothing more to be had.

Here we should remind ourselves of a couple of elementary points:

1. One and the same belief may be held by different people with different habits of thought, different epistemologies, and different methodologies. A true belief may be held for seriously defective reasons and a false belief may be held for impeccable reasons. Logically, there is a disjunction between the soundness of one’s thinking and the truth of one’s beliefs. We cannot validly reason from the unsoundness of someone’s thinking to the untruth of their beliefs, nor from the untruth of their beliefs to the unsoundness of their thinking, nor from the soundness of their thinking to the truth of their beliefs, not from the truth of their beliefs to the soundness of their thinking.

2. What applies to individual beliefs applies to systems of belief or memeplexes. One person may embrace a given memeplex because of meticulous analysis while another may embrace the same memeplex because of disturbed thinking, or seriously mistaken methodology (including uncritically accepting what he has heard another person say). That this is routinely so is a familiar fact. George Orwell famously pointed out that he believed the world was round and orbited the sun, but would be unable to mount a good defense of these beliefs against anyone (with a bit of astronomical knowledge) who disputed them.

Even if every single person who adheres to a particular memeplex does so for faulty reasons, it’s still possible that at any moment, someone may arrive at a defense of that very memeplex for different and sounder reasons.

If the adherents of a memeplex are in fact prey to some thinking disorder, this is immaterial to the merits of that memeplex, for one can arrive at a correct position by disordered thinking or at an incorrect position by impeccable thinking. So the only relevance of their thinking disorder would be that in this case it led them to espouse a faulty position, and once again we find that all that matters is the faultiness of the position and not in the slightest degree the type of thinking that happened to cause any individual to accept it. The position can only be shown to be faulty by direct criticism, never by diagnosing the way its proponents think.

Science has always involved passionate attachment to enthusiastic belief systems. As Blackmore says, “False theories thrive within science as well as within religion, and for many of the same reasons” (The Meme Machine, p. 202). In itself, this is perfectly normal. Fiercely clinging to some theory after it has been shown to contradict experience is a human trait (and according to Percival a necessary and productive human trait) and it occurs in science just as much as in other institutional areas.

Sometimes, under certain conditions, the situation gets bad, as with Lysenkoism and CAGW. These monumental follies arose because the zealots used political power to protect themselves from criticism by stigmatizing their actual critics and intimidating potential critics. Just as competition is required to keep business socially optimal and nothing else can, so debate, the competition of ideas, keeps enquiry on the track of truth, and nothing else can. But monopoly enfeebles the monopolist—“power stupefies”—and ensures that when the memeplex falls, it crashes and burns with spectacular suddenness.

If general cultural conditions favored it, episodes like Lysenkoism or CAGW could actually destroy science. But conditions, though worsening, are nowhere near that bad. Science will survive, at least for the next century or so. CAGW will soon be a thing of the past, a paroxysm of ideological craziness that we will look back upon with amused fascination.

Naturally, the bare bones of the environmentalist belief system will grow different flesh. Just as global warming supplanted acid rain, so some new scare will supplant global warming. (Always eager to help out, I have nominated the use of electronic devices causing a switch in the Earth’s magnetic field.) Environmentalism holds that human activity is destroying the planet, and therefore economic growth must be crippled and millions of Third World babies allowed to die. The specific evil activity which is destroying the planet can be changed, although possibly the environmentalist loss of credibility due to the thoroughness of the discrediting of CAGW will be so immense that the entire environmentalist belief system will be weakened for a while. If so, that will be good news for humankind and especially its poorer half.





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Remembering Tom Szasz

PsychologyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Thu, August 07, 2014 19:32:06

We’re probably in for a fresh spate of critiques and reappraisals of the work of Thomas S. Szasz.

In 1961 Szasz published The Myth of Mental Illness (following an article with the same title, two years earlier). His many subsequent books would preach the same message, and most of these later volumes make much more entertaining reading than The Myth of Mental Illness.

Szasz’s reputation as a writer suffered on account of that early work. Because of its title and its key role in psychiatric controversies, it became the one work of Szasz to cite. People curious about Szasz would usually seek out that particular book. It’s rather dull compared to such sparkling later works as The Manufacture of Madness (1970), The Therapeutic State (1975), or Liberation by Oppression (2002). His Karl Kraus and the Soul Doctors (1976, later reprinted as Anti-Freud) is also captivating, but in this case partly because of the translated remarks of Kraus. Szasz’s own witty, oracular debunking style evidently owed a lot to the author of The Last Days of Mankind, as well as to Mark Twain, Ambrose Beirce, and H.L. Mencken.

Szasz argued that there is literally no such thing as ‘mental illness’. Mental illness is no more than a metaphor. If we speak of ‘a sick economy’, we know this is a metaphor. We don’t try to pretend that economics is a branch of medicine. It’s just the same with human behavior, human feelings, and human thoughts. These do not belong to the domain of medicine. But in this case, we may be tempted to think that there is a branch of medicine—psychiatry—which is competent to deal with problems of behavior, feeling, and thinking. This Szasz denied outright. He did not rule out as meaningless or useless everything that psychiatrists might do—he merely insisted that it was not medicine. He undoubtedly did believe, though, that psychiatry had done a lot more harm than good.

Szasz himself had a private practice as a psychotherapist, as well as being a professor of psychiatry. He defended being a professor of psychiatry by pointing out that few would object if an atheist were a professor of religion. He talked about his own practice of psychotherapy rarely and vaguely: he characterized it as having conversations with people in order to help them with their problems in living. As for helping them by giving them drugs, Szasz held that this should be permitted as long as it was entirely voluntary, but he himself was not a big enthusiast for the practice (and, for all I know, believed it was always wrong). He would say, for instance, that you don’t call in a TV repairman when you’re disgusted with the quality of the programs. This is an entirely typical Szasz bon mot. On the one hand, it strikingly clarifies one facet of the issue. On the other hand, there is a lingering doubt, is there not? For after all, if the entire scriptwriting and production process occurred inside the TV set, it wouldn’t be so obviously silly to get the repairman to fix up the script for It’s Always Sunny.

Szasz—an MD who knew quite a bit about medicine and the history of medicine—didn’t dispute that the realm of behavior often interacts with the domain of medicine. By drinking too heavily, a person may give himself cirrhosis of the liver, which is a medical problem. By bungee jumping a person may give himself a broken neck. What makes him take to drink or go in for bungee jumping is not, in Szasz’s view, a matter in which medical doctors have any special competence. What are commonly regarded as ‘mental illnesses’ are simply ‘problems in living’.

His books are eloquent in exposing and criticizing the absurdities which result when any and all human behavior is viewed in terms of health and disease. Even before such diseases as sex addiction, shopping addiction, and internet addiction had been invented, Szasz had accounted for them, and had pointed out the affinity of such afflictions with drapetomania (the disease diagnosed in some black slaves by a nineteenth-century doctor, the symptom of this malady being the slaves’ desire to run away from their owners) and the mental diseases identified by Soviet psychiatrists in people who criticized the socialist regime.

I first became aware of someone called ‘Szasz’ when I read R.D. Laing in the 1960s; at that time Laing was all the rage in England. At first the ‘anti-psychiatrists’ eagerly quoted their predecessor Szasz, but it soon became apparent that Szasz had nothing but contempt for the anti-psychiatrists. He didn’t like them because they were socialists and because he believed that they sought to glorify the mental states of designated mental patients. Szasz had no patience with those who imputed to mental patients wondrous insights denied to the rest of us. He tended to think of mental patients as, for the most part, a rather pathetic bunch who were often complicit in their own oppression.

Jonathan Engel (in his American Therapy, 2008) gets the chronology wrong and thinks that Szasz was a follower of the anti-psychiatrists. I have occasionally encountered people who suppose that since Szasz was a ‘radical’ in the 1960s and later says things that sound ‘conservative’, he must have undergone a political conversion. But the truth is that Szasz’s fundamental outlook was pretty much fixed by the 1940s and never changed. He was always a classical liberal, an anti-communist, and a ‘cultural conservative’ in lifestyle matters, though of course favoring the repeal of all prohibitions on drugs and victimless crimes. The biggest change he did undergo was from being a psychoanalyst (some said the crown prince of psychoanalysis) to being a hostile critic of psychoanalysis.

The volume Szasz Under Fire: The Psychiatric Abolitionist Faces His Critics (edited by Jeffrey Schaler, 2004), which includes a brief autobiography, also contains an exchange of letters between Szasz and Karl Popper (this is given by Szasz in his reply to the article by Ray Percival). Here, Popper says he thinks that Szasz is ninety-five percent right about the nonexistence of mental illnesses. What Popper meant was that while he agreed with Szasz that the extension of the medical metaphor to every type of human ethical or lifestyle decision is preposterous, we can still reasonably conjecture that there are some few cases where a typical brain malfunction is the cause of some typical cluster of emotional and behavioral problems (even though we can’t yet identify the brain malfunction in question).

