Open threads at the Open Thread tab every Sunday and Wednesday

Asches to Asches

[Content note: fictional story contains gaslighting-type elements. May induce Cartesian skepticism]

You wake up in one of those pod things like in The Matrix. There’s a woman standing in front of you, wearing a lab coat, holding a clipboard.

“Hi,” she says. “This is the real world. You used to live here. We erased your memories and stuck you in a simulated world for a while, like in The Matrix. It was part of a great experiment.”

“What?” you shout. “My whole life, a lie? How dare you deceive me as part of some grand ‘experiment’ I never consented to?”

“Oh,” said the woman, “actually, you did consent, in exchange for extra credit in your undergraduate psychology course.” She hands you the clipboard. There is a consent form with your name on it, in your handwriting.

You give her a sheepish look. “What was the experiment?”

“You know families?” asks the woman.

“Of course,” you say.

“Yeah,” says the woman. “Not really a thing. Like, if you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense. Why would you care more for your genetic siblings and cousins and whoever than for your friends and people who are genuinely close to you? That’s like racism – but even worse, at least racists identify with a group of millions of people instead of a group of half a dozen. Why should parents have to raise children whom they might not even like, who might have been a total accident? Why should people, motivated by guilt, make herculean efforts to “keep in touch” with some nephew or cousin whom they clearly would be perfectly happy to ignore entirely?”

“Uh,” you say, “not really in the mood for philosophy. Families have been around forever and they aren’t going anywhere, who cares?”

“Actually,” says the woman, “in the real world, no one believes in family. There’s no such thing. Children are taken at birth from their parents and given to people who contract to raise them in exchange for a fixed percent of their future earnings.”

“That’s monstrous!” you say. “When did this happen? Weren’t there protests?”

“It’s always been this way,” says the woman. “There’s never been such a thing as the family. Listen. You were part of a study a lot like the Asch Conformity Experiment. Our goal was to see if people, raised in a society where everyone believed X and everything revolved around X, would even be capable of questioning X or noticing it was stupid. We tried to come up with the stupidest possible belief, something no one in the real world had ever believed or ever seemed likely to, to make sure that we were isolating the effect of conformity and not of there being a legitimate argument for something. So we chose this idea of ‘family’. There are racists in our world, we’re not perfect, but as far as I know none of them has ever made the claim that you should devote extra resources to the people genetically closest to you. That’s like a reductio ad absurdum of racism. So we got a grad student to simulate a world where this bizarre idea was the unquestioned status quo, and stuck twenty bright undergraduates in it to see if they would conform, or question the premise.”

“Of course we won’t question the premise, the premise is…”

“Sorry to cut you off, but I thought you should know that every single one of the other nineteen subjects, upon reaching the age where the brain they were instantiated in was capable of abstract reason, immediately determined that the family structure made no sense. One of them actually deduced that she was in a psychology experiment, because there was no other explanation for why everyone believed such a bizarre premise. The other eighteen just assumed that sometimes objectively unjustifiable ideas caught on, the same way that everyone in the antebellum American South thought slavery was perfectly natural and only a few abolitionists were able to see through it. Our conformity experiment failed. You were actually the only one to fall for it, hook line and sinker.”

“How could I be the only one?”

“We don’t know. Your test scores show you’re of just-above-average intelligence, so it’s not that you’re stupid. But we did give all participants a personality test that showed you have very high extraversion. The conclusion of our paper is going to be that very extraverted participants adopt group consensus without thinking and can be led to believe anything, even something as ridiculous as ‘family'”.

“I guess…when you put it like that it is kind of silly. Like, my parents were never that nice to me, but I kept loving them anyway, liking them even more than other people who treated me a lot better – and god, I even gave my mother a “WORLD’S #1 MOM” mug for Mother’s Day. That doesn’t even make sense! I…but what about the evolutionary explanation? Doesn’t evolution say we have genetic imperatives to love and support our family, whether they are worthy of it or not?”

“You can make a just-so story for anything using evolutionary psychology. Someone as smart as you should know better than to take them seriously.”

“But then, what is evolution? How did animals reproduce before the proper economic incentives were designed? Where did…”

“Tell you what. Let’s hook you up to the remnemonizer to give you your real memories back. That should answer a lot of your questions.”

A machine hovering over you starts to glow purple. “This shouldn’t hurt you a bit…”

>discontinuity<

You wake up in one of those pod things like in The Matrix. There’s a woman standing in front of you, wearing a lab coat, holding a clipboard.

“Hi,” she said. “There’s no such thing as virtual reality. I hypnotized you to forget all your memories from the past day and to become very confused. Then I put you in an old prop from The Matrix I bought off of eBay and fed you that whole story.”

“What?” you shout. “You can’t just go hypnotizing and lying to people without their consent!”

“Oh,” said the woman, “actually, you did consent, in exchange for extra credit in your undergraduate psychology course.” She hands you the clipboard. There is a consent form with your name on it, in your handwriting. “That part was true.”

You give her a sheepish look. “Why would you do such a thing?”

“Well,” said the woman. “You know the Asch Conformity Experiment? I was really interested in whether you could get people to abandon some of their most fundamental beliefs, just by telling them other people believed differently. But I couldn’t think of a way to test it. I mean, part of a belief being fundamental is that you already know everyone else believes it. There’s no way I could convince subjects that the whole world was against something as obvious as ‘the family’ when they already know how things stand.

“So I dreamt up the weird ‘virtual reality’ story. I figured I would convince subjects that the real world was a lie, and that in some ‘super-real’ world supposedly everybody knew that the family was stupid, that it wasn’t even an idea worth considering. I wanted to know how many people would give up something they’ve believed in for their entire life, just because they’re told that ‘nobody else thinks so'”.

“Oh,” I said. “Interesting. So even our most cherished beliefs are more fragile than we think.”

“Not really,” said the woman. “Of twenty subjects, you were the only person I got to feel any doubt, or to express any kind of anti-family sentiment.”

“Frick,” you say. “I feel like an idiot now. What if my mother finds out? She’ll think it’s her fault or something. God, she’ll think I don’t love her. People are going to be talking about this one forever.”

“Don’t worry,” says the woman. “We’ll keep you anonymized in the final data. Anyway, let’s get you your memories back so you can leave and be on your way.”

“You can restore my memories?” you say.

“Of course. We hypnotized you to forget the last day’s events until you heard a trigger word. And that trigger is…”

>discontinuity<

You wake up in one of those pod things like in The Matrix. There’s a woman standing in front of you, wearing a lab coat, holding a clipboard.

“Hi,” she says. “Hypnosis is a pseudoscience and doesn’t work. It was the virtual reality one, all along.”

“Wut,” you say.

“I mean, the first story was true. All of your memories of living with your family and so on are fake memories from a virtual world, like in The Matrix. The concept of ‘family’ really is totally ridiculous and no one in the real world believes it. All the stuff you heard first was true. The stuff about hypnosis and getting a prop from The Matrix off eBay was false.”

“But…why?”

“We wanted to see exactly how far we could push you. You’re our star subject, the only one whom we were able to induce this bizarre conformity effect in. We didn’t know whether it was because you were just very very suggestible, or whether because you had never seriously considered the idea that ‘family’ might be insane. So we decided to do a sort of…crossover design, if you will. We took you here and debriefed you on the experiment. Then after we had told you how the world really worked, given you all the mental tools you needed to dismiss the family once and for all, even gotten you to admit we were right – we wanted to see what would happen if we sent you back. Would you hold on to your revelation and boldly deny your old society’s weird prejudices? Or would you switch sides again and start acting like family made sense the second you were in a pro-family environment?”

“And I did the second one.”

“Yes,” says the woman. “As a psychologist, I’m supposed to remain neutral and non-judgmental. But you’ve got to admit, you’re pretty dumb.”

“Is there an experimental ethics committee I could talk to here?”

“Sorry. Experimental ethics is another one of those obviously ridiculous concepts we planted in your simulation to see if you would notice. Seriously, to believe that the progress of science should be held back by the prejudices of self-righteous fools? That’s almost as weird as thinking you have a…what was the word we used…’sister’.”

“Okay, look, I realize I may have gone a little overboard helping my sister, but the experimental ethics thing seems important. Like, what’s going to happen to me now?”

“Nothing’s going to happen. We’ll keep all your data perfectly anonymous, restore your memories, and you can be on your way.”

“Um,” you say. “Given past history, I’m…actually not sure I want my memories restored.” You glare at the remnemonizer hovering above you. “Why don’t I just…”

The woman’s eyes narrow. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I can’t let you do that.”

The machine starts to glow.

>discontinuity<

You wake up in one of those pod things like in The Matrix. There’s a woman standing in front of you, wearing a lab coat, holding a clipboard.

By your count, this has happened three hundred forty six times before.

There seem to be two different scenarios. In one, the woman tells you that families exist, and have always existed. She says she has used hypnosis to make you believe in the other scenario, the one with the other woman. She asks you your feelings about families and you tell her.

Sometimes she lets you go. You go home to your mother and father, you spend some time with your sister. Sometimes you tell them what has happened. Other times you don’t. You cherish your time with them, while also second-guessing everything you do. Why are you cherishing your time with them? Your father, who goes out drinking every night, and who has cheated on your mother more times than you can count. Your mother, who was never there for you when you needed her most. And your sister, who has been good to you, but no better than millions of other women would be, in her position. Are they a real family? Or have they been put there as a symbol of something ridiculous, impossible, something that has never existed?

It doesn’t much matter. Maybe you spend one night with them. Maybe ten. But within a month, you are always waking up in one of those pod things like in The Matrix.

In the second scenario, the woman tells you there are no families, never have been. She says she has used virtual reality to make you believe in the other scenario, the one with the other woman. She asks you your feelings about families and you tell her.

Sometimes she lets you go. You go to a building made of bioplastic, where you live with a carefully chosen set of friends and romantic partners. They assure you that this is how everyone lives. Occasionally, an old and very wealthy-looking man checks in with you by videophone. He reminds you that he has invested a lot of money in your upbringing, and if there’s any way he can help you, anything he can do to increase your future earnings potential, you should let him know. Sometimes you talk to him, and he tells you strange proverbs and unlikely business advice.

It doesn’t matter. Maybe you spend one night in your bioplastic dwelling. Maybe ten. But within a month, you are always waking up in one of those pod things like in The Matrix.

“Look,” you tell the woman. “I’m tired of this. I know you’re not bound by any kind of experimental ethics committee. But please, for the love of God, have some mercy.”

“God?” asks the woman. “What does that word mean? I’ve never…oh right, we used that as our intervention in the prototype experiment. We decided ‘family’ made a better test idea, but Todd must have forgotten to reset the simulator.”

“It’s been three hundred forty six cycles,” you tell her. “Surely you’re not learning anything new.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” she says. “Now, tell me what you think about families.”

You refuse. She sighs. Above you, the remnemonizer begins to glow purple.

>discontinuity<

You wake up in one of those pod things like in The Matrix. There’s a purple, tentacled creature standing in front of you, wearing a lab coat, holding a clipboard.

“Hi,” it says. “Turns out there’s no such thing as humans.”

You refuse to be surprised.

“There’s only us, the 18-tkenna-dganna-07.”

“Okay,” you say. “I want answers.”

“Absolutely,” says the alien. “We would like to find optimal social arrangements.”

“And?”

“And I cannot tell you whether we have families or not, for reasons that are to become apparent, but the idea is at least sufficiently interesting to have entered the space of hypotheses worth investigating. But we don’t trust ourselves to investigate this. It’s the old Asch Conformity Problem again. If we have families, then perhaps the philosophers tasked with evaluating families will conform to our cultural norms and decide we should keep them. If we do not, perhaps the philosophers will conform and decide we should continue not to. So we determined a procedure that would create an entity capable of fairly evaluating the question of families, free from conformity bias.”

“And that’s what you did to me.”

“Yes. Only by exposing you to the true immensity of the decision, without allowing you to fall back on what everyone else thinks, could we be confident in your verdict. Only by allowing you to experience both how obviously right families are, when you ‘know’ they are correct, and how obviously wrong families are, when you ‘know’ they are incorrect, could we expect you to garner the wisdom to be found on both sides of the issue.”

“I see,” you say, and you do.

“Then, O purified one,” asks the alien, “tell us of your decision.”

“Well,” you say. “If you have to know, I think there are about equally good points on both sides of the issue.”

“Fuck,” says the 18-tkenna-dganna-07.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

108 Responses to Asches to Asches

  1. Andy says:

    I tried to come up with a “Dust to Dust” pun, but failed.
    I have brought shame upon my family. Whether or not it makes sense.

    But this was an interesting concept. Perhaps the solution is “some cultures can use families and other can not use families, and see what works better.”

    • Protagoras says:

      Surprised they didn’t think of that. Most of the experiments that would really help settle questions about how best to run a society are wildly unethical, but it’s already established in the story that the the 18-tkenna-dganna-07 are more practical and less squeamish about such issues than humans. But perhaps there are budgetary constraints preventing the kind of large-scale experiments that would be ideal.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      The point was less that the aliens are efficient and more that I think this is a useful thought experiment for evaluating something you believe – like “Have I evaluated my beliefs fully enough that, if I were told they were totally a scam and no one else believed them, I wouldn’t feel totally humiliated for having believed something out of conformity only?”

