2018: Year 1 in Review

I started this blog with a post on the 14th of October, 2017. I mostly posted random collections of links for the next 6 months until I started to actually publish my own writing in April. I think now’s a good time to look back.

My best articles this year:

Decent articles this year:

I’m happier with this year than with the ones that came before, I wrote more and I got some of the important ideas that occupy me down on paper. There’s a long way to go, both in content to cover and the quality and clarity of my writing. There’s also a tension between my two styles of writing. Sometimes I write in a clear, logical and precise manner, checking off arguments one by one. Other times I write more freely mixing metaphor and image and idea together into one big mess. I think both are valuable but it’s an open question how far the latter is intelligible to people who don’t already know me and aren’t familliar with my ideas.
What about the coming year? The main objectives are the same as always: to keep writing and not be afraid of writing dumb stuff. There are also some things I want to write about. I’ve been meaning to start writing book reviews when I read valuable things. I have a few drafts hovering around from last year which should be decent with a little bit of polish. Specifically, I have reviews at some stage of in progress for:

  • The three heads of cerberus
  • Heretic
  • Skin in the Game
  • The high growth handbook
  • On violence and Violence of the Mind
  • Fear no Evil
  • The elephant in the brain

I also have some topics in mind to cover in a bit more detail:

  • The Identity sequence
    • The problem with naive physicalism
    • The problem with continuity
    • A mind-space theory of identity
    • Is the copy problem a problem?
    • Past-body privilege and why location is morally irrelevant
    • The irrelevance of causal entanglement
  • Practical and Pure ethics
    • Practical vs Pure ethics
    • Applications to common ethical problems
  • Philosophers cannot build skyscrapers
  • The horror of evolution
  • My rules for relationships and daily life
    • For honesty
    • Against false friendships
    • Accept suffering & adversity
    • Most people are amoral
    • Towards moral vision
    • Marginal Improvements Compound
  • Competitive Debating
  • Software Engineering (potentially in a separate blog to avoid political contamination or the need for self-censorship)

The first two sequences are things I’ve been thinking about on and off for years now. Evolution I’ve already covered but I think a clean and argumentative piece would be good. The real added value probably lies in discussion of my rules for relationships and daily life. I find that some of my most deeply held beliefs are also ones I consider obvious and not worth writing about. I also find they’re not so obvious to many people I talk to. I should write about them a bit.

Impossible Problems

(Epistemic Status: Uncritical Brain Dump. Read at your own risk. May contain raw cancer)

The world is so very large and the future may be so big. Often we focus on the little things, the problems of the present. I’ve always been interested in the bigger problems. Whether they’re worth tackling so early or even thinking about a lot I don’t know. Here are two of these problems. Both of these seem intrinsic to our universe  and things technology or power alone won’t necessarily tackle.

Evolution as a hostile process

Evolution optimises for reproductive success. Not for morality. Not for less suffering. Not for knowledge. Just for reproductive fitness. This is horrific because at best it leads to a world with so much less value than is possible and at worst, and in what I think is the more likely scenario, it leads to a hell which is worse than non-existence where life is a death tournament of predators and parasites an disease and death and suffering is omnipresent. Where all sentient things are hardcoded to like the strong and defect when it pays to do so and believe what it helps them to believe. It’s a hell that technological advancement or having more power or resources general is unlikely to help us solve. Evolution always occurs. If not at the biological level than at the individual level through other means, like which future cyborg like group can/will most quickly produce clones. If not at the individual level than at the group level. In fact, the only solution seems to be to do one of two things:

  • Stop change
  • Ensure there is only one individual/system

Both of these stop evolution because things cannot change in the first instance and because there is no competition in the second, but both have serious costs. The cost of the first path is more than stagnation, it’s death. It’s a civilisation stuck in a crystallised present not just in terms of tech but in terms of culture  and people and everything else. Either that or a short, continuously recurring cycle. Say goodbye to dreams of immortality and godhood or exploring the full space of possible minds. The cost of the second path is two fold. One downside of having only a single entity is that if that entity should cease to exist, life probably ends. Of course there are arguments against this. Maybe a multi-polar world actually has a higher risk of extinction because, say, in the far future any agent can easily acquire reality destroying weapons. Maybe a single entity/civ could have catastrophic survival strategies which re-seed the galaxy following it’s demise. A system of dead-man switches or the like. Still, it’s impossible to assess how persuasive these objections are in the context of a far future that is beyond our understanding. The second downside of a singular future is that again it shuts off so many reals of possibility, so many possible universes teeming with different and valuable life exploring all the desirable parts of the mind space. Evolution is scary. It’s omnipresent. It seems to be a core feature of any iterated multi-agent system just as much as the laws of gravitation are embedded in any system containing matter. It’s difficult to even imagine a conceptually possible solution. This does not bode well.

(Warning: high probability of cancer from this point forward)

Causality denies free will and thus personhood.

The universe is fundamentally a machine. That machine runs on cause on effect. Whether everything is deterministic or certain interactions are probabilistic is besides the point. The point is that the physical world is the physical world and it is governed by physical laws. Intelligent agents human or otherwise do not hover somewhere above the material plane, reaching in to change events when they will it so. Rather we are parts of the machine, cogs and nothing more. We are entirely reducible to simple processes explainable by these laws and the only difference between our “conscious” minds and rocks or waterfalls or any other naturally occurring pattern is that our minds are complex enough that the abstractions we build to understand them can seem to take on a life of their own. That and we’re programmed to believe in these abstractions. This is a problem. If we are nothing more than cogs then our personhood is an illusion. All our hopes and dreams and desires are no different from the stars at night or the growing blade of grass. This is something we need to fight and I have no idea how to do so. My only thoughts on the matter are childhood scribblings which talk about temporal transcendence and other sweet nothings.

If you don’t buy my argument above because you think a mechanistic universe and physicalism are compatible with free will or because you think that personhood does not require free will, here’s a weaker but more broadly appealing case for the same conclusion. We are who we are because of many things. Because of our genes. Because of where we grew up and who shaped us as we did so. Because of what we chose. Given that the lines between these things are somewhat arbitrary, if my parents raise me to be violent and abusive and then I act in that way have I chosen it or are my parents to blame, but where they are isn’t relevant for this argument. Today most people have more choice than a hundred years ago when we were bound be caste and clan and sex and faith. We still have so little though. When I grew up, all around me I saw others in school who could have been successful but weren’t because the toxic culture consigned them to the trash heap. (Or in my eyes because they were weak). So few are show the many different ways to live, the different ethos and paths. The path of the warrior with it’s discipline. The path of the prophet with its rage at the injustice of the world and its madness. The path of the lover, of giving yourself to another and living with and for them. There are so many ways to be and to live and yet most normal people have so little choice in who they grow up to be. That is a shame.

We burnt our own history

(Epistemic Status: Polemical. No lies but meaningful omissions)

When I read conservative websites, the more intellectual ones, they see the history of the west as being something meaningful. They see an unbroken line stretching from antiquity through the greeks and Rome, the rise of christianity, the dark ages and finally the renaissance and birth of a new democratic and free world order. They see the grand enterprise of western civilisation, how our norms and values are a combination of so much that came before us. How most of the values we see as normal today, from not hating the weak to seeing virtue as morality rather than strength or beauty or wealth, came about from the triumph of christianity over paganism. It’s a good story. Better than the ahistorical denial of western culture the far left embraces. It’s still wrong. It’s wrong because it misses out a very important part. The part where we burnt our past.

Aristote. Plato. Diogenes. Anximander. Pythagoras. We trace back many of our ideas today to the greeks. From science to democracy. The funny thing is that all we have are fragments and fragments of fragments. That’s because christians spent hundreds of years manically and pathologically burning every trace of pagan writers, tearing down statues and generally exterminating any echo of the past which didn’t conform to their manic outlook on the world. Many writings we do have come from the muslim world where the knowledge of the west was preserved for centuries. Our modern translations often aren’t from greek, they’re second hand, translated from arabic.