Not that Szasz would have disputed the truism that Alzheimer’s and syphilis can cause mental deterioration, and that there are sure to be many other as yet undiscovered diseases of the nervous system that have mental and behavioral symptoms. But he took the position that we can’t describe these as diseases until we have ascertained their physical cause.

In a typically Szaszian crisp summary (and possibly oversimplification), he asserted that we’re not entitled to talk about a disease until a pathologist can identify its presence in a corpse. A corpse can have cancer, bunions, or atherosclerosis. A corpse can’t have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or paranoia, let alone shopping addiction or obsessive-compulsive disorder. No pathologist can detect the presence of these supposed illnesses by examining a cadaver. To Szasz, this meant that they could not be called literal diseases, even though he allowed that at some future date we might find that they corresponded, more or less, with some presently unknown literal diseases.

Szasz observed that once a genuine physical disease is identified, it tends to be taken away from psychiatry and given to general medicine, as occurred with syphilis of the brain and with strokes, and more recently with Alzheimer’s. Once these are classified as literal diseases with known physical causes, psychiatry can claim no special expertise in these areas. Szasz also pointed out the influence of ethical and religious fashion on psychiatric diagnoses: when Szasz started writing, nearly all psychiatrists held that homosexuality was a disease (this was the official position of the American Psychiatric Association until 1973 and the World Health Organization until 1990). Now most of them don’t. The switch is not in the least due to any new medical evidence, but purely to a re-adjustment of mores and ethical attitudes.

Although on occasion Szasz fully acknowledged that some human problems would eventually be attributed to presently undiscovered brain diseases, the general sweep of his rhetoric tends to give the opposite impression: “. . . we will discover the chemical cause of schizophrenia when we discover the chemical cause of Christianity and Communism. No sooner and no later” (The Untamed Tongue, pp. 215–16).

I agree with Szasz in opposing involuntary commitment of the mentally ill and I admire his exposure of much psychiatric silliness. But the route to those conclusions is not as simple as he believed. Szasz holds that there can be no literal disease of the mind, only a literal disease of the body or a metaphorical disease of the mind. This is strictly correct, but it does not have the sweeping implications he supposes. Szasz attacks people who employ the term ‘mental illness’, but his attacks fail if people are using the term to mean ‘a brain disease with mental symptoms’.

Various drugs can cause you to have hallucinations and infection by rabies will make you terrified of water. So we know that purely bodily changes can change your conscious states and your deliberate behavior in predictable ways, and we can’t rule out the possibility that some such bodily changes may happen without the intervention of drugs or of rabid beasts.

Szasz would say that until we have identified the physical cause (the lesion), we can’t assert the existence of an illness. But, as far as I can see, nothing prevents us from conjecturing that certain symptoms are accounted for by an illness whose existence we can’t yet observe directly. I know a lot less than Szasz did about the history of medicine, but I would even surmise that there have been such cases—consumption, epilepsy, and asthma spring to mind. But even if I’m wrong in thinking that there have been actual cases, it still wouldn’t follow that such conjectures are inadmissible. And if we can do this with physical symptoms, we can do it with mental symptoms: I can see nothing wrong in principle with hypothesizing that a certain cluster of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors is accounted for by a brain malfunction. It’s literally, pedantically wrong to call this a ‘mental disease’ just as it’s literally, pedantically wrong to say that the sun rises, but such casual expressions are inevitably rife throughout language.

Involuntary commitment and other pretexts for imprisonment and torture are very common in our culture, and so is the endless re-iteration of the claim that victims of state coercion are ‘ill’. Yet these two facts are not as tightly connected as Szasz supposed. I can easily imagine a change in semantic fashion, so that state paternalists would say: ‘Granted, these people are not ill, but they are still a threat to themselves and others and therefore need treatment whether they consent or not’. And I can also easily imagine some people coming around to the view: ‘These people are indeed ill, but even sick people shouldn’t be forcibly incarcerated or given drugs or electric shocks against their wishes’.

Szasz wrote about forty books, even one (Faith in Freedom, 2004) devoted to a critique of the views of libertarians on mental illness. The one I found most disappointing is The Meaning of Mind (1996). As you read most of Szasz’s work, you become conscious of an odd lacuna: he repeatedly draws a bright line between consciousness and physiology, as though these are independent realms. This is the more remarkable because he is an atheist with no theological commitments. So, you wonder what he thinks about the relation of mind and brain. With The Meaning of Mind, we find out that he has no coherent view of the relation between mind and brain and (while the book does have a sprinkling of his usual piercing insights) his uninformed comments on those who have carefully elaborated various theories often miss the point and are at times painful to peruse.

Following protracted illness, and a few days after a severe spinal injury due to a fall, Tom Szasz exercised his right to suicide. I never met him but had various phone and email exchanges with him over a number of years. If I had met him in the flesh, I might have mentioned some of my criticisms of his views, though his always thick Hungarian accent might have been a conversational impediment, and I have heard from a reliable source that in his last years he became testier and testier, disposed to see any disagreement as betrayal.

Szász Tamász István (the surname comes first in Hungarian). Born Budapest, 15th April 1920. Died Manlius, New York, 8th September 2012.



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A Moral Defense of Meat-Eating

PhilosophyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Tue, May 06, 2014 20:25:26


A moral case for vegetarianism has been made by some philosophers and has become popular among a small group of people not noted for their reticence. The most influential of these philosophers is Peter Singer. Singer’s argument is that it’s immoral to cause suffering, that the suffering of non-human animals has equal weight with the suffering of humans, that you can’t eat meat without patronizing and encouraging the inflicting of suffering on animals, and that therefore it must be immoral to eat meat, except in cases of dire necessity.

I think this argument is mistaken, and I will now give you my chief counter-argument. My counter-argument contains a lemma—an intermediate conclusion that I can then use as a premiss for my final argument. To keep things short and simple, I’m not going to argue here for the lemma (though I am going to briefly explain the point of it), since I believe that most people, if they think about it even briefly will agree with it. I’m just going to state the lemma and then move on from there. (Although I say “my” counter-argument, I don’t mean to imply that there’s anything original about this. I’ve heard something similar to this before, though I have no idea who first came up with it. After all, it’s pretty obvious.)

Lemma: We’re not under any moral obligation to act so as to reduce the total amount of animal suffering below what it is in the wild, or below what it would be if humans didn’t exist. In other words, if the immorality of eating meat is dependent on humans causing animals to suffer, then it can’t be immoral to eat meat if the production of meat for human consumption does not increase the suffering of animals above what it would have been in the absence of any human intervention.

Explanation of the lemma: In the absence of human intervention, animals like deer and oxen would be eaten by non-human predators. When humans eat meat, they’re competing with other meat-eating animals, such as lions and wolves. If the predators disappear, this may lead to overpopulation of the former prey animals and consequent unwelcome environmental effects such as deforestation followed by soil erosion. The situation is not changed in principle if we move from hunting to the raising of livestock: the morally relevant issue is whether the cows or sheep we’re raising would suffer more, or less, or the same, if they were in the wild and being eaten by lions or wolves.

The lemma allows the possibility that some ways of treating animals may be immoral, but the lemma rules out the presumptive immorality of all cases of treating animals in such a way that their situation is no worse than they would face in the wild. In the case of hunting, this is clear enough. Anyone who knows cats knows that they love to keep their prey alive and toy with it before finally killing it, and this causes more suffering than would be caused by a quick kill with an arrow or a bullet. So human hunting causes less suffering than hunting by at least some other predators.

Could it be argued that by hunting deer, humans are causing suffering to lions and wolves by taking away their prey? This doesn’t look like a promising line of argument. Humans are hunters by nature, and it’s not clear why we would feel obliged to let other species of hunters have prey that we could have. A lion whose potential prey is killed by a human is no worse off than a lion whose potential prey is killed by another lion, and in either case the total lion population adjusts to the availability of prey for lions, with marginal lions always dying or otherwise failing to reproduce because of competition.

As we move from hunting to raising livestock, no important new issues of principle arise. Do farm animals suffer more or less than animals in the wild? It’s not clear that they suffer any more, and it seems likely that they suffer a lot less. The day-to-day life of a cow munching the grass and chewing the cud has less excitement than that of the wild ox, continually fearful of sudden attack by a predator, but I doubt that the cow would get a thrill from dangerous adventures the way some humans do. When death comes to the cow, it does not seem to cause any more suffering than death in the wild—and if we ever found out that it did, we could adjust our techniques of slaughter, without abandoning the practice of killing animals for food. My argument is not that all and any ways of raising and killing animals for food are morally acceptable, but merely that some feasible ways are morally acceptable, and therefore morality does not require vegetarianism.

