Web Excursions 2022-05-16
We feel that we are free, the originators of our own choices, not just conduits through which the chain of cause and effect flows.
But think about it a little more and this ‘voluntarist’ conception of free will starts to look untenable.
All your choices are in a sense inevitable
But if it is true of every choice that we could not have done otherwise, the implications quickly become disturbing
Both blame and praise seem to become redundant, leaving no justice in reward or punishment.
There’s no escaping the chain of cause and effect
Whenever people think through the implications of living in an entirely naturalistic universe, without any supernatural agency, doubts follow about free will.
Various brain studies have claimed to show that actions are initiated in the brain before we have any awareness of having made a decision.
In other words, the thought ‘I’ll choose that’ comes after the choice is made.
If we are to save free will, it would be quixotic to try to deny both
the findings of neuroscience and
the fact that the world is governed by laws of physical cause and effect.
A better strategy is to think again about what free will means.
Having voluntarist free will would mean being entirely capricious
Is pure caprice really a form of free will worth wanting?
Our freedom to choose matters precisely because it reflects our personalities, preferences and values,
not because it can override them.
Our moral and political commitments would mean nothing if they were things we could choose to change at will.
The constraints upon our choices allow for the concept of character
As David Hume argued, it is both inevitable and desirable that every choice we make will be the one that,
at the time, best matches our motivations, conscious and unconscious.
We would have no moral character if we did not strongly feel that there were things we could simply not do, and others we felt we must.
Human society depends upon the fact that we can expect people to behave with the same kind of regularity and predictability as the rest of nature.
Praise and blame don’t depend on absolute freedom
A rethink of free will requires not the abandonment of the idea of responsibility but its reform.
No one is ultimately responsible for who they are, nor therefore for what they have done.
But responsibility does not need to be ultimate to be real.
To accept that one has done wrong and take responsibility for it is to resolve to try not to do it again and to put right anything that went wrong.
We evidently do have the capacity to do this, and that is all that matters.
Whether at some fundamental level these responses are inevitable is beside the point.
It’s useful to feel you could have done things differently, even if it’s a fiction
To the extent that the idea of free will involves some fictions, this could be a good thing, as long as we are aware that they are fictions.
It is only because we reflect on the things that could so easily have been done differently if conditions or our frame of mind had been slightly different that we learn to take responsibility and do better next time.
So even if we don’t have what has traditionally been called free will, that may not be as disastrous as it sounds.
Our actions should flow from the beliefs, desires and personalities that we have, otherwise they would not be the actions of people with consistent characters and values.
Reward and punishment are still important because we need to encourage ourselves and others to do the right things.
And even thoughts like ‘I could have done otherwise’, although not literally true, are necessary for self-monitoring and improvement.
Don’t reject the concept of ‘free will’: rethink it
In giving up the voluntarist conception, we don’t have to throw out the notion of free will altogether.
What we need is a ‘compatibilist’ conception of free will, one that reconciles human freedom with the causal necessity of the physical world.
we distinguish between coerced and uncoerced choices.
If no one ‘made me do it’, I acted freely.
Worries about free will tend to shift these coercive forces to within us
‘your brain’ can’t make ‘you’ do anything, unless ‘you’ is something separate from your brain.
If your brain is part of you, ‘my brain made me do it’ makes no sense.
Achieve a free will worth having by aligning your first- and second-order desires
It is not quite enough to say that, as long as choices are not coerced, they are free.
highly automatic or unreflective human behaviours, such as addictive consumption, don’t seem to be genuinely free either.
Harry Frankfurt’s influential theory about the difference between first- and second-order desires
Our first-order desires are the ones we just have
Second-order desires are desires about these desires.
we have the kind of free will worth having when our first- and second-order desires are aligned and we act on them.
If we haven’t even thought about whether we desire a desire, we are not exercising our free will if we unthinkingly act on it.
Second-order desires do not escape the chains of cause and effect.
Recognising the free will we do have requires accepting that complete freedom is an impossibility.
To have free will is no more nor less than to be free enough to choose for ourselves on the basis of reasons that we endorse on reflection.
Why it matters
Adopting the compatibilist view of free will encourages a more humane society
Compatibilism also allows for the undeniable fact that what we think changes how we act.
Many assume that if all that we do is ultimately governed by cause and effect, then our actions are caused by brain processes that ‘bypass’ our thoughts and beliefs.
But it cannot be as simple as that since, when we change what we believe, we change how we act.
If I think that cake is poisoned, I won’t eat it.
That is why it is important to think of our actions as being under a degree of control: what we think does change what we do.
we should not be afraid of the fact that many of our decisions are made unconsciously.
Artists, for example, often report that they have no idea where their ideas come from and that they feel more like conduits than creators.
Yet art is one of the highest expressions of human freedom.
The role of the conscious mind is to process and hone what arises from the unconscious.
The result is creation, which is wholly that of the artist.
Without conscious awareness of what we do, freedom is impossible, but conscious control is not something that we always need to be exercising.
Bitcoin miners have a relatively simple businesses to model.
They spend a bunch of money up front on mining equipment (dominated by the cost of the actual mining hardware),
and then have recurring costs of operations (dominated by electricity costs).
Generally, miners use straight-line depreciation over five years to account for purchases of mining hardware.
At face value, this is a defensible decision.
Mining machines turn electricity into hash computations, and the rate at which miners turn electricity into hashes is mostly constant until the machine goes kaput.
Five years straight-line depreciation is standard for computer hardware under GAAP, the accounting standards that US-listed miners are bound to.
The problem is that mining companies aren’t in the business of generating hashes, they’re in the business of generating bitcoin.
And the amount of bitcoin produced per hash has steadily dropped over time,
both as a result of increased competition and of a diminishing subsidy for mining built in to the bitcoin protocol.
As a result, each miner will generate more bitcoin at the beginning of its life than towards the end.
We can use real data from blockchain.com to generate “true” depreciation curves for mining equipment.
The true value represents the remaining amount of bitcoin that would be mined by a miner with a five-year lifetime that went online at the beginning of 2017, assuming that it performed at a constant hash rate.
This pattern holds historically.
Here’s a plot showing all 5-year depreciation curves for each quarter since Bitcoin’s inception (more blue = earlier, more magenta = later):
So if we look from the angle of “bitcoin produced” rather than “hash rate produced”, a bitcoin miner looks a lot more like an oil well than a vending machine.
If it’s true that miners are sitting on a bunch of overvalued assets, we should see a downward trajectory when we plot revenue over assets.
Investors in these miners tend to defend their decision
by pointing out that the output denominated in bitcoin doesn’t tell the whole story,
because the price of bitcoin has gone up over time
The trouble is that a bet on future price growth is almost certainly better-expressed by buying bitcoin outright than by investing in miners.
Let’s do some back-of-the-envelope math.
the crux of the problem
Investors have been happy to provide capital to these companies,
looking for anything in the public markets that provides some exposure to bitcoin,
without paying much attention to what the companies are doing.