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Philoeconomica Quantity World

The Discreteness of Death

Death is a discrete phenomenon. It is a creature of units. Vegetation relies on sunlight for life. A plant can die, however, only because it is a unit of vegetation. When the amount of light falls from 3.481 to 2.377 on some scale, there is death only because each plant requires a minimum of 0.05 of light, or 0.3, or 0.4.

So, why? Why this discreteness?

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Philoeconomica

Ecoan

Suppose that you are indifferent between two fountain pens and one pencil and one fountain pen and a hundred pencils. But at current prices you need more wealth to buy a fountain pen plus a hundred pencils than to buy two fountain pens and one pencil. Are you therefore poorer if you are forced to give up 99 pencils in exchange for a fountain pen?

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Civilization Meta Philoeconomica Quantity

The Illiteracy of the Literate

The complex feelings of lawyers and humanist scholars with respect to quantitative subjects, and particularly the quantifization of the social sciences, ought to give them greater empathy for the illiterate and uneducated. The humanist scholar is to the scientist as the illiterate are to the literate.

The illiterate view books with distrust, for books are used to undermine their most heartfelt positions in ways against which they are unable to mount a defense. But this is precisely how the lawyer feels when her nuanced doctrinal argument is demolished by a mathematical model of the economy that shows that regardless of the substance of the legal rule, the same economic outcome will obtain.

“It’s just mathematical mumbo jumbo,” says the lawyer. “These economists don’t know how things work in the real world.” But what the lawyer cannot do is to beat the economist at her own game. She can’t show that the economic model cannot withstand close scrutiny; all she can do is try to delegitimize the entire method. But the illiterate levy the same charge on the literate: “it’s just book learning,” they say. They cannot defend themselves in writing; but they can try to delegitimize writing itself.

It is particularly bitter for the humanists that they have been socialized to occupy the power position. For millennia, since the invention of writing, they have been the ones who use their learning to lord it over others. But now these merely-literates, these innumerates, must know what it means to be crushed by ideas. A very bitter position indeed.

I do not mean to say that the mathematicians have any better claim on the truth. But if the humanists think the mathematicians don’t, then it should perhaps worry the humanists to think that maybe they don’t either, in relation to the illiterate. Or maybe we are marching forward, after all, from one stage of intellectual progress to the next!

Categories
Philoeconomica

A Model for Macro

So far we have been discussing the properties of matter from the atomic point of view, trying to understand roughly what will happen if we suppose that things are made of atoms obeying certain laws. However, there are number of relationships among the properties of substances which can be worked out without consideration of the detailed structure of the materials. The determination of the relationships among the various properties of the materials, without knowing their internal structure, is the subject of thermodynamics. Historically, thermodynamics was developed before an understanding of the internal structure of matter was achieved….

We have seen how these two processes, contraction when heated and cooling during relaxation, can be related by the kinetic theory, but it would be a tremendous challenge to determine from the theory the precise relationship between the two. We would have to know how many collisions there were each second and what the chains look like, and we would have to take account of all kinds of other complications. The detailed mechanism is so complex that we cannot, by kinetic theory, really determine exactly what happens; still, a definite relation between the two effects we observe can be worked out without knowing anything about the internal machinery!

1 Richard P. Feynman et al., The Feynman Lectures on Physics 44-1-44-2 (1963).

Cf. http://rajivsethi.blogspot.com/2010/02/case-for-agent-based-models-in.html .