Must Read Machiavelli Series

There’s an absolutely must-read series on Machiavelli currently being posted at Ex Urbe. This is history at its most exciting and fascinating. The first is all politics and history, the second is all about philosophy, and more are coming. Well-written, fast-paced, and an entirely new perspective on the man and his era (at least, if you aren’t a specialist in Renaissance history!)


You Can Prove Negatives

A quick note: someone whipped out this old bit of folk-logic that “you can’t prove a negative” at me earlier today. This statement shows up an awful lot in all sorts of debates, but despite its folklore position as some sort of rule of elementary logic, no logician ever has actually proposed it.

And that’s because it is pretty clearly not true, after all, it contains within itself its own handy refutation:  “you can’t prove a negative” is itself a negative statement, so if you can’t prove a negative, you can’t prove that “you can’t prove a negative.”

But of course there are plenty of examples of negative statements that people can prove. One of the real elementary laws of logic is that any proposition P is identical to the negation of its negation, that is, to not-not-P. So if you can prove a positive statement, then you also prove a negative statement which is equivalent to it. (If Descartes could prove that he existed with cogito, ergo sum, he could also thus prove that he wasn’t nonexistent.)


This will be a long post. This is your final warning. This is also not, incidentally, a complete overview of my thoughts on the subject. But I wanted to have a basic, preliminary post to point people to when the topic comes up, so I don’t have to rehash my basic positions over and over and over again.

Why I am not pro-life

I am not pro-life simply because I am not pro-life. Life is too broad and complicated and messy a thing to be simply pro- or anti-. For example, I am decidedly not pro-life when it comes to viruses and bacteria: I fully support the efforts of scientists and doctors in eradicated as many species of this form of life as possible.

Moreover, I am not even pro-life when it comes to alive humans. I believe that physician-assisted suicide should be legal. No, it isn’t a pleasant thing. Yes, we should work towards a world where the health issues which prompt such a decision, such a necessity, are a thing of the past. But until that time, I think that death with dignity is not only a necessity, it is a right. (Moreover, in places where it is legal, like Oregon, we have seen none of the horrors which its detractors have been wont to predict.)

There are also instances where I could consider sacrificing my own life to be ethical, or where someone else’s sacrifice of their life would be ethical. There are instances where, I think, armed conflict is justified. So there is simply no way I could ever claim to be “pro-life.”

People will, no doubt, object that I am taking a context-specific phrase and interpreting it outside its context. This is, I am sad to say, a tad bit of nonsense. Pro-life advocates say that because a fetus is alive, or perhaps, because a fetus is a live potential human being, is sufficient reason to support its right to life. I have demonstrated that I think life is good and the exercize of a right to life is good are context-dependent propositions. Hence, the mere fact of life, even the mere fact of human life, is simply not sufficient to determine an absolute position.

Why I support a woman’s right to choose

There are two main reasons. One is pragmatic, one is philosophical.

I’ll deal with the pragmatic first. Let’s take for granted the idea that there is some situation in which abortion is ethical and should be legal. Pick whatever context you feel most comfortable with: the life of the mother, the mother is a rape victim, whatever. Now, the question is: who gets to decide if an abortion is allowed? Suppose the life of the mother is at risk. Should it be the decision of some government official? Her doctor? A hospital ethics board? And how will they make that decision? Suppose her doctor estimates that she has a 65% chance of death. Is that enough to justify an abortion? If not, where do we draw the line? Is the fetuses chance at life worth a 72% risk of the death of the mother, is a 73% risk too much? What if it is lower that 50%? Suppose the mother has a 75% chance of survival. That still means that 1-in-4 women in this situation die from pregnancy. Who gets to decide if that is a risk worth taking? How will they decide it?

These are important pragmatic issues, because all pregnancies carry a certain amount of risk. Less in the developed world, certainly, but the WHO estimates that 1000 women die from childbirth-related complications every day. Anti-abortion people must be able to answer the question of who determines what amount of risk is acceptable, and how they determine it. I don’t think this is a decision the government can ethically make. It is, essentially, placing government officials in charge of determining how careful citizens are allowed to be with their own lives and bodies. It is placing the government in charge of the lives of its citizens. Moreover, there is no usable metric for deciding this. Suppose the government decides that anything over a 15% risk of mortality is acceptable for abortion. Now suppose a woman has a 14.3% chance of dying. Is there really a material difference in risk here? Enough to justify the government being able to tell the woman in question that she is not allowed to protect her own life? That her right to self-protection and self-defense is abrogated? Nonsense. And the same arguments work similarly for ceding these decisions to a doctor or an ethics board. The only pragmatic answer is that the woman must make the choice. And similar arguments also hold for other situations — who gets to decide, for example, if an instance of rape or incest is traumatic enough to warrant an abortion (how does one even begin to measure such a thing.)

