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Where’s David Deutsch’s Accountability?

Physicist David Deutsch was recently interviewed on The Tim Ferriss Show by both Ferriss and Naval Ravikant, who goes by Naval. (I reviewed a previous interview of Naval’s with Deutsch here; I think the one on Ferriss’s show is better overall.) You can find the transcript here; it’s slightly different from the audio.

I want to focus on the issue of accountability. Naval says to Deutsch:

[T]his leads […] to what you have called a moral imperative, which is [not to] destroy the means of error correction. In fact, the only time […] in your book that you let a little emotion slip through, I would say, is when you were addressing exactly this topic, when you said […] we should take it personally. Because if people hadn’t stopped the growth of knowledge in the past, […] then you and I might be […] immortal and we might be exploring the stars […].

Here, Naval references two passages from Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity. The first one is from chapter 10, a fictional play where Deutsch has Socrates ask:

Could it be that the moral imperative not to destroy the means of correcting mistakes is the only moral imperative? That all other moral truths follow from it?

The second passage Naval references is from the end of chapter 9, about the histories of Florence and Athens. Both cities briefly experienced optimism and progress, which were eventually shut down. Deutsch writes:

Like every other destruction of optimism, whether in a whole civilization or in a single individual, these must have been unspeakable catastrophes for those who had dared to expect progress. But we should feel more than sympathy for those people. We should take it personally. For if any of those earlier experiments in optimism had succeeded, our species would be exploring the stars by now, and you and I would be immortal.

Here, Deutsch (rightly, IMO) wants to hold people from the past accountable for destroying optimism and delaying progress.

Contrast this with how Deutsch responds to Naval during the interview:

[Regarding] when I said that […] not destroying the means of error correction is the moral imperative[,] I thought you were going to say that’s the only place in the book where I actually tell people what to do, but I don’t because I put that into the mouth of a fictional character. It’s in a little play that’s in the book. And it’s the character that says that, not me. The character is Socrates. So I’m doing what Plato did, I put my ideas into the mouth of Socrates and then I don’t have to take responsibility for it.

Ferriss and Naval laugh sympathetically. Deutsch continues:

I’m not telling people what to do, but [if] they destroy the means of error correction, they’ll regret it.

I partially get where Deutsch is coming from: he doesn’t want to set up an authoritative relationship between himself and others; he doesn’t want to give advice in any authoritative sense. But one can take responsibility for one’s ideas without acting as an authority.

What Deutsch is doing in the above quote strikes me as bad for several reasons. First, there’s content: if something is a, no the, moral imperative, then, by definition, it’s something one should follow and judge others by. Worse, he doesn’t want to take accountability for his ideas and jokes about it. I think this is a social trick: when somebody openly acknowledges something that could be considered problematic and jokes about it, then others think it can’t be problematic. Not only does Deutsch gain sympathy this way, he now has plausible deniability: if anyone calls him out on not wanting to take responsibility, he can say he was just joking. He doesn’t even want to be held accountable for not wanting to be held accountable. He also creates a chain of responsibility that points away from him in case the pronouncement of his moral imperative is a mistake: first, the fictional version of (!) Socrates is to blame, and if that doesn’t work, it’s Plato’s fault. And, if casting blame on others is a mistake, then ironically, that’s also Plato’s fault.

Another irony is that not wanting to be held accountable for one’s ideas makes correcting errors harder: averting responsibility is an anti-truth-seeking attitude. So it’s hypocritical since Deutsch has placed emphasis on the importance of enabling error correction and seeking truth. There’s also hypocrisy in wanting to hold other people accountable while not being prepared to be held accountable oneself. This kind of hypocrisy is unusual: holding someone accountable is a type of judgment, and people usually avoid judging others in exchange for not being judged themselves. As Ayn Rand writes in her essay ‘How Does One Lead a Rational Life in an Irrational Society?’:

It is the fear best expressed in the precept: “Judge not, that ye be not judged.” But that precept, in fact, is an abdication of moral responsibility: it is a moral blank check one gives to others in exchange for a moral blank check one expects for oneself.

Deutsch has judged others, including Paul Ehrlich, Thomas Malthus, and Martin Rees, harshly; he has held them accountable for their terrible ideas. Conversely, he has also judged philosopher Karl Popper’s ideas positively, even though his ideas are not particularly popular. Deutsch is not afraid to do either, so in that regard, he’s better than most people. But, to avoid hypocrisy, he should be prepared to be judged and held accountable himself, as Rand argues in the same essay. That is standard protocol for public intellectuals, and, again, it helps correct errors.

In addition to the passage about Deutsch’s moral imperative, when taken seriously, The Beginning of Infinity has several passages where Deutsch tells people what to do, if only implicitly. They’re easy to find – you don’t need to know the book as well as I do to find them. Deutsch wants readers to consider progress possible and desirable (introduction); those who have denied that progress is desirable “should have known better” (ibid.); readers should seek to create what Deutsch calls “good explanations” (chapter 1); they should participate in a tradition of criticism (ibid.); they should be optimists (chapter 9); they should not immunize theories from criticism (chapter 10); they should not attempt to live an ecologically sustainable lifestyle (chapter 17), and so on. He even quotes Popper in the epigraph of chapter 9 as saying that “it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world” (emphasis added). And the bibliography starts with the heading “[e]veryone should read these”. So Deutsch’s implicit claim that the book never tells anyone what to do is a lie. When he wrote the book, Deutsch was not afraid to tell people what to do – not from a place of authority, nor in the form of commands, but suggestions, arguments, and persuasion. Nor should he have been afraid to do so, as he has had many valuable things to say. But that value is diluted without accountability.