      • Well, at first I’d be extremely skeptical of the claim that no one else believed them, but if that turned out to be true, I wouldn’t be humiliated because “believe what everyone else believes” is a good heuristic most of the time (this is more true the more nearly literal we’re being about “everyone”). Also, finding out what other people, especially well-informed people, believe is an important part of any good belief-evaluation procedure.

        • I do hope there’s some dissatisfaction you’d have with your conduct. Maybe ’embarrassment’ is the wrong word for it, but I do hope that if I became a nazi due to being raised by nazis, then had my errors revealed to me, I’d feel some disgust at my not having been one of the people who escaped nazism despite being raised by nazis.

          The task isn’t literally impossible, and it’s important enough to warrant a heroic effort. So a heroic perspective may be warranted — one where you don’t take any of the first fifteen easy outs life gives you, the first fifteen chances to forgive yourself with a shrug.

        • Ken Arromdee says:

          Robby: Nobody can heroically fight every idea in existence. Nazis exist in a world where large groups of people are not Nazis. This gives people raised as Nazis more of a reason to question Naziism than to question an arbitrarily chosen idea such as the family.

          Furthermore, the original version of the family scenario cheats by claiming that the other 19 subjects all managed to figure it out by themselves. If it was so easy to figure out that something is wrong that 19 out of 20 people with no special training could spontaneously do it, I probably would feel a little embarrassed that I couldn’t figure it out. But that just shows that bizarre stipulations lead to bizarre answers. If it was revealed that you’re actually very stupid, but this had been concealed from you, would you then think “boy, I’m stupid”?

        • > Nobody can heroically fight every idea in existence.

          I dunno, that sounds pretty close to what high-quality epistemology is all about. You question arbitrary ideas, in proportion to the expected VOI of the answers, not just in proportion to their popularity. Civilization-wide mistakes are rarer than individual mistakes, but they’re also more costly, so there can a lot of value in querying common assumptions.

          If everyone I’d ever met or heard from were a nazi, that wouldn’t excuse me for being a nazi too. I still have some responsibility for the contents of my own skull.

        • Robert says:

          Think about it… does anyone believe they are wrong? Could Hitler do the things that we, today, consider atrocities if he thought they were wrong?

      • Aleph says:

        Of course, “conformity” is legitimate Bayesian evidence. Answering no to “Would I still believe this if I didn’t have this mountain of evidence from the people around me?” doesn’t mean the belief is wrong.

        • It does tell you that you haven’t discovered the belief’s source. And it can tell you that conformity is having too big an evidential impact on you, even though it’s right for it to have some impact.

      • Watercressed says:

        >Have I evaluated my beliefs fully enough that, if I were told they were totally a scam and no one else believed them, I wouldn’t feel totally humiliated for having believed something out of conformity only?

        At least in the family case, there’s a selling nonapples problem. I wouldn’t be too surprised to find a social structure that works better than family, but I have no idea what that would be. I think calling a failure to invent a new social system conformity is a bit of a stretch.

      • anon says:

        I gained a lot of value out of applying this thought experiment through a motivational rather than rational frame.

        I struggle with ADHD and depression, and imagined myself being told that everyone else in the simulations also had those conditions, but all of them performed better than me.

        Then I imagined a different scenario, where everyone was put into a simulation where they needed to save the world, and everyone else succeeded where only I failed.

        Imagining changes in others’ beliefs doesn’t effect mine much. But imagining changes in others’ standards of competence has an extremely powerful impact.

        Thanks for the tool.

        • Lavendar bubble tea says:

          I also am constantly assuming that I am SEVERELY below others standards of competence and I find it can really mess up my performance. This is a really good tool to be gained from this writing. 🙂

        • Alrenous says:

          Was one of those simulations supposed to work out well for you?

          If the situation is in fact hopeless, then depression is the rational response. Don’t make an effort because all efforts will be a waste. Depression is only an illness if the situation is not hopeless; if you can actualize a hope.

          I haven’t found a clear, empirically validatable definition of ADHD, but its great prevalence suggests it is adaptive under at least some circumstances. Just not, say, the situation of Prussian schools.

        • Anthony says:

          A blogger who was also a web developer was writing about his work setup, and the 50 open firefox tabs, and said he doesn’t have ADD – it’s not a disorder if you make your living from it.

    • Hainish says:

      Dunce to Dunce?

      (Sorry, I specialize in bad puns.)

  2. MQ says:

    Oh. My. God. You get me!
    –Adopted person.

  3. Alexander Stanislaw says:

    That was amazing. Have you thought about dropping the whole doctor thing and becoming a writer?

    I could sense the second awakening coming, but I didn’t expect the story to lead where it eventually did. I suspect a society without families would fall apart pretty quickly – why would you spend 20 years raising a kid on economic grounds? They seem like a pretty awful investment. Its a very good thing that having kids seems to be intrinsically rewarding, because people wouldn’t do it otherwise.

    • Whateverfor says:

      You can have intrinsic reward without families. The ‘babies are cute’ impulse seems to extend not just towards other humans but to other species, so there’s no reason the ‘want to care for kid’ impulse couldn’t be more universal. Then you’d only need the sponsor/investor for the teen+ years after the child has grown enough to be independent but not enough to be fully productive as a worker.

      • Andy says:

        Add to this the intrinsic satisfaction of a job well done. Think of what really really good teachers describe – getting to watch people grow up and live their lives can be hypothetically pleasurable to some people, therefore a family-less society could employ these people as professional mentors and parents?

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          Certainly raising or mentoring a child can be satisfying and fulfilling. Especially when the child is doing well. In that case its hard not to be supportive and to cheer for them. But what about when things aren’t going so well?

          Perhaps I’m being too cynical, but I think that teachers have a tendency of shying away from difficult cases; its a perverse incentive structure – do you spend more time with the child that makes you feel good, or the child that tests your patience?

          Having a family solves this problem – you support the child because its your child. If the child goes on to do something amazing then of course you’ll be proud of them, but you’ll still love them even if they don’t.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Having a family solves this problem – you support the child because its your child. If the child goes on to do something amazing then of course you’ll be proud of them, but you’ll still love them even if they don’t.

          Reversing this: not having families solves the problem of people who don’t do amazing things sticking around and taking up resources, by cutting out the weed’s roots and starving it.

        • Creutzer says:

          I’m pretty sure social pressure doesn’t work as a method for making people more intelligent…

        • Lavendar bubble tea says:

          I am replying to Alexander Stanislaw and this is my first comment on SSC or any associated blog (I couldn’t find the reply button on their post)

          “Perhaps I’m being too cynical, but I think that teachers have a tendency of shying away from difficult cases; its a perverse incentive structure – do you spend more time with the child that makes you feel good, or the child that tests your patience?

