Category Archives: Philosophy

Happy Birthday to My Firstborn Baby Boy: A Memoir

Once I had my first couple of gout attacks, I read somewhere that people who'd experienced both said it was more unpleasant than childbirth, that supposedly indescribable suffering by which women martyr themselves for the continuation of the human race. Gout sure is painful, but not indescribably or infinitely so. It just hurts a lot in one spot, and more if there's even slight pressure on it - enough pain that at times I experienced it as patterns of light rather than an embodied sensation. There is no virtue in suffering, but if I could thereby make a new person, composed of a mixture of the core instructions for building my own body and those for somebody else I loved who would help me care for and cultivate that new person, then I would go off allopurinol for long enough to endure a few days of pain. My reproductive partner can speak for herself if she wishes, but my impression of labor was that it bore little resemblance to the acute panicked episodes depicted on television and in popular movies. Several months of deep massage by Valentin Rozlomii doubtless helped, as did some movement exercises she found on YouTube (some curb walking earlier in the day, and the Miles Circuit later at night), and half a tab of acid shortly before labor. By the time we arrived at the hospital, she was fully dilated and ready to give birth.

Labor, it turns out, is aptly named. It is not inherently torturous; it is a great deal of work, which calls for strength, flexibility, and stamina, for which one can be more or less ready for. Like many sorts of labor, birth labor is more of a distressing ordeal if one is simultaneously attempting to maintain a class persona with its attending stereotyped patterns of stiffness and selective dissociation. And like many other sorts of labor, it can be made onerous by various efforts at coercive extraction.

On the "due" date, my partner's ob/gyn did not consult with her about her preferences, her situation, or likely risks and benefits, but simply informed us that she was scheduling an induction in a week's time. The expedients mentioned above were a successful attempt to autoinduce just before the deadline, after which we had been advised that induction might not be available if we didn't accommodate the schedule. We remain skeptical that they would have refused in a true medical emergency; it was most likely a compliance scare tactic. Even so, it worked at least a little.

Once we were set up in a hospital room, the nurses issued strident instructions to my partner about how to pose, and how to push. Afterwards, my partner told me that she wished I'd advocated harder to give her space, as the instructions had served only to confuse her, contradicting her own experience of her body - especially, instructing her to experience pushing out a baby as though it felt like defecation, even though she could tell perfectly well that a different pattern of muscular activity was needed. Such instructions might perhaps be helpful for women who do not understand their own bodies well enough to distinguish between their reproductive and digestive musculature - though I suspect there is no clear, intersubjectively verifiable evidence for this like a randomized controlled trial - but were actively harmful in this case. Eventually, the nurses relented and gave her some time to rest, and my partner was able to tune in to her own body and make measurable progress on freeing our baby from her body, but she was so exhausted from following bad instructions that she agreed to a vacuum-assisted extraction, which, fortunately, not only succeeded at bringing the baby out into the world, but does not seem to have inflicted any lasting harm.

I had likewise heard and read many times that caring for a newborn is a torturous ordeal, like a forced march or sleep deprivation torture. What I have found is that caring for my baby in his first year of life was not torture or an unnatural-feeling ordeal. What it is, is a lot of work, which limits how much other work one can do at the same time without compromising one's health.

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Guilt, Shame, and Depravity

Everyone knows what it is to be tempted.  You are a member of some community, the members of which have some expectations of each other.  You might generally intend to satisfy these expectations, but through a failure of foresight, or some other sort of bad luck, feel an acute impulse to consume something that is not yours to take, or in some other way break commitments you would generally want to honor.

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Simulacra and Subjectivity

In Excerpts from a larger discussion about simulacra, following Baudrillard, Jessica Taylor and I laid out a model of simulacrum levels with something of a fall-from grace feel to the story:

  1. First, words were used to maintain shared accounting. We described reality intersubjectively in order to build shared maps, the better to navigate our environment. I say that the food source is over there, so that our band can move towards or away from it when situationally appropriate, or so people can make other inferences based on this knowledge.
  2. The breakdown of naive intersubjectivity - people start taking the shared map as an object to be manipulated, rather than part of their own subjectivity. For instance, I might say there's a lion over somewhere where I know there's food, in order to hoard access to that resource for idiosyncratic advantage. Thus, the map drifts from reality, and we start dissociating from the maps we make.
  3. When maps drift far enough from reality, in some cases people aren't even parsing it as though it had a literal specific objective meaning that grounds out in some verifiable external test outside of social reality. Instead, the map becomes a sort of command language for coordinating actions and feelings. "There's food over there" is perhaps construed as a bid to move in that direction, and evaluated as though it were that call to action. Any argument for or against the implied call to action is conflated with an argument for or against the proposition literally asserted. This is how arguments become soldiers. Any attempt to simply investigate the literal truth of the proposition is considered at best naive and at worst politically irresponsible.
    But since this usage is parasitic on the old map structure that was meant to describe something outside the system of describers, language is still structured in terms of reification and objectivity, so it substantively resembles something with descriptive power, or "aboutness." For instance, while you cannot acquire a physician’s privileges and social role simply by providing clear evidence of your ability to heal others, those privileges are still justified in terms of pseudo-consequentialist arguments about expertise in healing.
  4. Finally, the pseudostructure itself becomes perceptible as an object that can be manipulated, the pseudocorrespondence breaks down, and all assertions are nothing but moves in an ever-shifting game where you're trying to think a bit ahead of the others (for positional advantage), but not too far ahead.

