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OT21: Master And Commenter

This is the semimonthly open thread. Post about anything you want, ask random questions, whatever.

This week, there are no comments that need signal-boosting, no links that need correcting, no one in special need of your money, and no changes to the usual volume of blogging. But you might still want to avoid talking about race and gender.

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676 Responses to OT21: Master And Commenter

  1. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Network decay is a great example of Moloch in action. It seems like cable turns channels into an endless parade of reality shows and documentaries of lies with the same regularity that the ocean turns crustaceans into crabs.

    • Eric Rall says:

      I see three plausible hypotheses to explain network decay:

      1. Network executives as a class have a systematic error in their decision-making process. Eventually, someone willing and able to own networks will figure out the problem and out-compete the others.

      2. Capitalism Is Not Pretty, because it reflects back the ugliness in ourselves by optimizing to offer us what we actually choose rather than what we’d like to believe we prefer. The kinds of shows that turn up as a result of network decay are guilty-pleasures that many people watch but don’t readily admit that they’d like.

      3. The networks are only decaying from the perspective of a cultural bubble that prefers the old formats. The network executives are optimizing for the preferences of a larger group of people who don’t share the preferences of the people in our cultural bubble.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I am reasonably sure that point #3 is correct, maybe with a bit of #2 thrown in.

        Network television, like most services, is essentially a machine that consumes raw resources — the primary one being viewer attention — to generate money. Since the amount of resources is limited, there is a lot of competition, and only the most efficient money-makers survive. It doesn’t really matter what shows you think you prefer, or what would be better for society, or whatever; the shows that will actually play are the ones that make the most money.

        By the way, this is not really a coordination problem a la Moloch. In this case, the machine is working very well, to everyone’s satisfaction (except probably for people like yourself, but there will always be outliers in any population).

      • DanielLC says:

        You can’t just explain why reality shows are common. If you’re explaining network *decay*, you have to show why they get more common.

        One theory is that there’s some kind of bias caused by running a network, so networks tend to start out well, then notice that reality shows and documentaries of lies seem to do better, even though the really don’t, and slowly show more and more of that kind of show until they go out of business.

        Another theory is that people who run networks are idealists and/or not people who like that kind of show, so they start out without them and learn the hard way that they actually are popular and they need them to succeed.

        It could also be that people’s tastes are changing. People used to like other kinds of shows, but then they switched over to that kind, so networks are changing to reflect this. The reason they used to be less common is that people didn’t used to like them.

        And the last theory is rosy retrospection. TV always sucked. We just forgot that it used to.

        • Andy says:

          And the last theory is rosy retrospection. TV always sucked. We just forgot that it used to.

          I partly favor this one, but I suspect broader socio-technological forces (the rise of the Internet as competition for advertising dollars) and the idea of reality shows being cheaper and lower cost to film make reality shows more attractive.

        • Bugmaster says:

          Another reason could be progressive refinement. Reality shows have improved (for a certain value of “improved”) quite a great deal since they were first invented. There’s a lot of real innovation going on in TV broadcasting, in terms of extracting maximum value for the money.

        • Anonymous says:

          I think a network needs a quality show or two to get people watching (and to get the network picked up by cable stations). Once that happens they put the crap on afterwards and get money from people zombified enough not to change the channel and/or people who fell for the “coming up next” hook that was played during the quality show’s credits.

          IOW, maybe nobody is going to *tune* to a channel to see a reality TV program they’ve never seen. So you need to run that program after the critically-acclaimed hit comedy that everybody’s talking about. But, once they tune in to that, you blast them with adverts for what’s coming up next, and you fill whatever that is with cliff-hangers.

          Once you’ve got a critical mass of people who are hooked by last week’s cliff-hanger, you no longer need the quality programming that served as the “bait” in your bait-and-switch.

        • Tracy W says:

          I recall reading some article that argued that reality TV has gotten much more intellectually demanding for viewers, when compared to what it (mostly) displaced, eg TV quiz shows where everyone sat at a panel and answered general knowledge questions. Now it’s a lot about interactions between teams, strategy, etc.

