Danged Notions AboutArchive

Pull the Rope Sideways

Robin Hanson says, pull the rope sideways. Here are some of my ideas. Some do have a clear (perhaps even radical) place on the spectrum, but at least they have great variance.

Our Christian Heritage

One upsetting argument defenders of religion (the truly religious, or especially those who merely “believe in belief”) sometimes make is that our society is built upon Judeo-Christian foundations. This is superficially easy to refute:

Thomas Paine was an atheist, and China is a great un-Christian civilization.

But let us steelman. Note that I but speculate.

There is evidence that people raised in Western civilization really do think differently, across many dimensions, than is typical among humans. There is even a term for this: WEIRD psychology. It is quite likely that WEIRDness was a significant or even primary cause of everything good that has happened in the past few centuries. It had this effect through Modernity: modern ethics (liberalism, egalitarianism, democracy, etc), and modern epistemology (science and technology). I simplify, of course.

Many serious people have argued that Modern values first arising in Christendom was not a coincidence. Weber proposes the “Calvinist work ethic.” I don’t claim to understand Nietzsche much, but from what little I gather, the Genealogy of Morals hypothesizes that scientific atheists, liberal humanitarians, and other typical Moderns use a moral vocabulary that is still essentially Jewish and Christian, as opposed to Greek and Roman. One result I presume Nietzsche would predict is that Cicero would find himself more at home in Beijing or Mumbai than in Washington or Brussels.

If so, the moral argument is not as lazy as “without religion, why not just go murder someone then?” It does not rely on norms that you would expect to find in basically any advanced society. Instead, it goes like this:

There are parts of the West that don’t just happen naturally, that you moderns really really care about (i.e. the value of Truth and the individual over fundamentally collective values), for which Judaism and Christianity were mandatory prerequisites. You might not notice, as it’s just the water you’re swimming in, but everything you hold dear is quite historically contingent.

Nothing close to Modernity touched Pagan or Confucian civilization at their heights. It took the mythology of a random oppressed bronze age tribe, the peasant-comforting ramblings of an apocalyptic rabbi, convenient dark age strictures against endogamy, and rigorous academic debates about something as arcane yet personally important as “soteriology.” People born in typical old human societies just don’t make the fundamental leap towards valuing the real Truth over the truth of the Tribe, or real creatures’ welfare over the welfare of the Tribe. That cognitive revolution had to be bootstrapped, in a roundabout way, through some unlikely mechanism. For Weber, that mechanism was people coming to care far more about their immortal souls than their mortal nation. For Nietzsche, it was the self-pitying values of a downtrodden people imposed upon a powerful civilization.

Regardless of the exact details, it seems that Modernity is more rooted in Abrahamic religion than we thought. So we Moderns should give it more credit (and critique it more carefully) than we would give if Modernity arose in Christendom due to mere coincidence.

Conditional on the “Weber-Nietzsche thesis” being correct (I guess a 20% chance), I buy this argument. Sort of.

Moderns tell an archetypal story that goes something like this:

Once upon a time, the world was filled with miserable peasants, prone to famine, disease, and oppression. Because they had no hope of bettering their lives in This World, they gave into superstition about an Otherworld, to barely soothe their pain. Their rulers, who had barely tolerable lives themselves, manipulated that faith to their own gain. So even in their escapist fantasies, the peasants could not escape their lowly servitude.

But hope was not utterly lost. From the primordial abyss flew no more than three little sparks of Doubt, and a faint Flame of Reason arose in the hearts of a few righteous men. They tended to it carefully, and soon they divined the True Arts: Liberty, Justice, and Science. And from their printing presses it soon engulfed the West; and to this day it consumes the world.

If this theory is correct, then that story is wrong.

The Flame is older than they say. Modernity itself may have arisen only twenty generations ago, but the first Moderns were not born of the coldest land on Earth. There was already a primordial heat, faint but definitely present, in the air of the West. Some say it came from that preacher, during the Golden Age, who first whispered that there was a pearl of greater price than all that age’s gold. Perhaps it is even older. They say he was of a royal line, descended from a more ancient king, and that ancient king had been anointed by the divine to rule over the greatest nation the world has known, the only great nation of old whose strength was born of Truth, not War. Fool! How can you say the peasants had not a single spark, when they already had the little warm pearl?

