On understanding words like “truth”

I realize that I’ve let this project slide, but I just stumbled across an interesting post from 2012 about the nature of knowledge. I’ll just include a section that stood out to me:

From http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous/2012/10/14/agnosticism-is-irrelevant-and-untenable-part-3/ :

“We can then expect our minds to carve the plausibility state space into a handful of groups, the same way we think of objects’ sizes: minuscule, tiny, small, slight, large, massive, colossal. We should expect that this scale only really describes notions at plausibility levels close to those that matter to humans. This is to say, those which correspond to probability levels which are  relevant to our choices. It would make no real difference to you whether the weatherman said that today the chance of rain is 1/1000 or 1/10000000: you’re not bothering with the umbrella. This table illustrates how our intuitions might carve up a state space of infinitely varying values into useful bits that correspond to our implicit understanding of veracity. (and I’m calling it the Sagan Plausibility Scale).


As the index increases, the plausibility drops. Note that it expands downward infinitely without ever reaching any absolute end, just as physical sizes spiral up beyond human concern or native understanding. The scale is also logarithmic in nature, even though plausibility isn’t mathematically determinate, of course.  Somewhere between 2 and 4 is the bullshit line of demarcation (LOD). When an idea has evidence or backing in reason, it gets bumped above the LOD- this is the case even if it fails to reach 1.0. Ideas that require many dubious contingencies, seem to self-contradict, to contradict existing knowledge, or face other forms of counter-evidence get pushed downward below the LOD.

Our concepts about veracity and the words we use to represent them can now be precisely defined. Words like true, right, correct, valid, truth, factual, and reality all describe words above the LOD with stronger terms for concepts further above the line. Concepts near the line are described by terms (and associated mental confidence levels) such as possible, perhaps, maybe, might, could, etc.., Finally, concepts below the LOD are nonsense, false, untrue, invalid, wrong, incorrect, nonsense, bullshit, etc.., and again concepts further away from the LOD get the stronger terms.”

[Back to me:] I’m willing to use absolute words like “truth” outside of mathematical contexts given this understanding. There is still value in saying “forget truth,” because the vast majority of people don’t think this way.

Agnosticism is Irrelevant and Untenable, Part 3


Chapter 4 — The Immovable Movers — Part 5


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Dagny Taggart and Dan Conway continue to talk. Dan, who doesn’t want to fight any more, makes weak noises about fishing in his retirement. ‘ “Why should you worry about me?”

“It’s not about you, it’s … Dan,” she said suddenly, “I hope you know it’s not for your sake that that I wanted to help you fight.” […] “It’s not out of pity or charity or any ugly reason like that. Look, I intended to give you the battle of your life, down there in Colorado. I intended to cut into your business and squeeze you to the wall and drive you out, if necessary.”

He chuckled faintly; it was appreciation.’

Dagny eventually breaks down at one point: ‘ “Oh, God, Dan, I don’t want to be a looter!” ‘

As an aside here, I can imagine some people catcalling that last line, and that thought makes me cringe. I want to defend it. First of all, everyone should be on board with the idea that they shouldn’t benefit at the expense of others, because that’s what Dagny is saying: she doesn’t want to be handed Dan’s business by fiat, she wants to win it by being the better, more talented businessperson.

To put it a different way, imagine being a very good racer. You run well, and you want to pit yourself against the best; feeling their competition is partly what spurs you to the pinnacle of excellence yourself. Then, all of a sudden, the scheduled Olympics are cancelled, and instead everyone is receiving bronze medals through the mail. How do you feel?

To wrap the scene up: Dan revives enough to command Dagny to work hard on the Rio Norte Line, because otherwise it will be the end of Ellis Wyatt and the other “best people left in the country.” He ends by saying that it’s all on her shoulders now, and that he thinks she’s going to have a rougher time than he has had.

I’m trying to wrap my head around that last bit about helping Ellis Wyatt and the others. Either Dan (the character) is contradicting the idea that the dynamic entrepreneurs are not interested in helping other people (or at least that’s not their business motive), or Rand is not being consistent about the message here. Is it okay to do things because it will help the “best people”, rather than the looters? I’m pretty sure the message elsewhere has been that helping is not to be encouraged under any circumstances. I’m not trying to troll here, but I’m sensing a false note. We shall see if things are clarified later.

