Tag Archives | Science Fact

Roundup on BP

The next time someone tells you that the BP oil spill shows the dangers of a free market and/or the necessity of government intervention, send them to:

ALL, C4SS, and Molinari Institute logos

Please let me know in the comments section about other good commentaries I may have missed!

On a related note, this sign from an actual BP station is priceless. (The pic below is just a detail; click to see the whole thing.)


Itchy and Scratchy

I never actually knew what itching was for, so I looked it up. According to this article, it’s thought to be an evolutionary mechanism that is sending the signal something is happening on your skin that’s like a bug crawling on your skin, so go flick that bug off before it bites you. (Of course, as is often the case with such mechanisms, it generates more false alarms than genuine ones.)


Interesting. But this next paragraph bugged me (pun not originally intended):

The same fibers that send itching signals are also used to send pain signals to the brain, which once led some scientists to believe that itching was a form of light pain. That notion has since been dispelled by research, which showed that pain and itching elicit opposite responses. Pain causes us to withdraw and itching causes us to scratch.

Now I haven’t read the research the article refers to; there may be better arguments in it than the one described here. But the one described here is not impressive.

First, and most obviously: pain just doesn’t always cause us to withdraw; sometimes it does, but there are many different kinds of pain. People usually clutch their heads when they have headaches, for example; that’s the opposite of withdrawing.

Moreover, even if, counterfactually, all pains did in fact cause withdrawal behaviour, it’s not obvious that this fact should be regarded as part of the essence of pain. What’s essential to pain, surely, is that it makes us want to avoid doing whatever causes the pain; but wanting to avoid touching the location of the pain seems a distinct and accidental feature (since touching the location of the pain does not always necessarily increase the pain).

In any case, if you find that case X differs from standard cases of Y by lacking feature Z, you’re then faced with a choice of either denying that X is a Y or denying that feature Z is essential to being a Y. In this case, then, scientists were faced with the choice between either denying that withdrawal behaviour is essential to pain or denying that an uncomfortable sensation that inherently makes us want to get rid of it counts as a pain. Which is the more plausible choice?

You want proof?  I'll give you proof!

More broadly, while the question of what physiological mechanisms underlie pain is presumably an empirical, natural-scientific question, the question of whether a particular kind of sensation is a pain seems more like a conceptual, philosophical question to which scientific “research” is irrelevant.

Here’s my argument for that claim. Suppose that scientific experts announced tomorrow that headaches are not actually a form of pain. (I choose headaches because they’re more paradigmatically a form of pain than itches.). Headaches may feel like pains, these experts aver, but they’re really not pains, because they involve neuronal thingummy B instead of neuronal thingummy A. Would you take this seriously? Surely not, because feeling like pain is simply what we mean by pain – it’s part of the conceptual grammar of the term. Anyone who talks of something’s feeling like pain but not being pain would have to be using the word “pain” with a new, nonstandard meaning, just as someone who talked of something’s being a regular quadrilateral but not a square would have to be using the word “square” with a new, nonstandard meaning. (Or else using some of the other words in the sentence nonstandardly.)

The researchers described in this article may well have confused constitutive with enabling conditions. And that takes me to a broader grump about scientists, namely, that scientists tend to be unaware that there is such a thing as a philosophical objection to a thesis. They tend to assume that anything that sounds like a coherent hypothesis (such as the possibility of time travel, or the suggestion that the universe we live in is actually 2-dimensional – to pick a couple of actual examples) is thereby fit for empirical investigation, without considering that in such cases a) there is a prior question as to whether the thesis so much as makes sense (for if it does not, then those who take themselves to be performing an empirical investigation of it will actually not be investigating anything – or at least not that), and b) the training and tools to determine whether it does makes sense are the specialisation of a field other than their own.

(But then, a still more egregious problem is the philosophers who are confused about this.)

Fall Right, Swing Left

“I don’t try to make you believe something you don’t believe,
but to make you do something you won’t do.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Over and over, you’re falling, and then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time.”
— Laurie Anderson

I’ve written before about the importance of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions for left-libertarians. Here’s another example.


Left-libertarians and right-libertarians – or mainstream libertarians, or “normal” libertarians, or whatever one wants to call them (I’m tempted by the irony of “modal libertarians” myself) – often get frustrated with each other. Left-libertarians pull their hair out when right-libertarians at one moment acknowledge the existence of pervasive government favouritism to big business, and then at the next moment lapse back into treating criticisms of big business as criticisms of the free market. (Here, for example, is Kevin Carson wondering why John Stossel, who in the past has “tipped his hat to the ideas of corporatism and crony capitalism,” suddenly “smile[s] and nod[s]” when Michael Medved “responds to allegations that big business is corrupt and exploitative, in the corporatist economy we live in, by arguing that ‘it can’t happen, because in a free market ….’”) Right-libertarians, for their part, can’t see why left-libertarians keep harping about corporatist intervention when the right-libertarians have already acknowledged its existence and badness.

