Leaking Meaning

There’s so much meaning in the world. I always think back to all the stories I’ve read. To Ursula Le Guin and the worlds she made. To how much they shaped me. I’m scared that even if we keep the paper, over time the meaning leaks out of stories. As culture changes, language shifts and the implicit concept map we have of the world alters over generations, stories no longer mean the same thing. Sometimes they mean something entirely new and hence from the death of one story another rises. Other times, most times the meaning just drains away. Most people reading the Iliad today can’t understand it, not really. They see the events and the order they happen in but the characters minds and the world is so alien that little meaning remains. The struggle of fighting against a better king than yours because your tribe is against their tribe. The age old question of how to come to terms with war knowing that some of your enemies are good people, that their struggles to fight for their families and people are as just as yours. The tastes and sounds and sights words bring to us. The web of social norms through which we interpret characters actions. I was watching the wire today and I realised that I saw so much more now than I had a few years ago, largely because I’m less autistic and can understand what’s happening between and within people better. Maybe we all have autism when trying to read stories from distant cultures.

There’s so much meaning lost and it’s so hard to preserve. Even if one day we have god-tech and can alter our minds so that we inhabited the same mindspace as a contemporary reader, it still won’t help. Changing yourself that much means it’s not you any more. Maybe. Maybe not. It’s sad to think of how much we’ll loose and how much we’ve already lost.

Systematising Foreign Policy

(Epistemic status: Low confidence.)

(Bias: High. Only giving one side of the argument. )

The more I think about foreign policy, the more I think it’s a strange extra-legal backwater. In all other aspects of statecraft, from economics to healthcare, there are harsh constraints on what leaders can and cannot do and huge amounts of law enforcing transparency and holding decisions makers accountable for failing to comply with statutory requirements. In international relations, there seem to be almost no constraints. A politician can declare war and kill 500’00, sponsor murderous regimes, islamist militias, subvert democratic governments etc.. All of this can be done at essentially the executive level, with only the most serious decisions like war requiring legislative approval. The public is seldom informed as these policies are secret and when and if things go wrong there is no domestic legal framework to hold people to account. Whenever I read the American conservative, Jacobin, Chomsky or any other dissident source, I hear the same refrains about how horrific some aspects of western foreign policy have been and how shocking It is that none of the instigators were held accountable. I seldom hear workable solutions. Looking at other areas of society I think one of the major reasons institutions such as the police, health services etc… are more functional, less corrupt and more accountable today than in the 1800’s is because they have been systematised. The legal system was extended to cover them and a variety of rules, regulations, targets dictate what conduct is acceptable and what conduct is illegal and constitutes gross misconduct or a felony. It seems like foreign policy is still a legal Wild West. Changing that may be a good way to ensure better decisions are made.

Sex Redistribution & Does anyone hold equality as a basic value?

I went to a rationalist meetup this weekend. We spent a long time talking about Robin Hanson’s article on sex redistribution, sex inequality, relationship inequality and potential policies to fix both. I think my greatest problems with comparing income redistribution to sex redistribution are:

  • Redistributing Income is less morally abhorrent than redistributing sex/relationships because the latter requires dictating to people what relationships they must, can and cannot have.
  • Redistributing relationships seems to require giving the state/society too much power over individuals.
  • Marginal utility for relationships/sexual encounters diminishes far faster than for money. Most people can only maintain a set number of relationships at a time whereas our capacity to spend money for anything ranging from shelter to education to life extension to yachts seems to be near limitless. Hence we’d hit a ceiling very quickly. (Although I am conflicted about this. It’s possible that the total supply is lower than demand, in which case this criticism is irrelevant)

(Note: None of these area criticisms of Hanson as his article does not talk about redistribution in the sense of taking from some and giving to others but rather in the sense of changing the a given distribution to make it more equal)

I think my problem with debates about equality is that I don’t see equality as a terminal value. I suspect that most people don’t either. The simplest test for whether we value inequality innately is to see if there are any other innate values we would be willing to trade away for some amount of equality, no matter how small. Let’s say I innately value people being happy (utilitarianism. It’s stupid. I know). If it is the case that equality is something I also value innately, I should be willing to trade off some amount of utility for some amount of equality. Let say there are two possible worlds: Equalistan which has a 100 people with 50 units of utility each and their arch enemy slightly-less-equalistan which has 99 people with 50 units of equality and 1 person with 51. I find the slightly less equal world where people are better off is preferable. If the second world had 99 people with 50 units and 1 person with 99’999’999’999, I’d still prefer it. No matter how big the numbers get or what thing I innately value I substitute for utility, my intuitions are the same. There is no amount “thing I value” that I would give up for an increase in equality, no matter how lopsided the tradeoff. To me that suggests that equality is not something with any value in and of itself. I instinctively think that most people agree with me and those who don’t don’t just aren’t capable of engaging in thought experiments stripping away their instrumental reasons for valuing equality. I don’t have a high degree of confidence in the view. It seems like it could very well be a case of mind projection fallacy and other people may have different axiomatic beliefs/moral intuitions to me. Empirical questions require empirical answers.

