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Open threads at the Open Thread tab every Sunday and Wednesday

The View From Ground Level

[Epistemic status: Any time I make an anthropic argument, you should probably interpret it as trolling]

Sean Carroll argues that the simulation argument is false.

The simulation argument posits two kinds of universes: “high-level” universes that can simulate other universes, and “ground-level” universes that can’t. By the terms of the simulation argument itself, most universes will be at ground level, since every high-level universe can simulate many ground-level ones. So (says the argument) we should expect to be at ground level. But the simulation argument itself hinges on our observation that it looks like our universe is capable of simulating other lower-level universes. So apparently we aren’t on ground-level. So the simulation argument is probably false.

(I might be summing it up badly. Read the actual post for more.)

Suppose Carroll’s reasoning is right. What would a ground-level universe look like?

It would have to be pretty weird. It would have to ban the creation of Turing machines – since with enough time and resources any Turing machine could be expanded into a full-scale simulation. But Turing machines are pretty simple, and brains supporting conscious observers are pretty complicated. To have conscious observers but not Turing machines – well, once again, this would have to be pretty weird.

Brains would have to run off a science different from the local science accessible to in-universe researchers. Probably they would be run remotely, in the simulating universe, and then the results beamed into the simulated universe with no regard for the computational rules of the simulation. Maybe an alien dissecting a fellow alien’s head would just find a perfectly featureless crystal with no internal structure, which is observed to inexplicably send nerve impulses to the rest of the entity’s body. Such aliens might invent psychology, but never neuroscience, and even if they speculated about it, it wouldn’t matter – attempts to “simulate” neurons would fail, their workings forever beyond locally accessible physics. Even if they completely mastered their local science, their brains would remain a mystery.

I used the phrase “conscious observers” above. There are versions of anthropics that work for p-zombies, but we’re not p-zombies and we don’t have to use them; we can do anthropics conditioning upon consciousness. Try that, and the simulation argument doesn’t exactly depend on a ground-level universe where further simulations are impossible. It depends on a ground-level universe where further simulations containing conscious observers are impossible.

This changes the scenario a bit. Now people in ground-level simulations can expect arbitrarily complex physics, physics that allow the creation of as many Turing machines as they want, but which can’t possibly explain consciousness. They should be able to master every aspect of the universe around them except consciousness, which try as they might will remain refractory to their simulations. Consciousness will make perfect sense in the physics of the universe above theirs, but the simulators will have excised all consciousness-related rules from the ground-level sim. Try as the simulated scientists might, it’ll remain a mystery.

If Carroll’s deconstruction of the simulation argument is right, then the more trouble we have explaining consciousness, the more that should push us to believe we’re in a ground-level simulation. There’s probably a higher-level version of physics in which consciousness makes sense. Our own consciousness is probably being run in a world that operates on that higher-level law. And we’re stuck in a low-resolution world whose physics doesn’t allow consciousness – because if we weren’t, we’d just keep recursing further until we were.

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Tolerance Troubles

[Not meant as a claim that science doesn’t know something. More of an admission that I don’t know some things, and a hope to be informed about them by someone who does.]

Everyone knows about tolerance. The first time you take heroin, you get really high. The second time you take heroin, you get slightly less high. The nth time you take heroin, you barely feel good at all – but if you stop taking heroin, then you feel miserable. Your body adjusts, the receptors desensitize, whatever.

This is so simple that it took me forever to ask the obvious next question – how come this doesn’t happen for everything else? Supposedly if you have ADHD you can just stay on Adderall forever. Nobody says “The first time you take Adderall you can concentrate really well, the second time you take it you’ll concentrate less well, and the nth time you take it you can barely concentrate better at all.”

The psychiatry textbooks contain a sentence or two saying that “some” patients “may” develop Adderall tolerance, but it’s not something that we’re trained to expect. There are a lot of anecdotal reports online, but there are also anecdotal reports of people who don’t develop any tolerance at all after years and years. Hmm.

Also, people who abuse Adderall develop tolerance all the time, and keep having to up the doses just like heroin abusers do. This is a little weird – my pet theory is that people only develop tolerance to drug effects that aren’t FDA-approved uses – though how your receptors know what the FDA says I haven’t quite figured out. More seriously, it may be an effect of method of use – taking a small amount daily versus snorting a large amount of crushed tablet whenever you feel like it. Or it may be that tolerance to euphoric effects is worse than tolerance to stimulant effects.

(This seems true in general – I get euphoric effects from caffeine when I drink it very rarely; if I drink it more often, the euphoria goes away and I just feel a little more awake. This is important since it suggests tolerance isn’t just your body metabolizing the drug better, but actually a matter of receptor-level action – something I think everyone agrees is true, but which it’s always nice to have independent confirmation for.)

Sometimes tolerance gets weird. Antipsychotics are supposed to block dopamine receptors. Too much dopamine can contribute to psychosis, but it can also screw up the basal ganglia’s modulation of movement and cause you to make repetitive jerking motions all the time. People who have been on antipsychotics for too long may remain protected from psychosis, but start making repetitive jerking movements in a way consistent with too much dopamine. The theory goes that the receptors involved in psychosis haven’t developed tolerance (for some reason), but the receptors involved in movement modulation have developed so much tolerance that they’ve overshot their baseline and become supersensitive to dopamine. So by taking a drug that lowers dopamine, you get higher dopaminergic effects. In the worst case scenario, you end up with a condition called tardive dyskinesia, which is permanent. The receptors stay supersensitive forever and you will always make repetitive jerking movements. If you stop the antipsychotic, that will just make it (temporarily) worse – now you have supersensitive dopamine receptors and you’re not blocking them, so that means lots of repetitive jerking movements.

In this case, giving someone a drug has caused them to develop not just tolerance but supertolerance, where they are permanently worse than before. It’s as if taking heroin for long enough made you permanently miserable.

…which actually isn’t totally hypothetical. Some percent of people who abuse opiates like heroin get what’s called a post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), meaning that they feel depressed for months or years after they stop using the opiates. I treated a patient like for a while. I tried pretty much every antidepressant on him without success. He was just miserable. He’d been clean for about six months and I told him that he might just have to wait it out – it usually goes away after a few months to a year or so.

There is a poorly-studied but anecdotally very helpful treatment for PAWS: low-dose naltrexone. Naively, this sounds like the stupidest possible thing to try. It’s an opiate antagonist, meaning that you’re taking somebody who is undersensitive to opiates and blocking the tiny number of functioning opiate receptors they already have. It should be the only thing capable of making this already bad condition worse. Yet people swear by it. The theory is supposed to be the tolerance reaction again. Your body reacts to this opiate-blocking agent by releasing more opiates. So we’re treating a condition in which drugs that increase opiates cause you to have fewer opiates, by giving you a drug that decreases opiates which will cause you to have more opiates. How annoying is that?!

(some people recommend that if you’re giving someone opiate painkillers, you can give them low-dose naltrexone at the same time to prevent development of tolerance. Giving someone an opiate and an opiate-blocker simultaneously seems kind of like the medical equivalent of digging holes and filling them back in again, but apparently it does something useful)

This means we have examples of all three of the following:

1. A drug that’s supposed to have effect X, and after a while it still has effect X (Adderall)
2. A drug that’s supposed to have effect X, but after a while it has no effect (heroin)
3. A drug that’s supposed to have effect X, but after a while it overshoots and has effect anti-X (Antipsychotics? Heroin? Naltrexone?)

You may notice that these are all three of the logical possibilities. So for example, if we gave someone a drug that was supposed to decrease anxiety, it might decrease anxiety, have no effect, or increase anxiety. If scientific hypotheses are about closing off parts of possibility-space, then the receptor sensitivity hypothesis isn’t doing a very good job.

But it’s actually worse than this, because I get the impression that different people will end up in different branches of this trilemma. Benzodiazepines are a special offender here. Some people can take Xanax once a day for anxiety, and it’s a perfect solution – it suppresses their anxiety, it never stops working, and they never become addicted – if twenty years later they get a good therapist who helps them treat their anxiety without drugs, they can stop the Xanax with just a couple of days of mild discomfort. Other people will lose all effect after a couple of weeks, up the dose, up the dose some more, and end up as total wrecks. I think this is much less common than most people say – my attending’s rule of thumb is “benzo tolerance develops for sleep but not anxiety” – but it certainly happens. And for that matter, I’ve met a few people who never seem to develop tolerance for benzodiazepine sleeping pills. You see this same pattern for opiates used as painkillers. I spent so many years confused about whether people develop tolerance to these or not, and my final conclusion is that some people do and some people don’t and if you try to find a coherent universal pattern here you will go insane.

And it’s actually worse than this. Drugs don’t just work differently in different people, sometimes the same person will cycle through totally different mechanisms of drug response. SSRIs have something called tachyphylaxis, where they’ll work really well for months and then suddenly stop working (the word means “fast protection”, ie you develop protection against the drug effects quickly). This is even more annoying than the other patterns – at least with heroin, it makes sense that the receptors will gradually lose their sensitivity. But here? In random people at random times, the drug just stops working suddenly. It might be after a month, it might be after a year, it might be after ten years. And then every so often you’ll try the drug again a decade later, and then it’ll work just fine. Why? Nobody knows.

Some skeptics have pointed out that this is exactly what you would expect if the drug had no real effect and it was just luck that people didn’t have depressive episodes while they were taking them, but we know SSRIs have some effect. And anyway, placebo tachyphylaxis isn’t any less weird than real tachyphylaxis.

One more weird thing: LSD users report very strong tolerance lasting about three days after a dose, to the point where a second dose the day after will do almost nothing. Rat experiments have shown this is definitely because of receptor downregulation and not just enzyme induction. Okay. But LSD is a pretty strong drug. If receptors are so down-regulated that you are essentially on negative one tabs of LSD, how are you remotely normal while the tolerance is in effect? Are people during their periods of LSD tolerance less crazy and creative than normal? What the heck is the 5-HT2A receptor even doing if decreased amounts of it sufficient to render LSD ineffective don’t have noticeable effects on consciousness?

This is my concern about naltrexone as well. Sometimes doctors give naltrexone to help with alcohol addiction, which usually works okay. The theory is that since naltrexone blocks opiates, and opiates power the endogenous reward system, alcohol will seem less rewarding. Fine. But shouldn’t everything seem less rewarding? I always worry that I’m just blocking my alcoholic patients’ ability to enjoy anything at all (of which enjoying alcohol is a subset), but that doesn’t seem to be how it works. This is about when I default to my theory of “receptors read the FDA labels for medications and make sure to only do what they’re supposed to”.

All of this annoys me for a few reasons.

First, psychiatry really doesn’t think about this enough (or sometimes at all). The pharmacology textbooks will tell you how effective a drug is, how long it lasts, how many side effects it has, et cetera, but not whether it’s going to produce tolerance or not. It’s mostly just assumed that it won’t.

Second, groups skeptical of psychiatry are always talking about tolerance and it’s hard to tell whether they’re right or wrong. For example, some people claim antidepressants cause tardive dysphoria – that like the antipsychotics that eventually give permanent repetitive jerking movements, antidepressants can make serotonin receptors permanently undersensitive (or something) and so make depression worse. Other people say that antipsychotics themselves can eventually screw up dopamine receptors in ways that make psychosis worse (though see here). My guess is that these problems don’t arise for most people, but I can’t explain why these things wouldn’t happen.

Third, I think something like this is involved in addiction. Addiction is highly genetic; some people can drink alcohol socially their entire lives and never become alcoholic; other people quickly get hooked. This seems related to the thing where some people are stable forever at their low dose of opiate painkiller, and other people quickly develop tolerance and need to keep increasing it. I’m sure there are other things involved in addiction, but this is probably one of them.

Fourth, how many interesting things are we missing because they’re stupid and make no sense? I don’t know who first discovered that low-dose naltrexone could help potentiate the effect of opiates, but there have got to be other things like that. Forcing your body to become more sensitive to its own chemistry seems like a good alternative to forcing more and more foreign chemicals into it.

Finally, the best drugs seem to be the ones we hesitate to use because they produce too much tolerance. Xanax, opiates, you name it. A version of Xanax that that didn’t produce any tolerance would be a holy grail of anxiety disorder pharmacology. Some way to switch off Xanax tolerance would be just as good.

