“Going Viral” in the 1500s

From “How Luther went viral” (The Economist, December 17, 2011):

The start of the Reformation is usually dated to Luther’s nailing of his “95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the church door in Wittenberg on October 31st 1517….

Although they were written in Latin, the “95 Theses” caused an immediate stir, first within academic circles in Wittenberg and then farther afield. In December 1517 printed editions of the theses, in the form of pamphlets and broadsheets, appeared simultaneously in Leipzig, Nuremberg and Basel, paid for by Luther’s friends to whom he had sent copies. German translations, which could be read by a wider public than Latin-speaking academics and clergy, soon followed and quickly spread throughout the German-speaking lands. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius later wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.”

The unintentional but rapid spread of the “95 Theses” alerted Luther to the way in which media passed from one person to another could quickly reach a wide audience. “They are printed and circulated far beyond my expectation,” he wrote in March 1518 to a publisher in Nuremberg who had published a German translation of the theses. But writing in scholarly Latin and then translating it into German was not the best way to address the wider public. Luther wrote that he “should have spoken far differently and more distinctly had I known what was going to happen.” For the publication later that month of his “Sermon on Indulgences and Grace”, he switched to German, avoiding regional vocabulary to ensure that his words were intelligible from the Rhineland to Saxony. The pamphlet, an instant hit, is regarded by many as the true starting point of the Reformation….

Modern society tends to regard itself as somehow better than previous ones, and technological advance reinforces that sense of superiority. But history teaches us that there is nothing new under the sun. Robert Darnton, an historian at Harvard University, who has studied information-sharing networks in pre-revolutionary France, argues that “the marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the internet.” Social media are not unprecedented: rather, they are the continuation of a long tradition. Modern digital networks may be able to do it more quickly, but even 500 years ago the sharing of media could play a supporting role in precipitating a revolution. Today’s social-media systems do not just connect us to each other: they also link us to the past.

Luther’s success, if it may be called that, was owed not so much to the new technology of printing as to certain constants of human nature:

1. Distant authority is more credible than a familiar source. CEOs resort to this kind of authority when they hire “expert” consultants to rubber-stamp decisions that they — the CEOs — had already reached, so as to “sell” the intended audience (board of directors, senior managers, employees) on the correctness of the decisions. More generally, what is said in print, on the air, on the internet, etc., is accepted as authoritative because it is (usually) delivered in tones of great certainty, supported by fabricated and/or cherry-picked evidence, and originates from a source that cannot be questioned directly and is (wrongly, for the most part) assumed to be authoritative.

2. Last in, last believed. There is a strong tendency to make judgments based on the most recent facts and/or opinions to which one is exposed, especially among persons with little education, persons whose education is non-scientific, and persons of below-average intelligence.

3. Confirmation bias. This is at work in almost everyone, even the “best and brightest.” A person who already leans toward a position will search out and seize upon “facts” that support the position. Distant authority plays a key role in enabling confirmation bias. And once a person finds “the answer” to something — whether the answer is communism, the welfare state, carbon-emission reductions, etc. — he becomes less prone to believe the last thing he hears. But the last thing that swayed him could well have been a speech by FDR denouncing “economic royalists” or one of Al Gore’s presentations about global warming. No mind is more closed than that of an “open minded liberal.”

A man who is not a Liberal at sixteen has no heart; a man who is not a Conservative at sixty has no head.

-– attributed to Benjamin Disraeli

What Is Truth?

There are four kinds of truth: physical, logical-mathematical, psychological-emotional, and judgmental. The first two are closely related, as are the last two. After considering each of the two closely related pairs, I will link all four kinds of truth.


Physical truth is, seemingly, the most straightforward of the lot. Physical truth seems to consist of that which humans are able to apprehend with their senses, aided sometimes by instruments. And yet, widely accepted notions of physical truth have changed drastically over the eons, not only because of improvements in the instruments of observation but also because of changes in the interpretation of data obtained with the aid of those instruments.