          Having a family solves this problem – you support the child because its your child. If the child goes on to do something amazing then of course you’ll be proud of them, but you’ll still love them even if they don’t.”

          I think this completely ignores social compatibility and the differing limits/skills people have. With families arranged mostly based on genetics/biology, you get a bunch of people committed to each other regardless of skills, challenges, personality, talents and goals fueled by obligation. A household which might be really nurturing and helpful for one person might really hinder the next. Different people have different patience level for different things. (One caretaker might be really annoyed about raising a kid who is hyper athletic and has a ton of enegry and does things like jumping on the bed, but could better handle a kid who is less active but prone to having strong emotions. Whereas the neighbors who are a band of RV traveling, cross country running mountain climbers may have a non sporty angsty teenage son who they just cannot understand. These potential mismatches are going to cause numerous issues which could be avoided with proper compatibly based placement. (…and this is not even bringing up abusive situations/situations where people should just not be parents) The emotional obligations people have towards their biological families makes it so that even suggesting that being raised by a different group of people to be a deeply insulting and unthinkable thing. (I actually seriously suggested going off to live with family friends to my mother when I was in the middle school age group because in that situation it would have made far more sense…She…did not take kindly to my idea) Whereas, an investor-caretaker-mentor role would likely have an easier time exchanging/trading “investments” if were better a match for another child or they could not properly mentor their child in a way that maximizes the child’s potential.

          Even though raising anything is stressful at times, I still think that issues would/could be more easily minimized in more formally arranged settings than with a blind shuffle plus obligation.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Also:

          Having a family solves this problem – you support the child because its your child. If the child goes on to do something amazing then of course you’ll be proud of them, but you’ll still love them even if they don’t.

          This is a VERY naive view on parenting. Only some parents “support the child because it is their child”. The rest use children as a way to validate their own lives, and inflict LOTS of suffering on those children if they fail to live up to their duties.

          Just about any non-Spartan method of child-rearing will run into this problem (which is why I strongly advocate abortion in up to the 120th trimester, Roman ‘Paterfamilias’ style.)

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          @Ialdobaoth

          OMG, I will admit that the thought crossed my mind.

          @Lavender bubble tea

          Yeah, the comment threading isn’t unlimited. You replied correctly.

          I’ll admit that does sound nice – I have nothing in common with my parents. But I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of being able to trade a child away. There are some children that frankly no one really wants, but their parents still remain loyal to them. In the non-family world where do they go? Are they sold cheaply or perhaps the caretakers pay someone to take them?

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          @Ialdabaoth

          I never said that parents always live up to that standard. But they are expected to, and if they weren’t then things would be even harder for the unwanted children.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          I never said that parents always live up to that standard. But they are expected to, and if they weren’t then things would be even harder for the unwanted children.

          There’s a floor to that function, and after you pass it it doesn’t bottom out to ‘zero’, it bottoms out to ‘null’.

          I am asserting that ‘null’ is preferable to ‘zero’, for EVERYONE involved.

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          @Ialdobaoth

          Really sorry if this is a misunderstanding. Are you saying that it would be genuinely better if the unwanted children (in the hypothetical situation – these are the children who have negative economic value to their investors) were killed?

        • Lavendar bubble tea says:

          @Alexander Stanislaw

          I think that would depend on the reasons why the children are unwanted and also how the economy and goverment/laws work in a society. An easy almost cop out answer I can think of off the top of my head is that the a goverment could help subsidize caretakers of very difficult to raise children. Another idea is that basic needs/income could be mostly assured, so there is less risk to taking on troubling cases. (In a system where basic needs are not assured, the caretakers would likely be forced to pick cases where they can be sure they can be a solid income into retirement age from the children they mentor. Picking a more risky case could cost them dearly in the the long term. But financially risky cases are less dire if the stakes are less dire) Another option might be boarding schools with trained teachers who are paid for teaching with their own retirement plan for potentially non profitable cases.

          Having cultures that are geared towards generating feelings of altruism and shared humanity are also likely go far in reducing this potential issue as well. Getting of or treat problems which create anti social/risky cases could also help. (Good prenatal health care to reduce birth defects would be a generally accepted ethical option, making accessibility part of the general culture reduces the strain of being a caretaker for a variety of disabilities and widespread access to psychological care could take care of a lot of issues) I’m not totally sure what issues you are referring too in regards to what could make children a risky investment, so I assumed that disability and emotional health problems would likely be the main concerns. It’s hard for me to really speculate about solutions to issues when what the exact issues are and what hypothetical system I am working with are unclear.

          (Also, hell, we could all just skip the Mentor thing and just have boarding school with custom picked populations as a replacement for the family and have people mutually associate based upon mutual interest and thereby removing an individual investor mentality from the family-less society)

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Really sorry if this is a misunderstanding. Are you saying that it would be genuinely better if the unwanted children (in the hypothetical situation – these are the children who have negative economic value to their investors) were killed?

          As an adult who was an unwanted child, yes. Emphatically yes. God, yes. PLEASE, yes.

        • Matthew says:

          But there are clearly lots of people who came from dysfunctional families but went on to have reasonably pleasant adulthoods. I don’t know how you would distinguish those cases ahead of time, but it seems awfully problematic to kill off all the unwanted children when only some of them are going to think their lives weren’t worth living.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          But there are clearly lots of people who came from dysfunctional families but went on to have reasonably pleasant adulthoods. I don’t know how you would distinguish those cases ahead of time, but it seems awfully problematic to kill off all the unwanted children when only some of them are going to think their lives weren’t worth living.

          My irrational screaming-in-pain side wants to respond with, “Sure, but are they such a big loss? Sometimes it’s better to overtune towards false positives, especially when you can afford to be wasteful but can’t afford to cut quality.”

          My more rational and compassionate side, which is slowly reasserting itself after a few days of stewing in crazy, is somewhat appalled at all teh shit I’ve been spewing for the past few days.

      • Alexander Stanislaw says:

        That arrangement sounds interesting if a bit messy (the child or the adult could become emotionally attached). Given the existence of pets (which baffle me), I will say that this scenario seems more plausible to me now.

        • Erica E says:

          It’s surprising to me that the existence of pets is surprising to you. The health benefits of pet ownership are pretty well supported, and the human and animal need for physical contact (such as cuddling a dog) is well known. That you’re going to bond with the relatively sentient animal that you cuddle with on a regular basis with, is to be expected.

          Personally, I’ve spent more time in the close company of my 13 year old dog than I have with any human (and I’m pretty social) with the exception of my parents, and I was too young to remember much of the time I spent with my parents. As I write this, he’s laying about a foot away from my feet.