And a tolerance-free version of heroin would be pretty interesting too – from a purely pharmacological perspective, of course.

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OT56: Spur Of The Comment


This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. There are hidden threads every few days here. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. Comment of the week is Mammon talking about clandestine MDMA labs. But see also the people who reported Spiral-like experiences in the comments to the PiHKaL review, (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), with my special interest caught by Kaminiwa’s report that his brother’s night terrors were like this. I’ve always wanted to know more about night terrors, since classically nobody can remember the content. These kinds of spiral experiences – things that are kind of like dreams, only different, and potentially very dysphoric, and common in childhood but disappearing as you grow older – seems like potentially a good match.

2. Lots of people pointed out last time that “banning anonymous commenting” was meaningless, since people could just register names like “Anonymous1” and keep commenting as normal. So let me be more specific – what do you think of requiring email verification (without listing the emails publicly) to comment? I know that it’s pretty easy to get working fake emails, but it would at least be a trivial inconvenience to constantly getting banned and re-registering.

3. By popular request, Deiseach is now unbanned.

4. Please don’t send me emails offering me sponsorship deals, affiliations with your own site, this one weird trick to increase my visitor count, et cetera. Please also don’t send me emails requesting that a link you like be included in the link roundup, especially not a link to your company (advertising is available if you want it). These are getting kind of high-volume and annoying. If you have something that I absolutely need to know about, you can try posting about it in the open thread, on the subreddit (which I definitely mine for good links), or by some kind of social proof where you convince somebody I know really well and they bother me about it normal conversation. I will grudgingly tolerate exceptions for important community events and very good charitable causes.

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Links 8/16: Ode On A Grecian URL

Israel now gets 55% of its water from desalinization and has gone from drought-stricken to having more than enough to share. Related: Jeff Kaufman on the economics of desalinization in California.

Long 2004 piece by Atul Gawande on ranking doctors by outcomes, why we don’t usually do it, and diseases where it seems to work.

Bryan Caplan (2014): talk of the “increasing returns to a college degree” don’t necessarily motivate more students to go to college if they predict they’ll fail.

In November, Maine will vote on becoming the first US state to use ranked-choice voting.

A 2004 study showed that the antidepressant Celexa worked in children. Newer studies show it doesn’t. As part of a lawsuit, investigators got all of the pharma company’s internal data on the trial that “proved” the drug worked. So if you ever want to see exactly how pharmaceutical companies cook their trials, here’s your chance.

Did you know: military dogs traditionally outrank their handlers in order to encourage the handlers to treat them with respect.

The Mennonites are an anachronistic German Protestant group much like the Amish. And like the Amish, they have big communities in Pennsylvania. But did you know there are also large Mennonite communities in Paraguay, Mexico, and Belize?

Fredrik deBoer’s thoughts on atheism pretty much parallel my own evolution on the same subject.

AskReddit: what is the weirdest sensation you’ve only felt once?

IF you’re anxiously awaiting Civilization 6, there’s a good compendium of all available information about the game here.

Missouri governor defunds the state’s public defense system so that it has trouble hiring enough lawyers to defend cases. Head public defender makes use of an obscure law that lets him “draft” lawyers when not enough are available – and drafts the Missouri governor himself to fill in until the funds arrive.

I think someone might be trolling the sovereign citizens – somehow it’s entered into their lore that if you officially write “I am an idiot” on your court paperwork, the government can’t prosecute you. I guess I understand how this sort of makes sense – “idiot” used to be Greek for someone not involved in political life – but I still wonder if this is the best prank of all time.

The governor of Nebraska occasionally honors people by declaring them an Admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska. A similar tradition of Kentucky honoring people by naming them Colonels is how we got Colonel Sanders. Related Colonel Sanders fact: he was so angry with KFC switching from his original recipe that he denounced their food as “pure wallpaper paste…there’s no nutrition in it and they ought not to be allowed to sell it.”

Poll finds that 37% of Trump supporters have zero friends who support Clinton; 47% of Clinton supporters have zero friends who support Trump.

Remember when LHC thought they found a new particle recently. They didn’t. Scientists in other fields declare physicists weird, creepy for waiting to make sure finding actually exists before announcing it.

Sam Bowman’s neoliberal manifesto aims to carve out “neoliberalism” as a particular policy position (instead of just a vague smear) based around belief in markets, technocratic managerial competence, and interest in helping the poor through evidence-based programs. It’s a useful term since it has elements of liberalism and libertarianism but doesn’t exactly fit into either. But I worry it still doesn’t draw a fine enough distinction. Hillary Clinton and Peter Thiel would probably both be “neoliberals” under this definition, but there’s a big gap between them. More important, Hillary’s brand of neoliberal can probably be relatively happy with the direction things are going, whereas Thiel’s brand is phenomenally unhappy. A better explanation of the differences between the two might be a worthwhile project.

Studies kept finding that people who drank more alcohol had lower mortality, but everyone assumed it was doomed to stay a correlational finding only – after all, you couldn’t ethically randomize people to start drinking alcohol, could you? Well, now they did a study where they randomized people to start drinking alcohol.

Donald Trump quotes superimposed on pictures of Zapp Brannigan works surprisingly well.

New paper finds that blinded review of linguistics papers increased percent of women whose papers did well at a conference, suggesting previous discrimination against women. Slight catch is that in previous linguistic conferences, papers by men and women did equally well, but after institution of blinded review, women did much better than men. Authors write that this suggests previous bias against women lopped off the bottom half of the female ability distribution, leaving only women who were so brilliant that they could effectively compete on a skewed playing field, and who therefore did better than men once the playing field was leveled. I find this a little self-serving, but it’s hard to explain why blinding review would have this effect otherwise, and I don’t see any obvious attempts to cook the data. All of their data is freely available (good for them!) so if you want to investigate yourself, let me know if you find anything interesting.

Vox: why is GDP growth so slow?

In case you really like quantifying things, here’s The Cost Of Crime To Society. They just gave per crime statistics, but multiplying everything out it looks like it’s on the order of $300 billion/year, which is way more than I expected and which doesn’t even seem to count things like decreasing land values.


This week in “studies saying the opposite of what previous studies said”: Uber does not decrease traffic fatalities; Mexican immigration does decrease native wages; but only for African-Americans; religious children are no less altruistic than anyone else.

Scientists have bred alcoholic rats in order to investigate the genetics of alcoholism.

A single mutation in horses 1000 years ago noticeably increased their rideability.

There have been no major hurricanes in the US for 11 years, which is statistically super-unlikely. I’m sure global warming skeptics will pounce on this, but this actually seems to go beyond no-change – is it possible that global warming might paradoxically decrease hurricane frequency?

New York Daily News: We Were Wrong: Ending Stop-and-Frisk Did Not End Stopping Crime. I will always republish people admitting they were wrong, so good for them.

Filipino president verbally attacks the Pope, jokes about raping missionaries, announces that “I don’t care about human rights”, catcalls female journalists, encourages citizens to shoot drug dealers, and called the US ambassador “a gay son of a whore”. But also, he is lauded for his work promoting women’s and LGBT rights in the Phillipines, and during his tenure as Mayor of Davao transformed it from “the murder capital of the Philippines” to “the world’s fourth safest place”.

That weird star that we’re not supposed to blame on aliens is still doing weird things.

Chinese audiences loved “Kung Fu Panda” so much that it inspired national soul-searching on why the West was better at making Chinese-culture-themed movies than they were.

Musical Alexander Hamilton: proud immigrant who sings together with Lafayette about how “immigrants get the job done”. Real-world Alexander Hamilton: “The United States have already felt the evils of incorporating a large number of foreigners into their national mass…to admit foreigners indiscriminately to the rights of citizens, the moment they put foot in our country, as recommended in the Message, would be nothing less, than to admit the Grecian Horse into the Citadel of our Liberty and Sovereignty.” H/t Alyssa Vance.

There is no hedonic adaptation to poverty; “poverty starts bad and stays bad in terms of subjective well-being”.

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Book Review: PiHKaL


PiHKAL (“Phenylethylamines I Have Known And Loved”), subtitled “A Chemical Love Story”, is the autobiography of Alexander and Ann Shulgin. Alexander Shulgin was a chemist who invented lots of new psychedelic drugs. Ann was his wife. Together they discuss their chemistry research and their relationship.

I was expecting a sort of popular science style book that cleverly ties the chemical story into the love story. You know the drill – the bonds between people are like the bonds between atoms, fragile in some ways yet incredibly strong in others. Or something like that. It would use the human interest story to hook you into the chemistry, then use the chemistry to give scientific respectability to the human interest story, so that both science nerds and hopeless romantics could enjoy it and gain more of an appreciation for the other side’s point of view.

Some parts of PiHKAL approached this kind of style. But a lot of them didn’t. Chapters and sections tended to be kind of either/or. You can be reading one moment about how MDMA is an n-methylated homolog of MDA, and the next moment about how Alexander Shulgin’s broad shoulders rippled as he was making love. It was a bit jarring.

The first quarter of the book was about Alexander Shulgin’s childhood and early life. He was born in 1930s Berkeley, went to school, became a chemist, and got a job with Dow Chemical. He invented a pesticide so successful that Dow gave him total freedom to work on whatever he wanted – which turned out to be psychedelics. He met, courted, and married his first wife Helen, a process which receives six sentences (compared to seven sentences a page later on the history of 3,4,5-trimethoxyamphetamine synthesis techniques). He has various scientific and professional successes, including a supporting role in the invention of MDMA/Ecstasy. His first wife dies of a brain haemorrhage.

The second quarter is a love story told from Ann’s perspective. It reminds me a little bit of very bad fanfiction, like “My Immortal”. Ann very briefly talks about her childhood, then gets to the part where she (after three previous marriages and divorces) meets Alexander. Cue lavish descriptions of his eyes, his hair, his muscles, his shoulders, how much better than her he is, how there’s no way someone as awesome as he is could possibly fall for someone boring like her, how many sparks get sent through her spine every time he gazes at her, et cetera. I am okay with people being in love, but this is a bit excessive. We get to hear about how amazing it is that he is a chemist, how amazing it is that he creates new drugs, how amazing it is that he is a brilliant yet dark and brooding loner, how there’s no way someone like that could ever love her (but spoiler: he totally does). Sometimes it seems to strain plausibility – there is a section where Shulgin tells Ann that he is interested in psychopharmacology, and she innocently goes into “Oh my, that’s such a big word for a girl like me, I wonder what it means”. But she has been married to a psychiatrist for ten years at this point, and also, she’s a hospital transcriptionist. I roll to disbelieve that she has never heard the word “psychopharmacology” before – let alone never heard the word “pharmacology” and the prefix “psycho-” from which the meaning is completely obvious.

The third quarter is an assortment of trip reports, social gatherings, and arguments against the War on Drugs. It is probably my favorite part, given that it’s neither as dry as the autobiography nor as overwrought as the love story. The trip reports about weird new psychedelics that nobody else has ever tried are really what I’m here for – they occur throughout, but especially here, and they do not disappoint.

The fourth quarter is a cookbook detailing the ingredients of, synthesis techniques for, and effects of 179 different psychedelic substances. It’s really fascinating, and I’m consumed by a desire to try some of it, except that they all begin by with instructions like “Obtain a professional-quality chemistry lab and several zillion different compounds with names like 2,5-dimethoxythiophenol”, and end with getting raided by the DEA. So I will have to stick to enjoying Alexander Shulgin’s psychedelic experiments vicariously.


There were a couple of levels on which I enjoyed this book, though none left me completely without questions.

The first level, of course, is Shulgin’s work on psychedelics. My opinion on psychedelics hasn’t changed since Universal Love, Said The Cactus Person. I think they’re really interesting and mysterious and show every sign of pointing at something profoundly important. I also think that nobody has ever been able to consistently extract anything useful or scalable out of them, and until someone does, they’ll remain a weird toy where you take them and feel transcendent joy for a few hours, and if all you want is to feel transcendent joy for a few hours then they’re definitely the way to go, but as of yet it’s unclear what relevance they can have to any other project.

