Category Archives: Ramblings

Donald Trump Redux: Evil, Stupid, or Crazy?

It seems I’ve managed to strike a chord. Over the last few weeks, my post Donald Trump: Evil, or Just Stupid? has been receiving a steady stream of visitors, which has basically never happened before. Additionally (based on referring search terms), a lot of people who end up on that article are also wondering whether or not Trump is crazy, a question my original post did not address. Since this is something people are interested in, and since the original was fairly specific to the time it was written, here’s an update.

Let’s start with the possibility that Trump is crazy. That depends heavily on what we mean by “crazy”, which tends to be a pretty broad term. If we take it to mean anything clinical or medically formalized then he’s pretty unambiguously not crazy. He may not be the most well-adjusted person in the world, but he’s a far far cry from that kind of crazy.

Another more colloquial definition of crazy that might fit is that he believes some things which are not true. While he certainly has some weird beliefs, I would tend to be lenient on this point as well. After all, 260 million people believe in god – and if you don’t think that’s a crazy belief, 28 million do not. One of those groups must be wrong. Maybe on this definition he is crazy, but if so he’s hardly alone.

A third definition of crazy that tends to come up a lot is simply as a synonym for “foolish” or “stupid”. So let’s revisit my previous post. This was my effective conclusion in that piece, however uncertain I was:

Trump is a garden-variety idiot whose incompetence and rhetoric has led the US to a potential civil war by accident. Because we are imagining a final destination, the steps taken down the path look intentional even when they’re not.

I like to think that the last month or so has borne me out on this point. While the Trump administration has still had more than its share of bumps and weird decisions, there has not been nearly as much of the breakdown of order that seemed so plausibly like the intentional dismantling of the United States.

So, again, I encourage you to take heart from the most likely explanation: Trump is a lucky moron. The US will in all probability remain a democratic republic and will head into the 2020 election scarred, but alive and kicking.

In the mean-time, liberals have a lot of work to do.

Donald Trump: Evil, or Just Stupid?

It’s been quite interesting to see two competing narratives emerge in the liberal media in the past few weeks. The seeds of this split have been present since the Republican primary last year, but Trump’s first few weeks in office have thrown it into sharp relief. His first acts and executive orders might have been expected to “pick a winner” and prove out one of the two theories, but instead we are left with still more questions.

What is the million dollar question then? It’s simple: is Trump (or Steve Bannon, or whoever is whispering in his ear most of the time) evil, or just stupid?

Jake Fuentes makes a reasonable argument for “evil”, and the same sentiment can be found less clearly expressed in a number of places advocating for violent resistance and protest. Others, such as author John Scalzi, view the last week of chaos as the product of stupidity, not “11-dimensional super-chess political moves”. Scott Alexander spends a lot of time dumping on Trump and then concludes that despite his other short-comings, “he does not… take marching orders from the KKK”.

I find a lot of the arguments on both sides unconvincing. Hanlon’s razor (“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, probably since there is a lot more stupidity than malice in the world) suggests that stupid should be our default assumption. From that perspective it is hard to see the Trump administration’s actions as anything more than bumbling incompetence. However the argument baked into this position is that because Trump is incompetent, he can’t also be evil. He’s greedy and lazy, sure, and a garden-variety racist, but not actually a true-believer Nazi.

This isn’t really convincing to me because it doesn’t appear to adequately explain the sequence of events surrounding e.g. the DHS’s organized defiance of a federal injunction. When layed out one after the next, it seems like an awfully extreme coincidence for bumbling incompetency to have sent the United States so cleanly down the path to a fascist coup d’état. On the other hand, pretty much everything else Trump and his administration have tried has seemed like one gross mis-step after the next, and it would be weird for them to be so methodical with their fascism and so sloppy with everything else.

So which is it? It could, I suppose be both. Trump (or more likely Bannon) is a legitimate fascist planning a coup and kind of a moron, one who just happens to have gotten lucky on all the things that really matter. But this still seems unlikely; a better explanation would be that luck is running the other way: Trump is a garden-variety idiot whose incompetence and rhetoric has led the US to a potential civil war by accident. Because we are imagining a final destination, the steps taken down the path look intentional even when they’re not.

In the end, it may not matter. Contrary to popular aphorism, this is a case where the destination matters a lot more than the journey we took to get there. Even on the still-decent odds that the US remains a liberal and democratic republic, the rule of law will continue to be sorely tried, and from those stress fractures will bleed human rights.