I think Kuhn’s discussion of the pendulum may help to illuminate what’s going wrong here. Kuhn writes:

Since remote antiquity most people have seen one or another heavy body swinging back and forth on a string or chain until it finally comes to rest. To the Aristotelians, who believed that a heavy body is moved by its own nature from a higher position to a state of natural rest at a lower one, the swinging body was simply falling with difficulty. Constrained by the chain, it could achieve rest at its low point only after a tortuous motion and a considerable time. Galileo, on the other hand, looking at the swinging body, saw a pendulum, a body that almost succeeded in repeating the same motion over and over again ad infinitum. … [W]hen Aristotle and Galileo looked at swinging stones, the first saw constrained fall, the second a pendulum …. (Structure, pp. 118-121)

For Kuhn, the change from the Aristotelean to the Galilean interpretation represents a “Gestalt switch” associated with a paradigm shift; and I think the dispute over corporatism among libertarians involves something similar.

a pendulum

Aristotle and Galileo both noticed the same two facts about the swinging stone: a) it keeps swinging back and forth for a long time, and b) it eventually stops and hangs straight down. The difference, I would say, lies in what they saw as fundamental or essential. For Aristotle, hanging straight down (or getting as close as possible to doing so) was what the stone is essentially doing, while the period of swinging back and forth is an accidental imperfection – noise in the signal. For Galileo, by contrast, swinging perpetually back and forth in the same arc (or getting as close as possible to doing so) is what the stone is essentially doing, and it’s the gradual shortening of the arc until it hangs straight down that’s the accidental imperfection or “noise.”

One can imagine the Galileans shouting “But the stone keeps swinging back and forth in almost the same arc! Why do you ignore that?” and the Aristoteleans answering “I’ve already acknowledged the forces that constrain the stone in its fall! Why do you act as though I haven’t?”

Ludwig von Mises tells of a similar dispute with his mentor Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, when the Cantillon effects that Böhm-Bawerk dismissed as mere “friction” were for Mises an essential explanatory phenomenon in monetary analysis.

Just as Aristotle and Galileo saw different things when they looked at a swinging stone, and just as Böhm-Bawerk and Mises saw different things when they looked at the expansion of the money supply, so right-libertarians and left-libertarians see different things when they look at the existing economy.

Of course, like Aristotle and Galileo, they both notice (at some level of abstraction) the same facts: there’s a lot of more or less corporatist policies and there’s a lot of more or less free exchange. But for the right-libertarian, free exchange is what essentially characterises the existing economy, while the corporatist policies are so much friction; and just as you don’t constantly mention friction when talking about how a mechanism works, right-libertarians don’t constantly mention corporatism when talking about how the economy works. For the left-libertarian, by contrast, corporatism is a far more essential feature of the existing economy. (Though for most left-libertarians the free exchange is probably essential too, which may be part of what distinguishes us from some mainstream anarchists. So the analogy isn’t perfect. But never mind.)

Thus left-libertarians and right-libertarians are frustrated with each other because they’re arguing from opposite sides of a Gestalt shift, where what looks essential to one side looks accidental to the other; and persuading our opponents may be less a matter of getting them to assent to some specific list of propositions and more a matter of getting them to look at the world through the lens of those propositions. (One reason I find this explanation plausible is that I used to be more of a right-libertarian than I am now, and it rings true to my recollection of my own self-understanding.)

Now Kuhn often gives the impression of thinking that in cases like this neither side is more right than the other – that the Aristotelean and Galilean interpretations of the swinging stone are equally valid, and the choice between the two is a matter of nonrational commitent. It’s controversial whether at the end of the day that is precisely what Kuhn thinks, but let’s leave questions of Kuhn interpretation aside. Whether or not that’s Kuhn’s view, it’s not my view, and I don’t think that anything Kuhn has pointed out forces us to such a relativist position.


So I don’t want to suggest that this disagreement between left-libertarians and right-libertarians is a matter of a merely optional difference in perspective, like the Duck-Rabbit or the Necker Cube. Unlike Kuhn (perhaps), in such disputes I think both sides don’t recognise all the same facts, or at any rate don’t equally fully register the significance of those facts. Just as I regard Galileo’s interpretation of the swinging stone as explanatorily superior to Aristotle’s (explaining a broader range of facts, for example), and likewise Mises’ interpretation of monetary expansion as explanatorily superior to Böhm-Bawerk’s, so I think that the interpretation of the existing economy that sees corporatism as systematic and all-pervasive is explanatorily superior to the view that sees it as mere friction in an essentially free-market mechanism.

Right-libertarians could, of course, agree with the analysis I’ve just given of the disagreement, but insist that they’re the Galileo/Mises and we’re the Aristotle/Böhm-Bawerk. That would be a fair enough response; nothing I’ve said in this post supports the left-libertarian view of what’s essential over the right-libertarian view of what is so.

I do think, of course, that there’s a lot of important left-libertarian work out there that does make the case for the explanatory superiority of seeing corporatism as essential – including, obviously, Kevin Carson’ two books. (See also Charles Johnson’s recent summary of the nine ways in which corporatism operates.) But that goes beyond the aim of this post, which is simply to offer a way to think about this dispute of ours.

Headline News

The following letter appeared in today’s Opelika-Auburn News:

To the editor:

Today’s article on Homo floresiensis was given a very misleading headline, saying that the find “challenges the theory of evolution.” Such a claim is quite false, and is not supported by anything in the body of the article.

Pac-Man skeleton (not actually connected to this story)

The article does say that the find may alter “our understanding of human evolution,” i.e., may change the prevailing views about where and in what sequence human evolution occurred; but the basic theory of evolution itself is entirely unthreatened by anything connected with the discovery.

By analogy, if scientists were to discover that, say, the great pyramid of Giza is heavier than previously thought, would you run a headline saying that the find “challenges the law of gravity”?

Roderick T. Long

Time Capsule

Happy New Year to my readers east of the Central time zone! Greetings from back here in 2009.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes