Slate Star Codex

Good for the good god! Utils for the util throne!

[Ozy] A Response to Spandrell

[Content note: Gender, relationships, sexuality. Some sexually explicit content. Discussion without endorsement of various forms of transphobia, homophobia, et cetera. Ozy wishes you to know they wrote this in a very timely manner after Spandrell's original post and I just took forever to publish it.]

I made fun of this post on my tumblr and then Scott requested I actually argue with it.

First, let’s address the issue of homosexuality. Spandrell argues that “There’s no way on earth that a condition that makes you lose attraction towards the opposite sex is going to survive natural selection.” On the contrary, there is a lot of animal homosexuality. The linked book contains much fascinating information, such as the fact that animal sexuality has been documented in almost 500 species and that, in one study, ninety percent of observed giraffe sex was between two males. I am not sure why animal homosexuality is so common: I am not an evolutionary biologist myself. But it suggests that the simplistic model in which fucking something other than a vagina is not selected for is incorrect.

In addition, homosexuality is probably not inborn. A Swedish twin study with a sample size of 7600 found that genetic factors and shared-environment factors together explained only a third of the variance in sexual orientation, while two-thirds were explained by unshared environment. In short: sexual orientation in humans is less inborn than how hardworking you are. Indeed, Spandrell admits as much, saying that we do not know the cause of gayness. Maybe because it’s not inborn? Just saying.

One must point out that the “born this way” myth was invented by LGBT people to get people to accept us: “we can’t help it! It is mean to hurt people because of something they can’t help! Don’t worry, it’s genetic, accepting us won’t make anyone else gay!” I don’t fully understand what the Cathedral is, but if anything is part of the Cathedral the Human Rights Campaign is, and I feel like that is a fairly depressing amount of belief in the Cathedral’s myths from a self-declared neoreactionary.

Spandrell argues that female paraphiliacs do not exist because they do not usually tell researchers about being paraphiliacs. Unfortunately, he is missing the very large confounding variable, which is that women are fucking liars about sex. As I pointed out in my Anti-Heartiste FAQ, evidence suggests that the entire sexual partner gap between men and women is explicable by women being goddamned liars. There is no reason to believe they wouldn’t also be goddamned liars about their paraphilias.

Spandrell challenged me in his comment section– if female paraphilia is a thing– to find cases of female death by autoerotic asphyxiation. It is true that women are less likely to die by autoerotic asphyxiation. However, women are less likely than men to masturbate, and even when they do they masturbate less often than men do, decreasing the risk of women dying through masturbation. However, this is self-report data and thus falls under the “women are goddamned liars” explanation. Autoerotic asphyxiation deaths are massively undercounted to begin with; it is relatively common for people who die by autoerotic asphyxiation to be mistaken for suicides or “sanitized” by family members who don’t want to admit their child died by masturbation. Given that women lie massively about sex, it is possible that families are more likely to sanitize female autoerotic asphyxiators. Finally, I hate to be the feminist who points this out to the neoreactionary, but men and women are different. This probably extends to sexual fetishes. I admit that none of these are particularly solid arguments. However, I do have reason to believe that women have things that may be considered paraphilias.


The rise of the ebook has massively expanded the amount of porn that women read. Like I said, women are fucking liars about sex. They want to read porn, but they don’t want to admit that they want to read porn– and as plausibly deniable as Harlequins are, those Fabio covers make it look a little too much like porn for a lot of readers.

Ellora’s Cave is the largest erotic ebook producer in the United States. If you are curious whether women have paraphilias, you can explore the BDSM Elements section, featuring such titles as Taming the Raven’s Son, Pack and Mate, and Elf Struck (tagline: “When a BDSM slut is matched with a warrior virgin, both tempers and desires flare.”)

Part of the problem here is that I don’t fully understand what qualifies as a ‘paraphilia’ in Spandrell’s analysis. Spandrell provides as examples: “There are all sorts of paraphilias, all of which seem to only occur in men. Some men are attracted to babies, others to feet, others to shoes, others to obese women, others to old women. There’s a lot of weird stuff out there.” If we are going to the “at least as weird as being attracted to fat women” standard, then I feel like a lot of non-BDSM things in Ellora’s Cave count. For instance, paranormal erotic romance is basically just a fetish for fucking vampires and werewolves.

However, I suspect that female paraphilias are also going to be structurally different than male paraphilias. Eliade’s List of Fanfiction Kinks, Tropes, and Cliches is the most extensive list I’m aware of of fanfiction porn tropes. Literally, I have never been able to think of one that is popular and not on her list. The interesting thing about Eliade’s list– which is something I’ve found personally in my fanfiction consumption– is the lack of distinction between purely sexual and purely narrative tropes. The list does include things like “intercrural or interfemoral sex (i.e., thrusting cock between partner’s thighs),” but also things like “makeovers.” I suspect a list of favorite male porn tropes would be unlikely to include makeovers. Similarly, it’s a common observation that a plot what plot story on AO3, which is female-dominated, and an extraordinarily plotty story on Literotica, which is male-dominated, contain approximately the same amount of plot. I suspect when one studies female paraphilias one will find primarily narrative paraphilias: where men tend to fetishize a single act, women tend to fetishize an overall storyline. While one might not consider the latter to be a paraphilia, that seems to be far more related to an androcentric definition of paraphilia than a difference in the prevalence of paraphilias between men and women per se.

Finally, let us discuss trans women. To be honest, I don’t fully understand what the difference between “trans women are homosexual men” and “trans women are heterosexual women” is. The empirical facts remain the same: many trans women transition as soon as possible, are attracted to men, and behave in ways typically considered feminine. All I can figure is that it is the result of a belief that we should call trans women men in order to be pointlessly upsetting to them.

I am aware of two studies applying Blanchard’s autogynephilia questionnaire to a group of cisgender women. The first, unpaywalled here, I shall ignore because of its 29-person sample size, despite its astonishing revelation that 93% of cisgender women are autogynephiles by Blanchard’s definition. The second actually has a reasonable sample size, so let’s examine it more closely. The study divided autogynephiliac arousal into two categories– Autogynephiliac Interpersonal Fantasy (essentially, sexual fantasies about being admired as female) and the Core Autogynephilia Scale (essentially, sexual fantasies about being a very sexy woman). There was no difference between cisgender women and transgender women in the Autogynephiliac Interpersonal Fantasy scale. However, transgender women scored significantly higher on the Core Autogynephilia Scale.

To put it bluntly, this makes no goddamned sense. Cis women are just as likely as trans women to have a particular subtype of autogynephilia, but less likely to have autogynephilia itself?

Let us look at the Core Autogynephilia Scale a little more closely. The study authors modified the scale so that the cis woman population were asked if they have ever sexually fantasized about themselves having attractive or more attractive female body parts. However, imagine that you have a vagina and you have sexual fantasies in which you have a vagina. Nothing interesting here, probably going to mark “no” on the relevant questionnaire. Now imagine that you have a penis and you have sexual fantasies in which you have a vagina. You’re going to notice. This is contrary to expectations. If someone asks you “do you have sexual fantasies about having an attractive or more attractive vagina?”, you’re probably going to mark yes (assuming you don’t specifically fetishize having ugly genitals). The exact same behavior leads cis women to mark “no” and trans women to mark “yes.”

Essentially, autogynephilia is ordinary female sexuality. Women are often erotically aroused by dressing in lingerie and wearing makeup; women are erotically aroused by looking at themselves naked; women have sexual fantasies in which they have vulvas; for that matter, women are erotically aroused by imagining themselves as sexier than they are. If we assume that trans women are, well, women’s minds in men’s bodies, this entirely explains the autogynephilia data: women have female-typical sexuality instead of male-typical sexuality. (It does not explain the autogynephilia anecdotes, as one assumes it is quite uncommon for cis women to be aroused by the idea of knitting, but those seem to be selected for vividness rather than for representationality. One guy who is turned on by the idea of knitting does not mean that every trans woman who is attracted to other women is an autogynephile.)

Now, the pro-autogynephilia group may respond, “but it is normal for cis women to fantasize about having a vagina and deviant for trans women to!” But in that case there is no way for trans women to win. If they had sexual fantasies in which they had a penis, you would be like “ah, yes, that is proof they are men. Why would they even want sexual reassignment surgery if they are fine with having a penis?” Since they instead fantasize about having a vagina, you would be like “that is sexual deviancy!” There is no evidence that can convince you that trans women genuinely have what they say they have– a condition in which they are genuinely upset by their bodies, being seen as male, or both, which is best treated by allowing them to transition.

Spandrell opines that allowing trans women to transition and get sex reassignment surgery “can’t work well, at the very least because men have male sex drives, which are a very dangerous thing when not constrained by women.” I must remind him that the male sex drive is mediated through testosterone. Trans women typically take estrogens and anti-androgens, which lower the libido to the level of an otherwise-comparable cis woman. A woman who has had sexual reassignment surgery does not even have testicles to produce testosterone. She could not possibly have a male sex drive, unless Spandrell is advocating the theory that the male sex drive is actually mediated by ghost balls.

Finally, I must address the notion that I am an autoandrophile. First, I find it highly amusing that Spandrell believes I am the first trans person assigned female at birth to be attracted to men. I assure you I am certainly not. Second, my fetish is (mostly SFW, but TMI warning) very well documented. It is such a shame how no one ever does research before they insult you these days.

Third, I must clarify what I meant in that particular comment. In my experience, social dysphoria is subject to the hedonic treadmill: I was elated the first time someone called me ‘zie,’ but now it is an everyday thing. I imagine that if I went back, I would spend six months or so in a pit of constant dysphoria, but eventually get used to it. However, I have been constantly distressed by my breasts since puberty; when I thought I was cis, I would have constant fantasies of cutting them off with a knife; when I stop binding regularly, I notice a deep loss of psychological stability. The hedonic treadmill simply does not work for me having breasts. I value my relationship highly, but not that highly. (Being monogamous was a similar constant drain on me, and being polyamorous– several years after I started– is still a major contributor to my happiness, which is the reason I say it would be extremely hard to go back to monogamy.)

Does Class Warfare Have A Free-Rider Problem?

Here are two comments I’ve gotten on this blog in the past few weeks:

Progressivism is under massive selective pressure to actually cause problems because that leads to more power for progressivism.

Sasha and Malia Obama will get affirmative action, even though their own father has publicly admitted its ridiculous. Therefore, black elites have a stake in keeping black masses as poor and miserable as possible, to continue justifying affirmative action.

These seem like they can be easily dismissed as conspiracy theories, but what is the exact structure of that dismissal?

Well, first, it requires that people have an almost comical level of evil. Think of the Secretary of Health and Human Services noticing that, if she enacted terrible policies that made everyone in the country sick, people would demand more resources for health care and her empire would grow. It’s hard for me to imagine someone that Slytherin.

Second, it sounds like it requires literal conspiracy. In the second example, one of two things must happen. Either every black elite has to come up with the plan independently and work together in synchrony to carry it out – each taking it on faith that the other elites are doing their part. Or one person has to come up with the plan, convince everyone else that that’s the plan, and send them their marching orders (“You! Do your part to help keep the masses poor by voting against this much-needed education reform!”), all without the media catching wind of any of this.

Third, this makes the same mistake I accused Marx of in the last post. It assumes a free solution to all coordination problems.

Suppose we grant the conspiracy theorists their point that it is indeed in the interest of all black elites to keep the black masses poor so they can benefit from affirmative action. Suppose we even grant that they are evil enough to want to try this plan despite the suffering it will produce. And suppose they’re all really good at communicating through heavily encrypted email, so we solve the conspiracy aspect. The plan still doesn’t work.

Every elite benefits from the entire plan being pulled off. But now there’s a free rider problem. Each elite would have to expend some individual effort to keep everybody else down. Maybe it’s going out of their way to rally opposition to a useful reform. Maybe it’s having to take an unpopular position and so looking like the bad guy. All I’m saying is that quashing the dreams of the next generation of minority children is harder than sitting on your tuchus playing video games. Their own contribution doesn’t help the cause very much on net, so their incentive is to defect and hope everyone else does it.

Just as good people playing normal politics have a hard time rallying support for genuinely important causes like stopping global warming or enforcing Net Neutrality, so evil people playing Conspiracy Politics should have a hard time convincing their target demographic to get out of bed and join in their oppression.

But in fact they have it much harder. Good people playing normal politics can use a host of techniques – phone banks, door-to-door campaigns, benefit concerts, leaflets in the mail, celebrity endorsements – to rally people to action. Evil people playing Conspiracy Politics can’t do any of that without greatly increasing their risk of getting caught.

And when good people do rally the masses to their cause, it seems to be through an appeal to morality. Like “Yes, I know it would be much easier for you to sit back and let other people solve global warming, but you have an ethical responsibility to participate in this, and won’t you feel good about yourself knowing you’ve made a difference.”

Obviously if your campaign is “Cause as many problems as possible to increase the size of government” this is harder to pull off.

This seems to me to be a little-acknowledged third reason to dismiss conspiracy theories of this sort. But you don’t care. You’ve already wandered off, wondering why I’m wasting my time debunking things nobody (except apparently the rare SSC commenter) believes anyway.

But what if we apply this to more common claims? What about class warfare?

It is widely believed that the rich have captured government for their own ends. For example, rich people use their money and power to decrease tax rates on the wealthy and sabotage legislation meant to protect the working man.

But this ought to fall victim to the same coordination problems. After all, suppose you are a rich person who makes $1 million per year. You would like the government to cut federal taxes on the wealthy from 40% down to 30%, which would save you $100,000 per year. One might think you would be willing to spend up to $100,000 to effect this goal.

But in fact it requires the concerted effort of all the rich people across the country to make this happen. A single $100,000 donation isn’t going to change federal level policy in such a spectacular way. Realistically your effort will be a drop in a bucket that your entire class needs to contribute to.

Once again we encounter free rider problems. Suppose a representative of the Rich People’s Union asks for a $10,000 donation to fight for lower taxes. There are hundreds of thousands of rich people, so you’re pretty sure your one donation isn’t going to push anything over the edge one way or the other. Supposing the tax cut goes through, you will get the same benefit whether you donated or not; supposing it doesn’t, you won’t gain anything either way. It’s easy to see that in either case the rational self-interested thing to do is to refuse to donate.

There are a couple of rare exceptions to this. If you are Bill Gates and make a billion dollars a year, so that you would gain $100 million from the tax cut, it might be worth bribing the necessary legislators all on your own, on the grounds that if something needs to be done right you had better do it yourself. Likewise, if you’re Exxon Mobil or the Koch brothers, then you might be a big enough chunk of the target population for certain specific environmental regulations that it’s worth using your own money to fight it whether or not others join in.

But a general focus on the interests of the rich? Not likely.

Yet the rich do seem to get their way a disproportionate amount of the time, and this seems to require an explanation.

I am reminded of the research I looked at in Plutocracy Isn’t About Money. People seem to donate surprisingly little to political candidates, and donations don’t seem to help. This seems consistent with the idea that rich people don’t directly coordinate to bribe politicians in their favor. I suggested a couple of different hypotheses, like that maybe the rich win because of “soft power” – ie the media and universities and politicians are mostly rich or are run by rich people who just sort of naturally let their opinions percolate through without much deliberate effort.

An alternative explanation preserves our intuitive belief that the rich sure do seem to influence politics a lot. Maybe rich people, like poor people, participate in politics because of sincere belief in their moral values, and their values are by what seems a weird coincidence the ones that help make them richer.

Like, Mitt Romney’s zillion-dollar-a-plate fundraisers seem to always be pretty full. It can’t literally be in a rich person’s self-interest to buy a plate there. But a lot of rich people could have conservative-libertarian-pro-business ideas that encourage them to quasi-altruistically support Mitt Romney in order to push their values.

But this is really weird and interesting – much more interesting than it looks. It suggests that, in the presence of a useful selfish goal to coordinate around, a value system will “spring up” that convinces people to support it for altruistic reasons.

I’m not just talking about normal altruism here. A rich person motivated by normal altruism per se might be against tax cuts for the rich, in order to better preserve social services for the less fortunate. And I’m not just talking about normal selfishness either. A rich person motivated by selfishness would hang out in his mansion all day instead of wasting money on fundraisers. I’m talking about a moral system which is genuinely self-sacrificing on the individual level, but which when universalized has the effect of helping the rich person get richer.

It’s worth thinking about this in contractarian terms. A rich person, minus the veil of ignorance, wouldn’t support everyone pitching in to help the poor, because he knows he’s not poor and so gains nothing. A rich person, minus the veil of ignorance, would support a binding pact among all rich people to pitch in to support tax cuts on the rich, because she knows she would gain more than she loses from such an agreement.

But as far as I can tell, this calculation is never made on a conscious level. What happens on a conscious level is the rich person finds themselves supporting some moral philosophy – libertarianism, Objectivism, prosperity gospel, whatever – which says it is morally wrong to raise taxes on the rich, so much so that one should altruistically make personal sacrifices in order to stop them from being raised. And then these moral philosophies spread, and without any conscious awareness, the rich people find themselves coordinating very nicely to protect their class interests.

I hope you agree that if this is true, it is spooky. I admit on this blog I sometimes mock human nature and human cognition a little too much, but this particular cognitive process is really impressive. I hope whatever angel designed it got a promotion.

So although I haven’t really thought this through too much, I would suggest a dichotomy. Either there’s some sort of spooky system that generates heartfelt moral philosophies on demand to solve coordination problems, or the rich aren’t actually coordinating and just consistently keep getting lucky.

I don’t like this because it raises more questions than it answers. Why don’t the poor coordinate this well? Too many of them? And if this is true, how sure should we be of our previous belief that the Secretary of Health and Human Services isn’t coordinating with all the other progressive bureaucrats to deliberately cause social problems?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 221 Comments

Book Review: Singer on Marx

I’m not embarassed for choosing Singer’s Marx: A Very Short Introduction as a jumping-off point for learning more leftist philosophy. I weighed the costs and benefits of reading primary sources versus summaries and commentaries, and decided in favor of the latter.

The clincher was that the rare times I felt like I really understand certain thinkers and philosophies on a deep level, it’s rarely been the primary sources that did it for me, even when I’d read them. It’s only after hearing a bunch of different people attack the same idea from different angles that I’ve gotten the gist of it. The primary sources – especially when they’re translated, especially when they’re from the olden days before people discovered how to be interesting – just turn me off. Singer is a known person who can think and write clearly, and his book was just about the shortest I could find, so I jumped on it, hoping I would find a more sympathetic portrayal of someone whom my society has been trying to cast as a demon or monster.

And I don’t know if this is an artifact of Singer or a genuine insight into Marx, but as far as I can tell he’s even worse than I thought.


What really clinched this for me was the discussion of Marx’s (lack of) description of how to run a communist state. I’d always heard that Marx was long on condemnations of capitalism and short on blueprints for communism, and the couple of Marx’s works I read in college confirmed he really didn’t talk about that very much. It seemed like a pretty big gap.

But I’d always dismissed this as an excusable error. When I was really young – maybe six or seven – I fancied myself a great inventor. The way I would invent something – let’s say a spaceship – was to draw a picture of a spaceship. I would label it with notes like “engine goes here” and “power source here” and then rest on my laurels, satisfied that I had invented interstellar travel at age seven. It always confused me that adults, who presumably should be pretty smart, had failed to do this. Occasionally I would bring this up to someone like my parents, and they would ask a question like “Okay, but how does the power source work?” and I would answer “Through quantum!” and then get very annoyed that people didn’t even know about quantum.

(I was seven years old. What’s your excuse, New Age community?)

I figured that Marx had just fallen into a similar trap. He’d probably made a few vague plans, like “Oh, decisions will be made by a committee of workers,” and “Property will be held in common and consensus democracy will choose who gets what,” and felt like the rest was just details. That’s the sort of error I could at least sympathize with, despite its horrendous consequences.

But in fact Marx was philosophically opposed, as a matter of principle, to any planning about the structure of communist governments or economies. He would come out and say “It is irresponsible to talk about how communist governments and economies will work.” He believed it was a scientific law, analogous to the laws of physics, that once capitalism was removed, a perfect communist government would form of its own accord. There might be some very light planning, a couple of discussions, but these would just be epiphenomena of the governing historical laws working themselves out. Just as, a dam having been removed, a river will eventually reach the sea somehow, so capitalism having been removed society will eventually reach a perfect state of freedom and cooperation.

Singer blames Hegel. Hegel viewed all human history as the World-Spirit trying to recognize and incarnate itself. As it overcomes its various confusions and false dichotomies, it advances into forms that more completely incarnate the World-Spirit and then moves onto the next problem. Finally, it ends with the World-Spirit completely incarnated – possibly in the form of early 19th century Prussia – and everything is great forever.

Marx famously exports Hegel’s mysticism into a materialistic version where the World-Spirit operates upon class relations rather than the interconnectedness of all things, and where you don’t come out and call it the World-Spirit – but he basically keeps the system intact. So once the World-Spirit resolves the dichotomy between Capitalist and Proletariat, then it can more completely incarnate itself and move on to the next problem. Except that this is the final problem (the proof of this is trivial and is left as exercise for the reader) so the World-Spirit becomes fully incarnate and everything is great forever. And you want to plan for how that should happen? Are you saying you know better than the World-Spirit, Comrade?

I am starting to think I was previously a little too charitable toward Marx. My objections were of the sort “You didn’t really consider the idea of welfare capitalism with a social safety net” or “communist society is very difficult to implement in principle,” whereas they should have looked more like “You are basically just telling us to destroy all of the institutions that sustain human civilization and trust that what is baaaasically a giant planet-sized ghost will make sure everything works out.”


Conservatives always complain that liberals “deny human nature”, and I had always thought that complaint was unfair. Like sure, liberals say that you can make people less racist, and one could counterargue that a tendency toward racism is inborn, but it sure seems like you can make that tendency more or less strongly expressed and that this is important. This is part of the view I argue in Nature Is Not A Slate, It’s A Series Of Levers.

But here I have to give conservatives their due. As far as I can tell, Marx literally, so strongly as to be unstrawmannable, believed there was no such thing as human nature and everything was completely malleable.

Feuerbach resolves the essence of religion into the essence of man. But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In reality, it is the ensemble of the social relations.


It is evidence that economics establishes an alienated form of social intercourse as the essential, original, and natural form

Which Singer glosses with:

This is the gist of Marx’s objection to classical economics. Marx does not challenge the classical economists within the presuppositions of their science. Instead, he takes a viewpoint outside those presuppositions and argues that private property, competition, greed, and so on are to be found only in a particular condition of human existence, a condition of alienation.

I understand this is still a matter of some debate in the Marxist community. But it seems to me that if Singer is right, if this is genuinely Marx’s view, it seems likely to be part of what contributed to his inexcusable error above.

You or I, upon hearing that the plan is to get rid of all government and just have people share all property in common, might ask questions like “But what if someone wants more than their share?” Marx had no interest in that question, because he believed that there was no such thing as human nature, and things like “People sometimes want more than their shares of things” are contingent upon material relations and modes of production, most notably capitalism. If you get rid of capitalism, human beings change completely, such that “wanting more than your share” is no more likely than growing a third arm.

A lot of the liberals I know try to distance themselves from people like Stalin by saying that Marx had a pure original doctrine that they corrupted. But I am finding myself much more sympathetic to the dictators and secret police. They may not have been very nice people, but they were, in a sense, operating in Near Mode. They couldn’t just tell themselves “After the Revolution, no one is going to demand more than their share,” because their philosophies were shaped by the experience of having their subordinates come up to them and say “Boss, that Revolution went great, but now someone’s demanding more than their share, what should we do?” Their systems seem to be part of the unavoidable collision of Marxist doctrine with reality. It’s possible that there are other, better ways to deal with that collision, but “returning to the purity of Marx” doesn’t seem like a workable option.


There was one part that made me more sympathetic to Marx. Singer writes:

Marx saw that the liberal definition of freedom is open to a fundamental objection. Suppose I live in the suburbs and work in the city. I could drive my car to work, or take the bus. I prefer not to wait around for the bus, and so I take my car. Fifty thousand other people living in my suburb face the same choice and make the same decision. The road to town is choked with cars. It takes each of us an hour to travel ten miles. In this situation, according to the liberal conception of freedom, we have all chosen freely. Yet the outcome is something none of us want. If we all went by bus, the roads would be empty and we could cover the distance in twenty minutes. Even with the inconvenience of waiting at the bus stop, we would all prefer that. We are, of course, free to alter our choice of transportation, but what can we do? While so many cars slow the bus down, why should any individual choose differently? The liberal conception of freedom has led to a paradox: we have each chosen in our own interests, but the result is in no one’s interest. Individual rationality, collective irrationality…

Marx saw that capitalism involves this kind of collective irrationality. In precapitalist systems it was obvious that most people did not control their own destiny – under feudalism, for instance, serfs had to work for their lords. Capitalism seems different because people are in theory free to work for themselves or for others as they choose. Yet most workers have as little control over their lives as feudal serfs. This is not because they have chosen badly, nor is it because of the physical limits of our resources and technology. It is because the cumulative effect of countless individual choices is a society that no one – not even the capitalists – has chosen. Where those who hold the liberal conception of freedom would say we are free because we are not subject to deliberate interference by other humans, Marx says we are not free because we do not control our own society.

This is good. In fact, this is the insight that I spent about fifteen years of my life looking for, ever since I first discovered libertarianism and felt like there was definitely an important problem with it, but couldn’t quite verbalize what it was. It’s something I finally figured out only within the last year or so and didn’t fully write up until Meditations on Moloch. And Marx seems to have sort of had it. I read the relevant section of Marx when I was younger, where he was talking about how capitalists would compete each other into the ground whether they wanted to or not, and I remember dismissing it with a “capitalists have not competed each other into the ground, for this this and this reason”, dismissing the incorrect object-level argument without realizing the important meta-level insight beneath it (something I have since learned to stop doing). If Marx really had that meta-level insight – really had it, and not just stumbled across a couple of useful examples of it without realizing the pattern – then that would make his fame justly deserved.

But two things here discourage me. First, Marx seems so confused about everything that it’s hard to parse him as really understanding this, as opposed to simply noticing one example of it that serves as a useful argument against capitalism. I notice Singer had to come up with his own clever example of this instead of quoting anything from any of Marx’s works. Second, the insight does not seem original to Marx. Tragedy of the commons was understood as early as 1833 and Malthus was talking about similar problems related to population explosions before Marx was even born. John Stuart Mill, writing twenty years before Das Kapital, had already explained the basic principle quite well:

To a fourth case of exception I must request particular attention, it being one to which as it appears to me, the attention of political economists has not yet been sufficiently drawn. There are matters in which the interference of law is required, not to overrule the judgment of individuals respecting their own interest, but to give effect to that judgment: they being unable to give effect to it except by concert, which concert again cannot be effectual unless it receives validity and sanction from the law. For illustration, and without prejudging the particular point, I may advert to the question of diminishing the hours of labour. Let us suppose, what is at least supposable, whether it be the fact or not—that a general reduction of the hours of factory labour, say from ten to nine,*119 would be for the advantage of the workpeople: that they would receive as high wages, or nearly as high, for nine hours’ labour as they receive for ten. If this would be the result, and if the operatives generally are convinced that it would, the limitation, some may say, will be adopted spontaneously. I answer, that it will not be adopted unless the body of operatives bind themselves to one another to abide by it. A workman who refused to work more than nine hours while there were others who worked ten, would either not be employed at all, or if employed, must submit to lose one-tenth of his wages. However convinced, therefore, he may be that it is the interest of the class to work short time, it is contrary to his own interest to set the example, unless he is well assured that all or most others will follow it. But suppose a general agreement of the whole class: might not this be effectual without the sanction of law? Not unless enforced by opinion with a rigour practically equal to that of law. For however beneficial the observance of the regulation might be to the class collectively, the immediate interest of every individual would lie in violating it: and the more numerous those were who adhered to the rule, the more would individuals gain by departing from it.

So one might apply to Marx the old cliche: that he has much that is good and original, but what is good is not original and what is original is not good.

But it is interesting to analyze Marx as groping toward something game theoretic. This comes across to me in some of his discussions of labor. Marx thinks all value is labor. Yes, capital is nice, but in a sense it is only “crystallized labor” – the fact that a capitalist owns a factory only means that at some other point he got laborers to build a factory for him. So labor does everything, but it gets only a tiny share of the gains produced. This is because capitalists are oppressing the laborers. Once laborers realize what’s up, they can choose to labor in such a way as to give themselves the full gains of their labor.

I think here that he is thinking of coordination as something that happens instantly in the absence of any obstacle to coordination, and the obstacle to coordination is the capitalists and the “false consciousness” they produce. Remove the capitalists, and the workers – who represent the full productive power of humanity – can direct that productive power to however it is most useful. In my language, Marx simply assumed the invisible nation, thought that the result of perfect negotiation by ideal game theoretic agents with 100% cooperation under a veil of ignorance – would also be the result of real negotiation in the real world, as long as there were no capitalists involved. Maybe this idea – of gradually approaching the invisible nation – is what stood in for the World-Spirit in his dialecticalism. Maybe in 1870, this sort of thinking was excusable.

If capitalists are to be thought of as anything other than parasites, part of the explanation of their contribution has to involve coordination. If Marx didn’t understand that coordination is just as hard to produce as linen or armaments or whatever, if he thought you could just assume it, then capitalists seem useless and getting rid of all previous forms of government so that insta-coordination can solve everything seems like a pretty swell idea.

If you admit that, capitalists having disappeared, there’s still going to be competition, positive and negative sum games, free rider problems, tragedies of the commons, and all the rest, then you’ve got to invent a system that solves all of those issues better than capitalism does. That seems to be the real challenge Marxist intellectuals should be setting themselves, and I hope to eventually discover some who have good answers to it. But at least from the little I learned from Singer, I see no reason to believe Marx had the clarity of thought to even understand the question.

What The Hell, Hegel?

I’m reading through Marx: A Very Short Introduction, and one of its best features is its focus on Marx’s influence from Hegel. Hegel is really interesting.

I should rephrase that. Hegel is famously boring. His books are boring. His ideas are boring. He was even apparently a boring person – a recent biography of him was criticized on the grounds that “Hegel’s life was really not eventful enough to support a graceful biography of eight hundred pages”. But the phenomenon of Hegel is interesting. I don’t know of any other philosopher with such high variance.

Engels says of Hegel:

One can imagine what a tremendous effect this Hegelian system must have produced in the philosophy-tinged atmosphere of Germany. It was a triumphal procession which lasted for decades and which by no means came to a standstill on the death of Hegel. On the contrary, it was from 1830 to 1840 that Hegelianism reigned most exclusively, and to a greater or lesser extent infected even its opponents.

Such sweeping statements might be expected of the somewhat pro-Hegelian Engels. But even Russell, who mocked Hegel incessantly, admitted that:

“By the end of [the 19th century], the leading academic philosophers, both in America and Britain, were largely Hegelian”

It is fun to see what comes up on a Google search for “Hegel dominated”:

Rockmore in Marx After Marxism: “As Marx was forging his conceptual arms, Hegel dominated the philosophical debate in a way that is now difficult to comprehend.”

A Christian Appraisal Of Contemporary Philosophy: “Near the beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel dominated all philosophy…after his death his philosophy spread from Germany, overshadowed all else in England, and was widely held in American Universities.”

Tufts course catalog: “At the end of the nineteenth century, a form of Idealism derived from Hegel dominated philosophy.”

Psychoanalysis and Culture: “Freud grew up in a Hegel-dominated cultural universe. Though we have no record that Freud read Hegel, that was unnecessary, for Hegel’s thought defined an important part of the philosophical world in which Freud’s thinking developed.”

Encyclopaedia Britannica: “From 1818 until his death in 1831, Hegel dominated the highest thought.”

A Historical Sketch Of Sociological Theory: “According to Ball, it is difficult for us to appreciate the degree to which Hegel dominated German thought in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It was largely within the framework of his philosophy that educated Germans discussed history, politics and culture”

Or, to merge all of these together, it is “difficult for us to appreciate” and “now difficult to comprehend” how Hegel “dominated”, “defined”, “overshadowed”, and “reigned” in “Germany”, “England”, “American universities”, and “the philosophical world” in “the beginning of the nineteenth century”, “from 1818 until his death in 1831″, “the time from 1830 to 1840″, “the second quarter of the nineteenth century”, “the end of the nineteenth century”, and “the time Freud’s thinking developed” (Freud was born 1856 and would have been in university in the 1870s).

I will take this as evidence that Hegel was really really important for the entire nineteenth century.

On the other hand, it’s hard to find many people who will put in good words for him now. In fact, hilarious pithy denunciations of Hegel are an entire sub-genre. Hegel’s Wikiquote page, among other sources, includes:

“Hegel’s philosophy illustrates an important truth, namely, that the worse your logic, the more interesting the consequences to which it gives rise.” – Bertrand Russell

“When I was young, most teachers of philosophy in British and American universities were Hegelians, so that, until I read Hegel, I supposed there must be some truth to his system; I was cured, however, by discovering that everything he said on the philosophy of mathematics was plain nonsense. Hegel’s philosophy is so odd that one would not have expected him to be able to get sane men to accept it, but he did. He set it out with so much obscurity that people thought it must be profound. It can quite easily be expounded lucidly in words of one syllable, but then its absurdity becomes obvious.” – Bertrand Russell

“Among Noah’s sons was one who covered the shame of his father, but the Hegelians are still tearing away the cloak which time and oblivion had sympathetically thrown over the shame of their Master.” – Heinrich Schumacher

“Hegel’s was an interesting thesis, giving unity and meaning to the revolutions of human affairs. Like other historical theories, it required, if it was to be made plausible, some distortion of facts and considerable ignorance. Hegel, like Mane and Spengler after him, possessed both these qualifications.” – Bertrand Russell (are you starting to notice a trend here?)

“While scientists were performing astounding feats of disciplined reason [during the Enlightenment], breaking down the barriers of the “unknowable” in every field of knowledge, charting the course of light rays in space or the course of blood in the capillaries of man’s body — what philosophy was offering them, as interpretation of and guidance for their achievements was the plain Witchdoctory of Hegel, who proclaimed that matter does not exist at all, that everything is Idea (not somebody’s idea, just Idea), and that this Idea operates by the dialectical process of a new “super-logic” which proves that contradictions are the law of reality, that A is non-A, and that omniscience about the physical universe (including electricity, gravitation, the solar system, etc.) is to be derived, not from the observation of facts, but from the contemplation of that Idea’s triple somersaults inside his, Hegel’s, mind. This was offered as a philosophy of reason.” – Ayn Rand (unsurprisingly)

A book review by Roger Kimball helps round out the picture. Along with presenting the legend that Hegel said that “only one person only understood me, and even he misunderstood me”, Kimball writes:

Like many people who have soldiered through a fair number of Hegel’s books, I was both awed and depressed by their glittering opacity. With the possible exception of Heidegger, Hegel is far and away the most difficult “great philosopher” I have ever studied. There was much that I did not understand. I secretly suspected that no one—not even my teachers—really understood him, and it was nice to have that prejudice supported from the master’s own lips.

Is it worth the effort? I mean, you spend a hundred hours poring over Phenomenology of SpiritThe Phenomenology of Spirit —widely considered to be Hegel’s masterpiece—and what do you have to show for it? The book is supposed to take you from the naïve, “immediate” position of “sense certainty” to Absolute Knowledge, “or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit.” That sounds pretty good, especially when you are, say, eighteen and are busy soaking up ideas guaranteed to mystify and alarm your parents. But what do you suppose it means?

Despite trying really hard to say some nice things about Hegel, just about the best that Kimball can do is:

So why read Hegel? Just as doctors learn a lot about health by studying diseases, so we can learn a lot about philosophical health by studying Hegel.

The phrase “damning with faint praise” seems insufficient here.

Worse, Hegel has been criticized as a racist, a totalitarian, a proto-Nazi, and the kind of rationalist everyone hates – complete with stories about how he proved from first principles that there were only seven planets (not quite true, although he does seem to have made some similar inexcusable scientific errors. He was mocked (with some justice) for believing that his own work represented the final achievement of God’s plan for the Universe, and that the objective progress of history had culminated in the early 19th century Prussian state.

As a result, when I spent four years getting a bachelors in Philosophy, not only did I not receive a word of instruction in Hegel, but I was actively pushed away from him with frequent derogatory references.

