Knowledge and Reality

I was crossing a steep slope high in the mountains. It was a warm, sunny day in mid-September. To my left, high above, a jagged ridge was silhouetted against the blue sky. To my right, far below, a deep blue alpine lake sparkled in the sunlight. The slope between them was a mosaic of boulder fields and cliffs, with a few patches of krummholz and heather clinging to the rocks. Sweat was trickling down my forehead and into the corners of my eyes, making them sting. I licked my lips and tasted salt and rock dust. At a conveniently shaped boulder, I stopped to rest and have a drink of water. I took my backpack off. The air felt cool on my sweaty back and shoulders. I gulped water from my bottle. I wiped the sweat from my face with my sleeve. Then I sat on the boulder and gazed at the landscape. The ridge across the lake had almost no vegetation, just gray rock and white snowfields. To the east, I could see range after range of mountains, fading away into the distance. Below, the lake s

Fires, Polar Bears and Global Warming

Recently, there have been several destructive wildfires in Canada and the United States. Of course, many people blame climate change for these disasters. Others blame arson, or even space lasers. But the real cause of wildfires is the accumulation of fuel. People are not very good at understanding things on large scales. They are pretty good at understanding proximate causes, such as how a discarded cigarette or a lightning strike can start a fire. But they are terrible at understanding long-term processes and large-scale systems. People are blind to a lot of reality. When I think about the human inability to understand nature, a certain event comes to mind. In 2017, a video of a dying polar bear went viral. Of course, it was linked to a moral narrative: GLOBAL WARMING IS KILLING THE POLAR BEARS!!! Heart-Wrenching Video: Starving Polar Bear on Iceless Land This is a good test of your ability to think abstractly. If you can think about systems and processes in the abstract, you sho

Modern Civilization is Irrational

Modern civilization is based on rationality, but it is not rational. Most people think of industrial/modern civilization as an expression of rationality, or even as excessive rationality. They see the complex, highly abstract theories of modern science, the complex and carefully designed modern technology that we depend on, and the highly efficient and carefully managed industrial processes that produce everything from toothpaste to cars to hamburgers. Modern civilization seems like a triumph of rationality. The market and the printing press unleashed rationality, and that explosion of rationality created the modern world. That story is true, but not complete. Each part of modern civilization is rational in itself, within its bounds. A lot of careful thought goes into the design of a car, a dishwasher or a skyscraper. They aren’t as well-designed as they could be, but they are carefully thought-out. They are also based on empiricism. Knowledge accumulates and is applied to new probl

The Case Against Randian Objectivism

This is a very brief debunking of Randian objectivism , as defined by Wikipedia. I fully recognize that this brief Wikipedia excerpt is not the totality of Randian objectivism. However, it is a decent summary. Rand described Objectivism as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”.[1] Objectivism’s main tenets are: that reality exists independently of consciousness; direct realism, that human beings have direct and inerrant cognitive contact with reality through sense perception; that one can attain objective conceptual knowledge based on perception by using the process of concept formation and inductive logic; rational egoism, that the moral purpose of one’s life is the achievement of one’s own happiness through productive work; that the only social system consistent with this morality is one that displays full respect for individual rights embo

Theories of Knowledge

What is knowledge? How can an idea in a mind/brain represent something outside that mind/brain? How do images on a retina create the idea of a tree? When I see a tree, how do I recognize it as a “tree”? What is the abstract concept “tree”? How does this abstract concept relate to actual trees, and to my ideas of specific trees? Those are all questions that a theory of knowledge should answer. In this essay, I will consider various theories of knowledge, and whether they can answer those questions. In ordinary life, people take knowledge for granted. When they see a tree, they do not ponder how they know that the tree exists, or what the concept “tree” is. They just walk around the tree, or duck under its branches, and carry on with their lives. They leave those questions “to the philosophers” (and to the psychologists). But if we want to understand ourselves, then we cannot take those questions for granted. What is Knowledge? Knowledge is stored information that can b

Long Island Serial Killers

Image source On July 13, 2023, Rex Heuermann was arrested and charged with the murders of three women, whose bodies were found in 2010 on Gilgo Beach. Those murders are part of a larger cluster involving bodies dumped near beaches on Long Island, NY. Long Island is appropriately named. It is 118 miles long, and roughly 20 miles wide for most of its length. From southwest to northeast, it contains Brooklyn and Queens (boroughs of New York City), Nassau county and Suffolk county. Brooklyn and Queens are highly urban, Nassau county is suburban, and Suffolk county is rural/exurban. As a whole, the island contains over 8 million people, with the majority living in the southwest. Long Island has barrier islands on its Atlantic side, which are long thin islands of sand created by waves and tidal currents. Two are important for this story: Jones Beach Island and Fire Island. Gilgo Beach is on Jones Beach Island. Despite being close to New York city, parts of these barrier islands are very

Natural Resource Taxation

Markets are an excellent mechanism for organizing production and distribution, but they aren’t magic. They don’t generate prices ex nihilo . Market prices are circular. The price of a product depends on the prices of the inputs to its production. The price also depends on the supply and demand for the product, given the prices of other products. How is this circularity bootstrapped? In modern societies, prices are bootstrapped in an ad hoc way, without any design or plan. This makes market prices somewhat random. They depend on external conditions in ways that are unclear and unchosen. Prices are information. They control the physical economy, which consists of the physical production and distribution of products. Prices determine what is produced, in what quantity it is produced, and how it is produced. A product is produced if it can be sold at a price above the cost of production. The greater the profit (difference between the market price and the cost of production), the greater