The latter point brings me to logical-mathematical truth. It is logic and mathematics that translates specific physical truths — or what are taken to be truths — into constructs (theories) such as quantum mechanics, general relativity, the Big Bang, and evolution. Of the relationship between specific physical truth and logical-mathematical truth, G.K. Chesterton said:

Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other. Logic is concerned merely with the fidelity and accuracy with which a certain process is performed, a process which can be performed with any materials, with any assumption. You can be as logical about griffins and basilisks as about sheep and pigs. On the assumption that a man has two ears, it is good logic that three men have six ears, but on the assumption that a man has four ears, it is equally good logic that three men have twelve. And the power of seeing how many ears the average man, as a fact, possesses, the power of counting a gentleman’s ears accurately and without mathematical confusion, is not a logical thing but a primary and direct experience, like a physical sense, like a religious vision. The power of counting ears may be limited by a blow on the head; it may be disturbed and even augmented by two bottles of champagne; but it cannot be affected by argument. Logic has again and again been expended, and expended most brilliantly and effectively, on things that do not exist at all. There is far more logic, more sustained consistency of the mind, in the science of heraldry than in the science of biology. There is more logic in Alice in Wonderland than in the Statute Book or the Blue Books. The relations of logic to truth depend, then, not upon its perfection as logic, but upon certain pre-logical faculties and certain pre-logical discoveries, upon the possession of those faculties, upon the power of making those discoveries. If a man starts with certain assumptions, he may be a good logician and a good citizen, a wise man, a successful figure. If he starts with certain other assumptions, he may be an equally good logician and a bankrupt, a criminal, a raving lunatic. Logic, then, is not necessarily an instrument for finding truth; on the contrary, truth is necessarily an instrument for using logic—for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth and for the profit of humanity. Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it. [Thanks to The Fourth Checkraise for making me aware of Chesterton’s aperçu.]

To put it another way, logical-mathematical truth is only as valid as the axioms (principles) from which it is derived. Given an axiom, or a set of them, one can deduce “true” statements (assuming that one’s logical-mathematical processes are sound). But axioms are not pre-existing truths with independent existence (like Platonic ideals). They are products, in one way or another, of observation and reckoning. The truth of statements derived from axioms depends, first and foremost, on the truth of the axioms, which is the thrust of Chesterton’s aperçu.

It is usual to divide reasoning into two types of logical process:

  • Induction is “The process of deriving general principles from particular facts or instances.” That is how scientific theories are developed, in principle. A scientist begins with observations and devises a theory from them. Or a scientist may begin with an existing theory, note that new observations do not comport with the theory, and devise a new theory to fit all the observations, old and new.
  • Deduction is “The process of reasoning in which a conclusion follows necessarily from the stated premises; inference by reasoning from the general to the specific.” That is how scientific theories are tested, in principle. A theory (a “stated premise”) should lead to certain conclusions (“observations”). If it does not, the theory is falsified. If it does, the theory lives for another day.

But the stated premises (axioms) of a scientific theory (or exercise in logic or mathematical operation) do not arise out of nothing. In one way or another, directly or indirectly, they are the result of observation and reckoning (induction). Get the observation and reckoning wrong, and what follows is wrong; get them right and what follows is right. Chesterton, again.


A psychological-emotional truth is one that depends on more than physical observations. A judgmental truth is one that arises from a psychological-emotional truth and results in a consequential judgment about its subject.

A common psychological-emotional truth, one that finds its way into judgmental truth, is an individual’s conception of beauty.  The emotional aspect of beauty is evident in the tendency, especially among young persons, to consider their lovers and spouses beautiful, even as persons outside the intimate relationship would find their judgments risible.