          • CJB says:

            You know, when I was a wee boy, I had these really cool old “readers” my grandmother had used when she was a kid. And they’d always have these really interesting bits that were “a day in the life of….” and then something way outside my experience. It might be what they thought life was like for a cave-child, or a description of a typical day for an Eskimo, or a kid in contemporary Japan.

            And they were cool as balls, yo.

            Now, I was a kid who preferred the whaling sections of Moby Dick, but still.

            That’s all a reality show is. “hey, lets look at the daily life of people doing something very different from you!”

            A day in the life of: A child pageant star. An alaskan crab fisherman. People who survive by buying and reselling old storage lockers.

            Now, i’m sure that not all reality shows are identically interesting.

            But I fail to see how they’re significantly different, except in the quality of the info presented, than a national geographic article on the daily life of Afghan tribes, or a Popular Science article on welders.

      • If Beeminder ever goes mainstream it will, ironically, be a free market solution to the “Capitalism Is Not Pretty” problem. Unless you believe in Revealed Preferences, in which case Beeminder is doomed.

        From the comments of a related Beeminder blog post:

        Here’s economist Tyler Cowen essentially saying that there’s no such thing as akrasia, only self-delusion:

        All people are equally good at time management, but some people are more willing than others to admit that they are doing what they want to do, while others maintain the illusion they wish they were doing something else.

        But maybe the counterargument is as simple as “using commitment devices is an action”. The whole Revealed Preferences / self-delusion argument falls on its face there. My use of a commitment device proves (by the orthodox economists’ own criterion) that I really do wish to be doing something else.

        • Noumenon72 says:

          Argh, when I spend six minutes lying on my bed doing absolutely nothing waiting for the Tasker program I wrote to make me stop using my phone, to let me use it again… that is not “time management”. And I’m pretty close to paying a $30 payment to Beeminder over something that takes five minutes and I’ve already done in the past. I guess Tyler would say I prefer to spend my time imagining me having a working system than doing any work.

          • The glib response would be “will you do the 5-minute task when $90 is at risk?” But maybe you don’t actually want to commit to doing that thing? The link above (Want-Can-Will Test) is meant to help decide if a thing you’re thinking about beeminding is really something that makes sense to beemind.

            I’ll also repeat something I said in support today to someone who self-described as derailing due to being in a two-week funk of procrastinating on a seemingly simple task:

            Eep, I know that feeling! In theory the next (or the next next) pledge level would then be sufficiently motivating and, despite paying us something, you’ll end up toeing the line and getting the resumes sent. But I’m nervous that there was some bitterness in your congratulations there and it’s not feeling like the value you’re getting is worth the cost. We’d be *really* grateful to hear you expand on that, or confirm if that’s true. We often proudly proclaim how nearly everyone, when they pay a pledge, feels like it was totally worth it. So the exceptions are really important for us to understand, especially if they aren’t as rare as we think. Oh, and more of our thoughts on whether to call a derailment legit:

            PS: Wait, too funny, was that you?

        • Noumenon72 says:

          Yes, since I was just stewing over how badly it’s going and I didn’t know you worked there I saw the mention of Beeminder as an opportunity to vent and seek help more than really discuss revealed preference.

          It’s interesting that that was a custom e-mail, I thought it must be on some level a form. Not in a bad way — a little psychological hand-holding is actually a perfect symbol that your site is trying to help motivate me, not just take the money.

          I agree that Beeminder makes a great distinguisher between laziness and revealed preference. I have a revealed preference in my 30s for surfing the Net over videogames, even though I want to play video games more. But I can’t imagine paying money to avoid playing video games, or setting up a goal to play video games and then having to acknowledge “I don’t want to play, I can see that because even risking $270 doesn’t make me sure to play it.” The “revealed preference” is just because starting a video game is a Schelling point that means I’m procrastinating, while surfing the net is just one more click.

          • I *love* your point about the Schelling point of starting a video game. Paul Graham makes a very similar point about television (back to the original topic of this comment thread) in Disconnecting Distraction.