Alexander Shulgin disagrees. At least I think he disagrees. He is dark and brooding and quiet, and he doesn’t wear his heart on his sleeve even in his autobiography. But he mentions – once – that he believes his project is vitally important for the human race. This is Ann:

It seems to me that the magic plants – and the psychedelic drugs – are there to be used because the human race needs some way of finding out what it is, some way of remembering things we’ve usually forgotten by the time we’re grown up. I also think that the whole 1960s eruption- all that psychedelic experimenting and exploring – was due to some very strong instinct – maybe on the collective unconsciously level, if you want to use Jung’s term – an instinct that’s telling us if we don’t hurry up and find out why we are the way we are, and why we do the things we do, as a species, we could very soon wipe ourselves out completely

Alexander says this is what drives him also, then adds:

Of course, there are many ways to alter your consciousness and your perceptions; there always have been, and new ways will keep being developed. Drugs are only one way, but I feel they’re the way that brings about the changes most rapidly, and – in some ways – most dependably. Which makes them very valuable when the person using them knows what he’s doing. I thought for a while that I could use music to accomplish what I wanted to do, because music can be a very powerful consciousness changer. But when I discovered that I had a certain knack for chemistry, I made a decision to go that way, to concentrate on developing these tools. Mostly, I suppose, because these particular drugs, these materials, are a way to bring about new insights and perceptions quickly, and – well, I just don’t know if we have much time. Sometimes I suspect it may be too late already…I have no intention of getting lazy, and there’s nothing better than a suspicion that time’s running out, to keep you working hard.

Shulgin and his friends seem like good people. But not, crucially, like the best people. Shulgin himself – by his own admission, based on facts that he himself presents in his own autobiography – is consistently kind of a jerk to his wife (and his wife kind of agrees). He gets depressed and ornery a lot, sometimes to the point where it seriously interferes with his work and relationships. His circle of friends seems to have some problems with marital infidelity and random drama, and he tells one story about a distant friend-of-a-friend obsessed with LSD who seems to be an outright con man. I’m not saying they’re bad people; quite the opposite, the book makes them seem very human and if I lived in the same time and place as them I would be delighted to have the opportunity to know them. But they seem, well, about as good or bad as any other set of intelligent, creative people. It’s not clear that their psychedelic use – and man, do these people use psychedelics – has made them morally or spiritually exceptional. It’s hard to shake the thought that these people would be relatively nice and interesting artists and scientists with a little bit of marital infidelity and personal drama even if they’d never taken anything stronger than Tylenol.

Don’t get me wrong – during the trips they are constantly seeing God and understanding the oneness of everything in creation. But even Alexander Shulgin’s close friend group aren’t high more than like 20% of the time. I’m not sure exactly what about them makes them potential human-race-savers. Yes, I think they’re probably anti-nuclear-weapon. But this is the 1970s Berkeley counterculture; anti-nuclear-weapon people are not exactly hard to come by.

And so I was left with one question the book didn’t really answer – why is Shulgin doing this? What is his hope? Does he hope that the 200th new psychedelic he discovers will be the one that really teaches people universal love, to the point where they can’t ignore it? That just having twenty different slightly different permutations of the same psychoactive sulfur compound isn’t enough to create a world revolution in consciousness, but having thirty of them is? Why didn’t he become the scientist in this article, who has come up with a clever way to extend the DMT high in order to be able to enter complex negotiations with the machine elves, hopefully involving factoring large numbers? That’s the sort of project that can go somewhere.

I’m not saying that everyone needs to have a four-hundred-step plan for how exactly what they’re doing today is going to save the world, Leverage Research style. I can’t tell you how writing this blog post or doing psychiatry is going to save the world. And I’m not saying people can’t focus on their comparative advantage – if you’re a brilliant chemist, maybe you should invent new chemicals and let politicians and religious leaders figure out what to do with them. But Shulgin seems to think he’s doing something more important than coming up with new and better toys, and it’s not totally clear to me what this is.

Shulgin does have a great excuse – the War on Drugs is in full swing by the middle of his career, and this prevents a lot of his products from getting the trial they deserve. For example, he introduces a psychiatrist friend to MDMA, and the psychiatrist finds it to be an immense help to psychotherapy, helping patients realize and come to terms with their issues much faster than the non-chemically-assisted version. I’ve heard this from psychiatrists I know as well, and maybe we could have had a revolution in mental health if the DEA hadn’t banned this kind of thing (there is, in fact, a big literature on psychedelics in psychiatry, most of which shows impressive effects in the very small experiments that have been permitted thus far). So maybe Shulgin’s angle is that he’s developed very useful mental health treatments which unfortunately the medical establishment refuses to consider, but they’ll be there if anybody needs them. But then how come he keeps inventing more of them, seemingly with no interest in whether they help the mentally ill or not? How come he keeps talking about saving humanity instead of curing depressed people?

The only hint I get is during a trip report for a particularly powerful compound called 2C-T-4, where Shulgin writes:

There is a simultaneous union with everything around me, and thus with everything within me too. A complete identification with my environment. And a sense of being at total peace with it, as well. If this is me, then I thank the dear Lord for a wonderful awareness, at least for a short time, of the fact that we can be so rich and beautiful. The mind flows and with it the soul, and no matter what words I put down in an effort to catch the wondrous monolog, I can do it little justice…

I have been fooled, again and again, into thinking that the magic of the unified reality was in the drug, and not in the person. Of course it is in the person – and only in the person – but if a drug could be found that would consistently catalyze this, then it would be one of the most powerful and awesome drugs that could be conceived of by man. If it were this material, 2C-T-4, it would have to be held apart with a reverence that would be impossible to describe or explain on a patent application!!

But Shulgin later reports that the drug does not consistently have this effect; testing it on other people (and again on himself) he gets various interesting psychedelic trips but never a return to the same level of transcendence. So maybe Shulgin is looking for a drug that consistently works as well as 2C-T-4? But I’m not sure what he would do with it if he found it. Ann, for example, describes her first mescaline trip in language a lot like the language Shulgin uses for 2C-T-4, and many others (eg Huxley) do the same – but everyone already knows about mescaline. Would releasing a consistent version of 2C-T-4 to the world do something mescaline hasn’t already done? What has mescaline already done?

Oddly enough, it is Ann – who keeps on insisting that she is not intellectual, that she is hopelessly boring compared to Alexander, that we should be reading her parts only to gain a hero-worshipping outsider’s perspective on Alexander – whose speculations on this subject I really like. This is from her mescaline trip report. She says that on mescaline she understood for the first time that the world was perfectly good, and writes:

I nodded, remembering some of the phrases I’d read in books and articles about psychedelic experiences, phrases like “Everything’s all right just exactly the way it is,” and the equally infuriating “I’m okay, you’re okay,” which had always sounded unbearably fatuous and self-satisfied. I’d often thought angrily that the writers had conveniently forgotten about the babies in Calcutta garbage cans, sorrow and hurt and loneliness, and the rest of a planetful of miseries. I’d said to myself, here’s some whacked-out idiot rhapsodizing about life being all right just the way it is. It had never stopped me from reading about such experiences, but my liberal soul had always ground its teeth at that aspect of the reports.

Now – now I would have to take it all back, all that resentment, because I was beginning to understand. I stopped in the road and looked at Sam and looked past him, and around and up at the grey sky and I knew that everything in the world was doing exactly what it was supposed to be doing; that the universe was on course, and that there was a Mind somewhere that knew everything that happened because it was everything that happened, and that, whether I understood it with my intellect or not, all was well. I simply knew it and I knew that I would try to figure it out later, but that I had to absorb the truth of it now, standing on a wet road in Golden Gate Park.

At least here, she seems to be using the mescaline not to catapult humanity to a higher state of existence, but to make her peace with the current state. I’m not sure making peace with the current state is philosophically justifiable, but it seems to have helped her, and I can imagine it helping a lot of people, as long as they stick to viewing it as a psychological truth and not as an excuse for quietism – something Ann doesn’t seem to have done.


The second level on which I enjoyed this book was anthropology and ethnography.

The Shulgins met through a group that had branched off of Mensa. Their social circle consisted of a mishmash of scientists, underachieving geniuses, mental health professionals, hippies, and people convinced that their new projects were going to save the world – all in the context of Berkeley and the Bay Area. This is also my social circle, thirty years later, so it’s interesting to see how things have changed and how they’ve stayed the same.

Ann starts her narrative while she is dating a fellow Mensan named Kelly. So, ethnographical study number one:

He was an intense man with a striking, angular face who had met me at a Mensa gathering four months earlier. The next day, he came to my house and asked me to marry him. He explained, much later, that of course he knew I would refuse – had counted on it, in fact – but that he had often found proposing marriage to be an effective way of getting a woman’s attention. There was no denying that it had done just that.

Kelly’s passions in life were computers, good-looking older women and the creation of new IQ tests. I also discovered that he had a generalized contempt for humanity, referring to most people ask ‘turkeys’, and a tendency to uncontrolled explosions of rage, which often resulted in his having to apologize later for damage done to someone else’s furniture or a relationship – usually both.

He explained about his painful illnesses in childhood and his demanding, punitive father, and asked me to be understanding a patient. It worked for a while (I’ve always had a soft spot for intelligent neurotics), but after one memorable day when he smashed some of my records in front of the children, screaming at me for coming home ten minutes late from work and keeping him waiting, I told him if he didn’t go into therapy, I was through.

Kelly’s answer was, “I’ve never met a psychiatrist I couldn’t out-think and out-reason, I’m not about to waste my time or my money on one of those cretins!”

This Thursday gathering in Berkeley was an effort on Kelly’s part to bring together people he considered intelligent enough to, as he put it, appreciate what he could teach them about using their minds effectively.

Ethnographic study number two, slightly edited for length; this is Ann introducing Alexander to some of her friends:

[I] proceeded to give him rapid-fire descriptions of some of Mensa’s main attractions, as they stood talking or moved past us. In my best museum-guide manner, I told him, addressing his right ear closely because of the noise in the room, “You see that man there, the tall one with the red vest? He created the SIG – Special Interest Group – which is known as the Orgy SIG; I forget his official title for it, something like Sexual Freedom SIG, but everyone refers to it by the other name. I’ve never been to a meeting, but I hear they’re a lot of fun for those who go in for that sort of thing…”

“That woman over there in the purple dress, the one standing in a straight line between us and the candles – that’s Candice. She’s a very good-hearted, motherish person who gives the Mensa tests in this area, and for a while her little boy, Robin, was the youngest member of Mensa in the country. He’s around ten now, and no longer the youngest.”

I told him about the mathematical computer which inhabited the sometimes bewildered soul of the young man on the couch, and he said he was very interested in that kind of mind, and would go over and talk with him later on. I said I hoped he would want to do that, because few people paid any attention to the boy, and he was very sweet.

I asked Shura [Alexander Shulgin]’s ear, “Why haven’t you joined Mensa, by the way? It’s a good way to meet interesting people, especially when you’ve been divorced – or widowed.”

“Well,” shouted Shura, “To tell you the truth, I never thought of applying, probably because you have to take an IQ tests, and I will not take an IQ test.”

“Why, in heaven’s name?”

“I feel total, complete disgust for all tests of intelligence, and only limited patience with the people who give them. When I was in the third grade or thereabouts, I was given a so-called IQ test, a Binet-something-something, and I made an honest and diligent effort to complete it. There were angular objects, and number games, and if-this-then-what types of questions and the strategies needed for getting to most of the answers were pretty obvious.”

“You did well?”

“Of course I did, and that’s where I really tangled with the school principal. He accused me of having cheated, since no one could get the results I had gotten without cheating, and so I was in essence thrown out of the testing group, and was pretty much humiliated. They obviously wanted scores that fit on a kind of distribution curve about some sort of a norm. Mine was a bit too far to the right of the curve. My mother was furious with the principal; she pulled me into his office and confronted him and lectured him about my integrity, which made me want to run and hide even worse than before. I swore then that I’d never take another IQ test, and I never will!”

Ethnographic description number three is Shulgin’s colleague, a German professor named Dolph, and his wife Ursula. Shulgin’s first marriage, to the woman he spent six sentences on in Part I, was never very happy – never unhappy, neither of them was abusive or anything, just sort of boring and straightforward. When Shulgin met Ursula, he fell in love, maybe for the first time in his life, and they had a brief affair before Dolph and Ursula had to go back to Germany:

We met, Ursula and I, two or three times in some inn or private place sufficiently far away from the Bay Area to minimize the possibility of being seen by a friend or acquaintance, and I discovered what it was to feel unashamed, uncensored, joyous sexuality.