It’s worth remembering that ideology always contaminates the search for truth. Just like the left choose to ignore or downplay the fact that the west did have a distinct culture and history so the right downplays or omits the horrors christianity and the church wrought. It’s not (usually) intentional. It’s just that when making up stories about the world our brain tends to want to show our tribe in a good light and other tribes in a bad one and modern political tribes tend to identify more or less with historical ones.

Is Paying Taxes As Morally Weighty as Murder?

A while ago I wrote about a person who chose to join the military without giving any real thought to the morality of taking life. I said that they were a bad person. We all pay taxes. Taxes fund the military. Most of us don’t seriously consider whether we should be paying tax. Are we just as bad as the amoral reservist?
I’d say we are bad but not quite as bad for a few reasons:

  1. Taxes are coercive. Voluntary military service is not.
  2. Paying taxes probably contributes less to killing than military service
  3. Paying taxes is more causally distant than working in the military
  4. Taxes have other net-positive effects

The coercion argument is simple. The choice to pay tax is not a free one. Not paying taxes means either:

  • Spending your life in prison
  • Having no taxable income
  • Lying

The first two are serious costs, serious enough to qualify as coercive, and the third is unlikely to work in the long run. If a choice is not free, you are less accountable for it in proportion to how unfree you are. (Or so run most peoples intuitions). Hence the free choice to join the reserves is more morally culpable than the coerced choice to pay tax.

The second reason is an empirical question and so a lot more murky. Assuming a median income, does paying tax contribute more to wartime killing the military carries out than joining directly? Maybe yes. Maybe no.

  • The marginal value of your labour is greater than the value of your tax donation
    • But not if you are only marginally better than the person who would have gotten your place
      • But the (UK) military has a manpower shortage

Also, this kind of pure consequentialism isn’t something I or most people accept. Being a death camp guard during WW2 but using your salary to donate to effective charities which save more lives than you take probably wouldn’t work as a defence in court and I’m not sure it’s a defensible moral position either. The outcome isn’t all that matters.

As for the third reason, causal distance, it’s dumb but true. Right or wrong, our intuitions say that we are less morally accountable for acts which we are moral causally distant from. Not sure if that’s a good practical moral norm to have, although life seems pretty unworkable without it. Not sure it’s actually a pure moral value either. Maybe it’s just something we use to make consequentialism tractable given our limited real world computing power. Still.

Taxes being good for other reasons also isn’t an easy win. Yes taxes are good for other reasons. So is war if it stops dictators. So is joining even the most unjust, genocidal wars if you can make them slightly less bad by replacing a worse person. Again it’s just not clear how far we should be consequentialist vs deontological here. The death camp guard murder offsetting objection still applies.

In conclusion, ethics is hard and anyone who says otherwise is lying or stupid or probably both. More seriously, I think paying taxes is a moral decision and one that most of us should put a lot more weight on than we currently do. The fact that something is normal is not an excuse. Still, carrying a gun and killing seems much more morally weighty. I’m not sure why but I think it’s mostly because of the casual distance.

Genetically Engineered Children and Moral Panic

Hu JianKui and his team created a genetically engineered human baby. Many of the news articles that followed labelled his actions as morally unethical, dangerous and immoral. What’s interesting is that the vast majority of these articles didn’t actually state their reasoning. There are good reasons to doubt the ethics of what Hu did ranging from uncertainty over the patients consent to whether there were better alternative treatments. Most of the articles I saw near the start of the news cycle didn’t mention these reasons. They didn’t explain why editing children’s genes to make them safer from a horrific, life-destroying disease was bad. They didn’t explain why it’s okay for the state to determine for parents what genes their children can have, okay for it to condemn children who could be healthy to a life of disease. They didn’t explain why gene editing is dangerous or so unethical. The lack of argumentation combined with how one sided the coverage is disappointing but not surprising. I’m not sure that eugenics and genetically engineering humans is a good thing. I am sure about is that one sided discourse in which a scientists efforts to make babies immune to HIV is painted as dangerous, unethical, immoral and exploitative without serious consideration is not conducive to a good epistemic culture or rational, productive legislation of future technologies.

