Cosmic Gambling and Decentralization

Pair of Dice

The success of decentralized power is dependent upon our all being cosmic gamblers. Not only that, but this inherent gambling nature is also the reason that there has never been a better alternative.

In other words, people producing things and trading them free of restriction would not be successful if we didn’t have a process of wager-making to drive the way we analyze everything. This may also be the reason why historical attempts to impose control on production and trade have resulted in disaster. Earlier, I explained how I think this “wager” process works. I submit that whenever we form a belief about p, we are betting that p is confirmed. Simultaneously, we adopt the risk that p is shown to be false. Testing to find out when we are wrong is a crucial component of living life because it serves as the primary method by which we discover what works and what doesn’t.

If this is truly the current state of human beings, then it seems that we should want to have society situated to maximize the benefits of this pseudo-scientific process of testing. I propose that the way to maximize it is to adhere to the principle of decentralization — of limiting the restrictions on and forceful interventions in the lives of the people. This way, we can see more results from more individuals who carry on with their tests, expanding the realm of what we consider possible. And ultimately, the innovation that results from this general state of affairs would bring about the greatest degree of prosperity for society relative to the alternatives.

Suppose that I am an entrepreneur and I want to create a start-up company that sells an online platform with which people can record music. When I develop my idea, every single assumption I make is something that I would (literally) be putting my money on. I assume that my future product will be useful to enough musicians to be profitable. I assume that I will be able to successfully market my product to a wide enough audience. I also assume that I can come up with a cost-structure that enough people will be willing accept in order to use my product. Then I can test all those assumptions by, for instance, polling the opinions of a bunch of musicians with regard to what they think about this kind of product.

Remember, this wager-making process isn’t only applicable when developing a start-up. It is the way we test all our beliefs.  Say I want to go see “Man of Steel 2” in theaters, and I observe online that there is a show-time scheduled for 8:10 PM. Based on this information, I can develop a hypothesis that if I go to the theater, buy a ticket, and sit down in the assigned room, I will be able to watch Ben Affleck‘s performance as Batman on the big screen. Then I can go do all those things, look at my watch as it flips over to “8:10” around the same time the pre-movie trailers are starting, and I will be pretty confident that I was right to bet on my assumption.

A political system that promotes this behavior takes a hands-off approach when it comes to intervention in the lives of people. Using coercion to enforce certain regulations as the norm largely prevents people from placing certain wagers and testing them, which is arguably the most important action that benefits society. The more regulation there is, the more limited regular people are in this capacity.

For example, take the issue of occupational licensing. In essence, this is a piece of paper from a state government that gives one permission to work in a certain field. The reasoning behind such certification is usually related to safety. Lawmakers want to make sure that people are qualified so that they will not bring harm to their customers. This sounds great as far as the intentions are concerned, but in practice, the fact that interior designers, shampooers, florists, home entertainment installers, and more work their craft safely without licenses in plenty of different states is evidence that such licensure is unnecessary. What it effectively does is erect obstacles that delay or block entrepreneurs willing to test their ideas. As a result, there are fewer people in each of these fields that can incentivize one another to innovate through competition.

A more poignant example can be found in public schooling. The evidence is overwhelming that the predominantly public K-12 education system in the United States has been failing hard. While there are attempts at innovation, the structures of control are centralized into bureaucratic school boards. As a result, we have administrators — often with very little experience as educators — developing top-down plans to revamp broken systems. Furthermore, standardization seems to take precedence over models in which power is diffuse. The obsession with standardized tests and common core legislation limits the innovation that can take place at the grassroots level.

The best alternatives in the U.S. can currently be found in school choice initiatives like charter schools. These schools are publicly-funded but typically freer of government regulations. The idea is to allow teachers at these schools more room to test their ideas. Moreover, giving students more options to choose between different educational options provides more incentive for teachers to develop effective methods of teaching in order to attract students. Even in Finland, which has strictly public schools, the suggestion is that teachers need flexibility on the ground as opposed to top-down control: “…the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.” This hints that the success is not found necessarily in the method of funding, but in the decentralized structure of planning, which frees teachers from regulatory constraints.

The key point here is that central planning is simply antithetical to the wager-making process that is essential to understanding the world around us and thus, bringing about prosperity in society. People will always go about this process. The goal is to foster the conditions under which it can reach its maximum potential. I am convinced that those conditions involve as much decentralization of power as possible, both economic and otherwise.