Here’s another example of Deutsch dodging accountability in the interview:

If I didn’t know any physics now and I wanted to learn some, I would want to learn quantum physics. [U]nfortunately there is no good book on quantum physics for beginners. I hope to write one, but there’s a lot of things I hope to write. I’m negotiating writing a textbook with some colleagues, but they have to earn their daily bread as well.

Do you see the ‘blame chain’? If he doesn’t get around to finishing such a book, his other projects are to blame. If not that, then it might be because the negotiations with his colleagues fail. Or it’s their schedule: everyone has to “earn their daily bread”, that’s just the general human condition, so how could it be his fault? – Don’t hold your breath.

Deutsch also says in the interview:

I always say that all I’ve done is added footnotes to Popper and Turing and so on.

I’ve heard him say that elsewhere. I think he’s done more than just add footnotes, and I know that he thinks so, too. He’s written to me that he considers there to be his own “version of” critical rationalism (the philosophy Karl Popper created). A new version consists of more than just footnotes. Adding footnotes is making minor contributions and corrections here and there, whereas creating a new version of something requires major or at least notable contributions that explain and correct mistakes in the old version and introduce new, better features. So this is another lie. I wonder: apart from being another social trick, is this false humility a way to divert responsibility in case the ‘footnotes’ or Popper’s or Turing’s work is mistaken?

Speaking of Ayn Rand, I’m currently reading her book Atlas Shrugged. I’m only about 20% of the way through, but it’s already clear how much emphasis Rand places on how poorly things go when people don’t want to take responsibility. They may not take action unless they can point fingers at somebody else just in case things go wrong or in case the decision is unpopular. They’d rather defer to some committee, colleagues, or some other, usually indefinite, group of people, and then there is no clear responsibility. Committees can take a long time to decide, so oftentimes nobody takes any action at all: everyone’s blocked by everyone else. Deadlock.

In the book, the protagonist, Dagny Taggart, Vice President of a railroad company called Taggart Transcontinental, tries to convince her brother James, President, to approve a project. She finds him not in his office but at the family’s estate:

“It’s a lie! I didn’t run away!” cried James Taggart. “I came here because I happened to be sick. Ask Dr. Wilson. It’s a form of flu. He’ll prove it. And how did you know that I was here?”

James argues that he is not to blame for not being in the office. His flu is to blame, and really it’s his doctor’s judgment. He’s also looking to blame someone for telling Dagny where he is. (But if it is true that he is sick, what does he have to hide? As you can see, avoiding responsibility causes people to lie.) A bit further down:

“It was your idea! I hope you’ll admit to the Board that it was your idea. That’s what your goddamn Rearden Metal has done to us! […]”

Again, he doesn’t consider himself responsible. He only blames others and worries about the opinions of others (“the Board”, ie a committee).

“There’s nothing we can do now!” he moaned.

He’s blaming the situation.

“I tried to call Washington, to get them to seize the Phoenix-Durango and turn it over to us, on the ground of emergency, but they won’t even discuss it! Too many people objecting, they say, afraid of some fool precedent or another! […]”

Now he’s blaming the government, which in turn blamed “people” to justify its inaction. This is a chain of (ir)responsibility similar to the ones Deutsch created involving Socrates and Plato on the one hand and his other projects and his colleagues on the other.

Taggart goes on to blame more people and give more reasons for inaction, eg that, if he did take action, the company would be boycotted and sued.

Here’s Dagny’s response:

“[…] I am going to complete the construction of the Rio Norte Line. I personally, not Taggart Transcontinental. I will take a leave of absence from the job of Vice-President. I will form a company in my own name. Your Board will turn the Rio Norte Line over to me. I will act as my own contractor. I will get my own financing. I will take full charge and sole responsibility. I will complete the Line on time. After you have seen [that the project is a success], I will transfer the Line back to Taggart Transcontinental and I’ll return to my job. That is all.”

Not having to take any responsibility, he feels safe enough to agree and the project can finally get done.

Deutsch avoided taking responsibility for several things during our collaboration to translate The Beginning of Infinity. As a result, it was often blocked by inaction. One particular situation comes to mind that was somewhat similar to the one between the Taggarts. To market the translation, I suggested running a competition on Twitter: the first reader to find a specific hidden reference in the book would receive a cash prize. Such a competition comes with certain legal and ethical obligations. Deutsch did not want to accept responsibility for them. Once I, like Dagny Taggart, though long before I started reading Atlas Shrugged, offered to take full responsibility to get things moving, he was happy to announce the competition. Unlike James Taggart, Deutsch was then willing to be publicly associated with the competition and accepted financial responsibility, but there are still important parallels.

To summarize: avoiding responsibility can result in indefinite delays, lies, and hypocrisy. When intellectuals don’t take responsibility for their ideas, that’s a red flag. They should happily take responsibility because doing so strengthens their intellectual integrity and supports the kind of rapid progress and error correction Deutsch has advocated.


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What people are saying

Isn’t what you describe in the final paragraph before the summary just an instance of not agreeing on a contract? No one’s obliged to take on a responsibility.

#610 · Ante Skugor (people may not be who they say they are) · on an earlier version (v1) of this post

I’m not saying he was. James Taggart wasn’t obligated to agree to a contract, nor is Deutsch obligated to write a textbook on quantum physics. That’s not the point.

#611 · dennis (verified commenter) · on an earlier version (v1) of this post in response to comment #610

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