Voluntary Prisons

Many people struggle with addiction. Drugs. Food. Sex. Whatever it is, its harder to shake an addiction when the thing you’re addicted to is easy to access. Voluntary isolation cells seem like an obvious solution. People who want to go cold turkey could book themselves into a cell for a given period. If this sounds like rehab to you, it’s not. Rehab is voluntary. A patient can leave at any time. Mandatory, prison like rehab is something that only those sentenced for drug offences are eligible for.

Why might this be a bad idea:

  • Allowing people to sign away their liberty weakens important legal/moral norms
  • Going cold turkey is not an effective way to treat addiction

In the stars

When I was younger, I was convinced that my future lay in the stars. Maybe it does. Maybe not. Maybe taking our race to the stars leads to nothing but a future of Malthusian overpopulation and endless strife. Maybe it leads to destruction as the more of us there are, the more chance we discovers something which should have stayed in the box. Maybe it leads to an even worse hell. Life doesn’t end with us. Evolution doesn’t stop with us. The image in my mind when I think of a Malthusian future is not one with people fighting and starving and dying. Nowhere near. Even the middle ages were not Malthusian, not really. It’s more than Malthusian. It’s the end of the dream time. It’s past the point where evolutionary drives have adapted to the environments where we find ourselves in. It’s where the tricks we play on our hind brains no longer work. Where we crave offspring, not sex. Where we calculate every transaction based on how it benefits us rather than relying on easily gamed monkey tribe instincts weak enough to allow for cooperative civilization. I see terror in the loss of everything we value and are as evolution relentlessly optimizes us for survival and reproduction. In the very long run, escaping the evolutionary rat race is a necessity. It’s also nigh impossible. Stop biological evolution and we continue to evolve technologically, eventually altering our bodies and minds until baseline humans are no longer viable. Stop all individual level change whatsoever and evolution continues unimpeded at the societal level. Groups which can attract and convert more people grow. Those that can’t die out.

Why isn’t this happening already? Two explanations. One, it is. There aren’t many hunter gatherers around these days. Two, we’re in a rare lucky period where relatively non-coercive power structures are the most effective. This won’t always be the case. It wasn’t the case 500 years ago. We’ve fallen from grace before. When we transitioned from hunter-gatherers to farmers, our lives became worse, more hierarchical. (Aside: Worse by what metric? We became less free, but we were slaves to other man rather than the environment. Is that really worse? For the first time we could gather and save knowledge. We could start to understand. Rather than being born anew with every death and birth, we could pass on parts of ourselves. Isn’t the promise of immortality worth suffering?) We descended not because any individual chose to but because societies organized in one way systematically out-competed (destroyed) those organized in another. The modern state with it’s protection of individual rights is not magic. It doesn’t exist because we happened to decide that torture and violence and hierarchy and horror were bad. No. Medieval states burned and slaughtered for as long as they could. It happened because after the invention of firearms fielding an effective army required huge numbers of citizens rather than a small core of highly trained knights. It happened because open societies innovate drastically faster than closed ones. It happened because open societies course correct better than closed ones (I think?). It’s not magic. It’s natural selection. It may continue. It may not. If the environment changes again, if new technology makes totalitarianism much easier and lower cost, if it makes the proletariat interchangeable with capital, it’s unlikely we as a species will be able to voluntarily restrict competition and stick with our preferred forms of social organisation. Not yet anyway.

We worship the beast

(Epistemic Status: An argument which should be made. I don’t believe everything I say. Stepping into the paradigm)

Religions represent evil, not good. We worship the beast. The greatest deception and the triumph of hell on earth.

The story goes like this. There is good and evil. God is good. He/it/they/we speak to what is best in us. They speak to who we should be, who we want to be. They ask for sacrifice and rejecting our worst drives. Even when doing so leads to suffering and pain. Even when standing against evil is thankless. Even when we’re the lone voice in the darkness, screaming against the injustice of the world as we’re drowned by the mob. On the other side lies evil. It tempts us. Hate. Lie. Steal. Do it and you’ll be rich and strong and loved. Being good will only cost you. It’s the voice in the back of your head that you never hear but that constantly whispers to you. Live and breed and spread.

Every Abrahamic religion traces this story. There is light and dark. Each calls to a part of our soul. Goodness carries a greater cost and evil is the shortcut to material success. Goodness is just. Evil is everything else. The struggle between the god and the adversary mirrors this struggle. God only offers salvation for our souls. The beast is master of the physical world.

