Tag Archives: philosophy

Against responsibility

I am surrounded by well-meaning people trying to take responsibility for the future of the universe. I think that this attitude – prominent among Effective Altruists – is causing great harm. I noticed this as part of a broader change in outlook, which I've been trying to describe on this blog in manageable pieces (and sometimes failing at the "manageable" part).

I'm going to try to contextualize this by outlining the structure of my overall argument.

Why I am worried

Effective Altruists often say they're motivated by utilitarianism. At its best, this leads to things like Katja Grace's excellent analysis of when to be a vegetarian. We need more of this kind of principled reasoning about tradeoffs.

At its worst, this leads to some people angsting over whether it's ethical to spend money on a cup of coffee when they might have saved a life, and others using the greater good as license to say things that are not quite true, socially pressure others into bearing inappropriate burdens, and make ever-increasing claims on resources without a correspondingly strong verified track record of improving people's lives. I claim that these actions are not in fact morally correct, and that people keep winding up endorsing those conclusions because they are using the wrong cognitive approximations to reason about morality.

Summary of the argument

  1. When people take responsibility for something, they try to control it. So, universal responsibility implies an attempt at universal control.
  2. Maximizing control has destructive effects:
    • An adversarial stance towards other agents.
    • Decision paralysis.
  3. These failures are not accidental, but baked into the structure of control-seeking. We need a practical moral philosophy to describe strategies that generalize better, and that benefit from the existence of other benevolent agents rather than treating them primarily as threats.

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Fire, Telepathy, Bandwidth

Literacy is an amazing power. But it comes at a terrible price. And no, I don't just mean memory.

Writing is Magic

Through the magic of psychometric tracery we are able to share the thoughts of fellow literates across great distances of time and space, just by reading their inscriptions. Moreover, psychometric tracery has a permanence that memory does not, so we can preserve our own thoughts more completely and precisely, for longer, by writing them down, than by remembering them. The modern bureaucratic state and firm owe their existence to writing - the world would collapse without it. This has probably been true ever since the first great cities learned the Art.

But Great Magic Comes at a Great Price

Just like meetings summon a very knowledgeable demon at the price of the temporary suspension of their participants' minds, writing comes at a price as well. The most common criticism is that literate people have worse memories. As usual, Plato said it best. I'm just going to paraphrase, if you want the original, I highly recommend reading the Phaedrus.

In Phaedrus, Plato has Socrates tell a story about the invention of writing. He says that Theuth, the god-inventor, presented his inventions to the god-king Thamus, and among them was writing, which Theuth praised as an aid to both wisdom and memory. Thamus replied that Theuth was too optimistic; writing was a drug that counterfeited memory, and actively harmed wisdom. People would be able to "recite" many true opinions that they just looked up, but out of prolonged reliance on reference texts, would have less of the understanding that would have enabled them to generate these opinions in the first place.

Elsewhere in Phaedrus, Socrates says that the true practice of philosophy cannot be written down, because to teach philosophy you cannot speak in the same way to everyone. Philosophy is not a set of opinions, it is more like a fire burning in the soul of a person, which can only be transmitted by prolonged contact in which the other person's soul can catch fire. Plato says much the same, writing in his own voice, in the Seventh Letter, which I recommend less but has the virtue of being short.

Of course, everyone ignores this and goes on to assume Plato put his philosophy into writing. Well, almost everyone.

Was Plato Right?

I don't actually think the degradation of memory is a problem. If anything, it's freed up mental space for better things to remember. Instead of memorizing facts, we can keep track of a large number of ways to obtain facts. We've increased our total power to obtain true opinions.

The understanding thing is a little more problematic.

Talking to Yourself

When you think something through in your own mind, you have access to all your own thoughts. You know what you mean by all the words you use. You can communicate with yourself in any mode - visual, auditory, tactile, nonverbal.

Verbal conversation with another person is necessarily lower bandwidth - meaning that less information is communicated at a time. In exchange, you get two separate minds, with different strengths, processing the information simultaneously. A clarifying question from your interlocutor can help you notice that actually, no, you don't quite understand what you mean by that word, or the nonverbal assumptions you were making aren't ones you endorse, or the big fuzzy thing you were confused about seems clearer when you break it down into pieces small enough to talk about.

Another problem with verbal communication is error. Disagreements about definitions or word usage often derail substantive conversations. This can be (but rarely is) addressed by frequent stopping or interrupting at the first moment someone uses a term that seems unclear. The underlying disposition of curiosity that makes this possible, and the readiness to abandon or discard words to try to ascend to the things themselves, is part of the philosophical attitude Plato believed it would be impossible to convince someone of by writing down correct opinions.

Latency and Throughput

Verbal communication at all has serious problems, and writing has even more. A big one is latency.

I am borrowing the concept of latency and throughput from computing. They are two measurements of how fast you can transfer information.
Throughput measures the overall rate of information transfer over time. Latency measures how long it takes to move a small piece of information and get a response.

Written communication generally has high throughput but high latency. This is obviously true for things like physical letters in envelopes, but tends to be true electronically as well, because people tend to wander off and do something else instead of waiting for a response. So even some short conversations can extend over days, months, or even years.

One common response to this problem is to try to use higher throughput to compensate for latency. Instead of saying just one thing, people make long, structured arguments, explicitly defining terms and anticipating counterarguments or questions instead of waiting for them. In other words, they try to take the conversation as far as they can with a simulation of the other person inside their heads.

