Choose a topic

.. Cognition
Intelligence and Motivation

.. HUM
A Mind

.. Society
Drag Story Tellers
I Distrust the News
What is to be said?

Structures of Understanding

Culture is Ordinary

AI and Art
Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Is this picture real?
NonFungible Tokens
Public Art
Tearing Down Statues
What is Art?
Working With Reality

Artificial Intelligence and the Collingridge Dilemma.
Bird Brains
Bounded Rationality
Competence Without Comprehension
Consciousness is More Like Fame Than Television
Developmental Processes
Emergence and Cognition
I Lost My Knife
Incomplete Information and Stories
Is free will an illusion?
Natural Law
Necessary Illusions
On Affordances
Pencil and Paper
Post Phenomenology
Reflective Equilibrium
Return of the Law of Forms
Shifting Meanings
Taking Things on Faith
The Hard Problem
The I Love You Gesture
The Imagined Order
The Phenomenology of Swim Bladders.
Thinking about medical procedures
Thinking About Risk
Underdetermination and Redundancy
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
What Does Google Know?

A Country Is Not Like A Company
Alternate ideas lying around waiting for disaster
Blood and Money
Can Capitalism Survive?
Do Our Minds Own Our Bodies?
Everyday Communism
Invisible Hand
Job Creators
Job Destroyers
Money and Value
Money is Different
National Accounts
Necessary Production
Paper Wealth
Post Capitalist Society
Profit Motive Fails
Rentier Capitalism
Social Wealth vs Surplus Value
Spending Money Into Existence
The Metaphysics of Money
The Ontology of Debt
Thinking about Money
Wealth is What Money Buys

Blowing Up Pipelines

Absolute Knowledge
I do not know everything
Rethinking Knowledge
Rethinking Knowledge
Semiotics and Body Language
The Curious Ineffectiveness of Facts
The Past and the Future.
Uncertainty and Unpredictability
Whatever happened to The Truth?

Competition and Cooperation
Dr Malthus would be pleased
Error Correction
Evolution Defended
Evolution is not Religion
Evolution of Cars
Forces of Nature
Is Natural Selection Obsolete?
Politics and Evolution
The Evolution of Purpose.
The Problem with Natural Selection.
The Source of Bad Behavior
Thinking about Tails
Why Does a Leopard Have Spots?

Free Speech in the age of Twitter
Freedom and Badness
Freedom and Morality
Freedom From and Freedom To
Freedom in the Age of Convoys
Libertarian Coercion

10 Views of Landscape
Affect and Effect
I pay rent.
Listening to Corn
The Reform vs Revolution Paradox
What is Public Schooling For?

Levels of Abstraction
Levels of Abstraction and Minds
What is a newspaper?

As Much As Possible
Zipfs Law

Emotional Plague
Memes: Imitated Behavior.
The Problem with Memes
What is a replicator?

Beyond Rules Based Morality
Freedom and Morality
Moral Realism.
What do we owe animals?


Maps and Territories
Metaphysics Without Absolutes
Philosophy Buds
Sincerely Held Beliefs
Sorites Paradox
Stereoscopic Vision and The Hard Problem
The Gorilla in the Room of Science
The Purpose of Science
What is Going On?

If It Walks Like a Duck
Right Wing Freedom
The Sovereign Citizen
Tyranny of the Majority


Constructed Life
Correlation Wins
Quack Doctors
The Great Shattering
The Material Space
Thinking about Interconnection
Too Small to See
Watching Pigeons
Weirdness in Physics

A society needs a government.
Belly of the Beast
Cultural Appropriation
Family Values
Griefers and Misinformation and Disinformation
Inclusion and Christmas
Open Society and Falsification
Rules in a Knife Fight?
Sex and Gender
Should We Go to Mars?
Society and The State
Spheres of Influence
The Care and Feeding of Free Speech
The Collingridge Dilemma
The Dual Meaning of Power
The Homeless
The Problem with Hedonism
To the Moon
We Live in the Present
Why is there a shortage of nurses?
Work - Productive, Useful, Worthless, and Bad.

Implications of Very Productive Technology
Modest Proposal
Problems with Universal Basic Income
Tormenting Unlucky People
Why there are oligarchs

Thinking About Risk

It's a wonder we survive

It's said that nothing is certain except death and taxes.
Risky situations are ones where the outcome is uncertain but that we want to proceed anyway - we try to predict the likelihood of various outcomes and act accordingly. Hypothetically we judge those likelihoods, and balance the likelihood of a good outcome against the costs of a bad outcome. So we buy lottery tickets that we have almost no chance of winning because the cost is low and the potential benefit is high. The cost/benefit ratio is so skewed that we don't even think of gambling as taking a risk. So not everytime we take a chance are we taking a risk.

