Bible as fiction: Esther

Earlier, I proposed reading Bible stories as fiction, and talking about how terrible they are (or not, as the case may be).  A reader suggested the book of Esther.  I had never read it before, and was not familiar with the story.  If it matters, I used the NRSV Bible.

Esther begins with King Ahasuerus and his queen.  At the end of a six-month-long party, the king requests that the queen present herself, but she refuses.  Why does she refuse?  The book doesn’t say.  Gosh, let’s not waste time with motivations or characterization, get on with the story.  The important thing, as far as the book is concerned, is that if she goes unpunished, then women everywhere will know that they can defy their husbands’ whims, and we can’t have that.  So the king strips her of her title.  (Is she cast into poverty, exiled, or executed?  It doesn’t say.)

Here is the one advantage of having an ancient story which follows ancient moral values: suspense.  Is the introduction meant to paint the king as extraordinarily unsympathetic?  Or maybe the story just has terrible values?  I’m not a scholar of ancient Jews, so I don’t know!  I guess we’ll have to read to the end of the story to find out.

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Muddling the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect states that people with the lowest competence tend to overrate their competence, but people with the highest competence tend to underrate themselves.  This was shown in 1999 paper by Dunning and Kruger which won an Ig Nobel Prize[1].  Here’s one of the figures from the paper:

This figure shows scores from a humor test (where a “high” score means good agreement with professional comedians).  There are similar figures for tests on grammar and logic.

The Dunning-Kruger effect has entered popular wisdom, and is frequently brought up when people feel like they’re dealing with someone too stupid to know how stupid they are.

But I have to admit that the popular wisdom led me wrong. I had a misconception: I thought that people’s self-assessment was actually anti-correlated with their competence.  As you can see from the above figure, this is plainly not the original finding.  People with lower competence tend to overrate themselves, but their self-assessments don’t quite surpass the self-assessments of people with higher competence.

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In defense of circles

In the comments, I had a discussion on the structure of knowledge.  There are two general points of view.  The first point of view, called foundationalism, is that knowledge starts with a few basic principles, upon which the rest of knowledge is built.  The second point of view, called coherentism, is that knowledge is structured like a web, with inferences going in every direction.

This is a long-standing philosophical question, and you can read superior accounts from more authoritative sources.

Both coherentism and foundationalism have features which should raise eyebrows among critical thinkers.  Namely, foundationalism involves believing its foundations without evidence or reason.  Coherentism involves circular reasoning.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy observes that coherentists typically defend their view by attacking foundationalism.  Here I will instead mount a positive defense of coherentism by arguing for the virtues of circular reasoning. Continue reading

The meaning of fiction

Analytical blogging, of the kind that I write, is very direct about its meaning.  I state my thesis and I make arguments in favor of it.  Or I state a question, and do my best to answer it.  If you didn’t understand the meaning, either I didn’t make myself clear, or you didn’t read very carefully.

But when it comes to fiction, what does it even mean for it to have meaning?  This is a question that puzzles and amuses me, particularly in contrast to the meaning of analytic blogging.  Does that mean that the work of fiction uses arguments to advance a thesis?  Surely not.  Or at least not most of the time.

Of course, there is a kind of fiction with well-defined theses, which is read by many children.  I’m thinking of Aesop’s fables.  In a typical fable, you’d have talking animals, and one of the animals would do something foolish and meet a band end for it.  The moral of the story is that what they did was wrong.  This was also the structure followed by the cartoon shows of my youth. Continue reading

Beginner’s Guide and authorial intent

Previously, I wrote about The Magic Circle, a video game about making video games. Clearly I like this kind of metafiction, or at least I like to talk about it, so let’s talk about The Beginner’s Guide.

The Beginner’s Guide is a solo project by Davey Wreden, the lead designer of The Stanley Parable. Like The Stanley Parable, The Beginner’s Guide is in the walking simulator genre, although more linear and shorter. It’s basically a short story translated to the game medium, although it obviously wouldn’t work in any other medium. The nature of the game is that it is vulnerable to spoilers, so be warned that this discussion is entirely founded in spoilers.

For the spoiler-free version, just watch the trailer and read no further.

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Logarithmic utility and the Kelly strategy

On diminishing returns

It is intuitively true that the marginal utility of a dollar decreases as you have more money. If you earn $2000 dollars a month, the first $1000 prevents you from living on the streets, while the next $1000 pays for less essential needs. Because you can freely allocate your money, you will generally allocate it to the most important things first, and less important things second.

This is important in anything that involves chance, such as investment or gambling. For example, suppose you have $1000, and you have the opportunity to bet it all for a 50% chance of winning an additional $1000. You would prefer not to take that bet, because:

U($1000) > 0.5 U($2000) + 0.5 U($1000)

where U is the utility function. Even though the average payoff in dollars is zero; the average payoff in utility is negative. This leads to other nice results, including the notion that risk is bad, and the notion that giving money to poor people is good.

But what exactly is the functional form of U?

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Christianity made of iron and straw

Christianity makes a virtue of faith. Faith seems to mean “believing without evidence”. On the other hand, if you talk to most Christians, they’ll deny this description of faith.

Christians usually believe that morality comes from God. This seems to indicate a divine command theory of morality: God says it, therefore it’s right. On the other hand, in my experience most Christians will deny that they believe in divine command theory.

In both of these examples, I’m describing straw men that we use against Christians. If they’re such straw men, why do we keep using them? Why don’t we talk about faith or Christian moral theory as Christians really mean them?
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