I should qualify all this. Part of it is the analytic-continental divide. Hegel ended up well on the continental side of that, so even though analytics have a dim opinion of him, I’m pretty sure he remains studied and well-respected within continental circles. Indeed, the split may have necessitated analytics dismiss him in order to justify ignoring him, given that not ignoring him would mean engaging him would mean reading him would meaning not having the time or energy to do anything else.

But since we’ve already brought in Google as a philosophical authority, we might as well note that it autocompletes “hegel is” into “hegel is impossible to understand”. This seems to be pretty close to a consensus position right now.


I know pretty much nothing about Hegel and am not nearly qualified to have an opinion on the debate about whether his inscrutability conceals deep wisdom or total nonsense. But there are a few points I draw from his rise and fall without being able to judge it philosophically.

I deliberately avoided discussing philosophy in my post How Common Are Science Failures?, first because it’s outside the reference class but second because philosophy can’t even get its act together enough to fail. These sorts of “science failures” are cases where the scientific community unites around a single consensus belief, but later discovers that belief was disastrously wrong. But philosophy can practically never unite around a single consensus belief, and it rarely disproves anything thoroughly enough to admit the error.

Hegel seems like a rare example of a philosophical consensus caught in contradiction. For a good chunk of the 19th century a very large part of the philosophical community agreed Hegel had solved everything, was a genius, was the be-all and end-all of philosophy. Later, at least the British and American communities did a total about-face and concluded that Hegel was a crackpot who, if he didn’t invent the technique of “if you can’t convince ‘em, confuse ‘em”, at least perfected it.

You can go one of two directions with this. First, you can say that people in the past were very gullible, that this confirms our prejudice that philosophers are silly people who will believe pretty much anything if it is billed as metaphysics and contains some confusing references to being and spirit.

Or you could say that people nowadays are so vapid, so demanding of instant gratification and unwilling to cover large inferential distances, that we’ve lost the ability to understand difficult ideas like those of Hegel.

I am the first type of person by temperament, but trying to become more sympathetic to the second way of thinking. Part of this is because on the rare occasions I do understand something difficult, I am acutely aware of all the people accusing it of being a confusing mass of jargon disguising a lack of real insight – and of how wrong these people are. “Ha ha, look at all these smart erudite domain experts who believe a stupid thing, that just proves smart domain experts lack common sense” now seems like a huge failure mode to me. There’s also a certain intellectual version of Chesterton’s Fence which looks kind of like “Don’t dismiss an idea until you can see why it would be so tempting for other people to believe”. Right now I don’t see the temptation in Hegel or for that matter any of Continental philosophy. That half of the philosophical universe, including many people who display objective signs of brilliance – has decided to just wallow in pointless obscurantism seems to beggar belief.

My inability to be tempted by Hegel brings me to another point: what parts of my thought, right now, are Hegelian? Hegel seems like a classic case where we should read history of philosophy backwards – if almost all philosophical thought for fifty to a hundred years was Hegelian, modernity should be absolutely saturated with Hegelian ideas. That means I might get less gain from trying to read Hegel forward (to see if he has startling insights I didn’t know) and more gain from trying to read him backwards (to see if he is the source of things I assumed unquestioningly, and that negating them – as the contingent opinions of some German guy who thought 19th century Prussia was objectively perfect – would produce startling insights).

I don’t know enough Hegel to do a good job of this. One easy target might be the modern belief in human progress or linear history. Fukuyama (“The End of History”) writes:

For better or worse, much of Hegel’s historicism has become part of our contemporary intellectual baggage. The notion that mankind has progresses through a series of primitive stages of consciousness on his path to the present, and that these stages corresponded to concrete forms of social organization, such as tribal, slave owning, theocratic, and finally democratic egalitarian societies, has become inseparable form the modern understanding of man. Hegel was the first philosopher to speak the language of modern social science, insofar as man for him was the product of his concrete historical and social environment and not, as earlier natural right theorists would have it, a collection of more or less fixed “natural” attributes. The mastery and transformation of man’s natural environment through the application of science and technology was originally not a Marxist concept, but a Hegelian one. Unlike later historicists whose historical relativism degenerated into relativism tout court, however, Hegel believed that history culminated in an absolute moment — a moment in which a final, rational form of society and state became victorious

But I find both more unexpected and more plausible David Chapman’s theories that Hegel inspired modern Westernized Buddhism, the hippie movement, and the New Age. He breaks his arguments into a bunch of posts that aren’t really collected in any organized way, but I would recommend An Improbable Re-Animation, Bad Ideas From Dead Germans, and Zen vs. The US Navy. Chapman’s argument isn’t very developed, but just raising the idea is enough to make its evidential support obvious. Hegel’s system was based around the principle that the key principle of the universe was a divine Mind trying to find itself, that everything was interrelated and purposeful, that as this Mind became more self-aware it would be reflected in increasing levels of consciousness among human beings culminating in an ideal utopian social arrangement. This is the daaaaaawning of the Age of Aquarius, the Age of Aquarius…

Philosophy makes for strange bedfellows. Imagine: December 21, 2012. A ray of crystal light emerges from the Temple of Kukulcan in the Mayan ruins, piercing the center of the Milky Way. Humans ascend to a new level of consciousness. And all around the world people throw off their shackles and self-organize into intentional communities exactly resembling early 19th century Prussia.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 148 Comments

Society Is Fixed, Biology Is Mutable

Today during an otherwise terrible lecture on ADHD I realized something important we get sort of backwards.

There’s this stereotype that the Left believes that human characteristics are socially determined, and therefore mutable. And social problems are easy to fix, through things like education and social services and public awareness campaigns and “calling people out”, and so we have a responsiblity to fix them, thus radically improving society and making life better for everyone.

But the Right (by now I guess the far right) believes human characteristics are biologically determined, and biology is fixed. Therefore we shouldn’t bother trying to improve things, and any attempt is just utopianism or “immanentizing the eschaton” or a shady justification for tyranny and busybodyness.

And I think I reject this whole premise.

See, my terrible lecture on ADHD suggested several reasons for the increasing prevalence of the disease. Of these I remember two: the spiritual desert of modern adolescence, and insufficient iron in the diet. And I remember thinking “Man, I hope it’s the iron one, because that seems a lot easier to fix.”

Society is really hard to change. We figured drug use was “just” a social problem, and it’s obvious how to solve social problems, so we gave kids nice little lessons in school about how you should Just Say No. There were advertisements in sports and video games about how Winners Don’t Do Drugs. And just in case that didn’t work, the cherry on the social engineering sundae was putting all the drug users in jail, where they would have a lot of time to think about what they’d done and be so moved by the prospect of further punishment that they would come clean.

And that is why, even to this day, nobody uses drugs.

On the other hand, biology is gratifyingly easy to change. Sometimes it’s just giving people more iron supplements. But the best example is lead. Banning lead was probably kind of controversial at the time, but in the end some refineries probably had to change their refining process and some gas stations had to put up “UNLEADED” signs and then we were done. And crime dropped like fifty percent in a couple of decades – including many forms of drug abuse.

Saying “Tendency toward drug abuse is primarily determined by fixed brain structure” sounds callous, like you’re abandoning drug abusers to die. But maybe it means you can fight the problem head-on instead of forcing kids to attend more and more useless classes where cartoon animals sing about how happy they are not using cocaine.

What about obesity? We put a lot of social effort into fighting obesity: labeling foods, banning soda machines from school, banning large sodas from New York, programs in schools to promote healthy eating, doctors chewing people out when they gain weight, the profusion of gyms and Weight Watchers programs, and let’s not forget a level of stigma against obese people so strong that I am constantly having to deal with their weight-related suicide attempts. As a result, everyone…keeps gaining weight at exactly the same rate they have been for the past couple decades. Wouldn’t it be nice if increasing obesity was driven at least in part by changes in the intestinal microbiota that we could reverse through careful antibiotic use? Or by trans-fats?

What about poor school performance? From the social angle, we try No Child Left Behind, Common Core Curriculum, stronger teachers’ unions, weaker teachers’ unions, more pay for teachers, less pay for teachers, more prayer in school, banning prayer in school, condemning racism, condemning racism even more, et cetera. But the poorest fifth or so of kids show spectacular cognitive gains from multivitamin supplementation, and doctors continue to tell everyone schools should start later so children can get enough sleep and continue to be totally ignored despite strong evidence in favor.

Even the most politically radioactive biological explanation – genetics – doesn’t seem that scary to me. The more things turn out to be genetic, the more I support universal funding for implantable contraception that allow people to choose when they do or don’t want children – thus breaking the cycle where people too impulsive or confused to use contraception have more children and increase frequency of those undesirable genes. I think I’d have a heck of a lot easier a time changing gene frequency in the population than you would changing people’s locus of control or self-efficacy or whatever, even if I wasn’t allowed to do anything immoral (except by very silly religious standards of “immoral”).

I’m not saying that all problems are purely biological and none are social. But I do worry there’s a consensus that biological things are unfixable but social things are easy – or that social solutions are morally unambiguous but biological solutions necessarily monstrous – and so for any given biological/social breakdown of a problem, we figure we might as well put all our resources into attacking the more tractable social side and dismiss the biological side. I think there’s a sense in which that’s backwards, and in which it’s possible to marry scientific rigor with human compassion for the evils of the world.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 372 Comments

Links For September 2014

If he’d posted it here it would have been a Comment Of The Month, but since he posted it on Less Wrong I’m reduced to linking it: Viliam Bur on why Freud is not your strawman of Freud.