Being in love, like any other kind of consciousness alteration, makes small but real changes in the way you view things about you, and in the way you behave around others. Over the years, my friends had come to accept me as what they affectionately called a “difficult genius”, and were quite used to my habitually ironic humor, cutting commentary, and somewhat sour view of the world. One of the hardest things I had to do, in my unaccustomed role of secret lover and beloved, was to avoid giving expression – in the company of family or friends – to the feelings of optimism and even outright niceness which overtook me now and then, and which I knew would cause some degree of concern if they were detected.

I really like this passage. Here’s someone who has tried more psychedelic drugs than anyone else in the world, and what really changes his outlook is the power of love.

But then it gets complicated. Shulgin’s wife dies. He corresponds incessantly with Ursula back in Germany, urging her to leave Dolph and come to California and marry him. She says yes, but asks for some time to plan. Shulgin is overjoyed and says to take as much time as she wants. Weeks turn into months. Months to years. They keep writing each other. Ursula insists that she continues to be excited at the impending plan to move to California and marry Shulgin, but she keeps asking for more time. She needs to close up her affairs in Germany. She needs to figure out a way to break it gently to her husband. She needs to stay to comfort her husband during this difficult time. She needs to figure out how she’s going to send her stuff.

Meanwhile, all this time Shulgin is calling her in Germany to talk to her a lot, and a lot of the time her husband answers the phone, and he’s got to suspect something at this point, but he’s still perfectly cheerful and friendly, and finally Shulgin asks, “You know your wife is planning on moving to California to live with me,” and he’s like “Oh yeah, I know”, and Shulgin starts to get a tad suspicious. Meanwhile, this is around the time he starts meeting/falling in love with Ann, and he keeps telling Ann “I really like you, but this is just a fling until my True Love Ursula gets here from Germany”, and Ann is always okay with this, because Alexander Shulgin is Objectively The Best And Most Attractive Person In The World, and obviously having him for a short time is better than having anybody else forever. But it starts to get really annoying and everybody is super confused by what’s going on, and finally one of their psychiatrist friends tells Ann:

Ursula is – how best to put it – she’s a person who, when she’s attracted to a man, intuitively senses what’s lacking in his emotional life, and she has a compulsion to become whatever that man most needs in a woman. She probably convinces herself each time that she’s truly in love, but I doubt she’s capable of what most of us would call real loving. The Jungians have a term, ‘anima woman’. The anima woman lacks a solid identity; like many great actors, she borrows – she takes on – a sense of wholeness from playing a part. In this case, it’s the part of the muse, the inspiration, the adored dream-woman. She fulfills a fantasy, and you can imagine the tremendous emotional rewards there are for her in such a role, as long as the affair lasts. Each affair lasts, of course, only until the next needy attractive man comes along. It’s all unconscious, by the way; I don’t think Ursula has the slightest idea of what she’s doing or why she feels compelled to do it. Or, for that matter, why the men she’s drawn to always happen to be married. When it’s time to move on, she explains – and probably believes – that she’s ending the relationship because she couldn’t live with the responsibility of having broken up a marriage.

When she first joined [our] group, we had long talks with each other, under the influence of [Shulgin’s psychedelics], and she told me a lot about her involvements with married men; she told me more than she realized or intended to. It was a subtle form of preening, under the guise of telling problems to a wise, sympathetic psychologist, you understand? Gradually, I put enough of the pieces together to understand the pattern. By that time, she had stopped telling me personal things about herself and her life, and I sensed that she was feeling uncomfortable around me […]

The dynamics of this kind of psychological compulsion are more than I want to go into right now, but what worries me is I believe Ursula is simply not capable of true emotional commitment to anyone. She’ll play the role for a time, as I said, until somebody else comes along – someone she finds appealing, with an emotional hole that’s begging to be filled – and she’ll move on to the new challenge. That’s what’s going to happen to Shura [Alexander Shulgin], I’m sure of it. I know it! I love him very much – we all do, you know – and sooner or later, he’s going to be badly hurt. That’s why I’m more pleased than I can say, to see you here. I don’t know what your relationship is with Shura, but it’s clear that you care for him, and I hope that – umm – I hope you’ll stay around. To help cushion the blow, when it comes; to give him something real to hold onto, when the unreal thing begins to unravel. Which I’m sure will happen before long, now that Ursula finds herself involved with a man who has – quite unexpectedly – become free to make an open commitment to her and ask her to do the same. Her bluff is being called.

Everything goes back and forth a lot, the whole social circle becomes hopelessly muddled, but in the end the psychiatrist is proven right. After much back-and-forth, Ursula agrees to fly to California that very day. When she doesn’t actually arrive, Ann sends her a nasty letter, informing her that she exists, that she’s on to her, and that now is the time to put up or shut up. Ursula then sends Shulgin a letter:

Dearest, dearest Shura,

A window has widely opened to you, a soul-window, a love-window, of graceful being – being together. A common space of breathing, of light touch, of inner smile. I could let those hours pass without telling you, and then you would never know what I am feeling – you would have only your own experience. Or I could share this with you. That is what I am doing […]

In a past life, about 2,000 years ago, you took a long knife and cut my throat, took my life, murdered me in the desert! You were the chief of our tribe, and I was a young girl, and you killed me! The whys are irrelevant. I have seen this over and over, and others who lived with us in that time have come to me in this life and warned me to be aware of this old karmic connection. We were, I think, of a nomad people in North Africa when this happened so long ago […]

In this moment of open love, you might be able to believe what I say to you, that I do not have any misgiving or second thoughts about emotional involvements with you because of this vision of what happened so long ago. No, my only concern is, and this is very real to me, to free myself and to give you the possibility of freeing yourself, from these old, old bonds of emotional slavery which must not be repeated in this life. In this life, through our deep love, we have the real chance of changing this by bringing it out into the open. We have broken a karmic consequence and do no longer have to blindly bear the burdens of the past life and tragedy.

I am leaving Dolph and I will go to a place to begin a new life with myself. I do not think I will marry again. I must seek alone my true path of the soul. I love you very deeply and I go to live my own life, of which you are a wonderful spiritual part. Maybe it will come that you will be a material part as well. But now you must live the present as completely as you can.

Shura, my dearest one, I want you to be free as a bird. Unfold your wings and leave all pain behind you, all possible accumulated guilt, all disquietness, all sorrows. Be free, and newly born, and walk into sunrise!!!

Fly and be!

So much for ethnographic study number three.


All of this seems somewhat more dramatic than normal reality. I don’t know how much liberty the Shulgins took when writing their autobiography – maybe this is another one of those things like Ann not knowing what “psychopharmacology” was. But one last thing I noticed about the book was how clear and coherent the psychology of everyone in PiHKAL was.

The Shulgins and everyone they know are Freudians – not explicitly, nobody ever says “I am a Freudian”, but just on a deep level they assume that it’s obviously true. Sometimes if it is an especially good day they’re Jungians as well, in the same implicit way. They’re always getting messages from their unconscious, they’re always rediscovering psychologically repressed material, and they’re always meeting people like Ursula who seem driven to behave in dramatic and unusual ways which are very predictable to any of the approximately one zillion psychoanalysts and psychiatrists whom the Shulgins know. Even their drugs are good analysts – the psychedelics are always helping them remember repressed childhood memories, after which they feel much better from whatever was bothering them at the time.

This is interesting, because I almost never see anyone behave in as dramatically Freudian a way as the Shulgins and their friends seem to behave all the time – even though I occasionally do psychodynamic therapy on people! I’m left a little baffled. Part of me wants to say that the primitive mind sees omens everywhere – I’m sure medievals were always seeing various signs of Christ in their daily life, and pattern-matching has never been a difficult sport (ask me how I feel about that brilliant and humane reflection on theodicy above being by someone named Ann). Another part wonders whether, if you’re Freudian enough, your subconscious starts acting in Freudian ways just to keep up – although that itself is a Freudian idea and I’m not sure whether you can get it without presupposing Freudianism anyway. A third possibility is just that the more crazy drugs you’re on, the more Freudian you act – wasn’t Freud a coke fiend anyway? A fourth possibility is that the problem is with me – I’m somehow so closed to all this kind of thing that when people around me tell me Freudian stuff, I completely miss it without Ann Shulgin’s narrative voice to tell me how Freudian it is – or even actively repress it.

Maybe the most interesting chapter of the book was where Ann had a spiritual crisis. She takes a psychedelic called DESOXY which Shulgin thinks is pretty weak, and she has a very strange reaction where the world starts seeming hostile, emotionless, and run by a perfectly rational demiurge that doesn’t care about humans the tiniest bit. The psychedelic leaves her bloodstream, she reaches the point where she should feel normal again, but she can’t shake her feeling of the demiurge’s obvious and palpable presence, to the point where she becomes barely able to function. She goes to one of the zillion or so Jungian psychologists in her friend group, who matter-of-fact tells her she’s having a spiritual crisis, and the only thing to do is wait for her soul to process it and gain the necessary enlightenment to go on (I wish I could get away with saying this kind of thing to my patients). Then she starts having extremely vivid visions of what is very obvious her mind doing Internal Family Systems therapy on herself, despite this being way before Internal Family Systems was invented, and despite the inventor being one of the three or so psychologists who was not a personal friend of the Shulgins. Finally she gets all the IFS steps right, accepts her parts, frees her repressed memories, and stops feeling like the Demiurge is harassing her at every moment. It’s pretty fascinating, but that’s just the thing – even though I’ve tried really hard to do Internal Family Systems on myself, armed with an official book and everything, I get nothing. I never have these sort of exciting spiritual crises that partake of exactly the right amount of symbolism from each of the world’s great mystical traditions. I’m sort of jealous of all the people who do, and sort of suspicious of them. Maybe I need to take more psychedelics.

(I will note, though, that the book is appropriately skeptical about some of this. Shulgin describes going to a psychedelic conference and meeting an academic who worked in ethnobotany. He was studying a certain psychedelic plant, and was especially interested in why everyone who took that plant had hallucinations of jaguars in particular. He theorized that the plant was from the Mexican jungle, and that in some deep way our collective unconscious knew this, and so came up with appropriate hallucinations. Another psychedelicist who happened to hear the conversation interjected “I synthesized that chemical a little while ago, and all I got was wiggly lines.” Shulgin left them as the first was getting increasingly agitated and demanding of the other whether he might have seen something that looked kind of like a jaguar.)

Speaking of weird things that Ann Shulgin sees, I’ll end this with something that might be interestingly testable. She writes that when she was young and going to sleep, every so often she would have a strange experience:

Lying down for naptime (as a child) or at night for sleep, I would have reached that point of relaxation where one is not very much aware of the body…when I sensed it beginning (I never knew when it was going to come), I would immediately snap into alertness, excited and pleased, then I would just lie quietly as it unfolded…every part of it was the same each time. It was always in black and white…and I could never extend it, by so much as a few seconds. When it was finished, it was finished.

First came the image-sensation after which I named the entire experience – the spiral. I felt my entire self drawn rapidly into a tiny point which kept shrinking, until it could shrink no further, at which time the microscopic point became a tunnel in which I continued traveling at great speed, inexpressibly small and implacably diminishing.

Simultaneously, I was expanding. I was expanding to the edges of the universe, at the same tremendous speed as that of the shrinking, and the combination, the contraction-expansion, was not only an image, it was also a sensation the whole of me recognized and welcomed. This experience of myself as microcosm-macrocosm lasted exactly four minutes.

The next stage came abruptly, as did all the changes. I was looking at standing figures which were vaguely human, dark thin figures being pulled into elongated shapes, like the sculptures of Giacometti. They stretched out, arms and legs like black string, until it seemed they could elongate no further, then the scene changed and I was watching obscenely rounded bodies, Tweedledums and Tweedledees without costumes, their small heads and legs disappearing into their puffed, bloated flesh. The sensation accompanying this stage was one of discomfort, unpleasantness, a feeling of something grating on my soul. I once timed this part and the one that followed; they lasted a total of six minutes. I disliked them intensely.