A more serious psychological-emotional truth — or one that has public-policy implications — has to do with race. There are persons who simply have negative views about races other than their own, for reasons that are irrelevant here. What is relevant is the close link between the psychological-emotional views about persons of other races — that they are untrustworthy, stupid, lazy, violent, etc. — and judgments that adversely affect those persons. Those judgments range from refusal to hire a person of a different race (still quite common, if well disguised to avoid legal problems) to the unjust convictions and executions because of prejudices held by victims, witnesses, police officers, prosecutors, judges, and jurors. (My examples point to anti-black prejudices on the part of whites, but there are plenty of others to go around: anti-white, anti-Latino, anti-Asian, etc. Nor do I mean to impugn prudential judgments that implicate race, as in the avoidance by whites of certain parts of a city.)

A close parallel is found in the linkage between the psychological-emotional truth that underlies a jury’s verdict and the legal truth of a judge’s sentence. There is an even tighter linkage between psychological-emotional truth and legal truth in the deliberations and rulings of higher courts, which operated without juries.


Psychological-emotional proclivities, and the judgmental truths that arise from them, impinge on physical and mathematical-logical truth. Because humans are limited (by time, ability, and inclination), they often accept as axiomatic statements about the world that are tenuous, if not downright false. Scientists, mathematicians, and logicians are not exempt from the tendency to credit dubious statements. And that tendency can arise not just from expediency and ignorance but also from psychological-emotional proclivities.

Albert Einstein, for example, refused to believe that very small particles of matter-energy (quanta) behave probabilistically, as described by the branch of physics known as quantum mechanics. Put simply, sub-atomic particles do not seem to behave according to the same physical laws that describe the actions of the visible universe; their behavior is discontinuous (“jumpy”) and described probabilistically, not by the kinds of continuous (“smooth”) mathematical formulae that apply to the macroscopic world.

Einstein refused to believe that different parts of the same universe could operate according to different physical laws. Thus he saw quantum mechanics as incomplete and in need of reconciliation with the rest of physics. At one point in his long-running debate with the defenders of quantum mechanics, Einstein wrote: “I, at any rate, am convinced that He [God] does not throw dice.” And yet, quantum mechanics — albeit refined and elaborated from the version Einstein knew — survives and continues to describe the sub-atomic world with accuracy.

Ironically, Einstein’s two greatest contributions to physics — special and general relativity — were met with initial skepticism by other physicists. Special relativity rejects absolute space-time; general relativity depicts a universe whose “shape” depends on the masses and motions of the bodies within it. These are not intuitive concepts, given man’s instinctive preference for certainty.

The point of the vignettes about Einstein is that science is not a sterile occupation; it can be (and often is) fraught with psychological-emotional visions of truth. What scientists believe to be true depends, to some degree, on what they want to believe is true. Scientists are simply human beings who happen to be more capable than the average person when it comes to the manipulation of abstract concepts. And yet, scientists are like most of their fellow beings in their need for acceptance and approval. They are fully capable of subscribing to a “truth” if to do otherwise would subject them to the scorn of their peers. Einstein was willing and able to question quantum mechanics because he had long since established himself as a premier physicist, and because he was among that rare breed of humans who are (visibly) unaffected by the opinions of their peers.

Such are the scientists who, today, question their peers’ psychological-emotional attachment to the hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The questioners are not “deniers” or “skeptics”; they are scientists who are willing to look deeper than the facile hypothesis that, more than two decades ago, gave rise to the AGW craze.

It was then that a scientist noted the coincidence of an apparent rise in global temperatures since the late 1800s (or is it since 1975?) and an apparent increase in the atmospheric concentration of CO2. And thus a hypothesis was formed. It was embraced and elaborated by scientists (and others) eager to be au courant, to obtain government grants (conveniently aimed at research “proving” AGW), to be “right” by being in the majority, and — let it be said — to curtail or stamp out human activities which they find unaesthetic. Evidence to the contrary be damned.

Where else have we seen this kind of behavior, albeit in a more murderous guise? At the risk of invoking Hitler, I must answer with this link: Nazi Eugenics. Again, science is not a sterile occupation, exempt from human flaws and foibles.