Take heart from the most likely explanation: if Trump is just a lucky moron, then at least nobody in power is actively trying to dismantle the United States. Who knows, there’s a tiny chance somebody in the inner circle might actually realize the effect their policies are having and put a stop to the madness.

And even if they don’t, nobody’s luck lasts forever.

Edit: I wrote a follow-up post here.

On Spandrels, and Intrinsic Value

just finished writing a post and now I’m writing another one, what madness is this? I’m writing this as kind of a very-very-extended footnote to that post, since I couldn’t figure out how to write actual footnotes in the WordPress editor.

Specifically, I want to explain briefly the way I used the word spandrel in that post, since it is not a common usage, and may in fact be a usage I simply made up. I like it.

Originally, a spandrel was an architectural term for the space between an arch and its enclosing frame. In more recent times it has been borrowed by biologists to mean a biological characteristic which evolved as the byproduct of some other adaptive characteristic, and so may not necessarily be adaptive itself.

In my previous post I borrowed it yet again, by referring to the idea of intrinsic value as “a spandrel of human cognitive architecture”. The spirit of the definition should hopefully now be obvious and follows the biological one fairly closely except in that I am referring to thoughts and cognitive architectures instead of genetics and evolution. You may even take my usage to be memetic spandrels (as opposed to the genetic spandrels of the biological definition) though that honestly feels a bit stretched.

The most confusing part of this whole thing is that there are fairly obvious ways in which intrinsic values can be adaptive in an evolutionary psychology sense. Let’s try this again.

Go read How An Algorithm Feels From Inside. That central node in the second neural network diagram, the “dangling unit”, is a spandrel of human cognitive architecture. Just as it feels like there’s a leftover question even when you know a falling tree made acoustic vibrations but not auditory experience, it feels like there’s a leftover thing-in-need-of-value even when all your instrumental values have been accounted for.

Charles Taylor, Iris Murdoch, and Me

For Christmas this year I received a collection of essays by Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (specifically the Harvard University Press edition of Dilemmas and Connections, 2011). Thus far I have only managed to read the first essay, Iris Murdoch and Moral Philosophy, though I’ve now been through it a handful of times. Taylor’s writing can be dense. Still, the essay raises an interesting problem.

Much of the essay deals with the possibility of axiomatic value (in the moral sense) beyond simple human life, in a form that may not be explicitly religious but is at least deeply spiritual. It is a meandering, fascinating path being explored that clearly is intended to end in religion in some later essay (Taylor is a practicing Roman-Catholic) but none-the-less drew me along a lot farther than I was expecting. I have to acknowledge the pull of some kind of value beyond the secular-humanist: the feeling that may lead a man to religion, or rebellion. It seems undeniable that within many (most? all?) people is this half-felt, unexpressed need for some sort of higher cause.

My instinctive philosophical response, as might be expected by those who’ve read my previous posts, is (over-simplified) an extension of Hume’s Guillotine. A feeling is not a true gap in our metaphysics, and in this case is like any other claim (or question) of intrinsic value: the byproduct of a spandrel of human cognitive architecture rather than anything real in the world.

Here is where my hypothetical interlocutor pounces (this was originally a conversation I had with myself; I’m not crazy, I swear). The guillotine cuts away all intrinsic values, and yet my life is lived by a certain set of these values, the ones more-or-less described by the term secular-humanist. Given my commitment to the truth, there is a conflict, a cognitive dissonance, at play here:

Is it inconsistent to live by a set of values while denying instrinsic value so brutally at a philosophical level?

If it is inconsistent, then by what means shall I make decisions? The resulting life guided by no intrinsic values at all seems incoherent and unlivable. Even the thesis of this direction is incomprehensible, for am I not intrinsically valuing truth and logical consistency in order to reject my secular-humanist values as inconsistent in the first place? I can make no further progress in this branch.

If it is not inconsistent, then by what right do I reject religion? It has no more grounding in empirical truth than my secular-humanist values. Even Occam’s Razor glances off, since I have already admitted to the pull of some kind of transcendental belief. And if I am to add a ninth axiom to the set of eight with which I opened this blog, then on what basis do I choose between secular-humanism, Christianity, Buddhism, or some other far weirder set of ethical values?

I have no answers yet.