(To be continued.)

Do Saints Exist? Or, Cowardice with Excellent PR

The matter at hand: am I a saint, or an ape who is excellent at fooling himself? S defends the former, A the latter.

A: Why don’t you donate more to charity? I’m not even asking for all your worldly goods, just 10%, a reasonable amount, a Schelling point distinguishing between real sacrifice and mere self-satisfaction.

S: It might be better for the world if I try to maximize my own resources. There are other ways to help the world than charitable contributions, and they often involve large amounts of capital. I could use my savings to go to graduate school, and participate more directly in the Project. I could start a business, and end up with way more money to donate later. There’s also the possibility of some catastrophe where I need my capital as a fallback.

A: In what apocalypse would a pile of cash be useful?

S: There’s a small chance the United States will become a high-corruption country where cash…

A: Quite a small chance. I’m pretty sure you’re actually thinking about a personal apocalypse, like an onerously expensive medical condition or a work-prohibiting disability (which in your field would probably be a mental problem).

S: You can’t contribute much if you’re bankrupt.

A: Which is a small risk. The benefit of donating now instead of later, when you consider the declining QALY/dollar value of contributions, far outweighs it.

S: But consider Talebian iterated-game ruin risk. There’s a very small chance that, in a given year, a dynasty will suffer catastrophe. But repeated over generations, the dynasties that remain alive and able to contribute will be the ones who had the best survivability of the inevitable negative events. Thus the dynasties that continue to be healthy generation upon generation are the ones who contribute little.

(S and A both turn aside and glare at the idiots who treat Social Security disability insurance as a mere starvation prevention service and not actual insurance.)

A: Of course the system should be better. But systems are for apes, not saints. You can go to graduate school on scholarship; you can rely on outside investment for your (fantasy) entrepreneurial projects. If you can’t get funding, take the outside view: that implies your own time investment is not worthwhile.

S: (Sighs in frustration.) I promise, I don’t want to buy anything expensive and unnecessary with my money. It’s just really easy to imagine obscure scenarios where I would regret not having deep pockets due to excess generosity.

A: Who knew Greed was such a creative? Much better than whatever instinct is responsible for stopping you from city biking in the dark without reflective gear.

S: One time!

A: One time with grave tail risk, and trivial upside. You are quite capable of taking risks, S, as long as it is to the benefit of your immediate comfort. You seem to be “prudent” only when other people’s lives are at stake.

S: That kind of risk-taking should be reduced, not…

A: It doesn’t matter how impossible your password is to guess if you’re facing a phishing attack. Think orthogonally. What is the most likely cause of catastrophe? Marginally less cash on hand, or a rogue car?

S: People work tirelessly to reduce accidents and diseases for a reason.

A: But before they finish, what do you do? Your application of Taleb is entirely wrong! You’re applying his fears about society to an individual. You risk your life, slightly, all the time, when you give to charity or simply walk outside. It’s a risk worth taking, because there’s an even graver risk on the other side: a long life of nothing.

S: It guess I can vaguely imagine that..

A: It is possible that you will be of great benefit to society. So a personal catastrophe can be, in a sense, a societal catastrophe. But the same is true of others. You must not only insure yourself, but every other individual, for everyone poses a potential great upside that must be protected. Of course it is reasonable to pay attention to yourself at first, but cooperative mechanisms require initial upfront unilateral gifts without guarantee of reciprocation. Remind me, what was the “generous tit-for-tat” algorithm’s rate of unrequited cooperation?

S: 10%.

Harris vs. Klein

A few months ago, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein had an infamous debate posted to their respective podcasts. The following is a light edit of my initial thoughts on it.

It was, by universal agreement, a mess. In theory, the object-level concern of the debate was about the appropriateness of discussing Charles Murray’s contentious and possibly heinous ideas about race and IQ. But the podcast episode quickly devolved into meta-discussion. Harris accused Klein of succumbing to “Identity Politics,” and of slandering him and Murray in furtherance of that Identity Politics. Klein’s basic and oft-repeated reply was that Harris has an Identity Politics of his own, which he simply ignored, thereby de-emphasizing the history of racial oppression in the West.