These pragmatic issues are sufficient for me to say that I unequivocally support a woman’s right to choose. But even if these matters could, somehow, be resolved (they couldn’t, in this world), I still would be “pro-choice” (alas, even I must sometimes simplify.) This is because I do not believe that anyone’s life trumps another person’s bodily autonomy. We do not require that people donate organs, even after death, despite the number of live, fully-functioning human beings who die every day due to organ donor shortage. Why on earth, then, should we feel morally obliged to require a woman to donate her entire body to another being, which is not even a fully-formed conscious human?

There’s an odd, and completely fallacious, rebuttal to this argument, which claims that the distinction is consent: we cannot require people to become organ donors against their consent, but women (presumably through merely the act of having sex) are aware of the possibility of pregnancy and thus have consented to this. But even if this weren’t sheer nonsense (and it is), would not then women who use condoms and birth control thereby be explicitly demonstrating an absence of consent, a denial of consent, to pregnancy? This is what exposes this argument for the utter nonsense it is: a fetus which does not yet exist cannot ask a woman’s consent to be born by her (even a fetus which does exist cannot ask for this consent.) There is no person, no being, which is asking her consent. In fact, the biological processes preceding pregnancy are doing so quite explicitly without asking her consent. She is therefore unable to do so.

The fact of the matter is quite plain: no one other than the woman is capable of making this choice, and, moreover, it would be unethical of us to require a woman to sacrifice her bodily autonomy for the chance that a fetus will someday be a human being. There is simply no other option.

EDITED TO ADD: I realize that throughout this piece I incorrectly assumed that someone who is pregnant is necessarily a woman. This is false: some men can and do get pregnant. I apologize, and will go through the full piece to correct this as soon as I have time.

Something Rather Than Nothing II

Off-site someone linked me to this post by Richard Carrier, in which he comes to much the same conclusions as I did, but in much more depth, and also provides a more formal logical proof.

  • P1: In the beginning, there was absolutely nothing.
  • P2: If there was absolutely nothing, then (apart from logical necessity) nothing existed to prevent anything from happening or to make any one thing happening more likely than any other thing.
  • C1: Therefore, in the beginning, nothing existed to prevent anything from happening or to make any one thing happening more likely than any other thing.
  • P3: Of all the logically possible things that can happen when nothing exists to prevent them from happening, continuing to be nothing is one thing, one universe popping into existence is another thing, two universes popping into existence is yet another thing, and so on all the way to infinitely many universes popping into existence, and likewise for every cardinality of infinity, and every configuration of universes.
  • C2: Therefore*, continuing to be nothing was no more likely than one universe popping into existence, which was no more likely than two universes popping into existence, which was no more likely than infinitely many universes popping into existence, which was no more likely than any other particular number or cardinality of universes popping into existence.
  • P4: If each outcome (0 universes, 1 universe, 2 universes, etc. all the way toaleph-0 universes, aleph-1 universes, etc. [note that there is more than one infinity in this sequence]) is no more likely than the next, then the probability of any finite number of universes (including zero universes) or less having popped into existence is infinitely close to zero, and the probability of some infinite number of universes having popped into existence is infinitely close to one hundred percent.
  • C3: Therefore, the probability of some infinite number of universes having popped into existence is infinitely close to one hundred percent.
  • P5: If there are infinitely many universes, and our universe has a nonzero probability of existing (as by existing it proves it does, via cogito ergo sum), then the probability that our universe would exist is infinitely close to one hundred percent (because any nonzero probability approaches one hundred percent as the number of selections approaches infinity, via the law of large numbers).
  • C4: Therefore, if in the beginning there was absolutely nothing, then the probability that our universe would exist is infinitely close to one hundred percent.

Why is there something rather than nothing?

This is a question I get asked a lot as an atheist. And it’s a terrible question for two reasons. The first is that is presupposes that nothing is a possibility, that it is an option. Asking “why is there something rather than nothing?” only makes sense if nothing is a reasonable, possible alternative to something. But we have no examples of nothing to point to to demonstrate that it was ever an alternative, that it could have been possible for there to be nothing.