General Thoughts on Epistemology III: We Are All Cosmic Gamblers

English: The French Gambling Aristocracy

English: The French Gambling Aristocracy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a preface to this post, it is crucial for me to communicate that I am setting aside the discussion about “knowledge” as my primary pursuit. The reason, as I explained in part II, is that the use of the word has become muddled. My position is that philosophical skepticism about “knowledge” of the external (physical) world attempts to solve a presently unsolvable problem, and therefore, “knowledge” may not be the best term to use when attempting to describe how we gather and store data in our brains. Instead, I will focus on the interaction between human beings and the external world on its own terms. Hopefully what follows is indicative of this.

A while ago I wrote about Pascal’s Wager, contending that he removes the essential components from what it takes to justify a belief. His argument was that, when looking at belief in God in a cost-benefit analysis, it is more beneficial to choose to believe in God. I reject his presumption that a person can rationally choose to believe something exists while disregarding all evidence for or against its existence. However, his idea that it is useful to equate believing and wagering is worthy of consideration. My suggestion is that the process of making a wager is the best model to describe what is going on when we are deciding that something is the case. When we claim to have a belief, faith, trust, or even knowledge, what we ultimately have is a form of bet. This does not answer the question of how we ought to come to a belief, but my inclination is to say that this theory will help explain what these kinds of claims are, fundamentally.

There are a few “armchairish” observations sometimes taken for granted that hint at my suggestion being a good one: Assuming that humans all function the same in the following ways, 1) we use observations and cognitive processes to form beliefs; 2) we take action based on our beliefs; 3) sometimes mistakes, ambiguity, and/or external factors outside of our control cause us to be incorrect in/about our beliefs; and 4) replacing the word “belief” with “wager” in (1)-(3) results in a fairly coherent progression of thought.

Put simply, when we decide that P is true given the data we have, we are simultaneously placing a wager on P. In other words, we do not only think it is true now, but we are betting it will continue to be true as time goes on. Then, as we go about life taking action according to the wager, the proposition is tested by observations xy, z, etc. If these observations appear to connect logically and/or causally with P (if everything appears consistent), then we confirm it to some degree, and the wager is not changed. The risk adopted by the bet is that the proposition may be proven to be incorrect, and there may be some undesirable consequence as a result of the action(s) based upon the proposition.

This process is related to Jonathan Haidt’s psychological theory involving processes of the mind. He came to the conclusion that people have an initial reaction to some stimulus that consists of a snap-judgement. Then, what follows are a series of rational thoughts that he says “supports” the initial judgment. I agree with this general theory, but if we also add that it is possible for the rational thought to deny the initial judgment, the theory has an even wider application.

The nature of the game is that whenever we consider some question, we have an open field of possible truths that is narrowed whenever we rule things out based upon testing, observation, and logic. This thought isn’t new. It is reminiscent of the scientific method, which dates back to the Renaissance and early Colonial Era when it began to take shape. Most of the modern iterations of the scientific method assume that any theory is open and liable to change, not only because of more efficient and useful language, but also because the pool of data changes over time. A “wager,” I suppose, could be most analogous to a “hypothesis.” But hypotheses are more consciously contrived, and my goal for the “wager” is to be broad enough to refer to unconscious behavior, in addition to all matter of predictions, theories, and conjectures.

Note that merely “placing a bet” says nothing of my conviction in the outcome, the quality or quantity of information that is taken into account, the level of consciousness with which I make the bet, or the time-frame of my test. I may be unconsciously believing something ridiculous, or I could be making a detailed evaluation of a claim’s plausibility. Both would involve a wager of some form—a decision to hold some proposition to be true or at least to act as if it were true.

One might also point out that there are important distinctions between different kinds of wagers, namely temporal ones. There are wagers about what will happen (predictions), about what has already occurred (beliefs), and about that which is ongoing. Suppose my childhood friend and I see a squirrel darting through street, and he says, “I bet that squirrel will get hit by a car!” Our inclination would be to label this as a prediction, since the event has not yet come to pass. In continuing the story, suppose I were to respond, “I do not believe that squirrel will be hit by a car.” It seems odd at first that I would use the word “belief” for what should be another prediction.

The reason someone might make such a mistake, I think, hints at a deeper underlying theory like the one I have proposed. If both beliefs and predictions are forms of a wager, then there is an inherent predictive aspect in both of these terms. The substitution of “belief” for “prediction” is made because the character of “belief” has an inherent predictive quality about it, which makes it easily mistaken for a prediction. However, it still does not have the same set of qualities that “prediction” has. There is still room for distinction.

And the distinction is this: A prediction is a consideration of what has not yet come to pass; a belief considers what is ongoing or has passed. In my theory, they both still fall into the “wager” category. I can still comfortably replace both “I believe” and “I predict” with “I bet.”