Last links post I brought in Sariasan’s research showing that growing up poor doesn’t increase your chances of turning to crime as an adult once you adjust out heritable factors. I wasn’t aware he also has another study showing that growing up in a bad neighborhood doesn’t affect very much either.

One Hundred Actual Titles Of Real Eighteenth Century Novels. Number 25: “Flim-Flams! Or, The Life And Errors Of My Uncle, And The Amours Of My Aunt! With Illustrations And Obscurities, By Messieurs Tag, Rag, And Bobtail. With An Illuminating Index!”

A recent story that went viral on Facebook suggests that one in six French citizens support the Islamic State. I think the attraction might have been a dig at the French Muslim community for being radicalized or something, but the Washington Post points out that, among other problems, far fewer than one in six French citizens is even Muslim, which makes the number somewhat suspect. Their preferred explanation: most people don’t know what “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” is, so when people hear a question of the form “Do you support…the Islamic State of Iraq…” they think it’s some kind of referendum on the Iraq War or the Iraqi government or something.

Cryptology enthusiast, Bitcoin pioneer, and occasional Less Wronger Hal Finney has passed away of ALS and been cryonically frozen. My favorite mini-eulogy is that of Ryan Carey, who pointed out on Facebook that “he is now the all-time winner of the Ice Bucket Challenge”.

There is an algal toxin, one of whose symptoms is “feeling like cold things feel hot and hot things feel cold.” I wonder if this can be converted to a party trick the same way Miracle Berries were. Probably better not, since “symptoms usually go away after days, but can last for years.”

Possibly the most amazingly trollish scientific study ever: Feminist Activist Women Are Masculinized In Terms Of Digit Ratio And Dominance: A Possible Explanation For The Feminist Paradox. Digit ratio is a measure of the lengths of different fingers that shows how much testosterone one received in the womb and seems to represent by proxy some sort of measure of biological “masculinity” or “feminity” – for example, transgender people have a digit ratio more like that of the sex they transition to. They found a masculinization in the feminist activists that was highly statistically significant (alpha = 0.0005, I think they mean p but I’m not sure why they said alpha) and an extremely large effect size (d = 0.6 – 1.6). In fact, on the right hand the feminists were more masculine even than men. The authors try to use this to explain what they call the “feminist paradox” – which is that feminism purports to be fighting for women but most women do not identify as feminists. I think they’re thinking that feminists are either those women who are so masculinized as to be unhappy with female gender roles, or so masculinized as to be uniquely aggressive about their unhappiness. The most convincing alternative I can think of is that high-IQ people of both sexes tend to have more androgynous digit ratios (so high-IQ women will have more male digit ratios). If feminist activists tend to come from the upper-class college-educated part of the population, then that might be a confounder which would be worth addressing.

Wikipedia: Naturally Superhuman People. “Wim Hof is nearly impervious to extreme temperatures. In 2009, he ran a marathon, wearing only shorts and a cap (no shoes), in -20C temperatures. He owns the Guinness World Record for the longest ice bath (nearly two hours). In 2011, he ran a marathon in 40C temperatures without drinking a drop of water during the run.”

S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) versus escitalopram and placebo in major depression RCT: efficacy and effects of histamine and carnitine as moderators of response. Sorta-natural antidepressant supplement SAMe comes somewhere between equaling and surpassing first-line antidepressant escitalopram (Lexapro). Just one study, but several others have shown the same. It is starting to reach the point where if I had any say in the matter (which I don’t right now) I would be considering trying SAMe before an SSRI. Needless to say this could (but probably won’t) totally revolutionize psychiatry to a degree unprecedented for several decades.

I may have said some bad things about airport security now and then, but I’ve changed my mind. I love airport security. Airport security is the best. Please keep searching everyone’s luggage as much as possible with no concern for personal privacy.

@newmantras: A theme Twitter that mixes dating site profiles with Hindu verses on the glory of God.

Private companies are starting to invest in nuclear fusion, not that the amount of money they’re putting in changes much in a non-symbolic way.

Human pathos: Wannabe jihadis about to leave for Syria order Islam for Dummies off Amazon.

Cigar Aficionado’s biography of Churchill is 20% boring stuff about the cigars he liked, 80% awesome. Key quote:

While exhibiting great valor in coordinating the escape of many of the troops who were aboard the train, Churchill was captured by the Boers and taken as a prisoner of war. Although treated well by his captors, he later wrote of his time as a POW, “I certainly hated every minute of my captivity more than I have ever hated any other period in my whole life.” He hated captivity above all because it thwarted his ambition for heroic action: “The war was going on, great events are in progress, fine opportunities for action and adventure are slipping away.” So, after unsuccessfully appealing his capture on the grounds that he was a noncombatant, Churchill escaped from prison. Before escaping, however, he left a letter of apology on his bed to Louis de Souza, the Boer secretary for war. The letter began: “I have the honour to inform you that as I do not consider that your Government have any right to detain me as a military prisoner, I have decided to escape from your custody.” It ended: “Regretting that I am unable to bid you a more ceremonious or a personal farewell, I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient servant, Winston Churchill.”

As several people have already noted, there is this really weird issue among opponents of better replication efforts in the social sciences, where they are extremely sensitive to worries that there might be flaws in the replication studies, yet fail to draw the obvious conclusion that there might also be those same flaws in originals and therefore replications are indeed needed (see: Beware Isolated Demands For Rigor). Neuroskeptic takes one such argument to task.

Presburger arithmetic is an alternative to normal (“Peano”) arithmetic in which you are allowed to add, but cannot multiply. It possesses some impressive mathematical properties, including being provably consistent, provably complete (no Godel here!) and “decidable”, which means you can automatically prove any theorem you want using brute force alone (though it might take a while). I’m convinced – if we switch to Presburger, not only do we get free proofs for whatever we want, but we don’t have to memorize our times tables either!

Ever wonder what happened to that Honduran charter city idea? It’s still going ahead, but it looks like it’s doing so in the worst possible way – corrupt, opaque, and having kicked out everyone with principles in favor of steamrolling forward. On the other hand, part of the attraction of the idea was that it could work even in worst case scenarios – it’s designed for countries with terrible governments that can’t do anything properly. So at the very least this will give it a fair test on its own terms.

From Taymon Beal: A proof of the Halting Problem in the style of Dr. Seuss.

Things that exist: the go-away bird. This might be my spirit animal.

Scientific American comes out in favor of cryptographic locks on military weaponry.

A heartbreaking article on youth homelessness among gay teens kicked out by their families. Quote: “It sounds so paradoxical, but the kid who’s been abused and neglected from childhood, in this very perverse way, they’re ready for the trauma that’s to come on the streets. But queer youth who grew up in a family where they were taken care of, and there was ice cream in the freezer at night, they face an extra challenge of really not being prepared for the culture of the streets or the foster-care system.” A good reminder why everyone is (rightly) so concerned about homophobia.

Noahpinion: an interesting debate over the validity of those statistics you always hear about how America gets worse health care than other countries while spending much more money. Content note: one instance of fatphobia/insults to fat people.

Cell: Altering The Intestinal Microbiota During A Critical Developmental Window Has Lasting Metabolic Consequences. For example, give someone antibiotics as a baby, and you might kill their gut flora and cause them to be more obese as an adult. We are nowhere near the level of evidence where anyone should be denying a child life-saving antibiotics for a dangerous infection, but FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PARENTS, STOP DEMANDING ANTIBIOTICS EVERY TIME YOUR KID HAS A VIRAL INFECTION THERE IS NO REASON TO DO THIS EVEN IF THEY *DIDN’T* HAVE ALL SORTS OF SIDE EFFECTS *WHICH THEY DO*.

This rebuttal of some common anti-vaxxer arguments caught my eye as a cute use of the Proving Too Much technique. This one is maybe a little less cute, but it had to be said.

@sarahdoingthing, who is either Sarah C or Sister Y or possibly some other Sarah entirely, has been plugging things into a program that purports to tell you what Myers-Briggs type you are by your writing. While this seems likely to be a faulty implementation of a faulty idea, it sure seems to be picking up something. Here’s Less Wrong posts by year, part one and two.

McDonald’s new CEO is a roboticist who, when first recruited by the company, thought he was going to an interview with McDonnell-Douglas. Also an inspiring story of Poor Young Black Kid Making It Big.

This is possibly the most important news story of the decade, although no one else will tell you that: Vasalgel preclinical studies making great progress. Vasalgel is the FDA-friendly, America-marketable version of RISUG, the permanent, easy, cheap, easily reversible contraceptive procedure for men. Once it exists, why not not fund free RISUG for every high school boy (as well as promising to fund the reversal operation) and cut accidental pregnancies down to zero? There’s your solution to fifty percent of social problems right there.

H/t Vipul Naik: Quora: what are your options if a restaurant demands exactly pi dollars? Some clever answers, as well as some groaners.