Chapter 4 — The Immovable Movers — Part 4


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Dagny Taggart and Dan Conway meet in the aftermath of the passing of the “Anti-dog-eat-dog-rule.” They don’t know each other well, but nevertheless recognize each others’ characters as dynamic entrepreneurs. As an aside, this instinctive recognition is not only a facet of Rand’s characters, but is also found in the Robert Parker Spenser novels, and I am told that Rand liked the series.

Conway has given up. He says that he promised to obey the majority (of the National Alliance of Railroads), and he’s standing by his word. Interestingly, he tells Dagny that the world is in terrible shape, and that “men have to get together.” Dagny is incensed by this attitude, and I think that her resulting speech captures one of the many burning issues in Rand’s own heart:

‘ “If that’s the price of getting together, then I’ll be damned if I want to live on the same earth with any human beings! If the rest of them can survive only by destroying us, then why should we wish them to survive? Nothing can make self-immolation proper. Nothing can give them the right to turn men into sacrificial animals. Nothing can make it moral to destroy the best. One can’t be punished for being good. One can’t be penalized for ability. If that is right, then we’d better start slaughtering one another, because there isn’t any right at all in the world!” ‘

This impassioned speech fails to rouse Dan, whom Dagny realizes is broken. ‘ “Who knows why the world is what it is?” ‘ he says. ‘ “Oh, who is John Galt?” ‘ Clearly, Rand is answering her own question — she, via the character of John Galt, knows why the world is what it is, as we will ultimately see.

I think I’ll break there.

I find this a thought-provoking scene, and speech, and it reminds me of Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron”, which features a dystopia where human equality is absolutely enforced in all ways — strong people wear weights to hold them down, smart people wear random, annoying buzzers in their ear to break up their thoughts, and so forth. I have no doubt that Rand would have supported the message behind that story.

Part of me wants to agree wholeheartedly with Dagny, here. OF COURSE it’s wrong to cater to envy in policy of any sort. OF COURSE it’s wrong to sacrifice people to benefit the rest. OF COURSE people should not be penalized for ability.

On the other hand, it seems to me that Rand is implying that any sort of law-based (i.e., force-based) restriction on economic behavior is wrong — and that the whole subject is a moral question rather than an economic one, with answers being either utterly good or bad, nothing in between. This seems to fall into the logical fallacy of the “false dilemma” — the idea that there are only two possibilities in a situation. Or, possibly, the straw man argument — she is showing the hellhole of a world that is occurring by people restricting business, so the obvious conclusion is that business should never be restricted.

This just doesn’t fit the facts. Certainly, the case can be made that bad government regulation can destroy prosperity and freedom; look at the history of the Soviet Union, for example, where Ayn Rand grew up (and that is most certainly not coincidental). However, there are also all sorts of cases of laws and regulation that give enormous benefits relative to their “cost” to freedom. For example, good regulation around prohibiting fire hazards and emergency exits is generally an extraordinarily good idea. I’m not saying that regulations can’t be idiotic, malformed, and all that — just that there is such a thing as good, desirable regulation that results in a preferable world.

To be fair, Rand (via Dagny) isn’t slamming all regulation here — she’s slamming regulation that treats some people differently from others, in effect. And to be clear, I think that the “Anti-dog-eat-dog-rule” as described in Atlas would be terrible for nearly everyone. However, I think that because of its actual ultimate effects, not because of the principle of the thing.

This post is going long, so I’ll curtail it here. I’ll try to expand on my point next time with a graphical example.

Chapter 4 — The Immovable Movers — Part 3


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Of course Dagny Taggart was right to fight the construction of the San Sebastian Line and to minimize what the railroad would waste on it, both in terms of operating service and in terms of losses if the line were to be nationalized. However, true to form, James Taggart goes to the board and promptly takes credit for her actions, citing a couple of scapegoats to be fired.

Orren Boyle meets with James to discuss the situation. Boyle confirms that Francisco d’Anconia has lost millions of dollars on the deal, which perplexes them both. James tries to get an appointment to see d’Anconia, but is refused.

An organization called the “National Alliance of Railroads” is introduced to the reader for the first time, in which the member companies agreed to abide by decisions of the majority. Apparently, all railroads in the country belong to it.