The problem with our faiths is that we assume our god is the force of good in the universe. That the unseen, unheard adversary is the force for evil. Yet the Abrehamic god is evil, absolutely and irredeemably. Others have written about this. The actions of the abrahamic god are not just. They are savage and it’s not the savagery of a warrior or of righteous anger, it’s the savagery of an abusive parent who torments and dominates their own family. A god who kills those who refuse to obey is evil. A force which levels whole cities because some of their people have sinned is evil. The god of the bible is an abusive patriarch and like any abuser, no amount of obedience is enough. The beast is never sated. It demands and rewards obedience and punishes disobedience. It’s cause is not justice but power and dominance over others.

Whatever the being is, it’s followers burnt alive those who stood against them. They spread across Europe and the east and everywhere the pattern is the same. Where before people worshiped the gods of little things, they are forced into the new orthodoxy. Their cultures are destroyed. Their old temples torn down. Their sacred sites defiled and burned. What ISIS does today, Christianity, Islam and Judaism did for a thousand years. The physical institutions of our religions were built in no small part on cultural genocide. Fast forward to the middle ages and all are believers. Every institution of force is controlled by the abrahamic sect. To stand against it is madness. To say that a man who died on a cross is not a god is to be killed. To say that a warlord is not a good man is to be put to the sword.

The conclusion is obvious. We worship the beast. As our deep stories tell us, evil is fundamentally master of the physical universe. It’s no surprise that the great deceiver holds the majority of humanity in his sway, that our institutions of faith praise the usurper. That to speak out against the beast carries heavy costs. It would be too easy otherwise. To be righteous must be it’s own reward. If our world is a simulation trying to find agents which are moral, there can be no reward for faith or morality. True faith can only become known in the face of overwhelming opposition. Only in a world of utter darkness are the faithful revealed.





Deuteronomy 13:6-11 “If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

Chronicles 15:13 “But that whoever would not seek the Lord, the God of Israel, should be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman.”

Quran 4:89: “They wish that you reject Faith, as they have rejected (Faith), and thus that you all become equal (like one another). So take not Auliya’ (protectors or friends) from them, till they emigrate in the Way of Allah (to Muhammad). But if they turn back (from Islam), take (hold) of them and kill them wherever you find them, and take neither Auliya’ (protectors or friends) nor helpers from them.”

The beast is always the same. Kneel or die.

Rape is asymmetric

I think rape encompasses two concepts. One is the event. Someone being raped. Another is the act. Someone committing rape, being a rapist. These are different. The difference is subtle, but it matters. Three situations where the undifferentiated understanding of rape breaks down.

Let’s say someone was forced to have sex. Let’s say the person who forced them was severely retarded and didn’t know what they were doing was wrong nor that the victim was not consenting. Was the victim raped? Yes. They were forced to have sex against their will. It’s rape. Is the retarded person a rapist?. On one hand they forced someone to have sex against their will. That’s rape. Someone who commits rape is a rapist. On the other hand, they didn’t not have a guilty mind (mens rea). They didn’t intend to rape someone. In this sense they aren’t a rapist. Our intuitions conflict. They are a rapist in the sense that they had sex with someone without their consent. They are not a rapist in the sense that they are a bad person who deserves to suffer/be punished.

Let’s say you go to out clubbing and you meet someone. They come home with you and you have sex. To you everything seems consensual. In reality, the person you’ve slept with had no choice in the matter. They are a prostitute and their pimp told them they had to sleep with someone that night or else. Were they raped? Yes. They couldn’t say no. Are you a rapist? Again our intuitions conflict. On one hand you did have sex with someone against their will. That makes you a rapist. On the other hand, you didn’t know or indent to do so. In the rapist as a bad person sense, you’re not a rapist.

Let’s say you’ve just married someone. You ask them if they want to have sex. They say yes and you sleep together. Thing is, the person comes from a cultural background where saying no to sex is seen as immoral/bad. Doing so can lead to being disowned, suffering acid attacks, etc… Even though they don’t want to, they say yes because they’re afraid of what might happen otherwise. Has this person been raped? Yes. Are you a rapist? Intuitively, it seems that you’re not. You didn’t know that the other person wasn’t able to say no. You didn’t intend to rape them. Then again, you forced someone to have sex. By that logic, you’re a rapist.

Our intuitions on rape conflict. I think this conflict exists because the word rape encompasses two similar but meaningfully different concepts: Rape as an event and Rape as a crime/action. Rape as an event is the concept that says rape is when someone is forced to have sex against their will. Intent is irrelevant. Culpability is irrelevant. What’s relevant is what happened. Rape as an action is the second conception of rape. It’s when someone knowingly forces someone else who they know does not consent to have sex. The two usually overlap which is why this distinction isn’t usually relevant. Still, there are cases where they don’t, and in those cases it is useful to understand that we use a single word to talk about two very different things. Without that understanding, we end up confused at best or making very serious mistakes at worst. Remember that not every rape has a rapist. Remember that there’s a difference between rape as an event and rape as a crime.