            Or check out the xkcd at the bottom of — especially the hovertext and the paragraph after it about Katja Grace’s solution involving activation energy for distraction, that you described in terms of a Schelling point or maybe a Schelling fence.

            (Thanks also for the awesome email discussion about all this in the meantime! Happy to repeat any of it publicly if there’s value in that.)

          • onyomi says:

            I have this same exact problem re video games vs. net browsing. And also with reading fiction for pleasure.

            I think it is especially bad because I have a job which allows me to largely set my own schedule and do much of my work from home. Therefore I always *could* be working, but rarely have to be working at any given moment. To check SSC feels like a momentary break I’m giving myself during work, whereas to fire up the Playstation feels like I am actively not working.

      • Harald K says:

        What if it’s cheaper to convince (a majority of) you to like crap than to make stuff that isn’t crap?

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s actually much simpler, Reality TV is much cheaper to produce. When executives decide to switch one slot from scripted to reality they are ruining the network but “reduced enjoyment” is a hard and uncertain metric, while “money saved on a cheaper production” is easy to quantify.

        This explains network decay of existing networks as well as why new networks without reality shows are created (they are outcompeting existing networks by offering a higher quality product).

        • anon says:

          But TV does have concrete, certain ways of measuring performance; by counting viewers.

          You change the content of a timeslot and either your viewers drop by 40% or they don’t. Seems like ‘reduced enjoyment’ would be very obvious.

          • efnre says:

            Their method for counting viewers is far from perfect. They count what a biased non-random sample choose to view and extrapolate from there.

          • anon says:

            Perfect they were not, but also far from ‘uncertain’.

          • gwern says:

            but also far from ‘uncertain’.

            Extrapolating from a small sample is pretty much the classic setup for trying to reason under uncertainty.

      • #2 and #3 seem to me to be synonymous, except that #2 is framed more negatively.

        The thing that I have been told about reality shows is that they’re cheap to produce, which means that they might be optimal at that price point, but not generally. It’s possible that viewers prefer scripted shows with good characters and interesting plots, but that they accept reality shows, and since the latter are so much cheaper, that’s what gets made.

      • Ariel Ben-Yehuda says:

        From a producer’s standpoint, it is better to make a show that mildly interests 50% of all viewers than a show that highly interests 5% of all viewers, especially when creating interesting programs is more expensive than stupid programs.

      • Anthony says:

        Despite being pretty strongly pro-capitalism, #2 is a big part of this. Average TV-watchers really do like trash. The moralists who wrote things like the Hays Code understood this, though what they identified as “trash” wasn’t quite the same as what we’re calling “trash”.

        Also, capitalist efficiency is a part of this – if people will watch stuff that’s cheaper to make, they’ll get more of it. The first “reality shows” as we now use the term aired during the Writers’ Strike because they were cheaper than trying to hire scab writers.

        #3 is also partly true, though I’m not sure the cultural bubble is quite where you’ve identified it. Or maybe I’m not understanding where you’ve identified it.

      • Adam says:

        There are a limited number of good artists and good ideas out there and a thousand channels, hundreds of streaming services, plus the entire World Wide Web to fill up. The barrier to entry in content publication is so low that market forces probably don’t even make much of a difference except at the very top.

    • Mike says:

      At the same time we see the increasing prevalence of ‘reality’ Televison, we are also seeing something of a golden age in TV*. There is an abundance of ‘garbage’ on TV, but at the same time, there has been an increased quantity of creative, excellent programming (Breaking Bad, Mad Men, House of Cards, etc).

      This seems to me to be the result of capitalism working efficiently, whether we like it or not. Those who desire low-cost, junk, ‘reality’ TV receive it and those who want high-quality dramas or such receive it as well. In economics, price discrimination refers to matching the price consumers are willing to pay with the price the company charges them; maybe something similar is happening with TV and we are seeing a bifurcation in TV, whereas before everything basically appealed to the ‘average’ consumer?