What is truth? Is it an absolute reality that lies beyond human perception? Is it those “answers” that flow logically or mathematically from unproven assumptions? Is it the “answers” that, in some way, please us? Or is it the ways in which we reshape the world to conform it with those “answers”?

Truth, as we are able to know it, is like the human condition: fragile and prone to error.

The Psychologist Who Played God

UPDATED 02/12/14 (related reading and related posts added)

There’s a story at Slate titled “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Here are some key passages:

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was gripped by an eccentric plan. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change….

…Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost contact with their original identities, and wondered if a man’s sense of self might be challenged in a controlled setting…. This … led Rokeach to orchestrate his meeting of the Messiahs and document their encounter in the extraordinary (and out-of-print) book from 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti….

[T]he book makes for starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde in the service of academic curiosity….

In hindsight, the Three Christs study looks less like a promising experiment than the absurd plan of a psychologist who suffered the triumph of passion over good sense. The men’s delusions barely shifted over the two years, and from an academic perspective, Rokeach did not make any grand discoveries concerning the psychology of identity and belief. Instead, his conclusions revolve around the personal lives of three particular (and particularly unfortunate) men. He falls back—rather meekly, perhaps—on the Freudian suggestion that their delusions were sparked by confusion over sexual identity, and attempts to end on a flourish by noting that we all “seek ways to live with one another in peace,” even in the face of the most fundamental disagreements. As for the ethics of the study, Rokeach eventually realized its manipulative nature and apologized in an afterword to the 1984 edition: “I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.”

Rokeach — the psychologist who played God — belonged to a coterie of left-wing psychologists who strove to portray conservatism as aberrant, and to equate it with authoritarianism. This thesis emerged in The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is how Alan Wolfe, who seems sympathetic to the thesis of The Authoritarian Personality, describes its principal author:

Theodor Adorno … was a member of the influential Frankfurt school of “critical theory,” a Marxist-inspired effort to diagnose the cultural deformities of late capitalism.

I was first exposed to Adorno’s conservatism-as-authoritarianism thesis in a psychology course taught by Rokeach around the time he was polishing a complementary tome, The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems (related links). The bankruptcy of the Adorno-Rokeach thesis has been amply documented. (See this and this, for example.) The question is why academic leftists like Adorno and Rokeach would go to such pains to concoct an unflattering portrait of conservatives.

Keep in mind, always, that modern “liberals” are anything but liberal, in the classical sense. (See this and this, and be sure to consult Jonah Goldberg’s former blog, Liberal Fascism.) Modern “liberals” are authoritarian to the core, as is evident in the state to which they have brought us. They nevertheless persist in believing — and proclaiming — themselves to be friends of liberty, even as they seek to dictate how others should live their lives. They deny what they are because they know, deep down, that they are what they profess to abhor: authoritarians.

A classic way to resolve a deep psychological conflict of that kind is to project one’s own undesired traits onto others, especially onto one’s social and political enemies. That, I maintain, is precisely what Adorno, Rokeach, and their ilk have done in The Authoritarian Personality, The Open and Closed Mind, and similar tracts. And that, I maintain, is precisely what “liberals” do when they accuse conservatives of base motivations, such as racism and lack of empathy. Nothing is more racist than “liberal” condescension toward blacks; nothing is more lacking in empathy than “liberal” schemes that deprive blameless individuals of jobs (affirmative action) and prevent hard-working farmers and business-owners from passing their farms and businesses intact to their heirs (the estate tax). Nothing is more authoritarian than modern “liberalism.”

Milton Rokeach, rest his soul, acknowledged his penchant for authoritarianism, at least  in the case of the “Three Christs.” If only the “liberals” who govern us — and the “liberals” who cheer them on — would examine their souls, find the authoritarianism within, and root it out.

That will be a cold day in hell.