Abruptly again, the inner screen became white, a horrible dead-white, nasty and aggressive like the underbelly of a sting-ray. After presenting itself for a few seconds, the flat white began to curdle from the outer edges into black, until finally the screen was totally black. A thick, awful, dead black, a pool of tar in an unlit cave deep underground. After another brief pause, the black began to curdle at its edges into the white again. The process repeated itself once, and the sensation was similar in every way to the previous one: irritating, grating, a feeling of unpleasantness that approached repugnance. I always endured it with a mental gritting of teeth, knowing it had to be gone through because that’s the way it always went and it was not to be changed.

And then, finally, I broke out into the last stage, the final part for which I had always been and always would be willing to undergo the middle parts. Now I was at the edge of an unseen cliff, looking out into a very different blackness, the deep, cradling blackness of the infinite universe, of space which stretched without end. I was completely happy and comfortable in that place, and would have stayed there indefinitely, had I been allowed, breathing in the beautiful darkness and the exquisitely familiar sense of infinity as a living presence, surrounding me, intimate and warm.

After a moment of this pleasure, came the greeting. From the upper left-hand corner of the universe there came a greeting from Something which had known me, and which I had known, since before time and space began. There were no words, but the message was clear and smiling: Hello, dear friend, I salute you with respect-humor-love. It is a pleasure with laughter-joy to encounter you again…

Then it was over. It had taken exactly twelve minutes.

According to Ann, she had this experience every so often “since I was born”, maybe once a week or so when she was a child, but becoming gradually less and less common until it finally happened for the last time when she was twenty-five. She said it was what got her interested in psychology and spirituality in the first place, and that her later access to psychedelics seemed to be sort of a substitute for the connection she had lost.

She also said that she met two people at cocktail parties who had exactly the same experience with exactly the same sequence of steps (though cutting out earlier). I am sure more people read Slate Star Codex than Ann Shulgin talks to at cocktail parties. So come on, people. Any of you ever have a very specific black and white vision of infinity?

OT55: Thready For Hillary

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread. There are hidden threads every few days here. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever. Also:

1. I think some named users are posting more controversial comments anonymously. I’d like to request people not do this, because I IP ban anonymous accounts on a hair-trigger, and if I IP ban your anonymous account then your real account also suffers. I think this is why a lot of people’s posts haven’t been showing up lately. I try to take people’s past history of posting interesting things into account before I ban them for a single violation, but if you’re anonymous I can’t do that and you’re kind of out of luck.

2. I’m actually considering banning anonymous commenting on here, because getting rid of the crappy anonymouses sometimes feels like trying to fill a leaky bucket. How angry would this make people?

3. It would also help if I knew how to make Akismet (the anti-spam program) realize that someone with a thousand previous good posts probably isn’t going to start being a spambot today just because they cited a few links. This seems like the absolute basics for a Bayesian spam filter, but I can’t seem to get Akismet to figure it out. I’d be willing to buy a premium account if it had this function. Does anybody know anything about this.

4. Can anyone think of any soft “nudge” style ways to steer open thread conversation here away from specific topics without banning them completely. Right now the best I can do is censor some of the most annoying words and force anyone who wants to discuss annoying things to come up with trivially inconvenient workarounds, but that’s a pretty irritating solution.

5. Comment of the week is by Z, who went through that Romanian study a whole lot more thoroughly than I did, though without any clearer result.

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Links 7/16: Grad, Div, and URL

I’ve previously disagreed with the restrictions on suboxone prescribing. Now the Obama administration has relaxed some of those restrictions, almost tripling the number of suboxone patients doctors can treat from 100 to 275.

Very big (n = 15,000) Romanian study on sex differences in intelligence finds not only no mean difference, but no difference in variance.

Operation Cherry Blossoms At Night was an Imperial Japanese plan to release biological warfare agents in Southern California during World War II. There were actually lots of these plans, but a series of coincidences and setbacks prevented any of them from getting off the ground. Also, I feel like the name of that operation is another example of World War II’s hamhanded writing.

A previously unknown kind of low-grade inflammation might explain why anti-inflammatories like aspirin help prevent cancer. This is important because there are a lot of things which seem vaguely inflammatory but don’t work off the normal inflammatory systems we know about and the discovery of new forms of inflammation offers a lot of promise for understanding these.

It’s hard to lower my faith in humanity after – well, after 2016 – but the Twitter comments on this @dril tweet about the Keebler Elves might have managed. Warning: kind of high-context.

A political science journal experiments with triple-blind studies – ie those where peer reviewers judge the methodology before knowing the results and finds that it “encourages much greater attention to theory and research design, but raises thorny problems about how to anticipate and interpret null findings.”

The Paradox Of Disclosure – when surgeons disclose to their patients that their professional incentives may bias their recommendation to pursue surgery, this makes patients more likely to accept those recommendations. Linking to the Marginal Revolution commentary rather than the original for the spectacular pun at the end.

The National Holocaust Museum and Auschwitz Museum would like to remind you that it is insensitive to catch Pokemon on the premises.

The Big Question In Global Education is apparently why Vietnam breaks the trend of test scores tracking national development levels – Vietnamese students outperform their relatively weak economy. But this seems pretty easy to explain if we take a Hive Mind style approach where national intelligence levels determine national economic development levels, then adjust for the fact that Vietnam has been communist for a long time and so will economically underperform its IQ. China probably would have been the same kind of outlier twenty years ago.

Psychiatrist and psychodynamic therapist Nat Kuhn reviews my review of Unlearn Your Pain.

First evidence that genetically engineered mosquitoes can decrease disease from an experiment in Brazil where they helped reduce dengue fever > 90%.

How Not To Name Your Child: Five Golden Rules by Phoenicia Hebebe Dobson-Mouawad. I keep trying to convince my friends that giving your child a “unique” “meaningful” name might seem cool today, but that the kid may not share your aesthetics and will have to live with the results for the rest of their lives (or until they’re old enough to pay legal fees).

Reddit: one of Republican VP candidate Mike Pence’s many interesting characteristics is that his daughter has no reflection in mirrors.

Kentucky counties that ban alcohol see increased methamphetamine use, possible substitution effect.

Putting this one in the “no long-term effect of education” folder – whether you took high school courses in a subject has minimal effect on your grade in college courses on the same subject.

A Mormon multimillionaire wants to build a utopian planned city based on a sketch of Joseph Smith’s in the middle of Vermont.

Ethnic groups in Africa seem to have done about as well regardless of which side of artificial national borders they were on, suggesting that it’s ethnicity-specific factors rather than national institutionals which contributes more to success in Africa.

A randomized controlled trial in The Lancet finds that behavioral activation therapy is as good as cognitive behavioral therapy for depression, even though it’s a simpler subset of the latter. Some discussion on Reddit, including worries that it might solve the immediate issue but not give people the skills they need for later.

The deepest cave in the world, in Abkhazia, goes over a mile below the surface.

For some sort of tribal reason the hard left really hates the musical “Hamilton”. Also on the subject of the left being anthropologically interesting: Joan Walsh Is Not A Feminist.

David Chapman continues his long effort to convince us that there is a thing called meta-rationality and that it is very important.

Barack Obama’s half-brother will be voting for Donald Trump. Key quote: “Obama believes strongly in the institution of marriage — so strongly that he has at least three current wives, although press reports have put the number as high as 12.”

Racial dot map of the United States.

Population aging will decrease annual economic growth rates 1.2 percentage points this decade – note that this implies our economy is otherwise much stronger than we would think by comparing it to past years’ statistics. I’ve lost the study now, but I also remember seeing people claim that almost all of Japan’s recent stagnation is due to an aging population rather than more purely economic factors.

Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump

Related: Anonymous Mugwump does the literature review on immigration and open borders that so many of you have been wanting. Conclusion: economic effects of immigration relatively unequivocally good, main possible problem is that more open immigration decreases remittances that immigrants send to their home country.

Weird Sun Twitter now has a blog.

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Post-Partisanship Is Hyper-Partisanship


There was a point in my post Monday that a few people commented on (and one person emailed me about a while ago for unrelated reasons) that I want to make explicit. In I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup, I wrote:

I want to avoid a very easy trap, which is saying that outgroups are about how different you are, or how hostile you are. I don’t think that’s quite right.

Compare the Nazis to the German Jews and to the Japanese. The Nazis were very similar to the German Jews: they looked the same, spoke the same language, came from a similar culture. The Nazis were totally different from the Japanese: different race, different language, vast cultural gap. But the Nazis and Japanese mostly got along pretty well. Heck, the Nazis were actually moderately positively disposed to the Chinese, even when they were technically at war. Meanwhile, the conflict between the Nazis and the German Jews – some of whom didn’t even realize they were anything other than German until they checked their grandparents’ birth certificate – is the stuff of history and nightmares. Any theory of outgroupishness that naively assumes the Nazis’ natural outgroup is Japanese or Chinese people will be totally inadequate.

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

I didn’t coin a silly term for the relationship of the Yugoslavs and the Tibetans, but let’s use “fargroup” in order to remind us of the Near/Far distinction. We think of groups close to us in Near Mode, judging them on their merits as useful allies or dangerous enemies. We think of more distant groups in Far Mode – usually, we exoticize them. Sometimes it’s positive exoticization of the Noble Savage variety (understood so broadly that our treatment of Tibetans counts as an example of the trope). Other times it’s negative exoticization, treating them as cartoonish stereotypes of evil who are more funny or fascinating than repulsive. Take Genghis Khan – objectively he was one of the most evil people of all time, killing millions of victims, but since we think of him in Far Mode he becomes fascinating or even perversely admirable – “wow, that was one impressively bloodthirsty warlord”.

(this jars when other cultures do it to people we consider Near-Mode evil – for example India’s Hitler-themed clothing store, romance movies, and their use of Mein Kampf as a business advice book. It’s a bit strange, but not objectively stranger than us having a comedy movie about Kim Jong-un)

Fargroups aren’t always people who are literally distant from us. It seems more like it’s people who don’t threaten us, or aren’t in competition with us, or don’t get involved in the conflicts we care about, or something like that. There’s a Scientologist Church just a couple of miles from my house, and I recognize that Scientologists do some pretty horrible things, but none of them affect me, or people close to me, or values that I have a personal connection with, so I’m still more likely to find them cartoonishly funny, Kim Jong-un style, than I am to feel angry or afraid of them.

We exoticize fargroups, but we can also use them as props in our own local conflicts. For example, a lot of the time I hear about ISIS, it’s in contexts like the Democrats being weak on ISIS or Trump playing into ISIS’ hands, or how our immigration policy makes us easy prey for ISIS, or fundamentalist Christians are no different from ISIS, or something like that. We use sympathetic fargroups the same way. The Tibetans aren’t just wise and noble, they’re a foil to our overly materialist society, or an example of how religion can be based on reason instead of faith, or whatever. This is all as the theory would predict. The GOP view the Democrats as more of an outgroup and ISIS as more of a fargroup. It’s harder for them to have genuine outrage at ISIS for beheading a bunch of people, than for them to have outrage at the Democrats for not mentioning the beheading. Even in cases where they seem angry at ISIS in a non-Democrat related way, I would argue that a lot of it can be traced back to appreciating the way ISIS proves various domestic points, like “Muslims are scary” or “the barbarism vs. civilization axis is important”.


Last month I asked on Tumblr:

I remember that when I was young and the Internet was young, people online were debating religion vs. atheism ALL THE TIME. It felt inescapable. Whatever else you were trying to discuss, eventually it would turn into a religion vs. atheism debate. Whenever it came up, people would sigh and say “Oh no, not another religion vs. atheism debate”.

I remember spending a lot of time at and because religious people kept attacking me and I wanted to be able to rebut their points. And I remember a lot of people who seemed to genuinely believe that religion was like the #1 problem in the world, maybe even the only problem in the world because it was the root cause of all of the others.

I haven’t seen an online religion vs. atheism debate in years now. Occasionally somebody criticizes Richard Dawkins or something, but it’s always a tone argument and practically never about the nitty-gritty of Biblical contradictions or whatever. Now social justice vs. anti-social-justice seems to have totally taken over as the Annoying Thing Everybody On The Internet Has To Debate.

Has anybody else noticed this? Is it just me, or maybe a function of the places I hang out / used to hang out?

I got a lot of responses. Other people confirmed this was a real phenomenon and that they remember it the same way. The consensus explanation was that there was a moment in the 90s and early Bush administration when evangelical Christianity seemed to have a lot of political power, and secularists felt really threatened by it. This caused a lot of fear and arguments. Then everyone mostly agreed Bush was terrible, studies came out showing religion was on the decline, evangelicalism became so politically irrelevant that even the Republicans started nominating Mormons and Donald Trump, and people stopped caring so much.