      • albatross says:

        Two things that strike me:

        a. Non-TV competition for my time is much stiffer than it used to be. There’s a lot of high quality writing out there available for free or at low cost–including books that still cost a few dollars but no longer cost me an hour to go to the bookstore, buy the book, and come home. So personally, my TV watching has fallen to very little per week over the last few years.

        b. TV competition for my time is also much stiffer than it used to be. If I’m in the mood to watch something, I’ll probably watch some really good show I’ve been meaning to watch. (One of these days, I’ve really got to get around to watching The Wire.) Again, just talking about myself, I can’t think of the last time I just turned on the TV and started channel surfing to find something to watch.

        My vague suspicion is that I’m not alone in either of these. The audience for shows you find by channel surfing is much smaller than it used to be, and also is very different in other ways–intelligence, education, interests, age, etc.

        • Mike says:

          I agree, the number of entertainment options available has expanded dramatically and I should have mentioned the prevalence of online episodic TV (such as HoC which I did mention).

      • Lupis42 says:

        Those who desire low-cost, junk, ‘reality’ TV receive it and those who want high-quality dramas or such receive it as well.

        Also plausible: those who are willing to endure ads, and therefore whose attention can be monetized, have a low value of their time, and prefer “lowbrow” TV. Those who have a higher value of time would rather pay subscriptions than endure ads, and also prefer highbrow TV. Previously, as ads were the only way to make money, this meant that TV had to aim for the middle, possibly erring slightly on the lowbrow side. Now that it’s possible to target the highbrow customers directly, making ad-supported TV as terrible as it can be without hurting the core ad-viewers is a good thing(tm), because it pushes the customers who are mostly likely to employ ad-blocking solutions (e.g. tivo, time-shifting) to pay upfront.

        I tend to see this as the long tail working as intended, increasing consumer choice. More people pay in the manner they prefer for the content they prefer.

        People who for whatever reason had a low value of time but preferred highbrow content, however, are likely to be underserved, at least by television.

      • Ever An Anon says:

        People keep talking about a “lowbrow” reality show demographic and a “highbrow” Game of Thrones / House of Cards / etc demographic as if they’re mutually exclusive but in my experience the same people who consume a lot of one tend to enjoy the other.

        My girlfriend loves House of Cards and Game of Thrones as well as some really perplexing shows about the harem politics of the Ming dynasty but she also watches hours and hours of the trashiest reality TV not aired on TLC. A lot of other folks I know follow the same pattern: ‘smart’ shows for stimulation, ‘dumb’ shows for mindless fun or as background noise.

        It’s unrealistic to think that intellectuals are (or want to be) intellectual all the time or that no-one outside of our clique could share the same interests sometimes. Both reality TV and higher budget shows have broad appeal so it shouldn’t surprise us that many people enjoy both.

        • Gbdub says:

          I’ve noted a similar pattern (oddly or perhaps relatedly also with my girlfriend).

          Today’s “good” shows require a pretty serious investment of time and attention to enjoy. It’s hard to follow more than one or two “good” shows, and sometimes you just want some mindless background noise for your relaxation.

          I tease her for liking the trashy TLC-type stuff, but at the same time I usually screw around in nothing particular on the Internet to fill the same “trashy” niche when I don’t feel like spending time with a show I’m invested in.

          • “but at the same time I usually screw around in nothing particular on the Internet to fill the same “trashy” niche when I don’t feel like spending time with a show I’m invested in.”

            I don’t watch TV, but it occurs to me that arguing climate issues on FaceBook may be my equivalent.

          • Anthony says:

            Shhh – don’t tell Scott that we’re using him like that.

        • onyomi says:

          What is this perplexing show about harem politics of the Ming dynasty? This is relevant to my interests.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            Empress in the Palace, not sure what the Mandarin name is.

            Edit: Also it’s the Qing dynasty, not Ming like I first said. The haircuts and the 18th century date should have been a clue but whatever.

            There’s a highly abridged version with English subs on YouTube, but since it condenses a 70+ episode show into six or seven 100min blocks I have trouble following it that way. I’m sure you could find the originals with subs too, personally I didn’t like what I saw enough to check.