    • Error says:

      I failed to spot the second awakening coming, but I did catch that she was setting up a second conformity experiment while purporting to explain the first one. I was a bit disappointed that the viewpoint character didn’t call her out on that when she told him about other participants’ results.

  4. Matthew says:

    If you have to know” (vice “Of”)

  5. This is one of the most brilliant defenses of evolutionary psychology I’ve ever read.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      …well that was unintended.

    • a person says:

      Can you (or someone else) explain the logic behind this statement? I’m being dumb right now.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        I’m not seeing it either.

      • Sean says:

        Well one reason I’d agree the story gave that impression, perhaps unintentionally, is that it grouped together ALL of the negative sounding things different from the real world. The naive statements about “dismissing experimental ethics” and so forth were all attributed to the virtual reality experimenter, who also disparaged evolutionary psychology without presenting real, non-strawman arguments about evolutionary psychology, and not the hypnotist experimenter.

  6. Aleph says:

    “You can come up with an evopsych justification for anything” is only true if you’re very, very bad at evopsych.

    • Andy says:

      Unfortunately, there are many many people who are stunningly bad at evo-psych. Like the person who claimed (here on SSC) that no man would ever have anything to do with raising children that weren’t his genetically, ignoring the mountain of men who had done pretty much that.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        Like the person who claimed (here on SSC) that no man would ever have anything to do with raising children that weren’t his genetically, ignoring the mountain of men who had done pretty much that.

        Quote? I think it likely that you misread a weaker claim.

        • Andy says:

          http://slatestarcodex.com/2014/03/20/typical-mind-and-disbelief-in-straight-people/#comment-46561

          The usual reason for gay adoption is sexual molestation. If their motives were commonly normal, you would have found some less embarrassing poster boys.

          I’m trying to find the claim in another thread where the same person claimed that any children of a just-married single mother would suffer ‘accidents,’ but I haven’t found it, because he is a prolific commenter and reading through his comments in the likely threads is making me rather upset. I may be misremembering, but this is the closest I can find:

          http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/10/20/the-anti-reactionary-faq/#comment-25800

          Before modern paternity testing, no one knew who was the real father of a bastard.
          Today, people do know, and obviously men do care, care enough to kill
          What made children of official relationships more important is that the wife was subject to supervision and social control to prevent infidelity, whereas the mistress was not.
          Social paternity has very little effect on male behavior, unless they have reason to believe it corresponds to biological paternity.

          I take this as evidence for the existence of the claim that men would kill children that aren’t theirs rather than raising them. In the second thread, he was asked about men who adopt and raise children but did not respond.

        • Anonymous says:

          Perhaps you wanted this:

          Men will raise their own children. If they find themselves raising someone else’s children, the child will be at best treated as a pet, and at worst, and the worst happens rather frequently, should the husband find a cuckoo in the nest, that cuckoo is likely to suffer a fatal accident sooner or later.

        • Andy says:

          Men will raise their own children. If they find themselves raising someone else’s children, the child will be at best treated as a pet, and at worst, and the worst happens rather frequently, should the husband find a cuckoo in the nest, that cuckoo is likely to suffer a fatal accident sooner or later.

          Thank you, pretty-blue-spiral Anonymous! I missed that one because I stopped about a quarter of the way through the ARFAQ comment thread because I was getting too frustrated.

          But this statement from the same comment illustrates the biggest flaw of Doing Evo-Psych Badly (or any kind of psych/philosophy badly,but Evo-Psych seems particularly vulnerable to this):

          Plus, your account is simply contrary to male nature. As a male, I know what males are like, and anyone who tells it differently is lying.

          Typical mind fallacy, applied to the Platonic ideal of all men, which results in the “there is one way to be Male” thinking that characterizes this… I don’t think I’m being too unkind in calling it “madness.”
          Totally ignores that evolution and adaptation by natural selection doesn’t always select for a single trait. It doesn’t select for a single Perfect, just for “good enough to reproduce.” Not to mention all the non-genetic biological factors in human brain development and cognition.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Speaking as a male who was adopted at a young age, I think we have more to fear from adoptive mothers than from adoptive fathers. Adoptive fathers can be abusive and neglectful, sure, and maybe lethal on the outside, but never strategically sadistic in the way that a frustrated and disappointed woman can be.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Did they deserve it?

    • J. Quinton says:

      The story also pretty much establishes that you can come up with an “it’s a social construct” justification for anything as well…

    • MugaSofer says:

      And … are you under the impression it’s *unusual* to be very, very bad at evopsych?

      It’s not a task our brains were designed for.

  7. anon says:

    Might have been improved if the aliens mentioned as a punchline that you did this for some undergraduate psychology extra credit. Though maybe that would be overdoing it.

  8. Will Newsome says:

    Fuck.

  9. Tom Hunt says:

    Huh.

    Well, firstly, my prior for “there’s good enough VR and/or brainhacking to implant in me an entire imaginary life” is vastly lower than my prior for “someone gave me a disorienting drug and is feeding me a line of bullshit”. But that only works for, like, the first three iterations.

    On the object level, the evolutionary-psychological case for family seems very nearly watertight, whereas the evolutionary-psychological case for…whatever that other thing is…seems nonexistent. Dismissing evolutionary psychology as a field of study entirely isn’t an answer either, or at least not an answer I’m satisfied with taking. More generally, the no-family case seems to be a decidedly modern-society-oriented one, and it’s not obvious how it scales to prior history or different circumstances. When you ask the question “Who should raise this newborn?”, the answer “The person who bore it” seems a pretty obvious Schelling point; even if another answer is in some sense more optimal, systematically implementing that other answer requires societal mechanisms which have no obvious reason to come into existence. No-family is vastly more brittle, which matters when considering an institution so fundamental.

    If this actually happened to me? Honestly, I think it would just make me question my sanity. <_<

    • Michael Mouse says:

      that only works for, like, the first three iterations

      Who’s to say the existence of the hundreds of others aren’t themselves part of a line of bullshit? Once you can’t trust your memory you don’t have a solid foundation to stand on.

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        Who’s to say the existence of the hundreds of others aren’t themselves part of a line of bullshit? Once you can’t trust your memory you don’t have a solid foundation to stand on.

        I’m always frustrated that these sorts of mental exercises stop here. Why not take it further? Why not induce states where math and logic no longer work? Put someone in a state where they can’t trust their capacity *in the moment* to acknowledge that {thing} and {thing} are {two things}, and see where they go from there.

        • Alrenous says:

          You can’t simulate a world where A!=A using components which all obey A=A.