Some people may feel that the life of an animal in the wild is in some way better than that of a farm animal, even though the farm animal experiences less actual pain and fear. Well, we observe, as real incomes rise, that there is a growing interest in both recreational hunting and in the demand for game animals, animals killed in the wild, in preference to farm-raised animals. The meat of game animals is leaner and tastes better. This trend is merely the tip of a broader movement towards free-range raising of animals. Suppliers of meat can charge more for meat that has been produced in a ‘more natural’ way, partly because of superior taste and partly because consumers feel better knowing that what they were eating was produced in a more natural way. As our incomes rise, we spontaneously move away from factory farming toward free-range farming, and then ultimately to preferring meat from animals that have been hunted in the wild.

If we accept the lemma, then the mere fact that some suffering occurs to animals when they’re raised for meat production is not enough to show that this is immoral. Instead, we have to show that they necessarily suffer more than they (or corresponding animals, which might be a bit different in a hypothetical alternative world) would suffer, if the human population were much smaller and the populations of lions and wolves much bigger.

Although I’m not offering arguments for the lemma, I do want to look at three possible ways of rejecting it. Someone could maintain that our obligation is simply to stop suffering wherever we can. One way to stop the suffering that comes from animals being harvested as prey would be to wipe out those animals. Thus, we could kill all oxen (including beef cows). At the same time, we would wipe out all the predators, the animals that would have eaten the oxen. This would mean wiping out virtually all animal species, including insects, birds, and fish, for all these animals are either predators or likely prey. Some folks would feel sad that all these species had disappeared, but they could console themselves with the thought that being extinct means you never have to suffer, whereas being extant means you do have to suffer.

Consistently, we should extend this to humans: they should be killed off, and then no human would ever suffer again. (Just to keep an eye on things and make sure everyone follows the rules, I’ll be the last one to go.) If allowing suffering is decisively immoral then every sentient living thing, including humans, should be made extinct, because this and only this guarantees no more suffering.

Another person might, however, approach the issue a bit differently. Instead of killing all animals, we could take over and manage the entire animal kingdom, transforming it into something very different from the way it has evolved, intervening with birth control drugs, factory-produced food, analgesics, and anesthetics. The former predators could be fed substitute foods made in factories from soybeans, or even directly from industrial chemicals. Since they would suffer somewhat from not being able to hunt, we would have to provide them with robotic imitation-prey, so that they could continue to experience the activity of hunting. Herbivores could be left to graze the wilderness, but fed fertility-reducing drugs to keep their populations stable. There would still be some suffering: accidents do happen, and every animal has to die, though we could try to limit this suffering by infiltrating the natural world with robots using analgesic and anesthetic dart guns, watching all the while for any impending pain or anxiety.

There are various aspects of this scenario which may not be very appealing. Be that as it may, it is not feasible right now, and won’t be feasible without a huge investment over many decades, if not centuries (think about the difficulty in ensuring that every fish in the oceans is guaranteed never to be eaten). So, even assuming that this ambitious intervention is morally required, we’re stuck for a while with the choice between a certain amount of suffering in the wild and a certain amount of suffering (probably the same or a bit less) down on the farm. And therefore, if we accept the lemma, we must reject the case for vegetarianism on grounds of the suffering caused by meat-eating.

Of course, most vegetarians will reject those two approaches and go for a third approach: simply have humans abstain from meat-eating. But what the lemma helps to bring out is that this option has an arbitrary quality. Turning humans into herbivores means excluding other herbivores from a large area of land, reducing the world's populations of non-human herbivores. So the third approach is a kind of partial and inconsistent version of the first approach. Either we have an obligation to reduce animal suffering every chance we get, or we don't have such an obligation. Eschewing the first two approaches means admitting that we have no such obligation.

We can kill animals for food without adding to the total net suffering in the animal kingdom, and this is morally okay.



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The Bigotry of the New Atheism (by an Old Atheist)

Current AffairsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Sat, April 12, 2014 22:05:39

(I wrote this a few years ago. A magazine said they would probably print it but then held on to it for over two years before deciding not to use it. I’ve just now gone quickly through it and changed it slightly in several places.)

If there’s anything new about the New Atheism which erupted in 2004, it’s the strident proclamation that belief in God is a powerful force for evil. All kinds of atrocities are laid at the door of “religion,” equated with belief in God.

The central message of the New Atheism is that 9/11 and similar outrages have occurred because their perpetrators believed in God. This is explicitly stated and reiterated many times by Sam Harris, but the same tune has been hummed and whistled in several keys by Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens.

If you believe in God, then you have been infected and (twenty-eight days or years later) this belief is going to prompt you to kill yourself and your fellow-humans. So the New Atheists tell us. I view this as a fairytale, just as far-fetched as anything in the Bible or the Quran.

Atheists Do It Better (Mass Murder, That Is)

There’s an obvious problem with the New Atheist claim that theistic religion is peculiarly conducive to atrocities. The last hundred years have seen the rise to power of secular, in some cases overtly atheistic, ideological movements, and these movements have been responsible for the killing, torture, enslavement, and terrorizing of many millions of people.

By any measure, the evil deeds done by these secular regimes within a few decades have vastly outweighed the evil deeds done by Christianity and Islam combined, throughout their entire history—not by a factor of just two or three, but by a factor of hundreds, if not thousands. Institutions claiming to embody Christianity or Islam have murdered thousands. Institutions claiming to embody Marxism, National Socialism, or other types of socialism, have murdered tens of millions.

Since this factual point is so conspicuous, the New Atheists have naturally attempted to account for it. Their most common response is that whereas theists (like Torquemada) committed atrocities because they believed in God, atheists (like Stalin or Mao) did not commit their atrocities because they disbelieved in God. This strikes me as a very strange claim.

Even if this strange claim were true, it would not address the difficult point. The New Atheists maintain that “religious,” meaning theistic, ideologies generate atrocities. History shows that non-theistic or secular ideologies have generated atrocities on a vastly greater scale than theistic ideologies. Now, even if the religious atrocities were committed because the perpetrators believed in God while the secular atrocities were not committed because the perpetrators disbelieved in God, this does nothing to get around the stark fact that ideologies without belief in God have motivated more and bigger atrocities than ideologies incorporating belief in God, and that therefore it looks dubious to single out belief in God as an especially virulent intellectual source of atrocities.

However, the strange claim, if we can make any sense of it at all, can only be false. Belief in God is an integral part of Christianity and disbelief in God is an integral part of Marxism. Torquemada committed his atrocities because of a belief system which included belief in God. Stalin and Mao committed their immensely more ambitious atrocities because of a belief system which included disbelief in God. I can’t imagine how you extract from these facts the conclusion that theists committed their atrocities “because” they believed in God while atheists did not commit their atrocities “because” they disbelieved in God.

Another argument offered by the New Atheists is to cite ways in which the churches were complicit in the crimes against humanity committed by Fascist and National Socialist regimes. The New Atheists don’t seem equally concerned about the complicity of atheist intellectuals in the greater crimes against humanity committed by Communist regimes.

But, in any case, what do such examples really show? Fascism and National Socialism were not Christian movements. The distinctive elements in their ideologies and policies were not derived from what the churches were teaching. When the Fascists and the Nazis were new, small parties with little following, they did not seek, nor did they get, the slightest bit of support from the churches. Until 1933, for instance, Catholics were forbidden by the German bishops to join the Nazi Party.

By the time Fascism and National Socialism became contenders for power, and then achieved power, many people compromised with them, including most of the churches. So did other groups, for example, the majority of scientists, scholars, and journalists in the affected countries. Both totalitarian movements, Fascism in Italy and National Socialism in Germany, gained electoral support at the expense of specifically Christian political parties, which were closed down when the Fascist and National Socialist parties came to power.

It’s also true that some Christians, motivated at least in part by their Christianity, resisted these regimes and paid for it. The truly heroic Claus von Stauffenberg, leader of Operation Valkyrie, the plot to assassinate Hitler, was a devout Catholic.

As well as the Soviet repression of theists, both Christian and Muslim, and such well-known instances as the mass killings directed by the atheist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, it’s worth mentioning a couple of other, lesser-known cases where specifically atheist persons or groups were responsible for horrible acts of violence.