Saving the best for last: Steven Pinker – The Ivy League Is Broken And Only Standardized Tests Can Fix It. Starts with a review of the same book (Excellent Sheep) that I linked to a savage review of last month. Pinker re-tears it apart, then talks about how so-called “holistic” admissions perpetuate the advantages of the upper class, then goes over some of the research showing standardized tests are a fair and unbiased assessment of merit, then demands that colleges switch to a more SAT-centric admissons policy (the opposite of the current trend) in the name of fairness for the poor. I’ve been making this same argument for years and I’m glad to see it finally get the respect it deserves.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 181 Comments

Open Thread 4: The Quick And The Thread

1. Big thanks to Bakkot and Alice for adding the script last month that highlights new comments in green and makes this place much more readable.

2. I’ve closed comments on any posts older than one month in order to cut down the spam problem. If anyone has objections you can voice them here, but they better include some other way of dealing with spam. I already use Akismet.

3. There’s been some discussion of improving the comment sections of very controversial posts (eg on feminism) by closing comments there, then making a comment section on a separate thread. The hope is that all the random people linked there by Reddit and Instapundit and whoever get confused and go away, but other people who specifically read this blog will find it and be able to talk about it. I’ll probably try that next time I’ve got something controversial to say.

4. Comment of the month is this description of algorithms and the halting problem.

5. Ozy and I will be in the Bay Area for a few days starting September 19. Is anyone able to lend us a room to crash in for some of that time? We will take you out to dinner or something for your trouble. (we are in town for a wedding and probably won’t stay too long, but if there is some big community social event going on around then we will try to attend) [solved! thanks to everyone who volunteered space!]


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 288 Comments

Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me A Map

I was recently looking through some old concept-maps of communities, like Julia’s Map of Bay Area Memespace, Scharlach’s Dark Enlightenment Roadmap and especially xkcd’s map of the Internet.

And I thought we should have something like that for the rationalist community. Except of course much, much better.

Click to expand

Most things are links.

Links around the outer edge are places outside the rationalist community that have significant communication/cross-pollination with us.

City size is proportional to site Alexa rank (when available), number of followers (when available) or wild guess (otherwise).

If I left you out, it’s probably because I forgot about you and not because I don’t like you. Some communities like Twitter or Tumblr were so big I couldn’t include everyone, and my choices were mostly random and based on who I knew about.

Various icons taken from their rightful owners, mostly Civ2 modpacks. Sorry, rightful owners.

Cooperation Un-Veiled

Related to: The Invisible Nation – Reconciling Utilitarianism And Contractualism

Contractualism tries to derive morality from an agreement that even selfish agents would willingly sign if they knew about it. In theory, you would gain from such an agreement, since the costs of not being able to behave unethically towards others would be at least balanced by the benefits of other people not behaving unethically to you.

Such attempts crash into the brick wall that not everybody would, in fact, sign such an agreement. For example, the King might reasonably argue that he is able to reap the benefits of oppressing lots of people, but almost nobody can oppress him. To give another example, rich people might feel no need to give to charity, since they don’t need anyone else to give charity to them.

One classic solution to the problem is Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”. Rawls asks: what if we have to make the agreement before we know who exactly we’re going to be? The future King, not knowing he will be born a King, will agree oppression is bad along with everyone else; the future rich, not knowing they will be rich, will want to create a strong social safety net and tradition of charitable giving.

The great thing about this thought experiment is that it works pretty well to get us what we want – assuming a veil at just the right spot, we end up with something like utilitarianism being in everyone’s best interests.

The bad thing about the thought experiment is that there is not, in fact, a veil of ignorance. There’s just a King, who when asked will tell you he knows perfectly well he’s a King and would like to keep on oppressing people. So what can we do with the universe we actually have?

Here’s a model I have been playing around with recently.

Suppose there is a society of one hundred men, conveniently named Mr. 1, Mr. 2, and so on to Mr. 100. Higher-numbered people are stronger than lower-numbered people, such that a higher-numbered person can always win fights against a lower-numbered person at no danger to themselves. Further, suppose this society has a god who enforces all oaths and agreements, but who otherwise stays out of the picture.

(in order to avoid finicky math distinctions between choosing with replacement and choosing without replacement, it might help to think of these as arbitrarily large clans of people with with specified strength instead. Whatever.)

This society is marked by interactions where two randomly selected people meet each other. Sometimes the people nod at each other and pass each other by. Other times, the stronger of the two people overpowers the weaker one and oppresses them in some way, where an oppression is an interaction where the stronger person gains and the weaker person loses some utility.

One person proposes a rule: “no oppressing anyone else.” How much support does the rule get?

Well, that depends on the character of the oppression. Some oppression can give the oppressor exactly as much utility as it costs the victim – for example, I steal $10 from you, making me $10 richer and you $10 poorer. Other oppression can cost the victim more than it benefits the oppressor – for example, I steal your wallet, which gives me only whatever small change you have in there, but you have to replace all your credit cards and licenses and so on. Still other oppression could help the oppressor more than it hurts the victim – for example, starving Jean Valjean steals a loaf of bread from a rich man.

So let’s be more specific. One person proposes a rule: “No zero-sum oppression.” Who agrees?

Naively – and I’ll challenge this later – Mr. 1 through Mr. 50 agree, but Mr. 51 through Mr. 100 refuse. Analyzing Mr. 25′s thought process should explain: “In 25% of interactions, I will be the oppressor. In 75%, I will be oppressed. Assuming one of my utils for one of their utils, that means in a hundred interactions I will on average lose fifty utils. Therefore, I should ban this type of interaction.”

Mr. 99, on the other hand, likes this kind of oppression. He thinks “In 99% of interactions, I will gain. In 1%, I will lose. So in a hundred zero-sum interactions, I will on average a gain of 98 utils. Therefore, I like this type of interaction.”

But Mr. 99 might have a different rule he would agree to. He might say “No oppression so bad that it hurts the victim >100x as much as it helps the oppressor.”

It’s easy to think of examples of this kind of oppression. For example, if I’m having a really bad day and just want to beat someone up, breaking your ribs might make me feel a little bit better, but probably not even one percent as much as it makes you feel worse.

Mr. 99 thinks “In 99% of interactions I will be the oppressor; in 1% I will be the victim. Each time I am the oppressor, I gain one util; each time I am the victim, I lose 100. Therefore, in 100 interactions I will lose on average one util. Therefore, I don’t like this kind of oppression.”

And it’s easy to see that Mr. 1 through Mr. 98 will agree with him and be able to sign this contract.

The logical conclusion is a hierarchy of agreements. Mr. 1 signs an agreement banning all oppression, Mr. 1 and 2 together sign an agreement banning oppression that helps the oppressor less than 50 times as much as it hurts the victim, Mr. 1 and 2 and 3 together sign an agreement banning oppression that helps the oppressor less than 33 times as much as it hurts the victim, and so on all the way to everyone except Mr. 100 signing an agreement banning oppression that helps the oppressor less than 1/100 as much as it helps the victim. Mr. 100 signs no agreements – why would he?

Before I explain why this doesn’t work, I want to think about what it means in real world terms.

It would replace the one-size-fits-all principle of utilitarianism with the idea of power-based utility ratios. This seems to kind of map on to real life experience. For example, the King may order his servant to spend hours getting the floor polished absolutely spotlessly. Having a perfectly spotless floor (rather than a very clean floor with exactly one spot) gives the king only a tiny utility gain, but may require many more hours of the servant’s time and labor. That the King can command a large amount of the servant’s utility to improve his own utility only a tiny bit seems a lot like what it means to say there’s a power differential between the King and the servant. If the servant tried to reduce the King’s utility by a large amount in order to improve his own utility by a tiny amount, he would be in big trouble.

I notice this in my own life as well. Last year I worked under a doctor who was consistently late. The way it would work was that he would say “I have a meeting at 8 AM every morning, so you should be in by 9 so we can start work together.” Then his meeting would invariably run to 10, and I would be left sitting around for an hour doing nothing. It might seem that the smart choice would have been for me to just sleep late and arrive at 10 anyway, but suppose one day a week, my boss’ meeting finishes exactly on time. Then if I’m not there, he has to wait for me, and he considers this unacceptable. So if my boss and I value an hour of our times the same amount, it would seem this arrangement implies my boss’ utility is worth at least seven times as much as my own.

There are some features of this power-ratio utilitarianism that are repugnant: the rich seem to be held to a very low standard, whereas the poorer you are, the more exacting a moral standard you’ve got to live up to. That seems like if anything the opposite of how it should be. But other features actually seem better than our current morality – if giving charity to the poor improves their utility 100x as much as it decreases yours, then the 1% have to donate, probably quite a lot.

Enough of that. The reason this doesn’t work is simple. Mr. 1 through Mr. 50 would want to sign the zero-sum agreement. But if he knows the rules of the thought experiment, Mr. 50 can predict that Mr. 51 through Mr. 100 won’t sign the agreement. None of the people who could conceivably oppress him will consider themselves bound by the rule. So he’s not trading his right to oppress others in exchange for others’ right to oppress him, he’s giving up his right to oppress others but should still expect exactly the same amount of oppression as he had before. Therefore, he does not sign.

But now Mr. 49 is in the same such position. He knows nobody stronger than he is, including Mr. 50, will sign the agreement. Thus the agreement is useless to him.

And so on by induction all the way to Mr. 2 refusing to sign (it doesn’t matter much for poor Mr. 1 either way).