*     *     *

Related reading:
James Lindgren, “Who Fears Science?,” March 2012
John J. Ray, “A Counterblast to ‘Authoritarianism’,” Dissecting Leftism, December 20, 2013
James Lindgren, “Who Believes That Astrology Is Scientific?,” February 2014

Related posts:
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and the “Authoritarian Personality”
The F Scale, Revisited

The “Big Five” and Economic Performance

The “Big Five” doesn’t comprise Honda, Toyota, Ford, GM, and Chrysler (soon to become the become the “Big Four”: Honda, Toyota, Ford, and GM-Chrysler-Obama Inc.). The “Big Five” refers to the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

I discussed the Big Five at length here, and touched on them here. Now comes Arnold Kling, with an economic analysis of the Big Five, which draws on Daniel Nettle’s Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are. Kling, in the course of his post, discusses Nettle’s interpretations of the Big Five.

Regarding Openness, Kling quotes Nettle thusly:

Some people are keen on reading and galleries and theatre and music, whilst others are not particularly interested in any of them. This tendency towards greater exploration of all complex recreational practices is uniquely predicted by Openness….

High Openness scorers are strongly drawn to artistic and investigative professions, and will often schew traditional institutional structure and progression in order to pursue them.

Precisely. For example,  a high Openness scorer (93rd percentile) progressed from low-paid analyst (with a BA in economics) to well-paid VP for finance and administration (with nothing more than the same BA in economics), stopping along the way to own and run a business and manage groups of PhDs. The underlying lesson: Education is far less important to material success than intellectual flexibility (high Openness), combined with drive (high Conscientiusness and Neuroticism), and focus (low Extraversion and Agreeableness).

Kling says this about Conscientiousness (self-discipline and will power):

I think that people with low Conscientiousness annoy me more than just about any other type of people.

Me, too (Conscientiousness score: 99th percentile). I find it hard to be around individuals who always put off until tomorrow what they could do in a minute, who never read or return the books and DVDs you lend them, who are always ready to excuse failings (theirs and others), and who then try to cast their lack of organization (and resulting lack of personal accomplishment) as a virtue: “Life is too short to sweat the small stuff.” Yeah, but you never sweat the big stuff, either; look at the state of your house and your bank account. The small stuff and big stuff come in a single package.

According to Kling, “Nettle thinks of Extraversion as something like lust for life, sensation-seeking, and ambition.” More from Nettle:

We should be careful in equating Extraversion with sociability… shyness is most often due to … high Neuroticism and anxiety….

…The introvert is, in a way, aloof from the rewards of the world, which gives him tremendous strength and independence from them.

Right on, says this introvert (Extraversion score: 4th percentile).

Kling says this about Agreeableness:

To be agreeable, you have to be able to “mentalize” (read the feelings of others, which autistic people have trouble doing) and empathize (that is, care about others’ feelings, given that you can read them. Sociopaths can read you, but they don’t mind making you feel bad.)

On average, women are more agreeable than men. That is why Peter Thiel may have been onto something when he said that our country changed when women got the right to vote. If people project their personalities onto politics, and if agreeability goes along with more socialist policies, then giving women the right to vote should make countries more socialist.

Thiel is on to something. Although socialism gained a foothold in the U.S. during TR’s reign (i.e., long before the passage of Amendment XIX to the Constitution), it’s important to note that women were prominent agitators and muck-rakers in the early 1900s. Among other things, women were the driving force behind Prohibition. That failed experiment can now be seen as an extremely socialistic policy; it attempted to dictate a “lifestyle” choice, just as today’s socialists try to dictate  “lifestyle” choices about what we smoke, eat, drive, say, etc. — and with too-frequent success. If socialism isn’t a “motherly” attitude, I don’t know what is. (Full disclosure, my Agreeableness score is 4th percentile. Just leave me alone and I’ll live my life quite well, without any help from government, thank you.)