In 1924, the Mexican government ramped up its already severe restrictions on the activities of the Catholic church. Hundreds of priests and other Catholics were imprisoned or executed because they refused to comply with new regulations (requiring, for example, that priests not criticize government officials and not wear clerical garb outside a church). The brutal repression of Catholics led to the “Cristero war” between Catholic rebels and the government, followed by further government assaults on Catholics. The government hunted down and killed priests, just because they would not give up being priests. Graham Greene wrote about this in a documentary work, The Lawless Roads (1939), and then in a novel, The Power and the Glory (1940). The former president and de facto ruler of Mexico at this time, Plutarco Elias Calles, was a highly enthusiastic atheist.

The traditional anticlericalism, often atheism, of Mexico’s ruling elite stems mainly from Positivism, the atheist belief system promulgated by Auguste Comte, a form of pre-Marxist socialism which took root among the Mexican intelligentsia in the nineteenth century. Vicente Fox Quesada, elected in 2000, was the first Mexican president for ninety years who could openly admit to being a Catholic, and even today, a few remnants of the old restrictions remain, for example ministers of religion are banned from holding political office in Mexico.

In another example, the Spanish anarchists, atheistic followers of Mikhail Bakunin (“If God existed, it would be necessary to abolish him”), had come to control some regions of rural Spain by the 1930s. They committed numerous outrages against Catholics, not just the desecration of churches, but also occasionally the killing and mutilation of priests and nuns. These atheist-inspired attacks alarmed many Spaniards, and stimulated support for rightwing enemies of the Republic, helping prepare the way for extraordinary brutality by both sides in the Spanish Civil War. Numerous leftist supporters of the Spanish Republic, like George Orwell, were fully aware of these anti-Catholic crimes and never uttered one word of criticism. Yes, it’s true that these atrocities were “exaggerated by the right for their own purposes.” But the right had something to exaggerate.

Atheist Terrorism

Harris’s explanation for the current spate of suicide terrorism is that the terrorists believe they will be rewarded as martyrs in Heaven. The religious zeal of fundamentalist Muslims is the explanation for suicide attacks. This entertaining story has been continually reiterated by journalists, but it will not withstand scrutiny.

Harris, and following him Dawkins, have asked, rhetorically, whether we can imagine any atheist group conducting suicide terrorism. In actuality, a rather high proportion of suicide terrorists have been atheists. In the years up to 2009, the pre-eminent perpetrator of suicide bombings in the world was the group known as the Tamil Tigers, in Sri Lanka. They were of Hindu background but led by atheists. Opinions differ on whether the Tamil Tigers could accurately be described as “Marxist-Leninist,” but it is not disputed that they were belligerently anti-religion.

Another atheist group responsible for suicide terrorism was the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish nationalist and Marxist-Leninist group active in Turkey. These suicide bombers were atheists and their victims were mostly Muslims. Around 1999 the PKK leadership abandoned its Marxism-Leninism and its practice of suicide bombings, and later changed its name.

Suicide terrorism is primarily political in its aims and rationale. Suicide bombers have political objectives which provide the reason for their actions. Suicide terrorism is the recourse of members of ethnic populations who find themselves completely outmatched by vastly stronger military might. It’s their way of hitting back at the occupying troops, whom they are too feeble to confront directly. It is particularly effective if the occupying power is a democracy. Robert Pape’s study of the backgrounds of Muslim suicide terrorists (Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, 2005) shows that many of them are not especially religious.

If suicide bombers knew of a way to kill an equal number of the enemy without also killing themselves, they would act upon it. The reason that suicide bombing has become much more frequent since 1983 is that it works. The Israeli government, for example, while usually unmoved by peaceful overtures or by (comparatively ineffective) non-suicide attacks, has made concessions to the Palestinians following suicide bombings. Reagan pulled the troops out of Lebanon because of suicide attacks, intended precisely to get US troops pulled out of Lebanon. Pape, who made a thorough study of all cases of suicide terrorism (up to 2003), calculated that about fifty percent of suicide attacks had some demonstrable success in achieving their political objectives—an amazingly high success rate for terrorism, or indeed for any form of political operation by small groups not in control of a government.

This is not to say that suicide terrorism has any moral justification. It is merely to say that it works extremely well. Suicide terrorism is far more effective than any of the alternatives open to militant political groups acting, as they see it, on behalf of comparatively powerless ethnic communities under foreign military occupation. It’s a highly rational, expertly calibrated activity which delivers the political goods.

Some readers will no doubt protest that some of the Muslim suicide bombers really do believe they will enjoy the attentions of seventy-two virgins in paradise. (Some Muslims have told me this is a mistranslation and it should read “seventy-two raisins,” which confirms my view that Islam isn’t much fun.) It wouldn’t astound me to learn that one or two members of IRA-Sinn Fein did believe they would have a friendly chat with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before being issued with harps. But Al-Qaeda, like the IRA, is an organization all of whose activities are strictly determined by its assessment of how these activities will serve its political objectives. Being prepared to give up one’s life for a great cause is a commonplace of all national cultures, and always positively valued when done for the side we favor.

It’s understandable that someone who picks up his knowledge of Christianity and Islam from the TV news would be innocent of the above facts. (In the wake of 9/11, an operation carried out by Saudis, I kept hearing about seventy-two virgins, but not once did I hear a single murmur on the major TV networks about US troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. These troops were pulled out eighteen months after 9/11, rendering that operation a brilliant success.) Still, anyone of a curious disposition might pause to wonder why, if belief in God explains 9/11, the first fifteen centuries of Islam passed by without a single suicide bombing or anything comparable, whereas suicide bombings (usually assassinations of public figures) were well-known in nineteenth-century Europe. We see this awareness reflected in such stories as The Secret Agent by Conrad and ‘The Stolen Bacillus’ by Wells. Again, we can generally assume that the “anarchists” who committed suicide bombings in nineteenth-century Europe were atheists.

What Makes Religion Dangerous?

Confronted by the fact that atheists have been implicated in both state repression and terrorism to an extent hugely disproportionate to their numbers, the New Atheists offer the rejoinder that these dictators and terrorists, though they may not believe in God, still think in ways that are unreasonable. In one formulation of this rejoinder, Harris says that “although these tyrants [Stalin and Mao] paid lip service to rationality, communism was little more than a political religion” (End of Faith, p. 79).

The first thing to note about this is that in making such a move, the New Atheists casually abandon what had been their central claim—and continues to be their central claim, because they don’t acknowledge that they have abandoned it, but go right back to repeating it. They keep drumming into their readers that religion must be defined as belief in God (or occasionally, the supernatural), and that specifically belief in God is the pathological meme which causes terrorism and mass murder.

If “religion” is to be used to characterize all belief systems which have ever led to terrorism and mass murder, then in shifting from religion-defined-as-theism to religion-which-may-just-as-well-be-atheistic, the New Atheists have tacitly accepted that their original claim is false.

The second thing to note is that while Harris will not apply the term “religion” to his own beliefs, he does not give us a litmus test to distinguish “religion” from non-religious beliefs. But a favorite rhetorical trope of his is to assert that people he disagrees with accept things without evidence, and so I think we can assume that Harris defines “religion” as accepting things without evidence, or, as he sometimes says, without justification.

However, virtually all spokespersons for Christianity, Islam, Communism, or even National Socialism, would hasten to insist that they do not, repeat not, accept anything without evidence. They would go on to assert that Harris ignores the relevant evidence for their doctrines. Harris would naturally reply that he’s not very impressed with their evidence, and interprets it differently. On this point I agree with Harris (as I have unpacked at length in my Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy).

But the crucial thing to remember here is that anyone who takes up any point of view on any subject whatsoever will always claim that the evidence supports this point of view and that the evidence goes against people who espouse a different point of view. So what Harris is saying is that he is right and the theists are wrong. But we are all right about some things and wrong about others, and, while we ought to strive to increase the ratio of our true beliefs to our false beliefs, this in itself says nothing about which false beliefs have the effect of increasing the predisposition to kill people.

And so we find that, in practice, what Harris is saying amounts to the claim that “religion” means belief systems he disagrees with, and people who think precisely the way he does would never commit atrocities. Any Marxist around the year 1900 would have said the same thing.

Why Atheists Have More Blood on Their Hands

While I point out that atheists have perpetrated more and bigger atrocities than theists, I do not attribute this to an inherently greater tendency on the part of atheists to commit atrocities. If the historical facts were the other way round, with theists having committed more and bigger atrocities than atheists, I would then be pointing out that it is a logical error to conclude that theism is inherently more inclined than atheism to perpetrate atrocities.

As I see it, there’s no direct causal link between atheism and atrocities or between theism and atrocities. Neither theism nor atheism is significantly conducive or unconducive to atrocities (or to happiness or health, as I argued in Atheism Explained). But I do have a historical theory explaining why atrocities by atheists in the twentieth century vastly exceeded the far smaller-scale atrocities perpetrated by Christians and Muslims in all centuries up to and including the twentieth.

