Archives for category: Semiotics

The idea that truth-value is proven by use-value seems to rest upon a meta-meme, the notion that ideas firmly fit together in a tight system, that there is no looseness to the world.

It is my experience that there is a fair amount of looseness.

Nevertheless, I understand why we seek to make our beliefs fit together; avoiding cognitive dissonance is a good thing. But avoiding such dissonance should not be hastily accomplished, using short cuts that scuttle truth. Seeking cognitive consonance mainly by hunting to confirm previously held beliefs? That can lead us to error and prevent correction. Worse yet may be constructing theories that succeed not by mapping reality but by skipping cognitive steps. (My late boss R. W. Bradford called these “logical synapses.’ Though it may indeed be the case that bad ideas tend to lead to bad results, cooking up theories just to lead to good consequences can be perilous. The notion that something must be wrong because it leads to “bad consequences” is not only wrong, it can lead to bad consequences.

Too droll, that.

Examples abound. The belief in your own superiority may not be true, not in your career’s beginning — but it can lead to actual superiority, as in the case of “thinking like a winner” itself wins friends and followers, enabling you to become a winner in the end. Alas, the opposite can also be the case, as when an untrue belief in your inferiority can lead to demonstrable inferiority of status — thinking like a loser and appearing as a loser, despite many advantages, can derail an otherwise likely successful course of action, causing you to lose.

Sometimes having an incorrect belief can yield good outcomes; sometimes it can yield disastrous ones. What’s more, the same incorrect belief held by one person that serves to damage can prove helpful to another. Some people who believe they are spectacularly inferior to others take that hunch or prejudice as a spur to work harder, think harder, and place themselves in positions to take advantage of improvement. Just so, but mirror-opposite, are those many cases of people with high esteem who becomes criminals and thereby ruin their lives.

This variety of looseness turns out to be important in evolutionary theory.

Exaptation, for instance. This is a type of adaptation that Herbert Spencer relied upon in his discussion of the evolution of political institutions (see the first chapter of Political Institutions). The idea is this: a trait that was selected for — or arose because it was not selected against — can turn out to have much more significant advantages in some remote domain. The classic case seems to be in religion, where it appears that holding any “religious” or even merely metaphysical idea (such as the idea of truth not being logically and ineluctably linked to pragmatics) gives the person who holds to the belief a marker that encourages others to regard that religious person as more trustworthy than irreligious others. One person may hold to the belief in Zeus Pater and another in YHWH and another of Ishtar, but all three beliefs signal to co-religionists that the acolyte is cooperative and thus not anti-social.

The fact that piety to these three very different deities “works” — lead to good social results — does not prove that any of these deities exist.

What gets weird is the late-stage recognition that piety alone matters, that belief in some god is important, but which particular one does not. This ecumenical theory leads to a general tolerance, with only atheism to be despised, since only it would serve as a signal of a lack of trustworthiness. But things tend not to stand pat: general toleration eventually leads to tolerance of atheism.

And, contra The Jolly Heretic (anthropologist Edward Dutton on YouTube), it is obvious that a serious atheistic stance can also work as a signal of cooperativeness. Indeed, in America, atheists sport longer marriages than theists, on average — thus atheism proves a key indicator of what religion itself is supposed to indicate.

Perhaps what matters is that self-transcendence notion. Merely demonstrating recognition of one’s self as a being with a non-trivial consciousness of the cosmos (with or without supernatural elements) signals not only to others, but also to self, that selfishness and criminality and similar traits are dead ends. Furthermore, atheism in a theistic society may indicate a greater commitment to self-transcendence than does theism. (Here we see self-transcendence competing directly with conformism — conformity signaling one kind of cooperativeness, commitment to transcendent ideas signaling another, perhaps more valuable variety.)

Of course, there are atheists who hold to their atheism in a way that signals to me STAY AWAY. Just so, however, there are theists whose manners of belief signal obvious dangers. I think of Islam as a memeplex with disastrous social consequences except in one dimension: the Islamic memes tend to replicate, often in a predatory way. The modern world succeeded because Europe found a workaround for the bottleneck of Islam: America, really. So we have several different dimensions upon which to judge social utility, and then contrast it with truth.