Finally, there’s Neuroticism, about which Nettle says:

There are motivational advantages of Neuroticism. There may be cognitive ones too. It has long been known that, on average, people are over-optimistic about the outcomes of their behaviour, especially once they have a plan… This is well documented in the business world, with its over-optimistic growth plans, and also in military leadership, where it is clear that generals are routinely over-sanguine about their likely progress and under-reflective about the complexities….

…Professional occupations are those that mainly involve thinking, and it is illuminating that Neuroticism tended to be advantageous in these fields and not in, say, sales.

Neuroticism (also known as Emotional Stability) is explained this way by an organization that administers the “Big Five” test:

People low in emotional stability are emotionally reactive. They respond emotionally to events that would not affect most people, and their reactions tend to be more intense than normal. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. Their negative emotional reactions tend to persist for unusually long periods of time, which means they are often in a bad mood. These problems in emotional regulation can diminish a ones ability to think clearly, make decisions, and cope effectively with stress.

Take a person who is low in Emotional Stability (my score: 12th percentile), low in Extraversion, but high in Conscientiousness and Openness. Such a person is willing and able to tune out the distractions of the outside world, and to channel his drive and intellectual acumen in productive, creative ways — until he finally says “enough,” and quits the world of work to enjoy the better things in life.

Freedom of Will and Political Action


Without freedom of will, human beings could not make choices, let alone “good” or “bad” ones. Without freedom of will there would be no point in arguing about political philosophies, for — as the song says — whatever will be, will be.

This post examines freedom of will from the vantage point of indeterminacy. Instead of offering a direct proof of freedom of will, I suggest that we might as well believe as if and act as though we possess it, given our inability to delve the depths of the physical universe or the human psyche.

Why focus on indeterminacy? Think of my argument as a variant of Pascal’s wager, which can be summarized as follows:

Even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.

Whatever its faults — and it has many — Pascal’s wager suggests a way out of an indeterminate situation.

The wager I make in this post is as follows:

  • We cannot discern the deepest physical and psychological truths.
  • Therefore, we cannot say with certainty whether we have freedom of will.
  • We might as well act as if we have freedom of will; if we do not have it, our (illusory) choices cannot make us worse off, but if we do have it our choices may make us better off.

The critical word in the conclusion is “may.” Our choices may make us better off, but only if they are wise choices. It is “may” which gives weight to our moral and political choices. The wrong ones can make us worse off; the right ones, better off.


Our Inherent Limitations as Humans

I begin with the anthropic principle, which (as summarized and discussed here),

refers to the idea that the attributes of the universe must be consistent with the requirements of our own existence.

In fact, there is no scientific reason to believe that the universe was created in order that human beings might exist. From a scientific standpoint, we are creatures of the universe, not its raison d’etre.

The view that we, the human inhabitants of Earth, have a privileged position is a bias that distorts our observations about the universe. Philosopher-physicist-mathematician Nick Bostrom explains the bias:

[T]here are selection effects that arise not from the limitations of some measuring device but from the fact that all observations require the existence of an appropriately positioned observer. Our data is [sic] filtered not only by limitations in our instrumentation but also by the precondition that somebody be there to “have” the data yielded by the instruments (and to build the instruments in the first place). The biases that occur due to that precondition … we shall call … observation selection effects….

Even trivial selection effects can sometimes easily be overlooked:

It was a good answer that was made by one who when they showed him hanging in a temple a picture of those who had paid their vows as having escaped shipwreck, and would have him say whether he did not now acknowledge the power of the gods,—‘Aye,’ asked he again, ‘but where are they painted that were drowned after their vows?’ And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happens much oftener, neglect and pass them by. (Bacon 1620)

When even a plain and simple selection effect, such as the one that Francis Bacon comments on in the quoted passage, can escape a mind that is not paying attention, it is perhaps unsurprising that observation selection effects, which tend to be more abstruse, have only quite recently been given a name and become a subject of systematic study.