          • Lavendar bubble tea says:

            I’m reminded of one of Life in Neon’s games, where a character is put into an extremely disoriented state and language doesn’t work. (It’s NSFW and content warning for D/s) It’s called Reset and I think it does a really good from a narrative point of view. (I just really want to share a better story telling based example as opposed to my former idea of spinning around really really fast and totally disorienting myself and seeing what I brainstorm about orderless states from there)

            I have no idea or if it is possible to simulate math and logic not existing from a more experimental point of view though. (I am interested, so if anything has ideas I’d love to hear them)

      • Vertebrat says:

        After a few hundred more awakenings, we learn that the question about families is a distractor, and the true purpose of the experiment is to see how blatantly you can edit the subject’s memories before they adopt global skepticism.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          At that point, why not just edit their processing to be that of a global skeptic? Or just take the simple route, and edit their processing to be that of a bowl of jello? (It’s really simple – you don’t even need a matrix pod. A baseball bat with nails in it will do.)

        • Vertebrat says:

          Editing them directly to global skepticism wouldn’t answer the question of when they’ll get there on their own. You don’t measure a tortoise’s walking speed by picking it up and carrying it.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          Editing them directly to global skepticism wouldn’t answer the question of when they’ll get there on their own. You don’t measure a tortoise’s walking speed by picking it up and carrying it.

          No, but you can set it to a perfectly reliable “zero” by hacking off all its legs.

    • Lavendar bubble tea says:

      I don’t know if I can make a real case for this, but I just really want to reply from a worldbuilding point of view.

      You could have a pre industrial society that has one or a handful of main caretakers for children who is fairly adept at mentoring and raising children. Each tribe/town/village could have their own team. Children would be given to this team after they finish breastfeeding/are no longer super dependent on their birth mothers. This would have the benefit of freeing up the time and potential labor of parents to go and pursue other tasks full time and would make the individual cost of having a child far less, thereby making it easier to consider having more kids. Individuals who would be highly unskilled as full time parents could still reproduce and not damage/neglect their offspring. So, that village would have healthier non neglected children, more freedom for adults to become highly skilled or specialized in a craft/trade and less commitment/strain for people who reproduce. It sounds like a fairly workable preindustrial system to me. (I know that at least one Utopian/experimental community had a system where parents did raise their children but it was a fairly different system with different goals than what I am brainstorming. (The Oneida Community, which later became a spoon company, so now my google search has “Poly spoon company” for when I was trying to re-find it XD)

      Another possible pre industrial system would be to have extreme communal living where child care responsibilities are shared throughout an entire group/village. This could have the benefit of raising children into the hyper communal mindset required to make this happen, creating larger groups which are fully aware of how they all need to work together/as a system for collective survival and again reducing the individual strain of raising a child/freeing up the time of parents to further pursue specialized skills/goals.

      I’m kinda iffy on the second one tbh, but both these ideas/child raising styles could hypothetically exist in an evolutionary context and have direct material benefits for the group that are not as abstract as economic incentive. I feel a bit dishonest by saying this is mainly a world building exercise because I am currently thinking “Wow, the first one could TOTALLY happen.” I just can’t currently research non modern/preindustrial examples of that happening nor can I honestly make an evo-psych case for it beyond using my worldbuilding skills.

      • Tom Hunt says:

        The second actually is a reasonable description of how things actually were, in some village communities. The problem with using it as a precursor to the no-family case is that it doesn’t generalize to a larger society. Not even towns or cities have the same closeness of internal relations that small villages do, let alone whole nations or civilizations. Essentially, it’s not eradicating the concept of “family”, it’s just broadening it to include the whole village. The same evolution can’t easily be repeated at larger scales.

        The first, I think, is militated against by individual evolutionary concerns. Having some set of individuals who are responsible for all child-rearing means that those individuals having children is an immediate greater burden on them, while others having children is not an immediate greater burden on the others. Therefore, the incentivization for others to have children is stronger than for the caretakers, and thus the position of caretaker becomes an evolutionary dead end.

        • I think that can be balanced out, at least in small groups (under Dunbar’s number?) with obligations that people who produce children have to people who raise children.

      • A real world custom Note that this isn’t a culture without families, but fostering adds more complex ties.

        During the Viking age, it was common for a family to give one of their children to another family to foster. It was a bond that could link a man to his social superior. Typically, a child from a superior family was raised by an inferior family. The foster parents received either payment or support from the birth parents. Fostering was not the same as adoption. It was a legal agreement, and an alliance. Ties between foster-relations could be as strong or stronger than those between blood-relations.

        In addition, fostering was a way to redistribute children among families. Because the infant mortality rate was so high, some couples had no live births. It has been suggested that the percentage of couples without live children was as high as 20% in the Viking age. Fostering was a means to bring a child into a family that had none.

      • Deiseach says:

        The system, which continued up to mediaeval and indeed a couple of centuries after, in Ireland of fosterage:

        From friendly advice to financial gain, the range of short and long-term benefits resulting from fosterage played a large part in sustaining the power of the institution into the early modern period. Through participation in fosterage, one not only secured maintenance in later life and the possibility of creating friendly or non-belligerent relations between families, but the child also secured support for itself and its siblings in the future. The medieval world was violent; the annals confirm this. Recurrent references to killings ‘dia muintir fen’ (at the hands of his own people), and to incidents of blindings, drownings, and seizings and many other violent acts, illustrate the need for support in everyday life. Foster-links did not guarantee support or loyalty, but they were one, if not the most binding, of ties, which society had to offer. Fosterage, as it functioned in medieval Ireland, was advantageous for the child, the kin and society.

        Indeed, Giraldus Cambrensis comments in his “Topographia Hibernica” (an account of the landscape and people of Ireland around 1188, soon after the Norman invasion of Ireland) on the system of fosterage as yet more proof of Irish barbarism, as the Irish tended to love their foster-children and foster-siblings more than their blood kindred:

        Chapter XXIII: How they love their foster-children and foster-brothers, and hate their own brothers and kindred. Woe to brothers among a barbarous race! Woe also to kinsmen! While alive, they pursue them to destruction, and even when dead they leave it to others to avenge their murder. If they have any feeling of love or attachment, it is all spent on their foster-children and foster-brothers.

        • Andy says:

          I remember many references to fostering in F/SF novels, such as McCaffrey’s Pern and Lackey’s Valdemar, though less pronounced there (IIRC only getting one or two references in the Vanyel trilogy.)

    • MugaSofer says:

      OK, I don’t have time to edit this to a reasonable comment-length, but here you go:

      http://pastebin.com/NsbWf1mu

      • Tom Hunt says:

        Interesting idea.

        I think it still doesn’t hold together at the start, quite, because in pre-industrial civilizations, the limiting factor on population was never physically bearing enough children, it was always having the resources available to keep them alive. Thus, until fairly recent developments, whenever you had the spare resources for another child, you usually had another child of your actual blood to take them up. And having an intelligent, loyal follower who also shares half your genes is a bigger evolutionary advantage than having one that’s genetically a stranger.