My resistance to Islam — my confident resistance — is not exactly popular these days. Against it is the poisonous notion that “all cultures” are equal, an absurdity related to the idea that all races are equal, which is itself . . . problematic, in part because, whatever it means, it is irrelevant to the basic individualistic foundations of Western civilization.

What we now witness is our civilization in a decadent phase, with Christianity having metastasized into progressivism, a political cult that holds an abundance of absurd beliefs and destructive practices. One of them is to try to shame people for objecting to the Islamic memeplex, just as progressives shamed folks when I was young for ‘red-baiting,’ that is, for resisting the memeplex of communism. Progressivism is an unhinged meta-belief that opens up a society to many dangers (which itself helps define decadence), including being taken over by those it defends as “just as good as the rest of us,” meaning criminals, jihadists, communists, etc. It’s a childish way of looking at the world, thinking that “good” depends upon equality, and objecting to even thinking in terms of inferiority and superiority. It’s a hopeless muddle.

But it is a familiar muddle.

That muddle relates to the adoption of ideas not for their truth-value, but for their social effects.

Racists hold bundles of notions, some of them not incorrect, but with crucial and quite significant errors. Of course, racism itself can lead to horrifying injustices. But to fight racism, some folks go so far as to spout nonsense, like the currently popular pieties “race is a not a scientific concept” and “races do not exist,” and such malarky.

These are over-compensations. Rather than strike at the root of what is wrong in racism, anti-racists often prove too hysterical to bother with careful thought. Invidious racism being quite bad, its foundations in a kind of collectivism (individuals are less important than groups) and in folk statistics (imputing to individuals in a group traits that are commonly found in the group but not defining of it) leading to some dangerous results and infecting minds away from truth and towards social discord — sure. But anti-racists find it more convenient, especially when engaging with not very bright people, to attack the foundational notions of the distinctions upon which racism rests — especially the idea of “race” itself — rather than the precise errors that lead to bad results.

You often see this in philosophy, too, where the method becomes mere debunking, where debaters aim to show not merely that their opponents are wrong in one regrettable detail, or in a specific synapse in an argument, but totally.

Racists are bad because they (horrors!) believe in races!

How simple. How satisfying to say. How foolish.

And all this rests upon an expectation that ideas are best seen as fitting together in the tightest way possible. Progressives, having learned to argue incorrectly against racism, then apply the same sort of gambit to religion, and criticism of same. One mustn’t criticize a world religion! So I have been told, and this we often hear.

Funny thing is, most of the folks who marshal such an absurd prohibition themselves ridicule, mock and censure Christians relentlessly.

It is hard to consistently hold a goofy idea.

But it can be done, by gum.

The world of our experience is amazingly complicated, and navigating it is difficult. It takes a fairly high IQ to do so without cultic thoughts. It may be that the requirements for thinking well about the social world are too hard for current levels of IQ in our society.

If true, it would just be another form of looseness of the very systems that make up our complex reality.


Make a statue of THIS.

My changing attitude on iconoclasm, a timeline:

  1. 1991: When Russians pulled down Lenin statues, I cheered.
  2. 1993: When folks in Seattle’s Fremont District put up a Lenin statue, I snickered.
  3. 2003: When American forces, during the Conquest of Iraq, hit some major ancient Mesopotamian civilization sites, blowing them to smithereens, I was deeply irked.
  4. 2015: When ISIS began dismantling, destroying and selling off ancient statues from Assyria as “idols,” I was aghast that any modern would wish to treat as objects for either current reverence or irreverence millennia-old statuary.
  5. 2017: When SJWs turned against the statuary of the Civil War dead, I was more than a little irked that anyone would treat centuries-old and even decades-old memorials as objects for current reverence or irreverance — other than a reverance for history.
  6. 2017: Trump was a latecomer to my query about statues though: With the first protest against a Confederacy memorial, I wondered when the Millennial asshats would come for Jefferson and Washington. When the young demand that their country’s heroes’ statuary be dishonored, you know that they aim to set up some moralistic tyranny in which they are bound by no tradition or culture, and in which the rest of society is too morally weak to resist.
  7. 2019: I suggest setting up a few statues, plumbed for septic service, of open-mouthed Antifa goons and the stocky, homely chick screaming “No” upon the election of Trump, into which we may urinate. That is my current attitude towards the intersectionalist left today.