The term “anthropic principle” … is less than three decades old. There are, however, precursors from much earlier dates. For example, in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, one can find early expressions of some ideas of anthropic selection effects. Some of the core elements of Kant’s philosophy about how the world of our experience is conditioned on the forms of our sensory and intellectual faculties are not completely unrelated to modern ideas about observation selection effects as important methodological considerations in theory-evaluation, although there are also fundamental differences. In Ludwig Boltzmann’s attempt to give a thermodynamic account of time’s arrow …, we find for perhaps the first time a scientific argument that makes clever use of observation selection effects…. A more successful invocation of observation selection effects was made by R. H. Dicke (Dicke 1961), who used it to explain away some of the “large-number coincidences”, rough order-of-magnitude matches between some seemingly unrelated physical constants and cosmic parameters, that had previously misled such eminent physicists as Eddington and Dirac into a futile quest for an explanation involving bold physical postulations.

The modern era of anthropic reasoning dawned quite recently, with a series of papers by Brandon Carter, another cosmologist. Carter coined the term “anthropic principle” in 1974, clearly intending it to convey some useful guidance about how to reason under observation selection effects….

The term “anthropic” is a misnomer. Reasoning about observation selection effects has nothing in particular to do with homo sapiens, but rather with observers in general…

We humans, as the relevant observers of the physical world, can perceive only those patterns that we are capable of perceiving, given the wiring of our brains and the instruments that we design with the use of our brains. Because of our inherent limitations, the limitations that our limitations impose on our instruments, and the inherent limitations of the instruments, we may never be able to see all that there is to see in the universe, even in that part of the universe which is close at hand.

We may never know, for example, whether physical laws change or remain the same in all places and for all time. We may never know (as a matter of scientific observation) how the universe originated, given that its cause(s) (whether Divine or otherwise) may lie outside the boundaries of the universe.

Implications for the Physical Sciences

It follows that the order which we find in the universe may bear no resemblance to the real order of the universe. It may simply be the case that we are incapable of perceiving certain phenomena and the physical laws that guide them, which — for all we know — may change from place to place and time to time.

A good case in point involves the existence of God, which many doubt and many others deny. The doubters and deniers are unable to perceive the existence of God, whereas many believers claim that they can do so. But the inability of doubters and deniers to perceive the existence of God does not disprove God’s existence, as an honest doubter or denier will admit.

It is trite but true to say that we do not know what we do not know; that is, there are unknown unknowns. Given our limitations as observers, the universe likely contains many unknown unknowns that will never become known unknowns.

Given our limitations, we must make do with our perceptions of the universe. Making do means that we learn what we are able to learn (imperfectly) about the universe and its components, and we then use our imperfect knowledge to our advantage wherever possible. (A crude analogy occurs in baseball, where a batter who doesn’t understand why a curveball curves is nevertheless able to hit one.)


The tautologous assumption that individuals act in such a way as to maximize their happiness tells us nothing about political or economic outcomes. (The assumption remains tautologous despite altruism, which is nothing more than another way of enhancing the happiness of altruistic individuals.) We can know nothing about the likely course of political and economic events until we know something about the psychological drives that shape those events. Even if we know something (or a great deal) about psychological drives, can we ever know enough to say that human behavior is (or is not) deterministic? The answer I offer here is “no.”

A Conflict of Visions

Economic and political behavior depends greatly on human psychology. For example, Thomas Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions, posits two opposing visions: the unconstrained vision (I would call idealism) and the constrained vision (which I would call realism). At the end of chapter 2, Sowell summarizes the difference between the two visions:

The dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions is based on whether or not inherent limitations of man are among the key elements included in each vision…. These different ways of conceiving man and the world lead not merely to different conclusions but to sharply divergent, often diametrically opposed, conclusions on issues ranging from justice to war.