Now I see atheists sharing things like this:

Not only have they stopped caring that much about religion, but they’re willing to adopt progressive religious people as role models and generally share stories that portray religious people in a positive light. Pope Francis gets to be the same sort of Socially Approved Benevolent Wise Person as the Dalai Lama.

I think once Christianity stopped seeming threatening, Christians went from being an outgroup to being a fargroup, and were exoticized has having the same sort of vague inoffensive wisdom as Buddhists.

I saw something that seemed very similar during my time interacting with movement atheists. There was a split between people who were raised in fundamentalist families and very traumatized about it and who viewed Christianity as an outgroup, versus people who were raised in agnostic families and pretty live-and-let-live and who viewed Christianity as an fargroup. I know it seems weird to say that movement atheists living in a majority-Christian country treated a religion they interacted with every day the same way the Yugoslavs treated Tibetans, and sure, they would make fun of them, but that was exactly it – they found religion funny – and even in the process of lightly mocking them they tried to avoid stepping on too many toes. The fundie-raised atheists would propose something really combative and offensive, and the secular-raised atheists would say “Oh, come on, we don’t want to be jerks about this, Christians are basically nice people who are just a bit deluded”. To the fundie-raised atheists it was real, it was a hot war, these people were monsters; to the secular-raised atheists, religious people were just kind of wacky in a problematic way, like the North Koreans, and nobody in America lives their life in a state of constant rage about how evil North Korea is.

And I think as the threat of movement fundamentalism declined, there was a shift among atheists from more emotional hostility to more of a live-and-let-live kind of attitude.

(and then movement atheism started tearing itself apart even more viciously than it was already. I don’t know if this was a coincidence and I’m still curious whether conservation of tribalism is a real phenomenon.)


From Facebook the other day:

All good reasons. But I’ve been seeing more and more people lately saying things like this. There have always been primary elections, and there have always been intra-Left disagreements, but the level of Bernie vs. Hillary drama at the Democratic Convention this week seems to be something new. Ehrenreich-style leftists focus on critiquing Hillary instead of Trump – either within or outside of the context of supporting the Sanders campaign. And on the other side, Hillary-supporting liberals go after Sanders and his supporters instead of Trump – Freddie deBoer has written frequently (some would say incessantly) about this.

The right, of course, has its own conflicts between Trump partisans and Trump opponents, culminating in Cruz’s non-endorsement. Also relevant: the alt-right’s favorite slur of “cuck” is short for “cuckservative” – an insult not for leftists but for conservatives who they think are doing conservativism badly.

People are talking more and more about partisan bubbles. People dividing into political tribes, and cutting off contact with people on the other side. Cultural, geographic, and social differences isolate people so completely that for example my Facebook feed tends about 95% liberal; I’m sure there are other people out there with the opposite problem. I think that as bubbleification increases, the other party becomes less and less of an outgroup and more and more of a fargroup.

Republicans still “threaten” me in the sense of being able to enact policies that harm me. And people less privileged than I am face even more threats – a person dependent on food stamps has a lot to fear from Republican victories. But Republicans aren’t taking over my social circle or screaming in my face. In a purely social context they start to seem more like cartoonish and distant figures of evil, rather than neighbors and coworkers. The average Trump voter no longer seems like an uncanny-valley version of me; they seem like some strange inhabitant of a far-off land with incomprehensible values, just like ISIS.

I have yet to meet anybody in person (other than my patients) who supports Donald Trump. On the other hand, I’ve met a bunch of people on both sides with strong feelings about Bernie vs. Hillary. The Bernie vs. Hillary conflict is real to me in a way that the Hillary vs. Trump conflict isn’t. It has the potential to split my friend group. There are social advantages for me of taking either side, and I could reasonably take either side without people looking at me like I went to work stark naked. This is the kind of socially relevant conflict that produces ingroups and outgroups in a way that America vs. ISIS never will.

My guess is that this sort of thing is only going to become more common. Partisanism is going to give way to hyperpartisanism, where people hate other factions of their own party with the same venom they previously reserved for their opponents across the aisle.

At the same time, old outgroup hatreds will take on a different character. Even If You Don’t Like Donald Trump, You Should Understand The Pain Of His Poor White Supporters. And I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump. And Millions Of Ordinary Americans Support Donald Trump; Here’s Why. And The Incredible Crushing Despair Of The White Working Class. I’m not saying these articles are typical; for every one of these articles there are ten “Trump Voters Are Xenophobic Trailer Trash” pieces. I’m saying that it’s weird that they’re happening at all.

Same thing with Brexit. Yes, the usual xenophobic trailer trash articles. But also: In This Brexit Vote, The Poor Turned On An Elite Who Ignored Them. And Brexit Voters Are Not Thick Or Racist, Just Poor. And Outraged Elites Should Listen To Fed-Up Brexit Supporters.

(and of course this blog has been pushing a similar line for reasons that are probably not completely ahistorical or divorced from general trends)

People are starting to treat Trump voters and Brexit voters as interesting and worthy of respect, which means they’re not really an outgroup any more. Talking about how poor they are and how sympathetic we should be and how we need to be more educated in order to understand what they’re going through all sound like instances of fargroup exoticization to me.

I predict (50% probability) that the progressives most carefully bubbled and separated from any actual threat from Republicans – which disproportionately includes politicians, journalists, and other opinion-makers – will start treating the Trump-voting classes more like Tibetans. I predict when they talk about specific bad Republicans like Trump, they’ll focus more on the ways they are funny and cartoonish (far too easy with Trump, but maybe the next guy will be a better test) instead of the ways they’re threatening. I predict that conflicts within the progressive movement will be increasingly vicious and increasingly likely to use poor whites as a political football (“the other side is bigoted against poor whites!”). I predict this will happen much more if the Democrats win the election than if they lose it; it’s always easier to be gracious toward a vanquished opponent.

(I’m of course 100% guilty of all of this myself)

(Yeah, this is a change in predictions since Right Is The New Left, which talked about something similar but reached a kind of different conclusion)

I’m not sure how things will go on the Republican side. I haven’t seen the same signs of rapprochement from them – but then Republicans have never shown the same tendency to sympathize with poor exotic fargroups that Democrats do. But I also don’t know as many Republicans and maybe if this were happening I would miss it.

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How The West Was Won


Someone recently linked me to Bryan Caplan’s post A Hardy Weed: How Traditionalists Underestimate Western Civ. He argues that “western civilization”‘s supposed defenders don’t give it enough credit. They’re always worrying about it being threatened by Islam or China or Degeneracy or whatever, but in fact western civilization can not only hold its own against these threats but actively outcompetes them:

The fragility thesis is flat wrong. There is absolutely no reason to think that Western civilization is more fragile than Asian civilization, Islamic civilization, or any other prominent rivals. At minimum, Western civilization can and does perpetuate itself the standard way: sheer conformity and status quo bias.

But saying that Western civilization is no more fragile than other cultures is a gross understatement. The truth is that Western civilization is taking over the globe. In virtually any fair fight, it steadily triumphs. Why? Because, as fans of Western civ ought to know, Western civ is better. Given a choice, young people choose Western consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment. Anti-Western governments from Beijing to Tehran know this this to be true: Without draconian censorship and social regulation, “Westoxification” will win.

A big part of the West’s strength, I hasten to add, is its openness to awesomeness. When it encounters competing cultures, it gleefully identifies competitors’ best traits – then adopts them as its own. By the time Western culture commands the globe, it will have appropriated the best features of Asian and Islamic culture. Even its nominal detractors will be Westernized in all but name. Picture how contemporary Christian fundamentalists’ consumerism and gender roles would have horrified Luther or Calvin. Western civ is a good winner. It doesn’t demand total surrender. It doesn’t make fans of competing cultures formally recant their errors. It just tempts them in a hundred different ways until they tacitly convert.

Traditionalists’ laments for Western civilization deeply puzzle me. Yes, it’s easy to dwell on setbacks. In a world of seven billion people, you can’t expect Western culture to win everywhere everyday. But do traditionalists seriously believe that freshman Western civ classes are the wall standing between us and barbarism? Have they really failed to notice the fact that Western civilization flourishes all over the globe, even when hostile governments fight it tooth and nail? It is time for the friends of Western civilization to learn a lesson from its enemies: Western civ is a hardy weed. Given half a chance, it survives, spreads, and conquers. Peacefully.

I worry that Caplan is eliding the important summoner/demon distinction. This is an easy distinction to miss, since demons often kill their summoners and wear their skin. But in this case, he’s become hopelessly confused without it.

I am pretty sure there was, at one point, such a thing as western civilization. I think it involved things like dancing around maypoles and copying Latin manuscripts. At some point Thor might have been involved. That civilization is dead. It summoned an alien entity from beyond the void which devoured its summoner and is proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

An analogy: naturopaths like to use the term “western medicine” to refer to the evidence-based medicine of drugs and surgeries you would get at your local hospital. They contrast this with traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which it has somewhat replaced, apparently a symptom of the “westernization” of Chinese and Indian societies.

But “western medicine” is just medicine that works. It happens to be western because the West had a technological head start, and so discovered most of the medicine that works first. But there’s nothing culturally western about it; there’s nothing Christian or Greco-Roman about using penicillin to deal with a bacterial infection. Indeed, “western medicine” replaced the traditional medicine of Europe – Hippocrates’ four humors – before it started threatening the traditional medicines of China or India. So-called “western medicine” is an inhuman perfect construct from beyond the void, summoned by Westerners, which ate traditional Western medicine first and is now proceeding to eat the rest of the world.

“Western culture” is no more related to the geographical west than western medicine. People who complain about western culture taking over their country always manage to bring up Coca-Cola. But in what sense is Coca-Cola culturally western? It’s an Ethiopian bean mixed with a Colombian leaf mixed with carbonated water and lots and lots of sugar. An American was the first person to discover that this combination tasted really good – our technological/economic head start ensured that. But in a world where America never existed, eventually some Japanese or Arabian chemist would have found that sugar-filled fizzy drinks were really tasty. It was a discovery waiting to be plucked out of the void, like penicillin. America summoned it but did not create it. If western medicine is just medicine that works, soda pop is just refreshment that works.

The same is true of more intellectual “products”. Caplan notes that foreigners consume western gender norms, but these certainly aren’t gender norms that would have been recognizable to Cicero, St. Augustine, Henry VIII, or even Voltaire. They’re gender norms that sprung up in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution and its turbulent intermixing of the domestic and public economies. They arose because they worked. The West was the first region to industrialize and realize those were the gender norms that worked for industrial societies, and as China and Arabia industrialize they’re going to find the same thing.

Caplan writes:

A big part of the West’s strength, I hasten to add, is its openness to awesomeness. When it encounters competing cultures, it gleefully identifies competitors’ best traits – then adopts them as its own. By the time Western culture commands the globe, it will have appropriated the best features of Asian and Islamic culture.

Certainly he’s pointing at a real phenomenon – sushi has spread almost as rapidly as Coke. But in what sense has sushi been “westernized”? Yes, Europe has adopted sushi. But so have China, India, and Africa. Sushi is another refreshment that works, a crack in the narrative that what’s going on is “westernization” in any meaningful sense.

Here’s what I think is going on. Maybe every culture is the gradual accumulation of useful environmental adaptations combined with random memetic drift. But this is usually a gradual process with plenty of room for everybody to adjust and local peculiarities to seep in. the Industrial Revolution caused such rapid change that the process become qualitatively different, a frantic search for better adaptations to an environment that was itself changing almost as fast as people could understand it.

The Industrial Revolution also changed the way culture was spatially distributed. When the fastest mode of transportation is the horse, and the postal system is frequently ambushed by Huns, almost all culture is local culture. England develops a culture, France develops a culture, Spain develops a culture. Geographic, language, and political barriers keep these from intermixing too much. Add rapid communication – even at the level of a good postal service – and the equation begins to change. In the 17th century, philosophers were remarking (in Latin, the universal language!) about how Descartes from France had more in common with Leibniz from Germany than either of them did with the average Frenchman or German. Nowadays I certainly have more in common with SSC readers in Finland than I do with my next-door neighbor whom I’ve never met.