Enthusiastic ideologies or belief systems, especially when they are able to capture a monopoly of governmental authority, are liable to give rise to atrocities. It doesn’t make any difference to the body count whether such a belief system encompasses theism or atheism. The rise of secular belief systems such as Positivism, Marxism, Fascism, and National Socialism coincided historically with the greatly enhanced technology for committing atrocities. If Torquemada had possessed the administrative and personnel resources of Stalin, he might have more nearly approached Stalin as a superstar of mass murder.

Modern capitalism produces improved techniques and it also produces secularization. But secularization does not mean the disappearance of belief systems with fanatical adherents. Spiritual religions are replaced by purportedly scientific religions, from Mesmerism to Global Warming. Socialism has come and gone, and has now been replaced by Environmentalism. When Environmentalism passes away, it will be replaced by some new enthusiastic belief system, perhaps one associated with Mental Health or the need for contact with space aliens.

In the “third world,” the poorer half of the world, which is now the stronghold of both Christianity and Islam, there remains some danger of atrocities perpetrated in the name of Christianity or Islam, but in the advanced industrial countries, most of the danger of future holocausts arises from secular-minded and pseudoscientific belief systems.

The New Illiberalism

Do we have anything to fear from the New Atheists themselves? Some of the things they say aren’t very reassuring.

Harris informs us that “belief is not a private matter.” (p. 44). The phrase “a private matter” has a specific meaning in the history of liberal thought. It means an area which is none of the business of the authorities, an area where whatever you may choose to do will not cause you to fall into the hands of the police. Hence the chilling quality, to any liberal, of the phrase, “Thought Police.”

Maybe this was just a slip by Harris? Not a bit of it. “Some propositions are so dangerous,” he explains, “that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them” (pp. 52–53). The whole thrust of his book conveys the message that belief in God is the most dangerous of the dangerous ideas for which it is ethically permissible to kill people who have done absolutely nothing wrong. Harris reasons that since thoughts give rise to actions, it’s okay to coerce people on account of their dangerous thoughts alone. The rhetorical tone of The End of Faith suggests that Christian fundamentalists have the moral standing of insect pests. Just imagine the fuss the New Atheists would be making if Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson had so much as hinted that it might be ethically permissible to kill people simply for believing there is no God. But the late Reverend Falwell said: “We [meaning traditional-minded Americans] honor the unbeliever.” You can’t imagine Harris saying anything this nice about Christians.

Commenting on the fact that most Muslims living in the West are tolerant of the non-Muslim beliefs of their neighbors, Harris points out that Muslims in the West are in a small minority, so their seeming tolerance may be just a sham (p. 115).

Quite possibly. And if the New Atheists today, when atheists constitute about two percent of the US population, can cheerfully entertain the ethically permissible liquidation of some unspecified segment of the dangerous eighty-plus percent who believe in God, what should we expect from the New Atheists when atheists have increased their following to forty, fifty, or sixty percent of the population?



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Response to Lee Waaks on Praxeology

EconomicsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Mon, March 10, 2014 02:53:13


[I tried to post this as a comment, but the blog wouldn't let me (too long?) so I'm submitting it as a new post.]


Thanks, Lee, for your kind remarks. My debate with Robert Taylor was on New Year’s Day, so naturally I was in recovery mode, and even slower-witted than usual. I failed to make some key points.

I don’t dispute that it’s possible to formulate a useful deductive system in which conclusions can be spun out from axioms. Euclidean geometry is an obvious example. The theorems follow from the axioms. Furthermore, we feel intuitively that the theorems are true, that is, that they tell us something about the physical structure of objects in space. Yet, as we now know, Euclidean geometry is not literally true of the physical world. In other words, if we take Taylor’s example of the Pythagorean theorem, the conclusion of this theorem is not true of real triangles in space (it is slightly off, because of the curvature of space).

Yet the Pythagorean theorem is true in two senses: 1. The theorem does follow from the axioms, and is therefore true in Euclid’s world, much as ‘elves have a characteristic smell, different from that of hobbits’ is true in Tolkien’s world; 2. The theorem applies to real-world triangles of manageable size with very close approximation. It’s therefore fine for building bridges.

Now, we can assume that ‘Man acts’ is true, and derive from this certain propositions (which then help to define what we mean by that assertion). We can logically derive from these propositions some conclusions about the way humans will act. I don’t deny that we can do this, and that the results will sometimes be illuminating. For example, if we assume that business firms always do what they perceive as maximizing their financial returns, we can make predictions about the behavior of firms which will very often be true (and where not true may draw our attention to some special circumstance, which may be helpful to our analysis of what is going on in the behavior of firms). Furthermore, the assumption that business firms always do what they perceive as maximizing their financial returns is not arbitrary, since we know that competition favors the survival of firms which do better at maximizing their returns. So, I agree that there’s a lot of mileage in the view that important steps in economic reasoning may be made by applying a Pure Logic of Choice. And, of course, virtually all economists would agree with this, and many of them, never having met a Misesian, would wonder why I am saying anything so trite.

However, Mises and Rothbard maintain that all of economic theory is derived by deduction from axioms. In other words all of economic theory is derived from self-evident axioms about human action, and not in the least from empirical observation!

Here we should note the historical fact that Rothbard was a huge influence on the libertarian movement. To my mind, as well as being an entirely lovable person, for I met him several times and had a number of long conversations with him, he was a wonderful pamphleteer and propagandist. He was no great shakes as an economist, and an abysmal thinker about economic epistemology. Despite his shortcomings, he was a huge improvement over the very poor philosophizing of Ayn Rand, which threatened to engulf libertarianism in the 1960s and 1970s. A lot of what Rand said was entirely correct, but totally unoriginal with her, and this ninety-five percent of her output was simply the common heritage of classical liberalism since Locke’s Second Treatise. Whenever Rand came up with an original idea, she was not only wrong but most of the time almost unbelievably sloppy in her reasoning. Rothbard was a scholar who knew quite a bit about the history of liberal thought. He had read and understood, not only Locke’s Second Treatise, the fountainhead of libertarianism, not only Mill and Spencer, but numerous other thinkers, some of them still under-examined, like Bastiat, Molinari, La Boettie, Lysander Spooner, and Franz Oppenheimer. Rothbard had his limitations but he would never blunder as badly as Rand, who was essentially a creature of Hollywood. Rothbard helped a lot of people transition out of Randism into something more defensible, something with more potential for serious elaboration.

Today this ideological background is less important. Rothbard’s following has largely evaporated. The fact that he quit the libertarian movement in the last few years of his life has something to do with it. Today the issue of ‘praxeology’ is hardly ever raised. Economists arguing for the free market simply don’t address it. It still attracts a few enthusiasts like Robert Taylor and animates some of the output of the Mises Institute. But, for example, if you take the work of a capable and effective popularizer of the economic case for the free market like John Lott, you don’t find any appeals to aprioristic reasoning. It’s all empirically based, this is what you expect, and it would be a distraction for anyone to suggest that it all follows from ‘Man acts’.

Mises was a Kantian. He believed that there are synthetic a priori propositions, and that the essential truths about purposive action were among these propositions. I think there are no synthetic a priori propositions. Like Hume and the logical empiricists, I think that what is analytic is a priori and what is a priori is analytic. But more narrowly, though I’m always prepared to be surprised, I just haven’t seen a convincing candidate for a synthetic a priori proposition.

If a statement tells you about the world, it’s an empirical claim and can’t be deduced from self-evident axioms. If something’s deduced from self-evident axioms, it doesn’t tell you anything about the world (except that part of the world which is the theory in question), though it may be useful if you can make the assumption that the world complies with the axioms. I am entirely prepared to accept that we can construct a body of praxeological theory from axioms and that this might include a great deal of economic theory. But in applying this theory to the world in order to draw conclusions about the world, we would be taking a step beyond the pure theory, and this would make our conclusions fallible. The empirical is always fallible in a way that deduction isn’t.

A point I didn’t bring out in my conversation with Robert Taylor is that even if we had a complete body of praxeological theory which we then set about applying to economic life, there would be the question of whether we had applied it accurately. This is more serious than you might think. Take the example of identifying whether something is money. (Jeff Hummel made this point and others like it back in the 1970s, at a time when we were all much more preoccupied with Mises-Rothbardism than anyone is today.)

Although there are strong tendencies for one good to emerge as the single monetary unit, these tendencies do not fully carry through. Today we know that bank deposits, coins and bills, gold and silver, and bitcoin, all function as money. Other entities, like commercial bills, could also be included. The central notion of money is that it is a good which you acquire because it will enable you to exchange for other goods. It follows that goods can have more or less moneyness. Diamonds have more moneyness than machine tools. Once a good has a lot of moneyness, it automatically tends to accumulate more moneyness, but in practice this is not going to culminate in just one good having all the moneyness.