Thus, in chapter 5, Sowell writes:

The enormous importance of evolved systemic interactions in the constrained vision does not make it a vision of collective choice, for the end results are not chosen at all — the prices, output, employment, and interest rates emerging from competition under laissez-faire economics being the classic example. Judges adhering closely to the written law — avoiding the choosing of results per se — would be the analogue in law. Laissez-faire economics and “black letter” law are essentially frameworks, with the locus of substantive discretion being innumerable individuals.

By contrast,

those in the tradition of the unconstrained vision almost invariably assume that some intellectual and moral pioneers advance far beyond their contemporaries, and in one way or another lead them toward ever-higher levels of understanding and practice. These intellectual and moral pioneers become the surrogate decision-makers, pending the eventual progress of mankind to the point where all can make moral decisions.

Digging Deeper

Sowell’s analysis is enlightening, but not comprehensive. The human psyche has many more facets than political realism and idealism. Consider the “Big Five” personality traits:

In psychology, the “Big Five” personality traits are five broad factors or dimensions of personality developed through lexical analysis. This is the rational and statistical analysis of words related to personality as found in natural-language dictionaries.[1] The traits are also referred to as the “Five Factor Model” (FFM).

The model is considered to be the most comprehensive empirical or data-driven enquiry into personality. The first public mention of the model was in 1933, by L. L. Thurstone in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association. Thurstone’s comments were published in Psychological Review the next year.[2]

The five factors are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN, or CANOE if rearranged). Some disagreement remains about how to interpret the Openness factor, which is sometimes called “Intellect.” [3] Each factor consists of a cluster of more specific traits that correlate together. For example, extraversion includes such related qualities as sociability, excitement seeking, impulsiveness, and positive emotions.

The “Big Five” model is open to criticism, but even assuming its perfection we are left with an unpredictable human psyche. For example, I tested myself (here), with the following results:

Extraversion — 4th percentile
Agreeableness — 4th percentile
Conscientiousness — 99th percentile
Emotional stability — 12th percentile
Openness — 93rd percentile

(NOTE: “Emotional stability” is also called “neuroticism,” “a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability.” My “neuroticism” doesn’t involve anxiety, except to the extent that I am super-conscientious and, therefore, bothered by unfinished business. Nor does it involve depression or vulnerability. But I am easily angered by incompetence, stupidity, and carelessness. There is far too much of that stuff in the world, which explains my low scores on “extraversion” and “agreeableness.” “Openness” measures my intellectual openness, of course, and not my openness to people.)

I daresay that anyone else who happens to have the same scores as mine (which are only transitory) will have arrived at those scores by an entirely different route. That is, he or she probably differs from me on many of the following dimensions: age, race, ethic/genetic inheritance, income and education of parents and self, location of residence, marital status, number and gender of children (if any), tastes in food, drink, and entertainment. The list could go on, but the principle should be obvious: There is no accounting for psychological differences, or if there is, the accounting is beyond our ken.

Is everyone with my psychological-genetic-demographic profile a radical-right-minarchist like me? I doubt it very much. But even if that were so, it would be impossible to collect the data to prove it, whereas the (likely) case of a single exception would disprove it.

A Caveat, of Sorts

There is something in the human psyche that seems to drive us toward statism. What that says about human nature is almost trite: Happiness — for many humans — involves neither not wealth-maximization or liberty. It involves attitudes that can be expressed as “safety in numbers,” “going along with the crowd,” and “harm is worse than gain.” And it involves the political manipulation of those attitudes in the service of a drive that is not universal but which can dominate events, namely, the drive to power.


The preceding caveat notwithstanding, I have made the case that I set out to make:

We might as well act as if we have freedom of will; if we do not have it, our (illusory) choices cannot make us worse off, but if we do have it our choices may make us better off.

In fact, the caveat points to the necessity of acting as if we have freedom of will. Only by doing so can we hope to overcome the psychological tendencies that cause us political and economic harm. For those tendencies are just that — tendencies. They are not iron rules of conduct. And they have been overcome before.