Improved trade and communication networks created a rapid flow of ideas from one big commercial center to another. Things that worked – western medicine, Coca-Cola, egalitarian gender norms, sushi – spread along the trade networks and started outcompeting things that didn’t. It happened in the west first, but not in any kind of a black-and-white way. Places were inducted into the universal culture in proportion to their participation in global trade; Shanghai was infected before West Kerry; Dubai is further gone than Alabama. The great financial capitals became a single cultural region in the same way that “England” or “France” had been a cultural region in the olden times, gradually converging on more and more ideas that worked in their new economic situation.

Let me say again that this universal culture, though it started in the West, was western only in the most cosmetic ways. If China or the Caliphate had industrialized first, they would have been the ones who developed it, and it would have been much the same. The new sodas and medicines and gender norms invented in Beijing or Baghdad would have spread throughout the world, and they would have looked very familiar. The best way to industrialize is the best way to industrialize.


Something Caplan was pointing towards but never really said outright: universal culture is by definition the only culture that can survive without censorship.

He writes in his post:

The truth is that Western civilization is taking over the globe. In virtually any fair fight, it steadily triumphs. Why? Because, as fans of Western civ ought to know, Western civ is better. Given a choice, young people choose Western consumerism, gender norms, and entertainment. Anti-Western governments from Beijing to Tehran know this this to be true: Without draconian censorship and social regulation, “Westoxification” will win.

Universal culture is the collection of the most competitive ideas and products. Coca-Cola spreads because it tastes better than whatever people were drinking before. Egalitarian gender norms spread because they’re more popular and likeable than their predecessors. If there was something that outcompeted Coca-Cola, then that would be the official soda of universal culture and Coca-Cola would be consigned to the scrapheap of history.

The only reason universal culture doesn’t outcompete everything else instantly and achieve fixation around the globe is barriers to communication. Some of those barriers are natural – Tibet survived universalization for a long time because nobody could get to it. Sometimes the barrier is time – universal culture can’t assimilate every little valley hill and valley instantly. Other times there are no natural barriers, and then your choice is to either accept assimilation into universal culture, or put up some form of censorship.

Imagine that Tibet wants to protect its traditional drink of yak’s milk. The Dalai Lama requests that everyone continue to drink yak’s milk. But Coca-Cola tastes much better than yak’s milk, and everyone knows this. So it becomes a coordination problem: even if individual Tibetans would prefer that their neighbors all drink yak’s milk to preserve the culture, they want to drink Coca-Cola. The only way yak’s milk stays popular is if the Dalai Lama bans Coca-Cola from the country.

But westerners aren’t banning yak’s milk to “protect” their cultures. They don’t have to. Universal culture is high-entropy; it’s already in its ground state and will survive and spread without help. All other cultures are low-entropy; they survive only if someone keeps pushing energy into the system to protect them. It could be the Dalai Lama banning Coca-Cola. It could be the Académie Française removing English words from the language. It could be the secret police killing anyone who speaks out against Comrade Stalin. But if you want anything other than universal culture, you better either be surrounded by some very high mountains, or be willing to get your hands dirty.

There’s one more sense in which universal culture is high-entropy; I think it might be the only culture that can really survive high levels of immigration.

I’ve been wondering for a long time – how come groups that want to protect their traditional cultures worry about immigration? After all, San Francisco is frequently said to have a thriving gay culture. There’s a strong Hasidic Jewish culture in New York City. Everyone agrees that the US has something called “black culture”, although there’s debate over exactly what it entails. But only 6% of San Francisco is gay. Only 1% of New Yorkers are Hasidim. Only about 11% of Americans are black. So these groups have all managed to maintain strong cultures while being vastly outnumbered by people who are different from them.

So why is anyone concerned about immigration threatening their culture? Suppose that Tibet was utterly overwhelmed by immigrants, tens of millions of them. No matter how many people you import, Tibetan people couldn’t possibly get more outnumbered in their own country than gays, Hasidim, and blacks already are. But those groups hold on to their cultures just fine. Wouldn’t we expect Tibetans (or Americans, or English people) to do the same?

I’m still not totally sure about the answer to this one, but once again I think it makes more sense when we realize that Tibet is competing not against Western culture, but against universal culture.

And here, universal culture is going to win, simply because it’s designed to deal with diverse multicultural environments. Remember, different strategies can succeed in different equilibria. In a world full of auto-cooperators, defect-bot hits the jackpot. In a world full of tit-for-tat-players, defect-bot crashes and burns. Likewise, in a world where everybody else follows Tibetan culture, Tibetan culture may do very well. In a world where there are lots of different cultures all mixed together, Tibetan culture might not have any idea what to do.

(one more hypothetical, to clarify what I’m talking about – imagine a culture where the color of someone’s clothes tells you a lot of things about them – for example, anyone wearing red is a prostitute. This may work well as long as everyone follows the culture. If you mix it 50-50 with another culture that doesn’t have this norm, then things go downhill quickly; you proposition a lady wearing red, only to get pepper sprayed in the eye. Eventually the first culture gives up and stops trying to communicate messages through clothing color.)

I think universal culture has done a really good job adapting to this through a strategy of social atomization; everybody does their own thing in their own home, and the community exists to protect them and perform some lowest common denominator functions that everyone can agree on. This is a really good way to run a multicultural society without causing any conflict, but it requires a very specific set of cultural norms and social technologies to work properly, and only universal culture has developed these enough to pull it off.

Because universal culture is better at dealing with multicultural societies, the more immigrants there are, the more likely everyone will just default to universal culture in public spaces. And eventually the public space will creep further and further until universal culture becomes the norm.

If you don’t understand the difference between western culture and universal culture, this looks like the immigrants assimilating – “Oh, before these people were Chinese people behaving in their foreign Chinese way, but now they’re Westerners just like us.” Once you make the distinction, it looks like both Chinese people and traditional Americans assimilating into universal culture in order to share a common ground – with this being invisible to people who are already assimilated into universal culture, to whom it just looks “normal”.


I stress these points because the incorrect model of “foreign cultures being Westernized” casts Western culture as the aggressor, whereas the model of “every culture is being universalized” finds Western culture to be as much a victim as anywhere else. Coca-Cola might have replaced traditional yak’s milk in Mongolia, but it also replaced traditional apple cider in America. A Hopi Indian saddened that her children no longer know the old ritual dances differs little from a Southern Baptist incensed that her kids no longer go to church. Universal values have triumphed over both.

Our society is generally in favor of small, far-away, or exotic groups trying to maintain their culture. We think it’s great that the Hopi are trying to get the next generation to participate in the traditional dances. We support the Tibetans’ attempt to maintain their culture in the face of pressure from China. We promote black culture, gay culture, et cetera. We think of it as a tragedy when the dominant culture manages to take over and destroy one of these smaller cultures. For example, when white American educators taught Native American children to identify with white American culture and ignore the old ways, that was inappropriate and in some senses “genocidal” if the aim was to destroy Native Americans as a separate people. We get excited by the story of Bhutan, the tiny Himalayan kingdom trying to preserve its natural and human environment and prevent its own McDonaldization. We tend to be especially upset when the destruction of cultures happens in the context of colonialism, ie a large and powerful country trying to take over and eliminate the culture of a smaller country. Some examples include the English in Ireland, the English in India, the English in Africa, and basically the English anywhere.

One of the most common justifications for colonialism is that a more advanced and enlightened society is taking over an evil and oppressive society. For example, when China invaded Tibet, they said that this was because Tibet was a feudal hellhole where most of the people were living in abject slavery and where people who protested the rule of the lamas were punished by having their eyes gouged out (true!). They declared the anniversary of their conquest “Serfs Emancipation Day” and force the Tibetans to celebrate it every year. They say that anyone who opposes the Chinese, supports the Dalai Lama, or flies the old Tibetan flag is allied with the old feudal lords and wants to celebrate a culture based around serfdom and oppression.

But opponents of colonialism tend to believe that cultures are valuable and need to be protected in and of themselves. This is true even if the culture is very poor, if the culture consists of people who aren’t very well-educated by Western standards, even if they believe in religions that we think are stupid, even if those cultures have unsavory histories, et cetera. We tend to allow such cultures to resist outside influences, and we even celebrate such resistance. If anybody were to say that, for example, Native Americans are poor and ignorant, have a dumb religion with all sorts of unprovable “spirits”, used to be involved in a lot of killing and raiding and slave-taking – and so we need to burn down their culture and raise their children in our own superior culture – that person would be incredibly racist and they would not be worth listening to. We celebrate when cultures choose preservation of their traditional lifestyles over mere economic growth, like Bhutan’s gross national happiness program.

This is true in every case except with the cultures we consider our outgroups – in the US, white Southern fundamentalist Christian Republicans; in the UK, white rural working-class leave voters. In both cases, their ignorance is treated as worthy of mockery, their religion is treated as stupidity and failure to understand science, their poverty makes them “trailer trash”, their rejection of economic-growth-at-all-costs means they are too stupid to understand the stakes, and their desire to protect their obviously inferior culture makes them xenophobic and racist. Although we laugh at the Chinese claim that the only reason a Tibetan could identify with their own culture and want to fly its flag is because they support serfdom and eye-gouging, we solemnly nod along with our own culture’s claim that the only reason a Southerner could identify with their own culture and want to fly its flag is because they support racism and slavery.

(one question I got on the post linked above was why its description of American tribes seemed to fit other countries so well. I think the answer is because most countries’ politics are centered around the conflict between more-universalized and less-universalized segments of the population.)

We could even look at this as a form of colonialism – if Brexit supporters and opponents lived on two different islands and had different colored skin, then people in London saying things like “These people are so butthurt that we’re destroying their so-called ‘culture’, but they’re really just a bunch of ignorant rubes, and they don’t realize they need us elites to keep their country running, so screw them,” would sound a lot more sinister. The insistence that they tolerate unwanted immigration into their lands would look a lot like how China is trying to destroy Tibet by exporting millions of people to it in the hopes they will eventually outnumber the recalcitrant native Tibetans (if you don’t believe me, believe the Dalai Lama, who apparently has the same perspective). The claim that they’re confused bout their own economic self-interest would give way to discussions of Bhutan style “gross national happiness”.

(I get accused of being crypto-conservative around here every so often, but I think I’m just taking my anti-colonialism position to its logical conclusion. A liberal getting upset about how other liberals are treating conservatives, doesn’t become conservative himself, any more than an American getting upset about how other Americans treat Iraqis becomes an Iraqi.)

And I worry that confusing “universal culture” with “Western culture” legitimizes this weird double standard. If universal culture and Western culture are the same thing, then Western culture doesn’t need protection – as Caplan points out, it’s the giant unstoppable wave of progress sweeping over everything else. Or maybe it doesn’t deserve protection – after all, it’s the colonialist ideology that tried to destroy local cultures and set itself up as supreme. If Western culture is already super-strong and has a history of trying to take over everywhere else, then surely advocating “protecting Western culture” must be a code phrase for something more sinister. We can sympathize with foreign cultures like the Tibetans who are actually under threat, but sympathizing with any Western culture in any way would just be legitimizing aggression.

But I would argue that it’s universal culture which is the giant unstoppable wave of progress, and that it was universal culture that was responsible for colonizing other cultures and replacing them with itself. And universal culture’s continuing attempts to subjugate the last unassimilated remnants of traditional western culture are just part of this trend.


I am mostly just on the side of consistency. After that I have no idea what to do.

One argument is that we should consistently support traditional cultures’ attempts to defend themselves against universal culture. Support the Native Americans’ ability to practice their old ways, support traditional Siberians trying to return to their shamanistic roots, support Australian Aborigines’ rights to continue the old rituals, support Tibetans’ rights to practice Vajrayana Buddhism, and support rural British people trying to protect Ye Olde England from the changes associated with increased immigration. For most people, this would mean extending the compassion that they feel to the Aborigines, peasants, and Tibetans to apply to the British as well.

But another argument is that we should consistently support universal culture’s attempt to impose progress on traditional cultures. Maybe we should tell the Native Americans that if they embraced global capitalism, they could have a tacqueria, sushi restaurant, and kebab place all on the same street in their reservation. Maybe we should tell the Aborigines that modern science says the Dreamtime is a myth they need to stop clinging to dumb disproven ideas. Maybe we should tell the Tibetans that Vajrayana Buddhism is too intolerant of homosexuality. Take our conviction that rural Englanders are just racist and xenophobic and ill-informed, and extend that to everyone else who’s trying to resist a way of life that’s objectively better.