The point of this for praxeological reasoning is that identifying and measuring what is actually functioning as money can be a tricky empirical exercise. So even with our complete praxeological theory, we would still have to do a lot of empirical work to explain, say, what happened to the US money supply in 2008. There would still be empirical issues about whether this or that asset was functioning as money.

However, I do not think we have, or are going to have that complete praxeological theory to start with. For example, praxeology holds that if someone prefers a to b and b to c, they will prefer a to c. This certainly looks convincing as a likely empirical generalization, but is it apodictically true? Obviously not. We might say that someone who prefers a to b and b to c but chooses c when confronted by a choice between a and c is somehow muddled. Yes, but people can be muddled. Even if we never observed a case of someone being muddled, we would still have to say that the very idea of someone being muddled is conceivable, and so the claim that no one is ever muddled would be an empirical claim. But it is false. People actually are sometimes muddled. Psychology experiments have documented that some kinds of muddle are actually quite prevalent. (I have elsewhere argued against the usual conclusion from this fact, the conclusion that people are often irrational. I maintain that people are never irrational—here Mises was right—though they often make mistakes.)

Exhibiting non-transitive preferences (preferring c to a) is just one example; there are many others, such as counting sunk costs. How does the praxeologist handle cases like these? He can accept them as allowed within his theory of human action, or he can outlaw them as contrary to the basic conception of action. One way to do the latter is to say that if someone preferred a to b and b to c, and was then observed to pick c over a, he must have changed his preferences. But then, if economics is to make empirical predictions about the world, it becomes useless, since any false prediction we make can be accommodated by saying that people’s preferences unaccountably changed during the real-life process we were analyzing. In order to keep economics as capable of making falsifiable predictions, we therefore have to add the premiss (not a fundamental component of praxeology) that people’s preferences are stable. Now we have something empirically falsifiable, and therefore empirically useful, but we have introduced something not derivable from ‘Man acts’.

So what if we take the other route and say that we allow people to have non-transitive preferences, and generally to be muddled? Then we can’t get the most elementary market mechanisms started. We will be unable even to get to the downward-sloping demand curve. Not much, if anything at all, can be spun out from the action axiom if we allow that at any point people can be muddled.

If we turn some of the aprioristic claims into empirical generalizations, then we can make progress. We can say, for instance, as a first stab at it, that people are not muddled all the time, and when dealing with a group of people some of the muddles will cancel out, and if the consequences of the muddles become too painful people will pay more attention and reduce their muddles. We can also observe, as Becker did, that since people’s incomes are limited, the downward sloping demand curve is automatically generated as highly probable for any given good (for example, it’s just not possible for someone to adopt the rule to buy more at higher prices for all the goods they buy; their limited income won’t let them do it). So even if individuals’ buying behavior were totally random (I admit that’s impossible for other reasons) we would still observe downward-sloping demand curves in the vast majority of cases, probably all. The downward sloping demand curve, which we couldn’t derive by deduction from actions, starts to look pretty good as an empirical generalization. Is it a law? Yes, or at least it’s a putative law, just like a putative law in physics or chemistry, provided we specify the circumstances of its application stringently enough.

Much more could be said at this point, but to me one of the most interesting aspects of market behavior is that markets behave much more in accordance with textbook models than they ‘ought’ to. We know that real human beings have a tendency to count sunk costs, yet industrial investment goes on as if they didn’t. A study was done of drivers’ responses to different and changing gas (for Brits: petrol) prices at different gas stations. Their behavior was observed and they were questioned as to what they knew about prices at different gas stations. It was found that they knew very little about prices at different stations, yet their actual behavior was quite close to what we would expect if they had had a perfect knowledge of the prices at all the local stations. Of course, we can come up with explanations for these phenomena, and these explanations tell us a lot about the way markets work. But we have come a long way from the Misesian attempt to move from ‘Man acts’ by strict deduction to ‘Consumers buy from the cheapest seller’.

Here are my answers to Lee’s five questions

1. I don’t believe any significant number of economists will dispute that the minimum wage will increase unemployment, but they may still favor a minimum wage. Remember, that a minimum wage will both increase unemployment and increase the wages of those workers who keep their jobs or get new jobs. Some workers do benefit directly from a minimum wage. I have actually seen discussions where economists argue that if the increase in the wages of workers who keep their jobs exceeds the total wages lost by those who are made unemployed, this makes the case for the minimum wage! An economist (a leftist ideologue who happens to be an economist) may also take the view that it’s better for a worker to be on welfare than to be hired in a very low-wage job.

Common political views of the minimum wage are illustrated in the recent report of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office on Obama’s proposed minimum wage increase. The CBO said the proposed increase would rescue 900,000 people from poverty, and would also cause an increase in unemployment somewhere between “slight” and one million, settling for 500,000 as a probable figure. This CBO analysis was taken by the vast majority of supporters of the increase as complete vindication of the measure: obviously 900,000 is bigger than 500,000! (The White House economic advisor objected and said there would be no increase in unemployment! But that’s the kind of nonsense you expect from someone in that position. White House strategists know that if anywhere there occurs an official endorsement of the claim that any of the administration’s measures will result in any unemployment whatsoever, this meme could mutuate into something fearsome that would come and eat them all up.)

To me the biggest tragedy of the minimum wage is that it takes the least productive and therefore most vulnerable workers and ensures that they will never get on-the-job training which would be one of their likely roads to improvement. Along with welfare and the public schools, it systematically creates a vast class of unproductive criminals. It also ensures that the snow doesn’t get cleared in the Loop every winter, that no one buses tables in diners any more, and that no one cleans your windshield or your tires when you stop for gas.

2. They didn’t necessarily react this way because they had been convinced by praxeological reasoning. It’s characteristic of all sciences that most scientists’ initial response to a challenge is to assume that the currently prevailing view is correct and a new challenge is pretty sure to be flawed (and a lot of the time they’re right; that’s why it’s the currently prevailing view). And, after all, you can give a loose, intuitive explanation of why a minimum wage will increase unemployment, and anyone can see the point of this, without accepting that it’s a matter of apodictic certainty. Remember, it’s not just the minimum wage. This is just one example of a price floor. Price floors have been observed for many different goods. I doubt that anyone would object to the statement that if you announce a minimum price for cement, above the market price, and enforce it, less cement will be purchased.

Some further comments on empirical challenges to the theory that minimum wage increases raise unemployment. 1. From what I’ve seen, the economists who challenge it usually say something like ‘Modest minimum wage increases will rescue people from poverty and will cause negligible increases in unemployment’. The implication is that negligible increases don’t matter. But the consequences for those who are hit are unusually severe and long lasting. A couple of thousand additional teenagers thrust into a life of drug dealing and gang banging is not negligible from where I’m sitting. For a certain percentage of them it will actually be a death sentence. We’re talking about marginal-quality workers, people whom it’s barely worth hiring. 2. Elasticity is always greater given more time, so you would need to look at a long enough time period to see the full effects. 3. The rise in unemployment might not show up in the statistics for total employment. Suppose McDonald’s hires fewer blacks from low-income backgrounds and replaces them with more middle-class students. Why would this happen? Because the middle-class students, many of whom can take the job or leave it, are induced to apply by the higher wage, and they on average possess positive attributes valued by the franchisee, who is, after all, paying more; the franchisee will be able to reject blacks from devastated neighborhoods he might have formerly taken a chance on. The middle-class students will on average be distinctly better at the job; they will find it less of a struggle to show up punctually and to be gracious to customers. If you’re paying $10 an hour, and you can get someone worth $10 an hour, you’ll go for it, even if you would have preferred to do what you’re no longer permitted to do: pay $8 an hour to someone worth $8 an hour.

3. Yes, just as physics is an empirical science and it’s reasonable to speak of laws of physics.

4. I don’t suppose they could ever be sure, but it doesn’t really arise since they usually do find clear enough results in this area. Most studies of the minimum wage look at things like differences between neighboring states with different state minimum wages. Actually, it’s remarkable to me that they can find anything at all, given how small these differences are. You might expect the outcomes to be swamped by market noise, but apparently they aren’t.

In cases where it’s not feasible to observe the effects, you would exercise your ingenuity to find more roundabout ways of testing the theory.

5. No, I don’t think so. We must distinguish between gut instincts about how the economy works and apodictic reasoning. People working in all the sciences are guided in what to look for by intuitive models which lack any formal standing. These intuitive models suggest; they don’t validate.