The immediate worry that should arise is that it seems like I would be committed to saying that predictions, wagers, and beliefs are all the same thing. In response, I would say my claim is that wagers are broad enough to encompass all of these kinds of terms, and there is a predictive element to a wager. However, that element refers to a “first-order” qualification that beliefs, predictions, propositions, and the like contain in common an expectation of continued confirmation. And confirmation can only occur at points in time after a wager is made, regardless of its kind. Note that because people are continuously acting or not acting, each action must carry with it an implicit set of bets. Since this is always the case, it doesn’t seem that “beliefs” can be abstracted from “wagers.”

Secondary qualifications would make up the distinctions between the different kinds of wagers. For instance, expanding upon the distinction I made earlier: the content of a belief must be considering an ongoing or past phenomenon; the content of a prediction considers a future phenomenon.

To conclude, when we form beliefs and predictions, we are making bets on what we think is accurate. The discussion about whether we can verify knowledge globally is a bunch of bunk. It is pretty clear that sometimes we make mistakes, but our goal is to seek truth regardless. And ultimately, we all play the game. We are all cosmic gamblers.

Masochism, Economics, and Ice-Cream

Usually we are inclined to say that there is something strange about a person who enjoys pain. How could it ever make sense to like pain, to want it, or to even seek it out? Certainly, I do think it would be unhealthy for a person to treat pain as the same thing as pleasure. But I would submit that sometimes wanting pain is not abnormal. My position is that it is human nature to require some traumatic experiences. In order to substantiate this, I will examine a few theories and common examples.

Blue yin yang

Blue yin yang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, I think it would be apt to examine Taosim. There is a lot of junk about how the universe was created, but I’ll skip the incomprehensible parts and get right to the concept of Yin and Yang. The idea is of two objects, dependent upon one another such that object A could not exist without object B and vice versa. There are many things in this world that can be thought of in this way. Hot and cold is a good example. Night and day is another. One might call these things opposites.

There is a giant historical and philosophical discussion about opposites regarding the different kinds. For example, there is the distinction between those that are binary and scalar. Aristotle had his theories. Marx and Engels had their theories. I am actually going to have to set all of this aside too. All that I want to communicate is this: In our brains, we hold certain sets of concepts that consist of two interdependent ideas.

It is my contention that pain and pleasure can be placed in this category. If we need to experience some degree of pain to even understand what pleasure is, then there is some level of rationale behind the emo kid who developed a cutting habit or the codependent young woman who keeps returning to her abusive boyfriend.

But there is also a rationale behind the everyday masochistic things that we “normal” people do, up on our high horses. Why does Margie love soap operas so much? After all, they just make her cry over and over again. Why does Dusty love that feeling of working out so much? It looked like he was putting himself through a ton of stress! No pain, no gain. Why do Calvin and Sally watch slasher films every weekend? Why does Halloween even exist? Why does television media always make a spectacle out of the most terrible and shocking things? Why are you so compelled to watch?

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I don’t pretend to know how to quantify any of this. But at the very least, I am bringing an observation to light that maybe we need pain in our lives a little bit more than we think we do.

English: A supply and demand curve. The point at which the red and blue lines cross is the equilibrium price. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s look at it from a different perspective by applying the most basic law of economics: the law of supply and demand. Part of this theory states that when there is a higher quantity of something, there will be lower demand, and it will be sold at a lower price. The equilibrium is the point at which the supply and demand curves intersect, demonstrating the point at which the market is most efficient.

(This might be a bit shoddy, but bear with me.) Now let’s replace “price” on the y-axis with “value” and examine this in relation to an individual instead of a market or a firm. Suppose that I am eating ice-cream. The supply curve represents the “supplier” part of my brain that provides the urge to “sell” ice-cream to my body no matter what. The more that supplier-me values ice-cream in general, the greater the quantity it will want to shovel into my mouth. The inversely proportional curve represents the “buyer” part of my brain that provides the limit to what my body will take. This is my demand… or hunger—”demunger,” let’s say. Equilibrium represents the point at which I will eat the right amount to satisfy both my overall love for ice-cream and my current hunger.

Notice what happens as I eat more and more, traveling from left to right. Slowly my demunger goes down until it reaches equilibrium. Across the same time-line, the marginal value that I attribute to ice-cream decreases with every bite. I am wanting it less and less as my body consumes it. As I cross the equilibrium point, I am beginning to feel sick. Finally, I am expelling liquid bile-cream as the demand curve comes to an end, and quantity hits zero.

What does this say about masochism? Well, if we are talking about value and demand, we are talking about something closely related to pleasure and therefore, pain. There are things in this world we desire—our needs and wants. We place a value on those things as an attempt to quantify the degree to which they are desired (or demanded). Value is often measured by the degree of pleasure or pain that is caused. We value things that we like, and we contend that the things we dislike lack value. (This is not to say that value is entirely subjective.)

