Where Do We Go From Here?

Previously: Frankenstein Delenda Est | Roll for Sanity | The Great Project
Or perhaps: Brexit, Trump, and Capital in the 21st Century | An Exercise in Pessimism and Paranoia

I.

Well.

Joe Biden will in all likelihood be the next American President come January. You can practically feel left-leaning elites the world over unclench their weary paranoia. Much remains to be dealt with as the last few votes are counted and legal challenges get addressed by the courts, but the climax is past. The denouement, of course, will last decades. It always does.

Well.

The pandemic rages on. More than a million people are dead, and thousands more are dying every day. Imagine a medium-sized city, slowly crumbling as every last inhabitant dies over the course of a single year. Only the bones remain. And yet we adapt: deaths per thousand cases continues to fall. The world’s most populous country, more than a billion people, has reported only a single COVID-19 death since April. The rest of the world is slowly learning, through trial and terrible error, which parts of the economy can be reopened or adapted, and which cannot.

Well.

Technology rushes on, heedless of the rest of the world. Competitive satellite internet. Virtual reality. Self-driving cars. Newer, faster, stronger, better. The pope is praying for friendly AI.

I just finished re-reading A Canticle for Liebowitz. [spoilers follow] A monastic order tries to preserve human knowledge for hundreds of years after a nuclear apocalypse. They succeed, civilization is reborn, and their reward is a second nuclear apocalypse, far worse. Humanity is not to be trusted with great power, nor great responsibility.

Well.

II.

America is increasingly divided. Biden may have won, but those hoping for a repudiation of Trump must be bitterly disappointed. The long future is violently uncertain. Healing? Secession? Civil war?

Beliefs are not isolated things. The human brain is remarkably adept at ignoring inconsistencies, but doesn’t necessarily resolve them correctly, even when forced to. Whichever side you take in this battle, your enemies believe in gravity. They believe in food, and air, and airplanes which fly. Their epistemology is intact.

Where people on both sides go wrong is that their priors create a self-reinforcing web of false beliefs that are too far removed from immediate empirical evidence to be emotionally falsified. The media could report that hotdogs cause COVID-19. Whether you believe that hotdogs cause COVID-19 has nothing to do with your beliefs about hotdogs, or COVID-19. The only way those beliefs could actually be related in your mind is if you see someone eat a hotdog, and then become deathly ill moments later. Instead, whether you believe in hotdogs-causing-COVID-19 has everything to do with whether you think the media lies. Fake news?

The next time the media reports something, you remember. Didn’t they run that hotdogs-cause-COVID-19 story? Your priors have shifted. The gyre widens.

Rationalists believe that demanding consistency from your beliefs raises the sanity waterline. I believe that consistency, on balance, would give us more false beliefs, not fewer. Too much of the world we believe in is disconnected from direct observation. Science, democracy, journalism… all merely webs of hearsay becoming webs of heresy.

III.

The ocean depths are a horrible place with little light, few resources, and various horrible organisms dedicated to eating or parasitizing one another. But every so often, a whale carcass falls to the bottom of the sea. More food than the organisms that find it could ever possibly want. There’s a brief period of miraculous plenty, while the couple of creatures that first encounter the whale feed like kings. Eventually more animals discover the carcass, the faster-breeding animals in the carcass multiply, the whale is gradually consumed, and everyone sighs and goes back to living in a Malthusian death-trap.

Scott Alexander, Meditations on Moloch

The printing press. The New World. Machines. Electricity. Computers. Internet. We feast on these whales, and for a time, we flourish. But whales are finite beings, and their corpses must eventually return to the dust.

Some Republicans view Donald Trump as a sign of the apocalypse, and long for the return of Mitt Romney. I view Mitt Romney as the unwitting sign of a far worse apocalypse; not because he is a Republican, but because he is a Mormon. Low first-world birth rates in the last fifty years are a blip, a memetic aberration. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has, by all indications, a decisive first-mover advantage among the next wave of Malthusian population-promoting memeplexes. The birth rate will recover when America is mostly Mormon. Evolution requires it.

We can hunt new whales, new technologies, new vistas, and prolong our civilization one flickering light at a time. This is a worthy goal. But we are Ahab, and the whales we hunt will surely destroy us in time.

