Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Diary

I looked over Time and the Generations: Population Ethics for a Diminished Planet, by Partha Dasgupta, who is the chairman of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). The main essay is "Birth and Death," which was originally presented as the Kenneth Arrow Lecture at Columbia University in 2011. It has since been revised, and the book includes some responses. Dasgupta occupies an odd position in academia, with a primary interest in economics accompanied by an interest in philosophy, along with other areas such as climate change. I am not going to offer my normal review, because I don't want to take the time to read it carefully. Although Dasgupta's aims seem admirable, my initial reaction was that the subject matter is far more complex than can be handled effectively in economics or philosophy, and, unfortunately, this seems to me like a good example of intellectual overreach. I retain a certain mistrust of the contemporary fields of both economics and philosophy. A better starting point, I think, would be biology, which is scarcely mentioned. Dasgupta's mathematics-centric economics results in a questionable formula for deriving the optimum population for humans on the planet, and the philosophy descends from what I think of as obsolete writings on utilitarianism dating from the late nineteenth century. I wish Dasgupta luck, but this does not seem to me to be a promising avenue for solving actual world problems or, for that matter, developing interesting ideas. I think that the project is so academic and theoretical that it would be dead on arrival in policy circles. At leading universities in England, philosophy still retains a status that vastly exceeds its value, and Dasgupta apparently has been sucked into it. It is unfortunate that CSER is so completely academic in structure, because that drives away original thinkers. England's best thinkers have been scientists such as Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, not philosophers such as Bertrand Russell or economists such as John Maynard Keynes. In the U.S., philosophy is practically a dead subject, and economics is disproportionately important only because it is the academic branch of the well-funded cult of capitalism. I think that sticking to real science can provide the best picture of where the world is headed, and that picture is what is needed to produce appropriate responses. To some extent, the mathematical modeling done by Dasgupta resembles the rationalist oversimplification in the Chicago school of economics, which I discussed recently. As I've noted previously, mathematically precocious researchers tend to become disproportionately rewarded in their fields. I am reminded of the old saying, "When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

The other book I have is a collection of essays, with Partha Dasgupta as one of the three editors. The title is Biological Extinction: New Perspectives. The essays were presented at a workshop on biological extinction in 2017. Several of the contributors have scientific backgrounds, only a few have economics backgrounds and none have philosophy backgrounds, so on the whole the book is more appealing to me. I will probably comment on some of the individual essays as I read them, if that seems warranted. I became aware of both of these books because I am on a CSER email list.

Today we got about six inches of snow, and I just cleared the driveway for the first time since last winter. I am alone in the house at the moment and have been working on a project to allow William to enter and exit the house on his own. That involved installing a cat door in the basement and a wooden ramp for him to climb up to his outdoor cat house, which is located underneath a bay window. Because William is nocturnal, he is usually out during most of the night, but in winter, when it's snowy outside, he spends more time in the house and wakes me up in the middle of the night. Since he doesn't hunt as much in winter, I'm hoping that he won't start bringing live mice or other animals into the house. I am trying to help him, because it's not his fault that he's wild, and I usually get along fine with him. The other house member – the one who wanted a pet – dislikes William and would have got rid of him long ago if I hadn't taken responsibility for him. 

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