There is some merit to this linear treatment, but it obscures an important structural feature: the resemblance of levels 1 and 3, and 2 and 4.  Continue reading

Towards optimal play as Villager in a mixed game

On Twitter, Freyja wrote:

Things capitalism is trash at:

  • Valuing preferences of anything other than adults who earn money (i.e. future people, non-humans)
  • Pricing non-standardisable goods (i.e. information)
  • Playing nicely with non-quantifiable values + objectives (i.e. love, ritual)

Things capitalism is good at:

  • Incentivising the production of novel goods and services
  • Coordinating large groups of people to produce complex bundles of goods
  • The obvious: making value fungible

Anyone know of work on -

a) integrating the former into existing economic systems, or
b) developing new systems to provide those things while including capitalism's existing benefits?

This intersected well enough with my current interests and those of the people I've been discoursing with most closely that I figured I'd try my hand at a quick explanation of what we're doing, which I've lightly edited into blog post form below. This is only a loose sketch, I think it does reasonably precisely outline the argument, but many readers may find that there are substantial inferential leaps. Questions in the comments are strongly encouraged.

Any serious attempt at (b) will first have to unwind the disinformation that claims that the thing we have now is capitalism, or remotely efficient.

The short version of the project: learning to talk honestly within a small group about how power works, both systemically and as it applies to us, without trying to hold onto information asymmetries. (There's pervasive temptation to withhold political information as part of a zero-sum privilege game, like Plato's philosopher-kings.) Continue reading

Should Effective Altruism be at war with North Korea?

Summary: Political constraints cause supposedly objective technocratic deliberations to adopt frames that any reasonable third party would interpret as picking a side. I explore the case of North Korea in the context of nuclear disarmament rhetoric as an illustrative example of the general trend, and claim that people and institutions can make better choices and generate better options by modeling this dynamic explicitly. In particular, Effective Altruism and academic Utilitarianism can plausibly claim to be the British Empire's central decisionmaking mechanism, and as such, has more options than its current story can consider.


I wrote to my friend Georgia in response to this Tumblr post.

Asymmetric disarmament rhetoric

Ben: It feels increasingly sketchy to me to call tiny countries surrounded by hostile regimes "threatening" for developing nuclear capacity, when US official policy for decades has been to threaten the world with nuclear genocide.

Strong recommendation to read Daniel Ellsberg's The Doomsday Machine.

Georgia: Book review: The Doomsday Machine

So I get that the US' nuclear policy was and probably is a nightmare that's repeatedly skirted apocalypse. That doesn't make North Korea's program better.

Ben [feeling pretty sheepish, having just strongly recommended a book my friend just reviewed on her blog]: "Threatening" just seems like a really weird word for it. This isn't about whether things cause local harm in expectation - it's about the frame in which agents trying to organize to defend themselves are the aggressors, rather than the agent insisting on global domination.  Continue reading

Totalitarian ethical systems

(Excerpt of another conversation with my friend Mack.)

Mack: Do you consider yourself an Effective Altruist (capital letters, aligned with at least some of the cause areas of the current movement, participating, etc)?

Ben: I consider myself strongly aligned with the things Effective Altruism says it's trying to do, but don't consider the movement and its methods a good way to achieve those ends, so I don't feel comfortable identifying as an EA anymore.

Consider the position of a communist who was never a Leninist, during the Brezhnev regime.

Mack: I am currently Quite Confused about suffering. Possibly my confusions have been addressed by EA or people who are also strongly aligned with the stated goals of EA and I just need to read more. I want people to thrive and this feels important, but I am pretty certain that "suffering" as I think the term is colloquially used is a really hard thing to evaluate, so "end suffering" might be a dead end as a goal

Ben: I think the frame in which it's important to evaluate global states using simple metrics is kind of sketchy and leads to people mistakenly thinking that they don't know what's good locally. Continue reading

Commentary on Philosophy War

[Epistemic status: Truth-oriented, but don't want to stake any capital on this. Read only for fun, but you might learn something.]

Currently reading Adorno and interested in this silly little video.

"Zizek" makes a good-faith effort to get people with multiple perspectives talking with each other about subjects related to the set {Wagner, automation, Judaism, Adorno, Wicca} through truly epic levels of conviviality, but they have some sort of Babel problem and can't actually communicate. This leads to a war that pretends to be about philosophical differences, but if you look at what the words cash out to they're not really more meaningful than "Hey! Hey! Hey! I wish to borrow Pakistan!" or "My neighbors suffer, Whee!" - calls to action to expropriate via organized violence, and endorsement of the same.  Continue reading