We can coordinate, cooperate, and create a world where consuming the whale does not consume the world. This is also a worthy goal. It is, in fact, part of the goal; step two of The Great Project.

But we cannot compromise with our enemies, and so our enemies must become our friends.

IV.

And yet? And yet nothing. There is no one else. If civilization is to flourish, it must survive, and it must grow so mighty that even Moloch trembles before it.

So go, live your life, dream your dreams, hunt your whales. But to save civilization we must unite it, and to unite it we need a shared belief that unity is important.

Spread the good word.

Imperfect Perfectionism

[Introspection, and a bit of unoriginal psychology.]

Like many people, I tend to think of myself as having a perfectionist streak, and I think that’s reasonably justified. Upon entering my school’s french immersion program in grade 7, I had a fairly major meltdown due to the sudden increase in difficulty and workload, and the concomitant reduction in my grades. I used to think of myself as having “gotten over” the worst of my perfectionism in working through that incident, but that’s giving myself too much credit. Perfectionism is in my blood.

My belief that I’d “gotten over it” was surely bolstered in part by the oft-repeated descriptions of perfectionism coming from other people I talked to, the media, etc. as a little voice saying “you’re not good enough”, or “you’re not talented enough”. After all, these are phrases that I basically never say to myself, or believe of myself in most aspects of my life. If anything my ego is flawed in the other direction; I have a deep-seated confidence that I have the capacity to do just about anything if I put in the necessary time and effort. Obviously there are physical limitations – I’ll never play in the NBA at my height – but I sincerely believe that I could become a successful doctor, lawyer, actor, pro curler… standing in my way of these goals is time and effort, not talent.

But as I learned recently, perfectionism comes in many guises. For a lot of people, it seems to come in the way I described, to question their talent. This certainly seems to be the predominant form talked about. But for me and surely for others, perfectionism never doubts my talent. Instead, it doubts my effort.

When something I do doesn’t measure up to my impossible standards, I don’t hear a little voice saying “you’re not good enough”, I hear one saying “you didn’t try hard enough”. When I got a question wrong in school, it was never “you’re not smart enough”, it was always “you didn’t study hard enough”. And when I somehow end the workday further behind on my to-do list than when I started, I don’t hear “you’re not good enough for this job”, I hear “work harder”.

This makes it really difficult to disconnect at the end of the day.

Oh, it’s easy enough now to close the laptop and physically walk away from my desk; I built that habit through sheer force of necessity. Dinner won’t make itself. But it’s really hard to get that stress out of my head. It seems wrong to spend my evening on something frivolous like TV or a book when there’s something imperfect at work, and I can fix it by working harder. After all, anything that goes wrong is my fault because I just didn’t try hard enough.

I guess the stress is better than the alternative, which seems to be workaholic tendencies. At least when I distract myself with something sufficiently engaging I can usually forget about it until it actually goes away. But I think perhaps I would do better to acknowledge that perfectionism is still a major force in my life, and try to deal with the problem at its root.

Maybe then I’ll be perfect.

Stopping by my Brain, One Evening

With respects to Robert Frost.

Whose brain this is I think I know.
His mind is often elsewhere though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his psyche ebb and flow.

My little id must think it queer
To stop without an ego near
Between a dream and wide awake,
The starkest visions of the year.

I give my nervous cells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of nimble thought and steady ache

My brain is lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

The Palindromicon

A couple of days ago I rediscovered Weird Al’s Bob Dylan parody, Bob, whose lyrics are nothing but palindromes. This put my brain onto a rather palindromic track, and after playing around a bit I came up with a solid original: “All ETs demand a lad named Stella“.

The story would end there, except that on the internet I found somebody who had turned the classic “A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!” into the sublimely absurd “A man, a plan, a cat, a ham, a yak, a yam, a hat, a canal – Pamana!”. My sister suggested that it would be fun to write a fake history of the Panama canal incorporating all of these objects. I went in a slightly different direction: what about writing a coherent story made up of nothing but palindromes?