Several times I found myself trapped in very dangerous situations where unless I did everything just right and unless everything worked out I'd be dead. At times like that I've done things I wouldn't dream of doing normally - but do we really think of doing what we have to do as taking a risk?

How does the implied calculation of risk work? Let's try to be concrete about it - say I'm on a flat roof with a building next door with a flat roof that I want to get onto. I have two options. Go down the ground and out of the building I'm in and into the other one and climb up to the roof. Or jump across the gap. If the gap is small enough there is no risk at all. But if the gap is big enough fall through then there is always a risk in crossing it. But there is a cost involved in taking the risk free course - the time and effort to go to the ground and back up.

How much of a risk are we prepared to take for the benefit of getting across?

Me? These days I'd use the stairs.

But in my youth I'd jump gaps like that for fun.
And if I was fleeing a fire I'd make the attempt even now and even if I didn't think I had much chance.

Seems fairly simple - except it's almost certainly wrong - our very cognitive processes are so biased that it is almost impossible to make accurate assessments of risk either on a personal or social level. For instance, we have an optimism bias that has been well studied by psychologists that causes us to consistently overestimate benefits and underestimate dangers.

This relates to the planning fallacy idea developed by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979 where people consistently underestimate the time to complete projects even when they have direct experience with underestimating in the past. of us who have had to to do much estimating for small consulting projects know how to overcome the planning fallacy. Calculate as carefully as you can and then double the estimate :-)
But that doesn't really work when you're thinking about risk.

For instance in my neighborhood there are a lot of gangsters who ride little bikes fast on sidewalks swarming with people weaving through the crowd. How would you quantify how risky that is? I mean - it looks really risky to me right on the face of it. I just wouldn't do it. But never in many years have I seen anything worse than close calls.

So what's going on here?

By trying to find a way to measure and quantify risk we are trying to make it objective - once you know the objective risk then that more or less determines what you should do. This is similar in a way to the way people strove for so long to find an objective morality that would tell us what to do in a situation - just do the moral calculus and then there's no question about what to do.

And that approach just never worked very well - it produces rigid moral systems that are inhumane

One of the threads in contemporary philosophy that I find very interesting is the one that is deeply informed by the idea of narrative - a story that gives a situation meaning. Narratives are the outputs of interpreters and the natural model is how our brains interpret language. But recent thinkers have been thinking about how the same physical structures that enable language interpretation also enable all sorts of interpreters. Like moral interpreters, and maybe risk interpreters.

Are we doomed if we can't accurately evaluate risk?
Perhaps we can learn something about this from the swarm of thugs on tiny bikes. They aren't calculating risks. They have confidence in their moment to moment ability to not collide with anyone. And in fact everyone else is trying not to collide with them too.

Once I was at the top of a pass in the Rockies (a few times actually) and rolled my bike down 15 mile long hills with a beautiful winding road through fabulous scenery. I didn't sit there calculating any risks. I knew I could handle whatever came up and as I whipped along at 45 mph my heart was full of joy.

But the risk was huge - a tiny rock could have wiped me out. Of course risk assessment is a very important social issue. We build these huge earthchanging systems that are known to be very dangerous. So dangerous that they are going to have problems - we're not looking at managing risk here.

And maybe talking about it in terms of risk is a subtle propaganda move on the part of industry - people that you need to take risks to win when you gamble So they can be persuaded that they can take a chance and accept the risk of an environmental disaster in return for jobs. That's exactly how the debate is being framed right now.

And the opponents of that development tend to take the line that any risk is too much. But maybe we could find a way where a society could handle dangerous situations the same way we do - by knowing the dangers but acting from moment to moment to avoid them.

What do you think?

Star I present regular philosophy discussions in a virtual reality called Second Life. I set a topic and people come as avatars and sit around a virtual table to discuss it. Each week I write a short essay to set the topic. I show a selection of them here.

I've been thinking and reading about philosophy for a long time but I'm mostly self taught. That is I've had the good fortune to read what interests me rather than follow a course of study. That has it's limits of course but advantages. It doesn't cost as much and is fun too.

My interests are things like evolution and cognition and social issues and economics and science in general.