My attitude about the recent iconoclasm trend has been the same as regarding speech: the proper response to statuary one doesn’t like is not iconoclasm but more statuary. It is easy to destroy, not so easy to put up new monuments — they cost money. But destroying history, even ugly history, seems an awful lot like childishness. Adults should be able to look at a statue and not get sucked into its ideology.

I, for one — and like many others — am fascinated by ancient monuments, though I am quite certain I would not support the bulk of the policies of the ancient monument-builders were someone foolish enough to attempt to revive those policies.

I made peace with Lenin being in Seattle. Still . . . perhaps I should have feared the statue’s influence on Seattle politics? Could it have given succor to the socialism on Seattle’s current City Council?

The Fremont Lenin, via Josh Hallett, Flickr, some rights reserved.

One of the great public relations coups of all time has been to identify “the left” with goodness and “the right” with “wrong.”

This is especially droll, since, in olden times, “the left” was identified with “sinister.”

Defining “sinister”. . .

Further, and especially before the introduction of toilet paper, the left hand was not a hand you offered in public, especially in handshake or salute. Why? Because in private it was the hand one used to wipe one’s anus after defecation. The idea that “the left,” today, would be synonymous with good intentions and moral goodness and all other things pure and holy is almost hilarious.

But it is just the kind of thing you should expect to happen when the State comes to dominate society.


There are ideas that twist in on themselves, involving paradoxes that trap weak minds.

The most interesting of these are memeplexes that (a) suggest actions or even full policies that (b) yield results that, in turn, (c) seem to bolster the ideas themselves, but which (d) actually logically undermine the ideas because the policy (e) artificially produces the effects of the memeplex itself.

My favorite example is the idea, common in the South before emancipation, that Africans were not capable of education and responsible living, so it was better (for their own good!) that they be slaves. This is the “natural slave” notion. The thing is, the allied act, or policy, was to prohibit slaves from being schooled, and prevent them, in general, from acting responsibly. This kept the enslaved African-Americans ignorant and unpracticed in the arts of living, thus “proving” that they were inferior to white masters and white freemen. But of course a moment’s thought should show the flaw in reasoning here. The evidence for inherent inferiority is artificially produced by the very acts that the thesis suggests. So what is proven is no natural inferiority, but an artificial one. A policy-driven one.

Keynesianism shows another such implicit paradox. Keynes argued that markets cannot equilibrate after a sudden deflationary shock because of “sticky wages,” that is, inelasticity of a factor of production, which naturally produces unemployment. But Keynes and his Keynesian acolytes did not attempt to remove any government policies that made wages inelastic — and as Sidney Webb privately cursed, there were indeed policies of unions and governments that very much did make wage rates inelastic. Instead, the Keynesians sought a workaround in fiscal (and later monetary) “stimulus” . . . that catered to the popularity of the prejudice for wage rate rigidity by placing the focus elsewhere, which in turn exacerbated the stickiness of wages, thereby “proving” that wages are naturally sticky.

(This was all something of a red herring for curing depressions, since the real problem after an unexpected deflation is sticky long-term loan rates, holding borrowers to terms that become increasingly difficult to pay off in the context of plummeting prices, as Irving Fisher so ably explained. But the Keynesian policies effectively distracted policymakers from reforming wage contract policy and thereby fueled evidence for the sticky wage rates.) 

What we see in these instances is

A. a theory about cause and effect that
B. by association of ideas (intuition) goes hand-in-hand with a policy or set of actions that
C. produces effects that seem to confirm the theory A.

My chief conjecture about this process is that people tend to develop notions like Theory A because such theories suggest Policy B, which is what they really are concerned with. Policy B does not, as intuited, offset the unpleasant or seemingly disvalued effects of Theory A, but instead reinforces them. Whether the “naturalness” of Policy B’s perverse effects are understood consciously by inattentive people (which has to be often the case, since in politics and government most people run on intuition, not reason and evidence).

The most common example of this process is in state aid policies. Here people theorize, for example, that discrimination and poor education and inadequate nutrition leads certain grouos of people to lag behind the average in productivity and economic success. That is the Theory A. Naturally, and not implausibly, since one does not like the effects of Theory A, one seeks to help people . . . through an extensive welfare state. That is Policy B. The problem is, Policy B provides sufferers of poverty (in this case) many disincentives to advance on their own. And the policy actually incentivizes people to ape behaviors that would trigger and even increase their subsidies, effectively taking them out of the market. Which is what we have seen, with the trendline in poverty sloping downward before the War on Poverty and leveling soon after the “War” commenced.