A rule is introduced and passed: the “Anti-dog-eat-dog Rule”. As I remember, this event and the resulting rule will reverberate for some time, and is an important component of the book. Rand was clearly against artificial monopolies (those supported or enforced by the state somehow) and fine with natural ones.

‘The speeches dealt only with the public welfare. It was said that while the public welfare was threatened by shortages of transportation, railroads were destroying one another through vicious competition, on “the brutal policy of dog-eat-dog.” … since the prime purpose of a railroad was public service, not profit.’

The rule is clearly primarily aimed at Dan Conway’s Phoenix-Durango railroad, and essentially grants monopoly status to the single oldest railroad in protected regions. Dan is apparently stunned by the entire proceedings.

James is exuberant that this rule will stop the ability of the Phonenix-Durango to operate in Colorado. Incidentally, although I don’t think I’ve mentioned it before (and it may not have fully come up yet in Atlas), Colorado is the one state where there are hardly any regulations, symbolic as a laissez-faire haven. In any case, Dagny is furious, calling James and his cronies “rotten bastards:”

“For the flash of one instant, she thought that here, before her, in James Taggart and in that which made him smile, was a secret she had never suspected, and it was crucially important that she learn to understand it. But the thought flashed and vanished.”

This is still another recurring theme: Rand’s bad guys operate entirely via confusion and misdirection, looking for the worst in others, making cabals and conspiracies, and hiding secrets in the shadows; and the good guys, naturally, are the opposite, taking people and their words at face value, openly either cooperating or competing in favor of their self-interest, and generally hiding nothing.

Minor spoiler:






Actually, now that I think about it, it’s interesting that John Galt and those who follow him are also operating in secret, because under normal circumstances, that would be anathema. Essentially, Galt (I really can’t call him “John” 🙂 ) is taking a play from the bad guys’ book. Hmm.

Why do the dots disappear?

Came across a wonderful optical illusion. This is another example that we must exercise caution in believing that what we see is really representative of underlying reality, because there are unavoidably subjective issues with our senses. Seeking the best possible understanding of the world requires a more sophisticated model of how and why we perceive what we perceive.

In other words, to understand as well as possible, it is imperative to know your weaknesses.

How to see it:
“But now concentrate on the central green dot. You will see one or more of the yellow dots disappearing and then reappearing sporadically. They are not—this is an optical illusion. The dots remain and your brain simply doesn’t register their presence from time to time. Weird, eh?”



Chapter 4 — The Immovable Movers — Part 2


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To wrap up the scene: Dagny Taggart, back in her apartment, reads in the newspaper that Francisco d’Anconia is in town (New York). The news obviously bothers her tremendously, especially while listening to her favorite music; yet she continues to read the article in spite of her internal voice telling her not to. It’s clear from the article that d’Anconia is leading the life of an irresponsible, morally bankrupt playboy, and we leave with a picture of Dagny silently crying to herself.

I should note in passing that d’Anconia has come into town because he “wanted to witness the farce.” This is to appearances a reference to a local millionaire’s wife who has dumped him and declared her love for d’Anconia; he claims to never deny anything.

We then move to the next day, where James Taggart is in his apartment, with a woman named Betty Pope. I don’t remember her being important, so I won’t make a tag for her, but she is clearly one of the idle, incompetent rich, born to her money and with nothing in the way of merit. It is the day after a night spent together, and it’s an ugly scene as they bicker at one another and snipe at others, albeit half-heartedly.

“The nature of their relationship had … no passion in it, no desire, no actual pleasure, not even a sense of shame. To them, the act of sex was neither joy nor sin. It meant nothing. They had heard that men and women were supposed to sleep together, so they did.”

I believe I’ll tag that with “Joy of Rand”, really because of illustrating its opposite. The villains often accuse the heroes of faults that they themselves, in fact, are afflicted with. Earlier, James said that Dagny felt no emotions, felt nothing at all, yet he in fact is the one who is without real passion or feeling.

We learn that there is a board meeting scheduled for later that day. James confides to Betty that he is going to rally the board to slap Dagny down for putting a minimum of service on the San Sebastian Line, when it’s so important to the company. However, he receives a phone call with news that is certain to be devastating to Taggart Transcontinental: the People’s State of Mexico (don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but every country outside of the U.S. is apparently a “People’s State”) has nationalized both the San Sebastian Mines and the San Sebastian Railroad.