They frustratingly talked past each other. Each ended up calling for the other to acknowledge something, and the other refused, saying “you acknowledge my thing!”

Klein is right that both men’s thoughts and values are rooted in their respective identities. Harris is indeed a “white man,” and that influences what he cares about. But if we’re basically doing psychoanalysis here, let’s take it seriously and be explicit about it. I doubt that Harris or even most people who know of his work would primarily identify him in racial terms, instead of as “celebrity atheist, popular scientist, controversial public intellectual.” In the same way, it would be awfully simplistic to call Klein a “white man,” instead of a “left-liberal policy wonk, also a controversial public intellectual.”

These two identities, not much related to race, are the real crux of the conflict.

Harris is a Defensor Veritatis. He thinks of himself, fundamentally, as a Defender of the Truth. He has personal experience in being maligned as a result of his reasonable statements, which he mentioned repeatedly in the podcast. He empathized with Murray precisely because of Murray’s similar experiences: damage to his reputation, and indeed assault against his colleague, as a result of his (in Harris’ view) reasonable opinions. Harris is especially tuned to this self-conception because of his work against religion. He repeatedly mentioned Ayaan Hirsi Ali (whose colleague was murdered by Islamists) and other apostates from Islam, who to this day suffer death for speaking the Truth (as even Klein, an atheist himself, sees it). This identity has a long line of heroes and villains: Copernicus, Galileo, and Bruno against the Church; John Scopes against the Fundamentalists; Socrates against the gods of Athens; even Jesus against the Pharisees, if you want to be subliminal about it.

Klein, on the other hand, is a Liberator Oppressorum. Whenever he isn’t cynical, he thinks of himself as a participant in the long march towards Justice. He has spent his career discussing ways society could take better care of the less fortunate. He is very aware of the ways politics can go wrong. He intuitively understands, like few others, the horrific scale of suffering that has been imposed on people. He is hypersensitive to oppression, obviously, because everyday journalism mostly involves researching the worst ways people are treated (functional institutions aren’t newsworthy). This identity also has a long list of heroes and villains, not that distinct from the other list: MLK against Jim Crow; Tubman against the Slave Power; Gandhi against the British Empire; Washington against the British Empire; you can even go as far back as Urukagina against Lugalanda, if you believe the inscriptions.

These identities don’t seem that opposed. What sort of discussion would we expect to put a Def. Ver. and a Lib. Opp. at odds? Precisely some (possibly) true statement X, whose acceptance might too easily (though not necessarily) contribute to some oppression Y. Lib. Opp. would understandably apply heavy scrutiny to anyone who talks about X. Some of their worst actors might actively harm them. This, of course, would cause Def. Ver. to become paranoid of censorship, so there would be even more discussion and defense of X, which would cause even more paranoia among Lib. Opp., and the cycle would continue.

Earlier, I said that each man refused to acknowledge something important the other said. Harris refused to consider the fact that as a Def. Ver., he was more naturally sympathetic to Murray than a Lib. Opp. would be. Klein made a similar refusal, which I suspect is also rooted in his identity. Multiple times, Harris asked, “It has been discovered that whites are more Neanderthal than Africans. What if the facts turned out the other way? How should good people react?” Klein never answered. I know, from listening to some other episodes of his podcast, that he is quite able to comprehend ugly dilemmas. For some reason, he ignored this one.

I have no great conclusion. Stop bickering. Keep on defending the truth, and liberating the oppressed. Our civilization is built upon the assumption that those different desires are reconcilable. I hope we’re right.

My First Post

Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?

I have mused about starting a blog for many years, but the motivation to just start has never seemed to strike.

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

So I’ll start with a dedication. I dedicate this blog to the Truth, whatever it may be, wherever the search leads me.

I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.

And because I know almost nothing, and I am wrong about almost everything I do know, I resolve to be charitable to the ideas of others, as I hope you will be to me.

Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

And because charity is especially difficult when our survival response is stimulated, I will be especially attentive to fearful symmetry. The Others have that all too human response too.

And yet it moves.

I will now proceed to go violate these ideals. I hope you will enjoy what you read, and perhaps gain a pinch of enlightenment along the way.

All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.