Maybe we should pH balance our political vocabulary.

There should be fascism and phascism.

Fascism would be what actual fascists supported. You can read about their doctrines in Giovanni Gentile, for example. People who have actually read Gentile and Rocco and Mussolini would get to refer to fascism. And spell it right.

Everybody else would spell their understandings of the term, in their preferred loosey-goosey ways, without any historical justification (just like most uses), as “phascism.”

This would especially be the case for Marxists, who have always mischaracterized fascism for their own political advantage, and social justice warriors, who cannot explain the term in any plausible way, and libertarians, who think it makes sense to tar neo-mercantilism with the f-word.

Oh, and especially those people who spell Adolf Hitler’s name not with an “f” but with a “ph”: phascism is for you!

What’s the difference between classical liberalism, anarchism, and libertarianism?

as answered (5/20/2018) on Quora:

Most of the answers given so far concentrate on the terms liberalism and libertarianism. I discuss these two terms, and the two main varieties of anarchism, too, on a blog post I recently wrote, “Grand Theft L-Word.”

So I will summarize: Classical liberalism is today’s term for 18th and 19th century liberalism. Most scholarly people, and most who call themselves libertarians, understand this. But many people today, perhaps not so well read, think “classical liberalism” is FDR’s ideology. This is an error. But carelessness and ignorance are the leading causes of lexical drift, so maybe that will become an accepted truth some day. But, as of now, the truth is, “liberal” was taken away from individualists by collectivists, and the remnant started using the designator “libertarian.” It, however, had already been taken up by anarchists of a variety of stripes, so things get complicated.

Anarchism is the term for a variety of anti-statist philosophies all of which oppose political governance through The State. But those on the ideological Left think that the reason to oppose the State is because it props up private property and trade, and does so with its laws and institutions. But individualist anarchists opposed the State because they see monopoly political governance as a chief opponent of private property, and a perverter of trade — and they want a rule of law, and think such a thing can emerge without the institutions of defense and adjudication to claim or practice any kind of territorial sovereignty. Individualist anarchists insist that all alliances among individuals and institutions be built on explicit contract, not fake “social contracts” that are nothing more than the result of bluster, duress.

The modern terms for individualist anarchism are “anarcho-capitalism” and (more confusingly) “libertarian anarchism.”

None of these terms are incontestible. It is worth noting that the first coherent exponent of the individualist anarchist position, Gustave de Molinari, a Belgian economist of the French Harmony School, never referred to his system of “competitive government” (see “The Production of Security,” 1849) as anarchistic. He considered himself a liberal, and argued extensively with socialists of all varieties, including those many incoherent advocates of “anarchism.” A better term for the Molinarian proposal was devised a bit later in the century: panarchism. But it has never caught on.

In the late 19th century, many of the more radical classical liberals had abandoned Liberalism for “individualism.” See the writings of Auberon Herbert (who coined a term for his variant, “voluntaryism”), J. H. Levy, and Wordsworth Donisthorpe. A mere generation later H. L. Mencken used that term to defend a simple market-based republicanism in Men versus the Man. More radical forms of individualism were revived by Albert Jay Nock, Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Ayn Rand in the decades after, and at mid-century this group in America took “libertarian” from the anarchists. And then these anarchists manqué reinvented the Molinarian idea, and things got even more confusing.

In the 1960s, a simple newsletter called Innovator had begun its life as Liberal Innovator. Other samizdat journals abounded in this decade, and by 1972, the Libertarian Party had been formed by Ayn Rand fans who had given up on Nixon’s heavily statist Republican administration.

The Libertarian Party has always harbored both so-called anarchists and “minarchists” — advocates of a strictly limited minimal (“nightwatchman”) state — and, increasingly in recent years, hordes of vague “constitutional republicans.”

Amidst this confusion, I sometimes clarify by recalling an 1830s political movement, Loco-Focoism. Since I am agnostic about the ultimate legal and political status of an ideal free society, I often call myself a “LocoFoco agnarchist,” the latter term a droll coinage of an erstwhile colleague of mine, the Reason writer and editor Jesse Walker.