What does a broad conception of free speech actually look like?

In my last post I argued against narrow, legalistic conceptions of free speech. In doing so I implicitly endorse a broader conception. What does that broader conception actually look like? My intuitions say something like this:

In the public sphere:

  • As an employer, never let an applicants ethics or politics influence your decision to hire them.
  • As an employee, never let your employers ethics or politics influence your decision to work for them.
  • As a consumer, never let a firm’s ethics or politics influence your decision to purchase from them.

My thoughts on the private sphere are more hazy and uncertain:

  • Politics is not the sum of a person. Don’t hate those with different beliefs nor try to exclude them from your social circles.
  • Don’t try to narrow the intellectual horizons of other people or manipulate them into believing what you believe. Manipulation includes lying but also extends to not telling others arguments you don’t find persuasive but think they would.

These norms are extensive and some of them, like the one about employees not discriminating against employers, are uncommon and deserve an article of their own. Still I think that it’s not really these specific intuitions or rules that are important. They’re just my rules and I could well be wrong. What’s important is the underlying principle which goes something like this: “A free society is one where people can hold any view they choose and speak as they wish without fear of reprisals”. My general litmus test for any behaviour is whether that behaviour universalised would lead to a society which is more or less free. If it’s the latter, there needs to be a damm good justification for it. Not being able to find employment if you have the wrong beliefs is coercive and an unjust restriction on speech. Not being able to found or lead a company if you have the wrong beliefs is also an unjust, coercive restriction both for the individual and for the belief-holders as a group because they are denied economic power. Ditto for a hundred other things we consider normal and acceptable but shouldn’t.

Counterpoint:

  • Conflicts with the individual freedom we believe people should have. Strongly so in the private sphere, you shouldn’t have to socialise with Nazi’s if you don’t want to, and more weakly in the private sphere, shouldn’t have to buy from regressive leftists if you don’t want to.
  • The general anti-open-society argument. Open societies lead to bad ideas and norms spreading. We should choose norms we like and enforce them. Not through violence but through social coercion.

Against legalistic conceptions of free speech

I think back to the day I met my girlfriend. We talked about free speech. Someone said that as long as the law does not punish speech, there is free speech. I disagreed. If social norms punish speech, if saying the wrong thing makes it impossible to have a career or home or family, then there is no free speech. 

Imagine a society. There are three political factions, the 1’s, the 2’s and the 3’s. There are no legal restrictions on speech but there is a strong social taboo against supporting 3. If you publicly support 3, others will choose not to associate with you. Employer’s won’t hire you. If you have a job, you’ll be passed over for promotion or fired if you choose to talk about why you like 3 in the workplace, despite talking about liking 1 or 2 being fine. Talking about 3 may even mean your children are taken away, not because talking about 3 is illegal but because it indicates you’re a bad person and likely can’t be a good parent. It may even mean your family disowns you, no one will marry you and no magazine, paper or journal will publish your work. Is this society free? Does it have freedom of speech? The answer is no and the absence of laws discriminating against believers in 3 doesn’t change that.

A society with perfect freedom of speech is one where people are free to speak their minds. A society with perfect freedom of religion is one where people may worship whatever gods they wish. A society with perfect freedom of association is one where people can spend or not spend time with whoever they wish. If people are less free to do these things, then their society has less of that freedom. Whether the restriction is enforced through the institutions of the state or through social norms is not relevant. Both are ways the collective controls the individual.*

Counterpoint:

  • There is a conflict between people’s freedom to associate with who they wish and other people’s freedom of speech.
  • State restrictions on speech are clear. What social norms constitute restrictions, less so. Does any norm which makes speech more (socially) costly reduce free speech?