        The obvious exception is when you expect the adopted-in child to be fitter as an ally than your own blood (due to an impressive family history, say). Then you have an incentive to keep them around both as an ally and with a view to breeding with your own blood children later on. But this seems a rare enough case that it wouldn’t foster a universal social norm, but a practice of making exceptions when warranted (much as adoption actually is today).

  10. Michael Mouse says:

    Man, now I’m seriously wondering whether the whole ‘people conform, it’s proven by Science’ thing is a long-running psychology experiment on these lines launched in the 50s when ethics was different. Have you checked out the original Asch papers? Any reputable psych journal editor would send them back without bothering to send them to reviewers. You can convince people that lines are different lengths than they are simply by having other people nearby say that they are? Yeah, right. What happened to extraordinary claims needing extraordinary evidence? What’s more likely – all those subjects lied about how long the lines were, or a single person (Asch) lied about the study?

    • Creutzer says:

      Not having looked at the original papers, what’s so bad about them? What’s the extraordinary evidence you would like to hear?

      Also, nobody ever said the subjects lied about the length of the lines. You can’t lie by saying something that you’ve been convinced of.

    • MugaSofer says:

      I don’t know. Is it really an “extraordinary claim” (whatever that means)? People seem quite ready to conform.

      As, indeed, am I – it’s not a bad heuristic to do what everyone else does, because they might know something. It’s just that it’s, well, a heuristic; little more than a rule of thumb.

  11. Your subject never realizes that if their memories have been messed with, they can’t trust that they’re actually recognizing their handwriting?

    Families make some practical sense– it keeps the group with strong felt obligations small enough to be manageable. Also, family loyalty is simple enough that animals can manage it, though I suppose animals that join new groups to mate are evidence for a sort of half-family loyalty.

    As for Ashe conformity, there comes a point where the subject should be looking for ways to investigate whether they’re conforming to real people. Are there such ways? It’s plausible that if your memory fills in details and/or sense that there’s been enough detail, there’s no hope.

  12. Ialdabaoth says:

    Also, fun fact: This whole post is remarkably like a good many of my dreams.

    • Multiheaded says:

      Ozy’s right: you really need a hug, and protection from bad people. (I might be the bad people…)

      :hugs:

  13. Anonymous says:

    Well, did that feel vaguely nightmarish to anyone else? One is forcibly reminded of the beginning of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels, where Alex is cursed by the anthropomorphic personification of Dream with Eternal Waking – that is, a series of waking from a dream and finding himself in something which ultimately proves to be a nightmare to wake from again and again recursively. (Sandman #1, Sleep of the Just; collected in Preludes and Nocturnes).

    Extremely effective writing, Scott. I like the method of trying to analyze things by considering if they were told to be lies that nobody else believed. That said, the topic of discussion, the existence of family, seems pretty hard to be skeptical about given human history. I suppose in another society where a species evolved under vastly different pressures and circumstances a species could certainly evolve to intelligence without the social construct of family, but the outcome would seem to be unlikely to be at all recognizable in a lot of other ways too.

    Thanks for the extremely interesting writing!

  14. I think if you read enough psychology research, you develop a “this ancillary situation is part of the experiment” reaction. The woman with the clipboard telling the protagonist about other experimental subjects set mine off quite strongly.

    If I ever consented to be part of a psychology experiment, I’m sure I’d wind up in a state of absurd hyper-vigilance towards possible confederates and contrived scenarios. “I’ve been left alone with this other person in a room. Are they an ethnic minority? Do I have any information about their academic performance? Are they about to knock a box of pencils off the desk?”

    The notion that one is in an ongoing psychology experiment would be a pretty exhausting delusion for someone with knowledge of experimental procedures in psychology.

    • ckp says:

      Sounds like how Truman-Show Syndrome might manifest itself in a particularly neurotic psych student.

    • Anonymous says:

      I conduct psychology experiments on undergraduate psychology students. People like you (who suspect that literally *everything* is somehow part of the experiment, even though we’re usually testing something super-boring to people outside the field such as reaction times to a stimuli) do exist, but they are generally not common enough to make a dent in the overall data.
      (I know this because we always ask them what they thought the experiment was about when they’re done, and I sometimes read the answers.)

  15. Pingback: Alexander Kruel · Miscellaneous Items 20140604

  16. Stephen says:

    This reminds me a bit of the “consider what a super-advanced version of humanity would think” intuition pump that’s used at times in HPMOR. Both seem to be about figuring out which of your current beliefs are contingent on your particular upbringing, and that you wouldn’t reflectively approve of, in a CEV-ish sense. The trouble is, unless you already have an inkling that one of your beliefs is contingent, neither technique will help much (hey, I guess it’s also like the chronophone in that sense – intuition pumps seem to make crappy bootstraps). On the other hand, if you do already have that inkling, this does seem like a really useful way of reflecting on it, and possibly expanding it out into a full-blown belief (although perhaps not always an alief – overcoming cultural conditioning is hard)

    Awesome story.

  17. Dan Tobias says:

    You seem to have been stuck in a really troubling Twilight Zone episode…

    I think, evolutionarily speaking, there almost certainly needed to be some sort of “family” in the past… there are some species, like sea turtles who lay their eggs and then go away, that managed without this, but only through massive reproduction with most offspring not surviving, and humans are a high-maintenance species where this wouldn’t work very well. You never do explain how, in the past before civilization arose, humans managed to grow up safely in a world where nobody felt any family ties.

    Now, whether a family would actually be an optimal arrangement in a modern civilized world is a different question.

  18. gwern says:

    “Well,” you say. “If you have to know, I think there are about equally good points on both sides of the issue.”

    “Fuck,” says the 18-tkenna-dganna-07.

    Hah, so after 346 cycles (even, huh? so exactly balanced) they discover the subject is – half-conformist to both positions. Oops.

    And thus it was that the 18-tkenna-dganna-07 learned about external vs internal validity, diminishing returns in data, random effects vs fixed effects, and why n=1 sucks if you can do n=m instead…

    • Alternatively, the subject is now Asch-conforming to the societal expectations of 18-tkenna-dganna-07 — ‘this is a really hard problem that required a large investment of resources, so there’s probably good arguments on both sides and no easy answer’.