“Neoliberalism,” an ugly term for libertarianism, classical liberalism, or just pro-market conservatism and crony-capitalist globalism, is a pejorative often used by Europeans and leftists. I know of no libertarian who can stand the term. The fact that it is used by witless leftists of the Naomi Klein variety helps explain that.

It is worth noting that Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce coined a simpler term for the anti-fascist, anti-statist liberal revival: liberism.

It has not yet caught on. It seems that Croce was not a supporter of laissez-faire, though, so the propriety of appropriating it for modern individualist liberalism is open to question.

And now you should be able to see the rationale for my preferred term for all these terms for private property, rule of law, free trade individualists: “individualist liberalism.”

It hasn’t exactly caught on either.

An ebook published by Laissez Faire Book Club a few years ago.

You realize that Trump’s Wall is symbolic, right?

Arguing about its efficacy seems pointless to me. You either like the symbolism, or no.

And making much of opposing it? Seems like symbolic inaction, to me.

Is it really worth spending so much thought over, when so much else is on the line?


What question would you ask Satan that he has never been asked before?

As Answered on Quora

“So, how tired are you of that old memetic trap, ‘the biggest trick the Devil ever pulled was to convince the world he did not exist’?”

Of course, that would probably be the best I could come up with on short notice.

If I spent time in his waiting room, though, I would surely formulate something much better.

“Your greatest invention is without question the State. Ubiquitous, useful for no small good but even less doubtfully for much greater and horrific ill. It is all demons and ideologues can talk about. But, I have to wonder: after all these millennia, do you still laugh when people call it God’s ordained instrumentality, as they did when kings were worshipped as gods, or the servant of The People, as they do even unto this day? I mean, I find it hilarious. Do you find it at least worth a chuckle?”

Satan polishes an antler and his slender mouth grows wider and wider.

I cannot determine if it is an evil grin or the knowing smile of a serpentine sage.



A timeline of me changing my attitude on iconoclasm:

  1. When Russians pulled down Lenin statues, at the end of the Soviet era, I cheered.
  2. When folks in Seattle’s Fremont District put up a Lenin statue, I snickered.
  3. When American forces, during the Conquest of Iraq, hit some major sites of ancient Mesopotamian civilization I was deeply irked.
  4. When ISIS began dismantling, destroying and selling off ancient statues from Assyria as “idols,” I was aghast that any modern would wish to treat as objects for either current reverence or irreverence millennia-old statuary.
  5. When SJWs turned against the statuary of the Civil War dead, I was somewhat disturbed that anyone would treat centuries-old and even decades-old memorials as objects for current reverence or irreverance — other than a reverance for history.

My attitude about recent iconoclasm is not unlike my attitude regarding speech: just as the proper response to speech one does not like is more speech, the proper response to statuary one doesn’t like is not iconoclasm but more statuary. It is easy to destroy, not so easy to put up new monuments — they cost money, at the very least. Destroying statuary amounts to destroying history. And destruction, even the destruction of ugly history, seems more like childishness than maturity. Adults should be able to look at a statue and not get sucked into its implied ideology.

And, surely, the postmoderns are right: any given artifact possesses more than one meaning. We Hyperboreans are authorized to pick and choose the meanings we prefer, surely.

I prefer knowledge to ignorance, truth over myth, and seeing even the most vile of monuments as examples of history.

Yes, I am one of those people fascinated by ancient monuments. I have been since very young. You know: the Seven Wonders of the World, Machu Picchu, Göbekli Tepe, all that.  My interest has engendered quite a bit of reverence for these monuments’ historicity, not allegiance to their original functionality. I am quite certain I would not support the bulk of the policies of the ancient monument-builders were someone foolish enough to attempt to revive those policies.

I made peace with Lenin being in Seattle. Still . . . perhaps I should fear the statue’s influence on Seattle politics. Could it have given succor to socialism on the current Seattle City Council?

Which brings up an important point: republican governments should probably forgo the making of monuments. They are inherently propagandistic, and though celebrating the heroes of the republic seems a fine thing, it is worth doing this privately, with private funds on private land. If republics have any legitimacy, it is in defending individual rights. Adding propagandistic and eulogizing monuments to the mix of political duties is part of the ancien régime where much effort had to be made to pretend that leaders were gods, or,  at the very least, God’s servants upon the Midgard.