Insofar as this is the case, though, this means that we will have some interesting things happen when we replace ice-cream with pleasure in the thought experiment. Now as the quantity of pleasure increases, its value decreases. If the value of pleasure disappears, what else is there? In the absence of pleasure, there is usually pain. It makes sense that in order to continue perceiving pleasure as something that holds value, we might want to sometimes abstain from doing pleasurable things. This might even entail that we would do something painful. By this reasoning, as odd as it sounds, it would be possible for a person to want to do something painful and be justified in doing so.

It’s almost always the case that we have to give up some things, usually our time and effort (pain), in exchange for the things that will satisfy our desires (pleasure). Now imagine a world in which you get a lot of pleasure in exchange for the pain you endure. There is no war. There is very little time investment in getting sustenance to survive. Any specific information that you might want is at your fingertips. Transportation to any part of this place is available and attainable.

If you live in the United States or in a similar situation, this might sound familiar. Relative to the past and poverty-stricken countries, we don’t have to give up very much today for what we get. If you have heard of First-World-Problems, you probably already understand. With little pain and an abundance of pleasure of little value, perhaps it is no wonder that people sometimes seek out pain, whether they realize it or not.

Living Without Desire

advanced monkey folk

The conclusion: It is impossible to live as a human being without desires.

By “desires” I am including all feelings of want and need. It is a feeling in which you have an urge to do something or to obtain something.

It is impossible to live as a human being without them. Having desires is a necessary part of what it means to be a human being. There is not a possible world in which humans exist whilst simultaneously not having desires.

The reason I have taken this position is because the only cases I can envision in which a being can live as a human without having any sort of desire are cases in which it is a massive stretch to call that person a human. All things we as every-day advanced monkey folk do include desires. At first you didn’t want to get up this morning. Then you mustered the will-power to change your mind and rise. You were craving that juicy burger yesterday. You didn’t want pickle on it though. You want your significant other to be around and talk to you and make you happy. Maybe you really really desire to go to the bathroom right now, but you are inexplicably captivated by my mediocre writing style. In our normal lives, we do a bunch of things, and we explain it by pointing to this mental state called a “desire.”

Even if you decide not to do something or not to say something, it is something that you have desired to do. Anything you don’t desire to do is itself a desire not to do something.

I won’t delve into Ludwig von Mises and Human Action, but I will talk a little about humans and action in general. We all take action on the basis that we can make free, conscious decisions. We have the capability to make conscious decisions because we order things by the degree to which they are beneficial. (We want some things over other things.) The alternative in making decisions is to do so on a whim without caring for any possible resulting outcomes. However, then it wouldn’t be a conscious decision. Furthermore, to do so would require a decision in the first place to make a decision on a whim, and that would likely include a desire.

A witty retort might be to say that you could theoretically make EVERY decision on a whim. My response would be to say, “I dare you to try.”

The closest realistic example of avoiding desire that I can think of are certain Buddhist Monks (and also Trappist Monks). If I am not mistaken, the goal of Buddhism is to separate oneself from worldly desires and physical things in order to reach enlightenment. This is all well and good, but are those monks able to survive without food? Are they able to suppress the feeling of wanting the food? I have serious doubts, but in individual cases, people lose their appetites because of disgusting external stimuli and such. It wouldn’t be completely unfounded to suggest that someone could condition him/herself to suppress hunger.

Ok, let’s say that it is possible to suppress hunger. We are still left with the decision to become a monk in the first place and remain a monk. Are we to believe that they chose the life-style on a whim, or that they truly believe that it is the correct set of rules and rituals to live by? If it is the latter, then I can’t see any way that they were able to live their lives without desire. It seems there is a bit of contradiction in saying, “My desire is to separate myself from all desire.”

The other case I am imagining is that a person is in a coma and thus, incapable of having desires and making decisions. *Gasp! Does this mean the person would not be a human being? When we sleep we are not conscious! Does that mean we aren’t human when we sleep?!?

I always laugh at this one. Both the person in a coma and the sleeping person still have the capability of having desires in the long term. Just because they don’t have desires at this very moment does not make them nonhuman. For this argument to be sound, I would have to be presuming that desires were things that are constantly at the forefront of our thoughts at all times, and we need to have these “constant” desires or we aren’t human. It seems more accurate to say that they are packaged away in different parts of the brain and come together at the right moment during decision-making processes of varying levels of awareness. (Although, I will have to discuss the science later.)

A dead human body or a zombie would not have desires. But then again, I have no problem calling those things nonhuman.

Thus, I think the capability to have desires is necessary (but not sufficient) to be considered human. I will refer to this post in the future, so keep it in mind.