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If the Dull Substance of My Flesh Were Thought

PhilosophyPosted by David Ramsay Steele Thu, March 06, 2014 22:33:58

When I saw the Clint Eastwood movie Firefox in 1982, the thing that most stuck in my mind was that it depicted Soviet society in an unflattering light. I had never seen this in a Hollywood movie before. What had gone wrong? Hadn’t the director got the memo from the studio bosses? Shouldn’t he be blacklisted or something?

Just as we knew back then that in Hollywood’s world every Catholic priest would be a kindly figure with absolutely no eye for a nicely rounded bottom, who never voiced any of the controversial bits of Catholic dogma, but could be counted on to say to a wayward soul, about two-thirds of the way through the story, “I know there is some good in you,” so we knew that the Soviet Union always had to be shown as industrious, peace-loving, and quaintly mysterious, or at worst suspicious and irritable, like a temperamental bear which had been grievously mistreated but would now surely respond gratefully to patience and kindness.

Any trouble with the Russians was due to sinister forces dedicated to provoking misunderstanding—usually right-wing Americans, whose minds were too warped to understand that the USSR was essentially all about peace and love, but occasionally the culprits were international criminals—think of all the times in the Bond movies when SPECTRE was revealed to be so much more evil than SMERSH, and never more evil than when it was sowing mistrust between East and West.

Truth be told, my attention had been caught by a very minor detail of the movie itself. The glimpse into Soviet society was a small part of the film and only occupied a few minutes of screen time. Firefox is an adventure story in which Clint’s character (a traumatized former fighter pilot who’s fluent in Russian) steals the only existing model of an advanced jet fighter from its Russian base and flies it out of the Soviet Union! But, oh no, scratch that, it’s not the only model after all! There turns out to be another prototype, so the top Russian military test pilot uses this second aircraft to come after Clint, and following a supersonic chase there’s a supersonic dogfight, in which Clint is blown to pieces. . . . No, of course not, just making sure you’re awake.

To me at the time, the second most striking thing about the movie was that the jet fighters’ weapon systems were thought-controlled. And there’s that crucial point in the dogfight where Clint has to remind himself to think in Russian before he can properly fire a missile at his antagonist.

Thought-controlled weapons? Was this yet another of Hollywood’s tall tales? Or was it something that could ever become reality? And how would that work, exactly? I thought about this at the time, without knowing much about the brain. After all, you move your arm by thinking, don’t you? (Ha! We can imagine that muddlehead Wittgenstein going on for several pages about this. “I do not move my arm by thinking, . . . I just move my arm.” Well, danke schön, Lu, that’s very deep.)

Thirty-two years on, I know a little bit more about the brain, and a little bit more about brain-related technology, and I know that it’s now safe to assume the US military does have thought-controlled weapons if it wants them. We do have brain-computer interfacing (BCI), so that, for instance, someone with a wired-up brain can move a cursor on a computer screen (just by thinking, so to speak) or steer his wheelchair, just by thinking, and we have thought-controlled prosthetics, movable just by thought alone, and artificial thought control of real limbs, so that people with completely paralyzed bodies can move their limbs, just by thinking (Clear out, Ludwig. You’re too much underfoot. You too, Gilbert. Out.)

So, thought-controlled appliances, including weapons, are now just a yawn. More exciting is the prospect of transmitting thoughts from one brain to another by linking up the brains, without any external messaging.

In August 2013 it was announced that, in an experiment conducted at the University of Washington by Rajesh Rao, one person, his brain linked to another person’s, was able, by thinking about moving his finger (but not actually moving it) to make the other person’s finger move. Essentially the same thing had been done earlier with the brains of two rats, and then with the brain of a human and the brain of a rat. In Rao’s experiment, the sender was playing a videogame; the receiver’s moving finger fired a rocket in the game, though only the sender and not the receiver could see the game on a screen.

I don’t know if Rao’s experiment was reported in the UK press, and if so, how. But over here, and online, all the reports I saw described it as a wholly unprecedented breakthrough and failed to mention that four years earlier something apparently more radical had been achieved at the University of Southampton. The Southampton team led by Christopher James transmitted a thought from one person’s brain to another. Or at least, that’s one way of describing it. Though the recipient was not aware of the ‘thought’, the information could be retrieved electronically from his brain.

To get one brain, by having a thought about something, to cause a motor response in another brain, ought to be a lot easier than getting one brain, by having a thought about something, to cause a thought about the same thing to arise in another brain. However, the Southampton brain-to-brain transmittal was done by using a binary code: the sender imagined moving his left arm for zero and his right arm for one. It was simply a matter of transmitting which of two known options had been chosen. As a case of thought transmission this is kind of like cheating. A more advanced variant is having someone look at some alphabetical letters in succession, and simply sending a signal when the ‘right’ one has been hit upon, the accumulation of such letters adding up to the desired message. This is a neat trick, but something far more momentous is now being developed and will soon be marketed. Specific thoughts, sensations, and emotions will be conveyed from one brain to another by electronic transmission.

Imagine a football team or a military patrol in which each member of the team is simultaneously aware of the experiences of each of the other members, just as instantly as he’s aware of events affecting the various parts of his own body. How awesome is that? Even more impressively, imagine that all the world’s theoretical physicists working on superstring theory are connected by equipment attached to their skulls, so that whenever one of them has a promising idea, this idea is immediately picked up by all the others. This triggers a new thought in the mind of one of the others, which is also picked up by all of them, and so on.

Dr James’s and Dr Rao’s experiments were done without penetrating the skull. Electrodes were attached to the outside of the skulls of sender and receiver. The sender’s brain activity was picked up by EEG (electro-encephalography) and what was picked up was then transmitted to the receiver’s brain by TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation). So these are all things attached to the outside of the skull which receive and send impulses from and into the skull. To achieve more precise and detailed transmission of thoughts and feelings, we have to physically get inside the skull, though we’re helped by the fact that thoughts occur mostly at or near the brain’s surface.

Every time I think of the currently favored way to accomplish this, it strikes me as so clunky it’s bound to be superseded before the whole show gets on the road, but so far it hasn’t been. The plan is, first, to genetically modify all of a person’s brain cells (neurons) to make them sensitive to light. This is feasible and has been done with animals—the research area is called optogenetics. Then, we insert a whole lot of nanowires—really very thin tubes—into the person’s body, with many different wires going through blood vessels into many different regions (groups of neurons) in the brain. There’s plenty of room; the wires are very thin. In this way, it’s possible to send light signals to quite specific areas in the brain, associated with particular kinds of thoughts. With this set-up, it will be possible for A to think of something, and as a direct result, almost immediately, B will think of that same thing. The brains of both A and B are connected to computers, and these two computers will communicate by telephone. This is called brain-brain interfacing (BBI). BBI is an application and extension of BCI and will soon be as much talked about as smart phones were ten years ago.

You may think that people will be reluctant to have every cell of their brains genetically modified, and then have thousands of yards of nanowires introduced into their bodies, reaching into every part of their brains. However, the initial impetus for widespread application of BCI is to improve people’s lives by correcting severe disorders, especially paralysis. The nanowires will also be useful for medical diagnosis. Once the basic apparatus is in place, it will be a platform for further enhancements, such as direct brain connection to the Internet.

Furthermore, other types of inside-the-skull apparatus for different enhancements are available, one of the simplest being cochlear implants. Cochlear implants give incurably deaf people the ability to hear again. It takes practice and hard work for the patient to hear with the implants, which operate according to a computerized system entirely different from natural hearing, but they do usually learn to hear quite well, and these implants are already routine. They have nothing to do with thinking as a brain process, but they do help to prepare people for the assumption that it’s okay to have your head wired.

Many other enhancements are feasible; it would be child’s play to give someone x-ray vision (though most likely by microwaves rather than x-rays), with all the necessary equipment inside their skull. As people get more used to having their skulls wired in various ways, one more way will not seem too much of a leap. Pretty soon, it will make possible brain connectivity to videogames, and many of the millions of gaming fanatics will not want to be left out. I give it eighteen years before the first court case (probably rape) in which a defendant is charged with coercively influencing an alleged victim by using BBI, and twenty-five years before the first case involving stealing information by hacking into someone’s brain.

Since the wave of BBI is about to hit us, we can anticipate some of the misconceptions which will abound. Already, the two participants in Rao’s experiment (Rao himself and a guy called Andrea Stocco) have been quoted as referring to it as a “Vulcan Mind Meld.” All joking aside, let’s try to keep misunderstandings to a minimum by remembering the following essential points:

1. Inevitably, BBI is described as ‘direct brain-to-brain communication’. (In the trade it’s called B2B and unfortunately this label looks as if it will stick, despite the fact that B2B already has other established usages, most notably, in the world of marketing, ‘business to business’.) But this description can easily be misleading.

