EconTalk — Agnes Callard

On: Philosophy, Progress and Wisdom

Episode: N/A

Date: June 22, 2020

Background: Philosopher and author.

Key Subjects:

  • Progress.
    • In science.
      • Mechanism: seeking consensus truths (“tying up loose ends”).
      • Finite search: once truths are established (and not challenged), the search ends (the subject is “finished”).
    • In philosophy.
      • Mechanism: no consensus building mechanisms.
      • Infinite search: no established truths, search continues (and widens).
    • In individual humans (virtue) or society.
      • Some positives: establishment of ethical frameworks such as universal human rights.
      • Some negatives: bad applications of principles such as utilitarianism.
      • Progress occurs when properties evolve and emerge that make doing the right thing for the group (societal good) the right thing for the individual (self-interest).
      • Certain properties require certain empirical conditions to emerge and get themselves fully appreciated.
  • Virtue.
    • Becoming accustomed or habituated to things that aren’t your narrow self-interest.
    • You come to feel that they make you better off.
    • They give you pleasure or they make you feel good about yourself.
  • Finding the right decision making tool or principle.
    • Terrible consequences are simply the sign that we pick the wrong principle or an insufficiently complex principle.
  • Solving complex problems: solvable, but no common, consensus solution.
    • Just because a problem is solvable doesn’t mean it can be solved by someone other than you.
    • You have to do the work yourself.
    • Unlike science, you can’t delegate and let others do the thinking.
    • Requires individual trial and error.
    • Creates a lot uncertainty.
    • For solving complex problems, difficult to trust anyone but yourself.
    • [See also “EconTalk — Yuval Levin”” and “EconTalk – Martin Gurri” on increasing individualism, loss of trust in experts and institutions, etc.]
  • Solving complex problems: you still need the ancients, institutions, social input.
    • We can’t do it all on our own [the limits of experiential learning].
    • Build on the things that emerge from human action, not human design [leverage social learning].
    • One mind can’t see around its own biases, prejudices and assumptions.
    • Even if you try to mitigate blind-spots, you are still governed by the same biases and assumptions.
    • You need others to ask the questions you are not asking.
    • As you test their questions and answers, you learn.
  • Universities.
    • Help you figure out what you like and you are good at and prepare for what’s next.
    • Intellectual, career, social.
    • Conversation is the way we learn: interacting with ideas and people.
  • Philosophy, science and religion all involve a faith in some type of order that reduces uncertainty.
    • Everyone believes in something.
    • Science: faith that there are known or to be known universal laws.
    • Religion: faith in God, heaven, hell, etc. through images and myths and stories.
    • Philosophy: faith in rational ideas.
  • Emergent social properties (such as norms), once established, feedback into social groups and influence individual behavior (virtue).
    • As people adopt emerging social norms, they are labeled differently in religion and philosophy.
    • Religion: for instance, the concept of original sin, what you’re not supposed to do.
    • Philosophy: replaces original sin with more rational, social, cultural conscience.
    • Requires homogeneous community.
  • Some of the most valuable things in the world are books, and music, and paintings, and ideas.

Some Additional Thoughts

  • Unlikely that human nature itself has materially changed or progressed.
  • If there is progress, it’s a delicate progress at the level of social groups.
  • As individual humans interact in social groups that are sufficiently large and homogeneous, positive social properties may emerge.
    • Justice, norms, rights, institutions, culture.
  • These emerging properties over time feedback into the social group and affect individual behavior.
    • Influence individual decision making.
    • Allow for social learning
  • If social groups are sufficiently durable, over time complexity increases.
    • Social learning allows for cultural evolution.
  • If social groups lose their cohesion, emergent properties lose their relevance.
    • Abuse by one part of the group to exploit another.
    • As differences widen, further loss of cohesion.
    • What is good on average is no longer good for the whole.
    • Utilitarian principles are not as useful any more.
    • An “above zero” decision outcome is no longer a useful indicator of societal well-being if some groups are consistently left out.

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