I spent a few minutes on this and quickly realized that using only palindromes of complete words (e.g. “race car”) was effectively impossible; there was no way to make a coherent and interesting story. However, when I allowed the palindromes to start or end with incomplete words (e.g. “n I talk Latin”) then more became possible. For example, a valid line of dialogue could be “Eh, when I talk Latin”, which consists of two consecutive but incomplete palindromes (“Eh, whe” and “n I talk Latin”). The only limit I put on this was that every palindrome had to have at least three letters (e.g. “did”), as a “one-letter palindrome” is definitely cheating, and even two-letter palindromes seemed too easy.

It turns out this was still incredibly hard. Even so, I present to you The Palindromicon, a short poem consisting of 25 consecutive palindromic fragments. It’s the story of Ron the Roman, who’s having a very bad day. His secret society has collapsed, and then he gets into a fight with his girlfriend, Eva…

(edit: to be clear, the palindromic fragments do not line up with the lines of the poem; I’ve bolded each “pivot” letter to make the palindromes more obvious)

Start one morn, ill, after Cesspool Loop’s secret fall in Rome.
Not rats, nor I, Ron, nor Omar, awe me.
My meme war… a moron, I was.
Evil lives. Evil lives!
A winner, I am not.

On Mairenn Ave. Eva sees me embrace a boy.
O bae! Carbon, not love!
Revolt not I beg!
Age bit, once cares erased desire.
Ride *me*, demon!
Deliver a reviled “No”!

Me, never even onward.
Raw.
No mere memory, Rome.

Did I lose Sol?
I did.
Live on, no evil star.
No star, or even noon.
Never!
O rats on rats.

The Axiological Treadmill

The obvious reason that Moloch is the enemy is that it destroys everything we value in the name of competition and survival. But this is missing the bigger picture. We value what we value because, in our ancestral environment, those tended to be the things that helped us with competition and survival. If the things that help us compete and survive end up changing, then evolution will ensure that the things we value change as well.

To borrow a metaphor: Elua cheats. The hedonic treadmill has nothing on the axiological treadmill.

Consider a thought experiment. In Meditations on Moloch, Scott Alexander dreams up a dictatorless dystopia:

Imagine a country with two rules: first, every person must spend eight hours a day giving themselves strong electric shocks. Second, if anyone fails to follow a rule (including this one), or speaks out against it, or fails to enforce it, all citizens must unite to kill that person. Suppose these rules were well-enough established by tradition that everyone expected them to be enforced.

So you shock yourself for eight hours a day, because you know if you don’t everyone else will kill you, because if they don’t, everyone else will kill them, and so on. Every single citizen hates the system, but for lack of a good coordination mechanism it endures. From a god’s-eye-view, we can optimize the system to “everyone agrees to stop doing this at once”, but no one within the system is able to effect the transition without great risk to themselves.

Even if this system came into being ex nihilo it probably wouldn’t be stable in reality; a population that spends eight hours a day receiving strong shocks isn’t going to be able to feed itself, or reproduce. But assume for a moment that this system starts out economically and biologically stable (that is, people can still eat, and reproduce at the rate of replacement, despite the electric shocks, and that there are no outside countries ready to invade). What do we expect to happen over the long run?

Well, obviously there’s a strong evolutionary pressure to be tolerant to electric shocks. People who can tolerate those shocks better will do better on average than those who can’t. However, there’s another more subtle pressure at play: the pressure to ensure you shock yourself. After all, if you forget to shock yourself, or choose not to, then you are immediately killed. So the people in this country will slowly evolve reward and motivational systems such that, from the inside, it feels like they want to shock themselves, in the same way (though maybe not to the same degree) that they want to eat. Shocking themselves every day becomes an intrinsic value to them. Eventually, it’s no longer a dystopia at all.

They would be aghast at a society like ours, where Moloch has destroyed the value of receiving electrical shocks, all in the name of more perfect competition.

The Great Project

The great project of humanity, and in fact the great project of any group of self-aware creatures which value their own existence, is in three parts:

While survival is a fragile thing, and we invent new existential risks every day (e.g. global nuclear war), humanity is now the dominant living species in our sphere of existence. We are surviving.

Now, we must tackle Moloch.