  19. Desertopa says:

    While I can certainly see the merit in (indeed, am personally predisposed to) arguments against our cultural or biological level of attachment to family, I think that the wealthy sponsor alternative used in this story would probably end disastrously. First, being placed under a contractual or moral obligation to earn as much money as possible would probably be extremely distressing to a large proportion of the population. How many people actually try to maximize their earnings in real life? Second, if any individual was shaping up to be a poor return on investment, the investors would have a strong incentive to cut their losses and run. But without effective caretaking, these individuals, many of whom would be low-functionality to begin with, would be likely to impose a considerable burden on society. The wealthy benefactors have an incentive to privatize gains while socializing losses, so if their ward turns into a criminal or societal burden of some other sort, it’s Somebody Else’s Problem. And if it’s too hard to back out and carries risks to the benefactor if the ward turns out poorly, then wealthy individuals who want to be benefactor investors are likely to be in too-short supply for all but the most secure bets among children.

    I think this is just the sort of coordination problem that private enterprise is very poorly suited to.

    • Multiheaded says:

      Absolutely.

    • Andy says:

      I think this is just the sort of coordination problem that private enterprise is very poorly suited to.

      I agree, but because I am a contrarian and compulsive worldbuilder, I will now attempt to fix some of your objections.
      The “cut losses and run” problem could in theory be fixed by having these bonds be assigned for life, unable to be cut except by court order, and “not maximizing profits” not being a sufficient reason to give up a ward.
      Second, humans often work well in teams. Having a group of wards each try to maximize earnings individually is (probably) unproductive, compared to having a few wards maximizing their earnings, and then the other wards taking up support roles, would be a better earning-maximizer than having wards on their own. Thus one manufacturing-genius ward could help the benefactor support several artist, poet, and slacker wards – more if the manufacturer-ward can get other wards to work part-time entry-level jobs.
      …I think I just invented a potentially benign form of slavery. Halp.

  20. Anonymous says:

    1) they both have families. It’s just that one is genetic and the other is not. Surely a genetically linked family is not *worse* than a randomly chosen one, though probably not better than a carefully optimized one. Either way, it makes sense to invest resources into people you care about.

    2) The simulated worlds are still “real” in the sense that they contain *actual* conscious beings and the events within the worlds still matter. So if I *was* under conformity, I wouldn’t stop being under conformity just because the world I was conforming to was virtual and a bunch of crazies with crazy beliefs were simulating it.

  21. Alrenous says:

    Because of the way contingent values are constructed in human brains, that families are a thing causes families to be the right way to do things.

    Why are you cherishing your time with them?

    I’m kind of concerned this isn’t common knowledge. You shouldn’t have to read your Hume to figure this out, but:

    Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.

    You do not justify preferences. Preferences justify actions. The justification of preferences is not rational, but empirical.

    `Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. `Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. `Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledge’d lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.

    Or: imagine the whole world decided tomorrow to get up, get a cup of coffee, and walk into the ocean. How is that the least bit irrational?

    What’s irrational is to not walk into the ocean if that happens to be your wish.

    but no better than millions of other women would be, in her position.

    Right, just like an electron will electrostatically repulse other electrons just as well as the electron that in fact did.

    Not like that. Only your sister is in her position. If someone invents a better RAID device for your server you can hot-swap it out and just be better. If someone invents a better sister, you can’t. The ‘holds data’ relationship is fungible. The ‘applies force’ relationship is fungible. The ‘is sister’ relationships is not.

    This is even setting aside from the fact that genetically similar people are far more likely to be similar in personality. If you attempted the bioplastic tent thing, you would find that you were in fact closely related to many of them, and that the rest, by chance, have an incredibly similar genome.

    But, setting that aside as controversial (feel free to argue with the data instead of me) let’s look at the ‘has history’ sub-relationship. Even if it would have been better to have a different, adopted sister, you did not in fact have that sister. Only your sister is in her position.

    You can’t hot-swap preferences either. Quelching them is possible, but not making new ones, and even then it’s done by grokking that a subsidiary preference conflicts with a core preference.

    If you empirically cherish family, you can’t start cherishing bioplastic tents instead. You can only stop cherishing family, assuming you have a good fulcrum, and thus end up with fewer cherished things in total. Making the world a duller place for you.

    Since I’m in the neighbourhood anyway: there’s a difference between values and preferences that hinges on rationality. Values are special preferences that can be Kant-style generalized without contradicting the premise of the categorical imperative by preventing (attempting to prevent) other agents from generalizing their preference. Murder comes from generalizing, “Don’t kill me when I don’t want to die.” Completely generalized this turns into, “Do not unto others as they would have you not do unto them.”

    Even more fun, it justifies self defence. If someone tries to do unto you as you would not have them do, the act, by symmetry, justifies you doing unto them first.

  22. Buck says:

    I love how the subject of this story is still conforming at the end of the story. I didn’t notice that the first time I read the story.

  23. alexp says:

    I take Burkean (I believe. I’ve only ever read about Burke-never his writings directly) view on families. There are obviously a lot of problems, but an attempt to replace the idea is more likely to fail disastrously than it is to provide an tangible improvement.

  24. Kelly Atlas says:

    This is fantastic!

  25. Alexander Stanislaw says:

    Alright, I’ve warmed up to the idea of non-biological family arrangements, they are now at least plausible to me (thought probably not for existing humans). My version of this would be a little different that the one in the story. Essentially the arrangement would be like Western marriage. Whereas in some cultures you are forced to marry your cousin, Westerners are free to chose who to marry – this doesn’t make the marital bond any weaker because you aren’t related to them. Similarly, instead of being forced to raise your biological children (or have your biological parents raise you), you can be raised by those who you chose.

    This would just mean a relaxation of the social norm that stigmatizes children being taken away from their parents. If your children don’t want to be raised by you and another caretaker is willing, then they can bid you away form your current caretakers. And if you don’t want to raise your kids, then you can pay a willing caretaker to do it. Of course, this creates a mess of other problems, but children to can be reassigned to more compatible parents and have an easier escape from abusive parents.

    I also really like this idea because it puts Tabula Rasa to the test. If you really believe that genes have nothing to do with how children turn out and environment is everything, then how about swapping kids with some low IQ parents? They shouldn’t have to bid very high if you are serious about your belief.

  26. Pingback: Don’t Be An Asch-Hole | Slate Star Codex

  27. Russell says:

    Congratulations on an original and thought provoking post.

  28. Troy says:

    The aliens at the end seem to me to be investigating a question that very likely has no answer. What social arrangements are “optimal” depends a great deal on the psychology and culture of the social group in question. It seems consistent with the story that in our world families are optimal and in the other world you keep going to, families are not.

  29. Pingback: Miscellaneous Gadgets 20140604 | JanNews Blog

  30. Robert says:

    “Shove me into shallow water before I get too deep”
    was that Alanis Morsette?

    • Andrew G. says:

      … non-sequitur? or spambot?

      (it’s from “What I Am” by Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians)

  31. Pingback: Miscellaneous Gadgets 20140604 | TiaMart Blog