In cases where the questions or objections are easy or simple ones, this is effective - it is a convenient shortcut with a long and glorious tradition, dating back even to the days where such arguments were communicated by speechmaking and not writing at all, for example in politics and other adversarial environments where one could not trust one's interlocutor to ask fair questions and work with you to get to answers constructively. But for the hard questions, people just end up talking past each other, and have debates instead of conversations.

Good Conversation Takes Practice

This is especially problematic because it increases the opportunity cost of difficult conversations. Easy conversations get cheaper with writing (where the potential throughput is basically unlimited), so we have more of them - but the hard conversations are almost no cheaper at all by comparison. So we have very few. After all, the difficulties you have with a novel concept may be very different from the difficulties I have with it, requiring conversations that go in totally different directions, or at different speeds, or examining different parts of our vocabulary. Because of this, even if you do manage to make the points I need to hear, it doesn't necessarily scale up well - republishing the original won't reliably communicate the same thing again.

But wait - it gets worse. Good conversation about difficult things takes practice. Most people are never properly trained, because proper training is expensive and the benefits are unobvious, so they don't know what to do when the opportunity arises to learn something difficult - and instead just try to have a debate, linking to articles, citing research, making long structured arguments and explicit definitions, and trying to anticipate counterarguments before they come up. If they've started out on the wrong track, it's exhausting for even a skilled conversational partner to apply the brakes, especially because someone trained in the art of good philosophical conversation is specifically acculturated not to try to exert a disproportionate influence over the conversation.

My hope is that simply making more people aware of this failure mode will help them avoid it, but I'm not very confident this will help.

What Nietzsche Said to Me

Nietzsche famously wrote that he was writing to be understood only by his friends, which raises the obvious question of why so many people who don't like what they think he says claim to understand him. This weekend I listened to a few conversations that seemed to get him totally wrong. I resisted the urge to correct them at the time since it wasn't completely material to the conversation, so I'm dominating that urge into a blog post to get writing practice.

Note that Nietzsche didn't write this way, presumably for a good reason. You may superficially understand what I'm saying but fail to internalize it, unless you follow up by reading the original until you understand how this is the same thing as that.

According to Nietzsche, in the beginning, there were people and power relations.

Words are Powerful

Words are one of the main ways people interpret, keep track of, and interact with their world. Words like "one" and "two" and "tree" and "sheep are important tools of agriculture, trade, etc. But words like "good," "wicked," "proud," "sinful," "man," "woman," "justice," and "sexism" also affect people's behavior in profound ways. One simple example of this is that in standard English the default pronoun for one person it's always either male or female. This makes it much more natural to make statements about men or women rather than humans, and it cuts against the grain to make sex-neutral statements. For another consider the Christian sin - but Aristotelian virtue - of pride. For more on this, read 1984 by George Orwell.

But they're Made Up

The framework of ideas we use to understand our world is not an attribute of the things themselves. It is a behavior of our minds. It's made up! And someone made it up. Whoever made up the thoughts you use determined not which propositions you affirm or deny, but which ones are thinkable in the first place.

The ancients seem alien and incomprehensible because their basic ideas are so different from ours that only a truly deep thinker can understand them. The Greek "soul" is not necessarily separable from the body, or entirely rational in nature - Aristotle thought a soul was something a body did, even an animal's or plant's body - but the moderns think either that there are no souls ("Huh? Do the bodies just lie there motionless our something?" - Aristotle) or that only humans have them and they go to heaven or hell after we die.

Now Everyone is a Wizard

Modernity (the legacy of Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke, Descartes, Hume, etc.) is not that it's the first time anyone said that the people should rule. That's old. These are the features of modern ideas:

Baconian science means that you can add to our stock of true attributes we know about nature without understanding your tools.

Algebra means you can perform lots of calculations without understanding math.

Liberalism means that lots of people are allowed to talk about different "moralities" and choose a god, ethos, and role in society as one might choose a shirt. We don't have a unified cultural elite controlling how we're allowed to talk about things. Instead, our elite believe in and endorse total freedom of speech. Which means that anyone can playing around with the lens through which humans are able to think about their world and decide right from wrong.

You can't get arrested for killing the gods, because after all, it's only words. Not that it makes the gods any less dead.

With no unified control over language, controversy over what to call things is a power struggle more akin to war than to politics, because the goal is not to enact a set of preferred practical policies, but to permanently destroy the enemy's ability to fight, by ripping out their tongues. At the same time, seeing that all values are questionable, people lose faith in words about rightness and wrongness, the just and the true and the good, so nothing holds them back from this return to the war of all against all.

The Nietzschean Hero

You can't fix this with arguments about what the good should be. Arguments are just another piece in the Game of Words. Which set of ideas you use determines which combinations of words you evaluate as true propositions. Aristotle is correct when he says that animals have souls, but Descartes is correct when he says they don't.

Is there a way out? Not an easy our a likely one. We're probably doomed to this forever. But if someone were to make up - and popularize, at least among the elite - a new set ideas, one with a new set of values appropriate for out times and circumstances, who would that person have to be?

They would need a sufficiently deep understanding to know that the words they have received are not the only words that can be, that to make a new thing you have to destroy, distort, or forget the post.

And they would have to be profoundly creative. Creative enough to be able to come up with a totally new set of ideas adequate to give modern people the power they need, while taking away the curse of infinitely malleable values.

That is the Nietzschean superman.