A Brief Chat on World Government

[This is the transcript of a chat conversation I had with another member of my local rationalist meet-up, on the topics of Moloch, world government, and colonization. Lightly edited for clarity, spelling, etc. and shared with their permission.]

Me: Here are some thoughts on Moloch. Moloch basically guarantees that anybody who can figure out how to successfully convert other values into economic value will out-compete the rest. So in the end, we are the paperclip maximizers, except our paperclips are dollar bills.

Scott proposes that to defeat Moloch we install a gardener, specifically a super-intelligent AI. But if you don’t think that’s going to happen, a world government seems like the next best thing. However if we escape earth before that happens, speed of light limitations will forever fragment us into competing factions impossible to garden. Therefore we should forbid any attempts to colonize Mars or other planets until we have world government and the technology to effectively manage such colonies under that government.

Them: The superorganisms in his parable only function because of… external competitive pressures. If cells didn’t need to band together to survive, they wouldn’t. If governments don’t have to fend off foreign governments they will accumulate corruption and dysfunctions.

Sort of related, I’m not persuaded by the conclusion to his parable. Won’t superintelligent AIs be subject to the same natural selective pressures as any other entity? What happens when our benevolent gardener encounters the expanding sphere of computronium from five galaxies over?

Me: Cells were surviving just fine without banding together. It was just that cells which banded together reproduced and consumed resources more effectively than those which didn’t. Similarly, I think a well constructed world government could survive just fine without competitive pressure. We haven’t necessarily found the form of that government yet, but liberal democracy seems like a decent first step.

Regarding competitive pressure on AI, he deals with that off hand by assuming that accelerating self-improvement gives an unbreakable first mover advantage. I don’t think that’s actually true, but then I’m much less bullish on super-intelligent AI in general.

Them: It would “survive,” but we don’t want a surviving government, we want a competent, benevolent one. My read on large organizations in general is that they naturally tend towards dysfunction, and it’s only competitive pressures that keep them functional.

Me: That produces a dismal view of the universe. We are given a Sophie’s Choice of either tiling the universe in economicium in order to compete and survive, or instantiating a global gardener which inherently tends towards dystopic dysfunction.

My read on large organizations in general is that they naturally tend towards dysfunction, and it’s only competitive pressures that keep them functional.

This is certainly mostly true, but I’m not yet convinced it’s necessarily true.

competitive pressures

I think this in particular is too narrow. Hunter-gatherer bands were organizations that stayed relatively “functional”, often not due to competitive pressures with other bands, but due to pure environmental survival pressures. We probably don’t want a government that stays functional due to environmental survival pressures either, but I’m generalizing to an intuition that there are other kinds of pressure.

Them: There are other kinds of pressure, but you better be damn sure you’ve got them figured out before you quash all rivals.

Me: 💯

Them: And to be precise, yeah, there’s a second thing keeping organizations intact, and that’s the floor imposed by “so incompetent they self-destruct.” But I think they degrade to the level of the floor, at which point they are no longer robust enough to survive two crises taking place at once, so they collapse anyway.

Me: Hmm, so it becomes impossible to instantiate a long-term stable gardener of any kind, and we’re stuck tiling the universe in economicium regardless.

Them: Well I think it might be possible (in the short term at least), but you have to be cognizant of the risks before you assume removing competition will make things better. So when I imagine a one-world-government, it’s more like a coordinating body above a collection of smaller states locked in fierce competition (hopefully just economic, cultural & athletic).

Me: At the risk of clarifying something which is already clear: I was never arguing that we are ready for world government now, or should work towards that soon; I was just saying there are some things we shouldn’t do until we have a good world government. We should make sure we can garden what we have before we go buying more land.

Them: Hmm, okay, I think that’s some important nuance I was overlooking.

Me: Though perhaps that is an inherently useless suggestion, since the coordination required to not buy more land is… a global gardener. Otherwise there’s competitive advantage in getting to more land first.

Them: So its a fair point. I assume that any pan-global body will not be well-designed, since it won’t be subject to competitive pressures. But its true that you might want to solve that problem before you start propagating your social structures through the universe.

Me: I’m now imagining the parallel argument playing out in Europe just post-Columbus. “We shouldn’t colonize North America until we have a well-gardened Europe”. That highlights the absurdity of it rather well.