All communication between humans is brain-to-brain. When you read the words “If the dull substance of my flesh were thought,” William Shakespeare’s brain (or the brain of whoever really wrote it) has communicated with your brain. And as for communication being direct, with BBI there’s a lot of apparatus inside and outside the skulls of the communicating parties, and this apparatus communicates through computers, connected by a telephone system (usually the Internet). This is much less direct than just talking and listening! But it seems more direct because the communicator and the receiver only have to think. So at most we may say that it feels direct—it’s subjectively direct.

2. You can be certain that the media will love to call BBI ‘telepathy’, but there is not and never can be any such thing as telepathy. In BBI, a thought in one person’s mind causes (by a complicated technological pathway) a thought with similar content in another person’s mind. This has many of the properties of communication by speech or writing, and in fact to achieve the communication in any precise way, words will normally have to be among the material communicated.

3. The communication will not be guaranteed accurate. I think something and this causes you to think something similar, and because of this subjective immediacy, it may encourage the mistake of thinking that we can trust this communication to be more honest or accurate than, say, reading a letter. But that’s all wrong. Misinterpretation (seeming to ‘receive’ a thought which is not what the sender was thinking at all) will be commonplace. It may even turn out that the conscious act of formulating something in a letter causes us to take certain pains to make the message more accurate than it could ever be in a more spontaneous thought-to-thought process. Honesty does not come naturally; it takes a special effort, as I think David McDonagh was the first to point out. Tricks of deception will no doubt require different skills in BBI than ordinary speech, but deception, intentional and unintentional, will keep cropping up.

The third thing that struck me about Firefox was the irritating martial music of the soundtrack. Was the composer hired by the studio to punish the director and scriptwriter for their thoughtcrime of anti-communism? Hmm, I wonder . . .



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The Fallacy of Sheer Bulk

EconomicsPosted by David Ramsay Steele Mon, February 24, 2014 19:03:31

I’ve been having a lot of fun reading the works of the big-government anarchist David Graeber. Superficially he embodies everything I most loathe, yet actually I like his writing. One reason is that he’s completely unpretentious. He lays out what he believes with perfect clarity and no mystifying tricks. This is very unusual for someone on today’s extreme left, especially when that someone is a professor of social science with a considerable academic reputation. So, if for some reason you’ve been swallowing some toxic swill like Deleuze and Guattari, to cleanse the palate, try a swig of Graeber.

One thing that makes Graeber somewhat unlike most of today’s left and very much like the left of the 1930s is his powerful conviction that capitalism cannot possibly last much longer. He suggests different reasons for this belief on different occasions, but here I just want to look at a single sentence:

“There is good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism will no longer exist: for the simple reason that (as many have pointed out) it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet” (page 31 in Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination, not dated but probably 2011).

Here I’m not going to look at the intended meaning of this sentence in the context of Graeber’s overall political outlook (I’ll do that sometime) but I’m just going to comment on its figurative and rhetorical aspect as a typical cliché of today’s left.

Walking in Chicago’s Loop a couple of weeks ago, I was stopped by a pleasant young woman who asked me to sign something for Greenpeace. I said, apologetically, that she was wasting her time on me because I am opposed to Greenpeace. She donned a maternal frown of concern and asked why, and I responded: “Because I’m evil” (though with the twinkling smile of a rough diamond, and if I’d had a mustache I would have tweaked it roguishly; the English accent always counts for something too; in England my voice betrays me as a prole, but over here the natives can’t tell me from Hugh Grant).

So, I had to explain about how we need economic growth to industrialize the poorer half of the world so that millions of third-world babies can be rescued from heartrending deaths and how Greenpeace is among the enemies of economic growth and therefore of human happiness. And I threw in a few of my best lines, like the way wind farms mangle and rip apart the poor little bodies of millions of innocent birds and bats, and I can’t understand how anyone can defend such a horrible practice. (Nor could she, for a few seconds) I was heavily bundled up against Chicago’s global warming (10 degrees below zero Fahrenheit), and she probably couldn’t see that I was nearly four times her age. So this was working, trust me, it really was.

Then she asked, no doubt rhetorically, whether we could go on indefinitely expanding aggregate real incomes, whether we could do this, as she put it, infinitely. I was trapped by my damnable candor, and in all honesty I had to say: “Yes indefinitely, yes infinitely.” So now I was the escapee from the psych ward and that was that. Another lamb lost to the wilderness.

Back to Graeber’s sentence. If we look at this sentence, we see that it relies on the metaphor of physical quantities. Perpetual growth forever (strictly redundant, but I think the redundancy works well as a bit of prose) on a finite planet. We immediately think of something physically expanding forever within a fixed perimeter. Obviously, this is impossible, at least in Euclid’s world, and Euclid has to be good enough for this, I think.

The metaphor hides a simple mistake. Economic growth—growth of incomes—need not be growth of physical mass. For example, my iPhone is much smaller than an old-fashioned telephone, and even smaller than a telephone-plus-camera-plus-music-player-plus-computer. It is less massive yet more valuable.

A Ferrari 458 Italia sports car weighs 3,274 lbs. A Ford F-150 pickup truck weighs 4,013 lbs. So the mass of the Ford is more than a fifth greater than the mass of the Ferrari. But the Ferrari will cost you around $250,000 while you can pick up the pickup for around $25,000. The Ferrari has ten times the value of the more massive Ford.

Since something smaller can have more value than something bigger, economic growth does not always mean accumulating more and more physical stuff. Growth may sometimes coincide with reducing the amount of physical stuff. A CD is less massive than a vinyl LP, and any number of downloadable tracks account for no mass at all in the hands of the listener. Yet the progression from LP to CD to online song is an example of economic growth. As people move from books made of paper to e-books, there is a reduction in the assembly, storage, and transportation of physical stuff. Yet this is an example of economic growth.

It’s not a novel phenomenon. Observers of the early factory system noted that, compared with domestic production, it uses less of certain kinds of equipment and supplies. Take a hundred weavers out of their homes and put them side by side in a factory, and they don’t need as much backup equipment or stocks of yarn or even auxiliary labor as they all did in aggregate when they were working separately. This isn’t the whole story, of course, but it’s one reason why the factories could be more economical than the scattered domestic system. In this case, economic growth means getting the same output with less equipment.

Economic growth is not accumulation of more and more physical stuff. It primarily consists of the re-arrangement of physical stuff in new ways. Matter-energy can’t be created or destroyed, but only re-arranged. Human activity can convert matter into energy, but the amount of matter lost in this way is minute. What producers are doing under capitalism is not to add bulk but to re-arrange the existing bulk in ways more suited to human gratification. And if we’re worried about sheer bulk, several tons of cosmic dust land on the Earth every day (or even every hour, as most of the relevant scientists say), so the sheer bulk of the planet is always growing, do what we will.

At times, a reduction in the amount of physical stuff being used in production can be a form of economic growth. And it seems reasonable that these times would get more frequent once a lot of basic infrastructure has been built.

Economic growth also means more free time, more leisure. People have far more free time than they did a hundred years ago. People choose to take some of the gains of economic growth in shorter working hours and some in more stuff (where ‘more stuff’ means stuff affording greater satisfaction of wants). The proportions are determined by people themselves, not by something else such as ‘the system’. In my judgment, income statistics would be more accurate if they included the amounts of free time, but in practice this doesn’t matter much as people always choose to take most of the gains of economic growth in goods other than leisure, rather than sharply reducing their working hours. We just have to bear in mind that the gain in human well-being from economic growth measured by national income statistics is usually understated: we have to add something for the bonus of shorter working hours.

Is it possible to maintain perpetual growth forever on a finite planet? Well, it can’t go on forever, because as the sun very slowly gets hotter, in 3.75 billion years from now, the oceans will boil away and we’ll be dead or gone. Even before that, since our galaxy, the Milky Way, is colliding with another galaxy, Andromeda, death by cosmic accident seems likely, not to mention more ordinary catastrophes like an asteroid hit, which can easily happen at any time (Our only hope there would be SDI; thank you, Ronald Reagan). And the next glaciation presents a problem, though per capita growth might go on, close to the equator, if we can reduce population by 96 percent.

But with those qualifications, yes, it’s perfectly possible to maintain perpetual growth forever on a finite planet. Just as there will always be new songs to be sung, new stories to be told, new discoveries, new achievements, new debates, new adventures, new worlds of imagination and experience, so there will always be new ways to re-arrange the material structure of capital to make it ever more adaptable to human gratification and therefore human happiness. And that is all that we mean by economic growth. Capitalism could last forever and economic growth could go on, somewhere, until the heat death of the universe, with everyone getting richer indefinitely. There is no contradiction, and what “many have pointed out” is, as so very often, quite wrong.

Actually, I think that we’ll probably evolve beyond capitalism within the free market economy. But that’s a story for another day.





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