Even if we accept that nothing was ever a possibility, the second problem is that this question posits that nothing is not only possible, but also more likely than something. After all, if the questioner accepted that something was as or more likely than nothing, the question wouldn’t need to be asked (why is there x rather than y, when x is more likely or as likely as y, is always answered with “because x is as likely or more likely than y.”) So the question includes this other hidden hypothesis, that somehow nothing is more likely to have been, and the fact that there is something is somehow unexpected, unusual, or surprising.

But suppose that there were nothing. No space, no time, not even any sort of quantum vacuum a la Lawrence Krauss. In the absence of any stuff, in the absence of any laws of physics, of quantum mechanics, there are no restrictions on what can or cannot exist. In other words, if there is nothing, then there is also nothing to restrict the likelihood of or prevent the existence of something. The rest is mere probability: if there were nothing, then continuing to be nothing is one possibility, our universe or any other single universe beginning to exist is another, a multiverse with k universes is another, etc.

In other words, if there ever was nothing, it would be equally likely for there to continue to be nothing as it would be for our universe to exist. What is even more astonishing is that it is in fact more likely for a multitude of universe to exist that for nothing to continue being nothing or for one universe to exist (it is equally likely, for example, for there to be three universes as two universes as one as nothing, but more likely for there to be two or three universes than one or nothing.)

So, in fact, the answer to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” is that, if there ever were nothing, it would be far more likely to cease being nothing and for many universes to exist than for nothing to continue being nothing.

Austrian Economics: Some Questions

Some proponents of Austrian economics (particularly those of the more severe Rothbardian and Hoppe-ian (Hans-Hermann Hoppe) bent) argue that the advantage Austrian economics has over other forms of economics is that, since Austrian economics is logically deduced from a priori axioms, its truth is known even in the absence of empirical evidence.

Now, if indeed all of Austrian economics is deducible from a set of a priori axioms (which I doubt, since I know of Austrian economists, like Ludwig Lachmann, who use empirical methods), I have the following questions:

  1. I’ve never seen an Austrian economist manage to provide a complete list of all the axioms of Austrian economics. Typically they point to only one, the axiom of human action, but of course one assumption is incapable of proving anything. (For example, if I assume that the sky is green, I can’t prove anything not tautologous to “the sky is green” without introducing another assumption.) Without such a list, how is it possible to argue that Austrian economics is all deducible from these axioms?
  2. Relatedly, I’ve never actually seen a formal logical proof provided for any claim of Austrian economics. I’ve seen arguments, I’ve seen arguments that use deductive logic, but there’s a reason logicians (and philosophers and mathematicians) use formal logical proofs: they make it easy(er) to demonstrate that no hidden assumptions slipped in, and that no fallacious reasoning took place. Particularly, they make it possible to ensure that all theorems proven follow from the axioms and other theorems proven from the axioms.
  3. Moreover, provided some such exact and finite list of axioms existed, why are there no attempts to prove consistency? Any axiomatic system that wishes to produce theorems (true statements) distinct from false statements must first demonstrate that its assumptions are consistent, that is, they do not in some way contradict each other. I’ve never seen this done for Austrian economics, no doubt due to the lack of such a clear and precise list, but if somehow the axioms aren’t consistent (and this isn’t always obvious!) then they could be used to prove literally any statement.

Notice, I’m saying “I’ve never seen” instead of “does not exist.” I’ll admit, I’d be very surprised to find out that such things do exist, because I have read (most of) Human Action and a number of other Austrian books and have never encountered any mention of them. But I’m more than welcome to be corrected (also why the above are questions, not statements.)

My point being: in the absence of any one of the above three (list of axioms, logical proof, consistency), any claim that Austrian economics produces logically necessary truths is simply baseless and premature. That’s not say it is wrong — Cantor’s set theory was largely correct in its conclusions, despite the inherent instability of its construction (notably, the contradiction derived form considering the set of all sets.) Nonetheless, Cantor’s system was not capable of making any broad claims about necessary truths: after all, his theory was contradictory. Equally, without positively demonstrating 1, 2, and 3 above, there is a possibility that Austrian economics is self-contradictory, in which case it requires substantial architectural revision if it wishes to be respected as an axiomatic, logical system.