Minor spoiler:






I expect that d’Anconia is really in town to witness the fallout from this “farce”, rather than anything to do with the married woman.

Chapter 4 — The Immovable Movers — Part 1


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The next chapter opens with Dagny Taggart, who is standing in front of the Taggart Transcontinental building and musing on the paradox (she doesn’t call it that) that to keep the building standing, immovable, it needs “motive power”. In particular, she has just finished seeing the president of the locomotive company, who is clearly not a high achiever, and can’t (or won’t) commit to delivering new engines, and shows the symptomatic evasion, reluctance, and resentment of Rand’s villains.

More bad news is waiting for her, as she finds out that the competent contractor who agreed to work on the Rio Norte line, McNamara, has unexpectedly and mysteriously quit, walking out on years worth of lucrative contracts. Stunned by the news, Dagny walks home in a daze.

At home, listening to the music of Richard Halley, Dagny reflects on Halley’s life. Typically for Rand’s heroes, Halley had struggled all of his life, working in loneliness and obscurity. His music, filled with ecstasy and heroic themes, was dismissed by critics for much of his life. Ultimately, however, he met with success, his music recognized — and also met with this:

‘ “The music of Richard Halley,” wrote a critic next morning, “belongs to mankind. It is the product and expression of the greatness of the people.” “There is an inspiring lesson,” said a minister, “in the life of Richard Halley. He has had a terrible struggle, but what does that matter? It is proper, it is noble that he should have endured suffering, injustice, abuse at the hands of his brothers — in order to enrich their lives and teach them to appreciate the beauty of great music.” ‘

Halley retired the next day, packed up, and disappeared.

I should note that his opera was about a Greek myth, with which I’m not familiar: “Phaethon” (I’m not sure how to get the proper umlaut or whatever it is over the “e”, so I’ll leave it to your imagination). In the original story, Phaethon, son of Helios, stole his father’s chariot, and perished in attempting to drive it across the sky. Halley changed the ending such that Phaethon survived and triumphed.

Two of Rand’s central themes are represented here. The first theme is joy and triumph as a reward for boldness (I’ve been told that Rand had a painting of Icarus succeeding in his flight instead of falling to his doom, IIRC, certainly a similar idea to Phaethon here). Rand not only does not believe in the concept of hubris, she outright snarls at the idea. The second theme is the idea that it is better to destroy one’s work, or at least stop doing more work, rather than having it stolen. In this case, it’s intellectual property, so it’s not being stolen in a physical sense, but the critics are stealing it by not giving Halley credit for his work and suggesting that he deserved all of the hardship he suffered, somehow.

The critics’ remarks are grotesque, no question. However, we’re back to an issue that I raised in a previous post.  Here, we’re presented with two extremes to choose from: either Halley’s music is completely his own, or it’s completely somehow the product of society and he added nothing. While clearly Halley has worked tremendously hard and made something special, I have to assume that he heard other music written and performed by other people which influenced him; at least, that’s the way this kind of thing works in real life. Does he owe them anything (in particular, does he owe them recognition, at least)? My gut says yes, even if he paid for the music that he listened to in full every time.

There’s an unresolved conceptual issue here, but I’m not having any more words for gripping with it at the moment. It will come up again, so we’ll see what happens then.

Chapter 3 — The Top and the Bottom — Part 5


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Finishing up Chapter 3.

As Dagny Taggart is leaving Taggart Transcontinental, it is a statue of her ancestor Nat Taggart that prompts her to muse about him. The statue itself, though, is worthy of description: “He held his head as if he faced a challenge and found joy in his capacity to meet it.” I haven’t listed every occurrence, but this is a common theme found throughout Atlas.

Also in passing, Eddie Willers is the only other person still working in his office. Eddie, again, represents the hard-working everyman who is not a hero, yet essentially worships one: Sam to Dagny’s Frodo, broadly speaking, although I don’t think there’s evidence of a particular love there on Dagny’s part (though certainly friendliness).