I am sort of torn on this.

On the one hand, universal culture is objectively better. Its science is more correct, its economy will grow faster, its soft drinks are more refreshing, its political systems are (necessarily) freer, and it is (in a certain specific sense) what everybody would select if given a free choice. It also seems morally better. The Tibetans did gouge out the eyes of would-be-runaway serfs. I realize the circularity of saying that universal culture is objectively morally better based on it seeming so to me, a universal culture member – but I am prepared to suspend that paradox in favor of not wanting people’s eyes gouged out for resisting slavery.

On the other hand, I think that “universal culture is what every society would select if given the opportunity” is less of a knock-down point than it would seem. Heroin use is something every society would select if given the opportunity. That is, if nobody placed “censorship” on the spread of heroin, it would rapidly spread from country to country, becoming a major part of that country’s society. Instead, we implement an almost authoritarian level of control on it, because we know that even though it would be very widely adopted, it’s not something that is good for anybody in the long term. An opponent of universal culture could say it has the same property.

Things get even worse when you remember that cultures are multi-agent games and each agent pursuing its own self-interest might be a disaster for the whole. Pollution is a good example of this; if the best car is very polluting, and one car worth of pollution is minimal but many cars’ worth of pollution is toxic, then absent good coordination mechanisms everyone will choose the best car even though everyone would prefer a world where nobody (including them) had the best car. I may have written about this before.

I’m constantly intrigued (though always a little skeptical) by claims that “primitive” cultures live happier and more satisfying lives than our own. I know of several of this type. First, happiness surveys that tend to find Latin American countries doing as well or better than much richer and more advanced European countries. Second, the evidence from the Amish, whose children are allowed to experience the modern culture around them but who usually prefer to stay in Amish society. Third, Axtell’s paper on prisoner exchanges between early US colonists and Native Americans; colonists captured by the natives almost always wanted to stay and live with the natives; natives captured by the colonists never wanted to stay and live with the colonists. Many people have remarked on how more culturally homogenous countries seem happier. Bhutan itself might be evidence here, although I’ve seen wildly different claims on where it falls on happiness surveys. I’ve also talked before about how China’s happiness level stayed stable or even dropped during its period of rapid development.

(on the other hand, there’s also a lot of counterevidence. More democratic countries seem to be happier, and democracies will generally be the low-censorship countries that get more assimilated into universal culture. Free market economies are happier. Some studies say that more liberal countries are happier. And there’s a complicated but positive relationship between national happiness and wealth.)

I also think that it might be reasonable to have continuation of your own culture as a terminal goal, even if you know your culture is “worse” in some way than what would replace it. There’s a transhumanist joke – “Instead of protecting human values, why not reprogram humans to like hydrogen? After all, there’s a lot of hydrogen.” There’s way more hydrogen than beautiful art, or star-crossed romances, or exciting adventures. A human who likes beautiful art, star-crossed romances, and exciting adventures is in some sense “worse” than a human who likes hydrogen, since it would be much harder for her to achieve her goals and she would probably be much less happy. But knowing this does not make me any happier about the idea of being reprogrammed in favor of hydrogen-related goals. My own value system might not be objectively the best, or even very good, but it’s my value system and I want to keep it and you can’t take it away from me. I am an individualist and I think of this on an individual level, but I could also see having this self-preservation-against-optimality urge for my community and its values.

(I’ve sometimes heard this called Lovecraftian parochialism, based on H.P. Lovecraft’s philosophy that the universe is vast and incomprehensible and anti-human, and you’ve got to draw the line between Self and Other somewhere, so you might as well draw the line at 1920s Providence, Rhode Island, and call everywhere else from Boston all the way to the unspeakable abyss-city of Y’ha-nthlei just different degrees of horribleness.)

Overall I am not 100% convinced either way. Maybe some traditional cultures are worse than universal culture and others are better? Mostly the confusion makes me want to err on the side of allowing people to go either direction as they see fit, barring atrocities. Which are of course hard to define.

I like the Jewish idea of the Noahide Laws, where the Jews say “We are not going to impose our values on anyone else…except these seven values which we think are incredibly important and breaking them is totally beyond the pale.” Sometimes I wish universal culture would just establish a couple of clear Noahide Laws – two of them could be “no slavery” and “no eye-gouging” – and then agree to bomb/sanction/drone any culture that breaks them while leaving other cultures alone. On the other hand, I also understand universal culture well enough to know that two minutes after the first set of Noahide Laws were established, somebody would propose amending them to include something about how every culture must protect transgender bathroom rights or else be cleansed from the face of the Earth by fire and sword. I’m not sure how to prevent this, or if preventing it is even desirable. This seems like the same question as the original question, only one meta-level up and without any clear intuition to help me solve it. I guess this is another reason I continue to be attracted to the idea of Archipelago.

But I think that none of this makes sense unless we abandon the idea that “universal culture” and “western culture” are one and the same. I think when Caplan’s debate opponent talked about “protecting Western culture”, he was referring to something genuinely fragile and threatened.

I also think he probably cheated by saying we needed to protect it because it was responsible for so many great advances, like Coca-Cola and egalitarian gender norms. I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s a culture much like Tibetan or Indian culture, pretty neat in its own way, possibly extra interesting as the first culture to learn the art of summoning entities from beyond the void. Mostly I’m just happy that it exists in the same way I’m happy that pandas and gorillas exist, a basic delight in the diversity of the world. I think it can be defended in those terms without having to resolve the debate on how many of its achievements are truly its own.

Things Probably Matter

A while back when I wrote about how China’s economic development might not have increased happiness there much, Scott Sumner wrote a really interesting response, Does Anything Matter?

He points out that it’s too easy to make this about exotic far-off Chinese. Much the same phenomenon occurs closer to home:

If nothing really matters in China, if even overcoming horrible problems doesn’t make the Chinese better off, then what’s the use of favoring or opposing any public policy? After all, America also shows no rise in average happiness since the 1950s, despite:

1. A big rise in real wages.
2. Environmental clean-up (including lead–does Flint matter?)
3. Civil rights for African Americans
4. Feminism, gay rights.
5. Dentists now use Novocain (My childhood cavities were filled without it)
6. 1000 channels in glorious widescreen HDTV
7. Blogs

I could go on and on. And yet, if the surveys are to be believed, we are no happier than before. And I think it’s very possible that we are in fact no happier than before, that there’s a sort of law of the conservation of happiness. As I walk down the street, grown-ups don’t seem any happier than the grown-ups I recall as a kid. Does that mean that all of those wonderful societal achievements since 1950 were absolutely worthless?

But there are exceptions. I recall reading that surveys showed a rise in European happiness in the decades after WWII, and Scott reports that happiness is currently very low in Iraq and Syria. So that suggests that current conditions do matter.

The following hypothesis will sound really ad hoc, but matches the way a lot of people I know talk about their lives. Suppose people’s happiness is normally calibrated around the sort of lifestyle that they view as “normal.” As America got richer after 1950, it all seemed very normal, so people didn’t report more happiness. Ditto for China during the boom years. Everyone around you was also doing better, so you started thinking about how you were doing relative to your neighbors. But Germans walking through the rubble of Berlin in 1948, or Syrians doing so today in Aleppo, do see their plight as abnormal. They remember a time before the war. So they report less happiness than during normal times.

The obvious retort is – modern Chinese grew up when China was very poor. Why didn’t they calibrate themselves to poverty, such that sudden wealth seems good? What’s the difference between a Chinese person going from poverty to wealth, versus a Syrian going from stability to chaos? Might it be a shorter time course? A sudden shock is noticeable, a gradual thirty-year improvement in living standards isn’t?

Probably not. There seem to be a lot of cases where happiness of large groups does change gradually in response to social trends less dramatic than a world war.

First, consider African-Americans. The New York Times calls the increase in black happiness over the past forty years “one of the most dramatic gains in the happiness data that you’ll see”. This is not just about poverty; in 1970, blacks who earned more than 75% of whites were only in the tenth percentile of white happiness. Today, those blacks would be in the fiftieth percentile; they’re still doing worse than would be expected based on income, but not nearly as much worse. This is a very sensible and predictable thing to find. Black people face a lot less racism and discrimination today than in 1970 [citation needed], so assuming that was really unpleasant we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re happier. But notice that this is a time course very similar to the rise of China! It doesn’t look like black people picked a happiness level to calibrate on and then never bothered to adjust. It looks like they adjusted exactly like we would expect them to, even over the course of a multi-decade change.

Second, consider women. In 1970, US women were generally happier than US men. Today, the reverse is true. There seems to be a general pattern around the world of women being happier than men in traditional societies and less happy than men in modern societies (though see Language Log for a contrary perspective). I don’t think of this as a weird paradox. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that having to work outside the home makes people less happy, getting to spend time with their family makes them more happy, and having to work outside the home but also being expected to take care of your family at the same time makes them least happy of all. In any case, the point is that the numbers are changing. Men and women aren’t just fixating on some level of happiness and staying there, they’re altering their happiness level based on real trends, just like African-Americans did (but apparently unlike Chinese).

Third, I was finally able to find a paper that had really good data on change in happiness in different countries, and it supports the idea that happiness can change significantly on a countrywide level.

This is change in happiness in a bunch of countries between about 1990 and 2010 (the years were slightly different in each country). There are other graphs for related concepts like life satisfaction and subjective well-being that look about the same.

The most striking finding is that most countries got happier between those two years – sometimes a lot happier. In Mexico, the percent of people saying they were very happy increased by 25 percentage points!

Just eyeballing the graph, there’s not an obvious relationship between happiness and economic growth – China is still near the bottom like we talked about before, and France – a country that’s been First World since forever – is near the top. Even Japan, which is famous for its decades of stagnation, has done pretty well. But the authors tell us that after doing their statistical analyses, there is a strong relationship with economic growth. Okay, I guess.

They also say there’s a dramatic relationship with freedom and democracy. Mexico, the top country on the graph, went from a relatively closed to a relatively democratic government during this time. South Africa, number five, went from apartheid to no apartheid. Some of the ex-Communist countries like Poland and Ukraine also look pretty good here. On the other hand, other ex-Communist countries like Lithuania and Estonia are near the bottom. I wonder if this has to do with cutoff points – since every country started at a slightly different time, maybe they began sampling Poland during the worst parts of Soviet dictatorship and got Lithuania right in the first euphoria of independence? I don’t know. It all seems very noisy.

They also mention that the United States’ supposedly level happiness is kind of a misunderstanding. People say things like “Happiness in the US has been flat from 1950 to today”, but in fact it declined from 1950 to 1979 and increased from 1980 to today. They attribute this to the 1950s being unusually happy; then the 60s and 70s being unusually conflict-prone, and the Reagan Revolution and Clinton years were back to being optimistic. They don’t have data that stretches too long after that.

(This is pretty neat for Reagan and Clinton. When I die, I’ll consider my life a success if people attribute a spike on national happiness graphs to my influence.)

So apparently population happiness levels do change in response to relevant social changes, even on multi-decade timescales. Which brings us back to asking – what’s up with China?

The graph above shows India as doing okay – not great, but okay. But a similar graph on subjective well-being – which should be another way of looking at the same thing – shows India as doing pretty poorly, right down there with China – even though its GDP per capita quadrupled during the period of study.

I see a lot of conflicting perspectives about whether economic growth increases national happiness. It may, but the effect isn’t as big as you’d expect, and is usually overpowered by other factors. Maybe it isn’t even direct, but has something to do with development increasing democracy, liberalism, rule of law, and stability. China got the development, but its happiness genuinely didn’t increase because of country-specific factors that have something to do with how it developed (inequality? pollution? authoritarianism?).

This matches the race and gender data. Blacks saw a big happiness boost during a time when their feeling of freedom (but not their income) increased relative to whites. Women saw a small happiness drop during a time when their income (but not their feeling of freedom) increased relative to men.

So it looks like happiness can change. It just didn’t change in China over the past thirty years. The apparent paradox of improving economic situation and stable/decreasing happiness is genuinely paradoxical. Intangibles are probably just way more important than money, even amounts of money big enough to raise whole countries out of poverty.