Reality Maintenance + The Well-Being Machine

Reality Maintenance

EXCERPT: The idea that reality is something that is constructed by our minds out of sense experience, and therefore requires design, programming, and maintenance, is a curiously divisive one. To some people — myself included — it is the most obvious, even banal idea in the world; a basic starting assumption required to do any sort of interesting metaphysical thinking. As I’ve argued before, all realities are escaped realities, and the interesting question is, what is the direction/degree of escape?

To others, it is a horrendously toxic attack on all that is Good and True and a French Cultural Marxist Conspiracy Against Enlightenment Values. These people are known as normies.

Setting aside these debates, it’s interesting to try and trace how we construct and maintain realities. Here’s my picture...


The Well-Being Machine

EXCERPT: Social policy is a machine for turning force into utils.

This is an extreme reduction of a view that is widely held (if unconsciously), but, I will argue, wrong. As my friend David Chapman says, “Philosophy has no good new thoughts to teach you. However, you can learn why the thoughts you didn’t know you had are wrong.” The subjects here are two of the messiest folk concepts in existence, and they are the most central to whatever it is that we care about: causality and well-being.

“Correlation is not causation” is the mantra version of an argument by Hume, that even though we perceive regularities that appear to us as cause and effect, we can never perceive causation directly. This makes the most sense in contexts like public policy and science, in which the observation that two factors occur at the same time (or sequentially) cannot be taken as a guarantee that one factor causes the second. The Humean view goes beyond such cases, though: even the observational evidence of our own arm throwing an object is not actually a perception of causation. There is always some underlying aspect of the model that we cannot perceive: the exact way the brain works, or the underlying subatomic structure of the universe, or the like.

[...] The philosopher Nancy Cartwright argues that the concept of causality is too abstract to be really useful – we do things like “scrape, burn, push, eat (in Cartwright, “Can structural equations explain how mechanisms explain?” 2017),” sing, throw, seduce, persuade, kick, carry, but there is no similar “causation” thing underlying these “thick,” fairly well-understood relations; we just “pick out (ibid.)” certain relations as causal. The causality implied with “seduce” and “persuade” is very different from the causality of billiard balls knocking into one another and transferring energy. Perhaps they have nothing much in common.

Rather than “folk concept,” Nancy Cartwright uses the term “Ballung concept” to describe causality. Ballung concepts, she says, are

characterized by family resemblance between individuals rather than by a definite property. Ballung is a German word for a concentrated cluster; the term Ballungsgebiet (Ballung region) is used to describe sprawling congested urban complexes like the area from New York to Washington on the East Coast of the US. (Nancy Cartwright and Rosa Runhardt, Measurement, in Philosophy of Science: A New Introduction (2014).)

I cannot tell if the connotation of another English word beginning with “cluster” is intended, but it seems warranted. Nonetheless, Ballung concepts can be systematized in different ways for different purposes [...]

. . .

Some popular policy is incredibly simplistic: it operates as if it can simply adjust the emergent outcomes of a nomological machine, to “set” the system with certain values. Price controls, wage controls, rent control, and efforts to make inflation “illegal” during Communist death spirals are examples of this. Since low rents, high wages, low prices, and low inflation are desirable properties within the current system, it is imagined that mandating these desirable results will have the same effect as prices, rents, wages, etc. in a market economy. It is difficult to see the nomological machine implied by such policies, but the machine implied does not have second-order effects (decreased housing supply, decreased employment of those with lowest productivity, shortages, etc.). In the excessively simplistic nomological machine implied by these policies, the values can simply be set by outside force. Drug prohibitions seem to operate by a similar “variable setting” principle: simply imagine if there were no drugs (as opposed to examining the workings of the underlying nomological machine when force is used in different circumstances to prevent different aspects of drug use). Some policy interventions propose a more sophisticated model, such as that some things are public goods that are non-excludable and subject to free-rider problems. But there are still disagreements as to when these input-output-type assertions (something like economic laws) accurately describe the ground of the nomological machine.

Compounding the problem of ignorance of the true underlying causal structure of societies...



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