Dagny leaves and chats with the vendor at a newsstand, whom Dagny has apparently known for a long time. He collects cigarettes, and we learn that all the brands are slowly disappearing, with no new ones being made. He mentions something which has always stayed with me, a poetic vision which I’ll quote here in its entirety:

“I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of fire held in a man’s hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips. I often wonder about the hours when a man sits alone, watching the smoke of a cigarette, thinking. I wonder what great things have come from such hours. When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind — and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression.”

The conversation ends with the vendor tossing off “Who is John Galt?” and Dagny reacting sharply in dislike to the phrase.

Meanwhile, Eddie goes to the cafeteria, where he chats with an anonymous worker whom he had met several times before. This conversation is written only from the view of Eddie, as if the reader were overhearing one side of a telephone conversation. He expresses to the man how the Rio Norte line is the last hope of Taggart Transcontinental. One “McNamara” of Cleveland is the contractor who will be laying the first shipment of rail for the line, apparently another competent entrepreneur. Eddie finishes, apparently at the man’s prompting, by giving some personal details of Dagny Taggart, such as how she likes the music of Richard Halley.

Small spoiler:

Pretty sure the nameless worker was in fact John Galt, thus starting to answer the explicit question right before the scene.

And thus we wrap up Chapter 3, The Top and the Bottom. Oh, and by the way, the cafeteria is at the bottom of the Taggart Transcontinental building, making a nice symmetry with the initial scene in the bar.

The Feynman Lectures


Saw this link to the Feynman lectures on physics: http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/I_01.html

Feynman makes a statement that captures the essence of why I called this blog “Forget Truth” — it has nothing to do with Atlas being “true” or not, but rather it has to do with the nature of understanding in the first place:

“Each piece, or part, of the whole of nature is always merely an approximation to the complete truth, or the complete truth so far as we know it. In fact, everything we know is only some kind of approximation, because we know that we do not know all the laws as yet. Therefore, things must be learned only to be unlearned again or, more likely, to be corrected.

The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth.” But what is the source of knowledge? Where do the laws that are to be tested come from? Experiment, itself, helps to produce these laws, in the sense that it gives us hints. But also needed is imagination to create from these hints the great generalizations—to guess at the wonderful, simple, but very strange patterns beneath them all, and then to experiment to check again whether we have made the right guess.”

Feynman implies that we could learn the “complete truth” in the first paragraph by saying “as yet”, which I don’t agree with; it’s always possible that we could have new observations that don’t fit with any or all models that we currently have (as has happened countless times before in science). So the quest for “truth” must be eternal. But his message here certainly resonates with what I’m trying to say.

For reference, here is my entry “Why This Blog Is Called “Forget Truth”:

Chapter 3 — The Top and the Bottom — Part 4


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Resuming the childhood-to-present survey, we find out that James Taggart inherited his controlling stock in Taggart Transcontinental (and there’s an excellent reason to make inheritance taxes very high — I wonder what Rand would have thought about it?).

The man behind the San Sebastian Mines is one Francisco d’Anconia, another significant character. Apparently an amazing entrepreneur himself, called the “copper king of the world” who owned half of South America, he also has a reputation as a playboy. Arriving at the present, we learn that people are investing like mad in the Mines, in spite of a complete lack of actual data about anything of value there, because of his name alone.

Dagny and James have it out over how the railroad is pouring money into the San Sebastian Line that is desperately needed elsewhere, in particular to service Ellis Wyatt’s booming business. We learn that ten years in the past, Dagny was friends with Francisco, but she now thinks he has turned into a worthless bum.

Dagny also considers her ancestor Nat Taggart who founded the railroad. Nat never took any “loans, bonds, subsidies, land grants or legislative favors,” but rather convinced men to become investors by explaining in detail how they would make money from his work. “He never talked about the public good.”

I’ll be interested to see what Rand says when she actually discusses the concept of “public good” directly. Is it that she thinks the concept itself is logically vacuous, or that people ostensibly trying to do “public good” are really doing bad things, or what? Offhand, I would say that a “public good” is something that some section of the general population benefits from without directly being involved in a transaction. For example, an individual might be doing a public good by cleaning up the street of a few pieces of trash while walking along. There is no doubt that it’s also a “selfish” thing, in that it gives the person satisfaction, but other people benefit incidentally, too. I’m sure that many evil deeds have been papered over with the label of being a “public good” when they are no such thing, but I just don’t see that the idea has to be anathema.

[edited to correct a typo]