All this notwithstanding, were it up to me, a motto emblazoned upon every legislative house with the words Mundus vult decipi would be more apt than any other maxim, like E pluribus unum or Novus ordo seclorum.

But in politics, truth is not what you lead with.



One of the odder things about dealing with people in the political realm is the recurrent reliance upon simple definitions — speaking as if an Official Meaning could trump reality.

For instance: we call a government policy “a minimum wage.” People therefore seem to think that what the government does in enforcing such a policy is establishing wage rates. I mean, “that is just what we are doing, right?” Wrong. A minimum wage law is a law prohibiting hiring people below a specified rate. It is functionally a prohibition on hiring at a specified set of rates. It does not and cannot guarantee any person a wage, for it does not set any wage — wages being, after all, the terms of a particular kind of trade contract. Wages are set by businesses and workers in the market. The government has merely made some contracts at certain rates illegal.*

Calling a legislated wage-rate floor a “minimum wage” is like calling the prohibition of heroin a “minimum opiate” — with only some opiates allowed (Darvon, Dillotid). Under minimum wage laws, only some wage contracts are allowed. On the transactional level, both policies are policies of prohibition, not guarantee.IMG_1239

And yet people blithely go along speaking of minimum wage laws as if they established employment at the levels specified.

Like magic.

Say the word, and it happens.

This struck me when I was reading the Earthsea trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin, when I was a youth. The magic rules in these fantasies are all about knowing how to find and speak the True Names of the thing or person to be manipulated. Now, these are terrific books. Le Guin’s account of word magic basically amounts to the reification of the human reliance upon words. But one must not believe that this is actually how the world works. The books are good because this is how the human mind works — especially in dreams.

In the actual world, outside our mindscapes, there are no True Names. Words here in the everyday world serve as conveniences of communication. They are semiotic tools. Signs. And though they come in three varieties (icons, indices, and symbols), and evidence no small degree of complexity in the dimensions of their utility and meaning, we can hone these signs to focus in on separate essences — logical atoms — each distinct.

And this is where the power of definitions come in, when we so hone our focus as to become clear as to what we are talking about, and what we are talking about pertains to the world around us and our operations within it. When we define something as x, and point to an X, our definition of x does not change the pointed-to X in our mere act of definition. The thing pointed to, X, may contain essence x as well as essences y and z. So all our blithe confidence in our definitions may not reach far beyond those definitions.

To pretend they do is magical thinking.

Yet that is what dominates politics.

I have found this over-imputation problem in rights theory, in discussions of religion and politics, and in . . . nearly everything said by a leftist today.

IMG_2080Let us say I am arguing with a feminist about the nature of sex and gender and human rights, and I make the case that feminism has advanced some grave errors and moral atrocities. And the feminist responds, “but feminism is merely equality of the sexes — it’s in the dictionary, stupid!” My jaw drops. The dictionary definition does not track what feminists actually say. Though I advocate equal rights for all, regardless of sex, I find that much of what self-designated feminists do is seek superior status for women and girls over men and boys. Special privileges. More rights. And feminism, today, contains a whole lot more bizarre content than is represented by the seemingly inarguable cause of “sexual equality.”

Another example relates to antifa. I often complain, to my friends, about the violence of these leftist bullies in black. And yet mainstream center-left mavens assert that we should not worry at all about these thugs. Why? “Because they are literally ‘anti-fascists’!” Well, yes, fascism is a bad thing. Sure. But fascists can, in reality, masquerade as anti-fascists. And fascists are not the only authoritarian bullies to worry about. But leftists merely point to the definition as if they have proved something. It is as if they think they can utter a few words of a definition and, magically, change reality with their utterances.

This seems like the simplest and least sophisticated form of logic-chopping. It does not even quite rise to the level of logomachy. But when done confidently, with brio, it can bowl over opponents, partly out of the sheer audacity of it all. Which is why one sees the method everywhere, especially in the realms of religion in politics. It is the sophistication of simpletons.

And it is now a major problem of our time.



* An exception, in a sense, is when governments raise their own employees’ — government functionaries’ — wage rates. But you should see the difference here.