            I can’t say whether it’s accurate, no obvious anachronisms but I know much less about Chinese than European court life. The sets are gorgeous and the acting is good, there are some really distractingly awful CGI effects but luckily not too often. The plot is kind of like if Game of Thrones and Mean Girls were fused in a transporter accident, characterization is pretty strong aside from the heroine Zhen Huan who comes off as a Mary Sue.

            Definitely worth a shot, my lack of enthusiasm isn’t because it’s a bad show but just because it’s very character focused and I couldn’t connect to Zhen Huan at all.

          • onyomi says:

            Ah, okay, thanks! I’ll check it out. I was kind of hoping it was a US production, but the US making a good show about Chinese history still seems to be beyond us, based on Netflix’s Marco Polo.

    • Tarrou says:

      To focus only on cable channels is to ignore the vastly greater choice we enjoy nowadays. We’ve gone from three channels, to twelve (basic cable back in the day) to a few hundred to the vastness of the internet. We are widely believed to be in a “Golden age of TV” with Walking Dead, Mad Men, GoT etc. So why are people upset about the drek the old guard are reduced to producing because they can’t afford to put out real shows anymore? There is plenty of money to be made in episodic filmmaking, it just won’t much be on TV in the future.

    • John Schilling says:

      Network television, whether broadcast or basic cable, is an inefficient market in that it does not allow consumers to signal their desire for a particular program – or even channel – by paying for it (or not). Producers, of course, get to deliver the network an itemized bill for the production. And advertisers are mostly guessing where to place their adds.

      If a show is popular but expensive, the network sees a diffuse increase in revenue but pays the full cost and sees it directly associated with that show. Cheap but unpopular, there’s a diffuse loss of revenue but the cost savings are obvious and focused. Reality shows are dubiously popular, some of them clearly unpopular, but they’re cheap.

      Prediction: If we go through the programming lineup of premium cable channels and pay-as-you-go services like Netflix, we will see relatively fewer reality shows.

      • Matt M says:

        Completely agree.

        I think changing habits of media consumption is the major culprit here. Consider the following: Who is most likely to go “channel surfing” at any particular moment and watch whatever they happen to stumble upon? Is it the well educated working professional who demands a certain level of quality entertainment? Or is the unemployed lower class individual who prefers any show that starts with the title “real housewives.”

        My guess would be that Breaking Bad style programming is very popular on Netflix (and more likely to be DVR’ed and watched later), while Jersey Shore style programming is more likely to be watched when it happens to be on.

        So as the sophisticated consumer migrates towards alternate means of consuming the content, the television providers see their customer base become more and more of the reality show fan, so they put on more and more reality shows.

        Also, I think a la carte entertainment is coming – probably within the next decade or so. HBO already offers you a subcription on PC/mobile devices that you can get by paying them directly and bypassing the cable companies entirely. MOST Networks (sports channels are particularly good at this) offer streaming services that are similar, but you have to subscribe to their channel via your traditional TV provider in order to gain access. Eventually they’re going to figure out that Comcast is providing little value to them in this model, and they’re going to sell to consumers directly. It won’t be TOTAL a la carte on a per channel basis, but it will be something like “$15 for all of the channels owned by NBC and $15 for all of the channels owned by ABC” and etc.

      • Why can’t a network effectively vary the price of a program by varying the ratio of program to ads? If you really like it you are willing to pay a high price—whether in cash or putting up with a lot advertising.

        • LHN says:

          At a pure guess, having too many more than expected ads risks losing viewers to other shows (or, now, to the same show via less-than-legal means) and more ad minutes aimed at fewer eyes doesn’t increase ad revenue. So ad minutes will tend to converge.

          (In principle, a really desirable show should be worth more ad time, but in practice I have the impression people are more willing to substitute other viewing rather than “pay” much of a time premium beyond their established expectation.)

          There has been a gradual decades-long consensus creep by the networks to more ad minutes per hour. (Hence clipping or speeding up older shows to accommodate that.) And of course infomercials, which are all-ad.

        • Matt M says:

          I wouldn’t be surprised if this does in fact exist. We never measured it, but from a purely anecdotal perspective, it was widely accepted among my friends when I was a teenager that MTV showed *significantly* more commercials per hour than any other network, presumably because for social reasons, MTV was required viewing for teenagers and there weren’t any legitimate substitutes.