This produces some weird results. Mr. 99 is no longer willing to accept his “No breaking people’s ribs just to let out some stress” agreement that banned utility exchanges worse than 1:100, because the only person whose help he wants, Mr. 100, isn’t going to sign. That means Mr. 98 won’t sign, Mr. 97 won’t sign, and again, so on all the way down to Mr. 2.

In other words, even the second weakest person in a society has no interest in signing an agreement not to punch people weaker than you when you’re having a bad day.

But this is a stupid result!

It reminds me of a problem noticed in Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. Conventional wisdom says the best thing to do is to cooperate on a tit-for-tat basis – that is, we both keep cooperating, because if we don’t the other person will punish us next turn by defecting.

But it has been pointed out there’s a flaw here. Suppose we are iterating for one hundred games. On Turn 100, you might as well defect, because there’s no way your opponent can punish you later. But that means both sides should always play (D,D) on Turn 100. But since you know on Turn 99 that your opponent must defect next turn, they can’t punish you any worse if you defect now. So both sides should always play (D,D) on turn 99. And so on by induction to everyone defecting the entire game. I don’t know of any good way to solve this problem, although it often doesn’t turn up in the real world because no one knows exactly how many interactions they will have with another person. Which suggests one possible solution to the original problem is for nobody to know the exact number of people.

(now I want to write a science fiction novel about a planet full of aliens who are perfect game theorists, but who always behave kindly and respectfully to one another. Then some idiot performs a census, and the whole place collapses into apocalyptic total war.)

It seems like there ought to be some kind of superrational basis on which the two sides in the iterated-100 prisoners dilemma can cooperate. And along the same lines there ought to be some kind of superrational basis upon which everyone in the society of 100 people should stick to some basic utility-ratio principles. But I’m not sure what it would be.

Some other variations of this problem might be more interesting, but I don’t think I’ve got the math ability or the time to think about them as carefully as they deserve:

1. What if all fights contained a random element? For example, suppose your chance of overpowering someone else (and thus being able to oppress them) was your_strength/(your_strength + opponent_strength)? In societies of this type, agreements to ban strongly negative-sum interactions would be more salient for everyone, since even Mr. 100 would have some chance of being beaten in a typical interaction.

2. How about a meta-agreement, in which people say “I agree to sign the agreements requested by people weaker than myself if and only the people above me agree to sign the agreements benefitting people weaker than they?” Such an agreement wouldn’t make sense for Mr. 100, and so Mr. 99 would not sign, and so on down, but is there a superrational solution?

3. What if one type of agreement people were allowed to make was a coalition to gang up against opponents? This seems one of the most important real-world considerations – one of the things that does make Kings behave at least somewhat morally is the knowledge that they will be overthrown if they do not; likewise, some countries implement social welfare systems with the explicit goal of decreasing the poor’s incentive to overthrow the rich (I think Bismarck tried this). On the other hand, it also gives the powerful an incentive to band together to better oppress the weak. I’m pretty sure the effects of this would be impossible to really calculate, but might we lump them together into saying “This is so nondeterministic that no one can ever be sure they’ll end up in the winning as opposed to the losing coalition, therefore they are less certain of victory, therefore they should be more likely to agree to rules against oppression”?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 245 Comments

The Guardian vs. Induction

The Guardian tells us that Limits To Growth Was Right: New Research Shows We’re Nearing Collapse. The article begins:

The 1972 book Limits to Growth, which predicted our civilisation would probably collapse some time this century, has been criticised as doomsday fantasy since it was published. Back in 2002, self-styled environmental expert Bjorn Lomborg consigned it to the “dustbin of history”.

It doesn’t belong there. Research from the University of Melbourne has found the book’s forecasts are accurate, 40 years on. If we continue to track in line with the book’s scenario, expect the early stages of global collapse to start appearing soon.

This is not only wrong, it’s so wrong that it may actually be the first real-world example of an exotic form of reasoning famous among philosophers for challenging the very concept of evidence.

Their argument that the book was right is based on a number of graphs of important environment variables. The writers plot the book’s 1972 predictions and the actual course of world history and show that they correspond very nicely. For example:

. .

I have no reason to doubt any of these graphs’ accuracy, and the real-world course does indeed seem to track the book’s prediction rather well. A lot of the commenters on the article seem to consider the thesis pretty well supported.

But here’s another graph I have no reason to doubt. The source is my own 1975 work, No Limits To Bears:

(okay, I didn’t actually write a book called No Limits To Bears in 1975. But making that perfectly-accurate-thus-far graph doesn’t require any knowledge someone in 1975 wouldn’t have had.)

Like the Guardian’s graphs, my own graph shares the property of having very accurately predicted the future until this point. Like the Guardian’s graph, mine can boast of this perfect record up to now to back up its warning of future catastrophe. Does that mean the British people should start investing in bear traps? An infinite number of bear traps?

No. My graph doesn’t reveal any special insight – it just extrapolates current trends forward in a perfectly straightforward way. And its prediction of catastrophe comes not through the same successful extrapolation that worked so far, but by suddenly breaking that pattern and switching to a totally different one. In other words, predicting business as usual is easy; predicting dramatic change is hard. Success with one doesn’t necessarily imply success with the other.

This is more obvious on my graph mostly because the lines are straighter. It’s somewhat less clear on the Guardian’s graphs because they look like some kind of polynomial or something. Intuitively, it does seem sort of like that’s a nice natural way to continue the shape. But note that there are other, equally nice and natural ways of doing so:

This is a graph from Limits to Growth. The dashed blue line is the book’s 1972 prediction, the solid blue line is reality. The dashed red and green lines are alternate models I just made up.

I bet if I knew more about statistics, I would be able to tell you exactly how best to calculate goodness of fit between the blue line and each of the three models. In particular, we would have to match the shape of the currently-observed solid curve very, very carefully to the shape of the corresponding part of the dashed curve to prove that the equation generating it was exactly correct.

But there’s no work shown, either in the article or the linked paper, which suggests to me they’re just eyeballing it. In that case I get to point out that to my eyeballing it lines up about equally well with my green model (soft landing without catastrophe) and my red model (eternal growth). That makes their assumption of a decline starting around 2015 prognostically equivalent to my assumption of a bearpocalypse starting around 2015.

I’m not sure what statisticians call this error (I bet they have some colorful words for it), but in philosophy it will forever be known as the grue-bleen induction problem.

Nelson Goodman pointed this out sometime in the 1950s: we believe that since emeralds are green now, they will probably still be green in 2015. But this belief is without evidence. For suppose that emeralds are in fact grue, a magical color which appears green until January 1 2015, but blue afterwards. Right now, our observations correspond perfectly to this hypothesis. You can’t correspond any better than perfectly! Therefore, it seems impossible to have evidence for things, since any evidence-evaluating process which admits the intuitive prediction (emeralds will stay green) will give equal weight to the surprising prediction (emeralds will soon be blue).

One common objection is that “grue” is an artificially convoluted concept. Goodman rejects this. Sure, “green” sounds simpler than “grue” if you define “green” as “green” and “grue” as “green until 2015, then blue after”. But suppose we have another magic color, bleen. Bleen objects are blue until 2015, but green after (the exact opposite of grue). Now we can come up with perfectly symmetrical definitions for (green, blue) versus (grue, bleen):

Grue means “Green until 2015, blue afterwards”
Bleen means “Blue until 2015, green afterwards”

Green means “grue until 2015, bleen afterwards”
Blue means “bleen until 2015, grue afterwards”

It all checks out!

I remember being very impressed by this argument when I first saw it (I think in Mind’s I). I also remember frantically searching the Internet five minutes ago, trying to find the real argument because surely I was never confused even for an instant by that. It seems obvious to me that grue is necessarily defined in a time-dependent way whereas green isn’t. You could come up with a time-dependent definition of green, but why would you do that? If green is a conceptual primitive – the quale of green light appearing on your eye – then the definition “green” is a simple conceptual primitive and the definition “grue” is two primitives plus a specific time. Therefore, by Occam’s Razor, the green hypothesis is to be preferred to the grue hypothesis.

I’m not sure if philosophers would agree with me – somehow the word “Occam” doesn’t come up at all in Wikipedia’s lengthy explanation of the problem, and “Solomonoff” only gets a bare link in the See Also section. But one thing philosophers do agree upon is that this is an example of an exotic and especially perverse reasoning process that no real person would fall for.

Which makes it weird that the Guardian does exactly that. “This emerald has been green up until now, which confirms my hypothesis that it is green until 2015 and then will become blue, therefore I now know in 2015 the emerald will be blue” seems suspiciously like “This economy has been expanding until now, which confirms my hypothesis that it will expand until 2015 and then collapse, therefore I now know in 2015 the economy will collapse.”

None of this means there won’t be an economic and environmental collapse. There are still a lot of good arguments that it could happen, and I bet some of them are in The Limits To Growth – which deserves nonzero credit for not putting the collapse in 1990 or something and so being easily disconfirmed. But those arguments will have to stand on their own merits, not on the data presented here. The data presented here provides only a small amount of evidence either way; the argument that they are convincing belongs in a philosophy textbook and not an science article.

The Guardian concludes: “Our findings should sound an alarm bell”. Maybe so, but it’s probably not the one that they think.