        • Nornagest says:

          Well, if you’re running syndicated content, that’s going to be a fixed length that only leaves a certain amount of space for ads; you can try a number of tricks to trim it down, but they all lower its quality. And creating your own stuff to fit a time slot of arbitrary length is expensive, especially if it’s a weird length that you’re going to have trouble selling to others.

        • RCF says:

          Presumably, this is in response to “does not allow consumers to signal their desire for a particular program – or even channel – by paying for it”. The point is that there is no price signal. A price has two economic functions: it reduces the consumer’s allotment of resources, and increases the producer’s. Here, John Schilling is pointing out the lack of the latter, while you are mentioning the former.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      It is striking how every response assumed that “Network decay” meant decay from good to bad, despite a link saying that it meant decay from specific to generic.

      This is, itself, a decay from specific to generic.

    • Gbdub says:

      One thought I’ve had – reality TV of the sort being complained about here has largely taken over the genre of “episodic drama”. Used to be the “quality” tv dramas were highly episodic, with a couple special story arcs thrown in for the dedicated fans (e.g. The X-Files’ “monster of the week” format). You could pick up and drop the series basically anywhere without missing much.

      Now, other than the various Law and Order clones, which themselves feel increasingly like dated throwbacks, every quality drama (particularly the most highly acclaimed) seems to be very serialized. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Mad Men, etc. aren’t shows you can pick up partway through, or skip around from episode to episode. Even big network dramas that start out fairly episodic (I’m thinking Blacklist and Hannibal) seem to become mostly serials once they hit their stride (and get picked up for season 2).

      The downside of this is that it’s hard to follow more than one or two “quality” dramas at a time – it just takes a lot of investment to keep up with, especially when the most successful shows run for 4-5 seasons or more, often with 12-22 episodes per season. That’s a lot of tv!

      So for filler for the casual viewer (and let’s admit, we’re all casual viewers from time to time) what do you go to? Cheap to produce, easy to consume “reality” dramas. They are the click bait of tv. But we all need a little click bait from time to time. For the network executives, it doesn’t make sense to risk a lot of cash on a high-production value scripted aimed at casual viewing anymore. So they turn to “reality”.

      Interestingly, I was at a panel with Jason Isaacs at the Phoenix Comicon, and he noted that in Britain, a quality show that produces 12 good episodes can be considered a big success (e.g. Sherlock) but in the US you’re a failure if you don’t make 100 episodes. Would be interesting if US producers started making more “bite sized” series – been a long time since we’ve had a “must see” miniseries.

      • Matt M says:

        I feel like drawing that balance between long-term investment and not alienating the casual viewer is one of the trickiest things TV writers have to deal with these days. But it’s not impossible. “House” did a great job having a new case every week while integrating it into longer-term character-based story-arcs. From a comedy perspective we’ve seen this with 30 Rock, where each individual episode is funny and can stand alone but usually has longer term stuff going on as well.

      • CJB says:

        HBO seems to be going in this direction. And it’s spreading to the mainstream as well . One of the reasons Breaking Bad was so much better than most TV was the goal was never “endless seasons” but “coherent narrative lasting 4-5 seasons”.

        I think where this offers the most benefits is in literature. There’s a lot of great novels that are too complex for movies but obviously can’t support a whole TV series.

        (“Blood Meridian” is my go to example, for those who’ve read it.)

        I know the Pride and Prejudice miniseries (with Colin Firth) is immensely popular, so there is precedent.

    • onyomi says:

      This concept is of great interest to me, as I observe it all over the place and it also strikes me as one of the bigger legitimate complaints about capitalism (and as an anarcho-capitalist, I am unusually incentivized to think of possible solutions to such).

      In addition to some of the theories posited above (I do think there is a strong disconnect between what people actually like and what they say they like–there is an example in the food industry where survey takers will tell you they like dark-roast, full-bodied coffee with little milk and sugar, but when you look at what they actually drink, it is mild and full of milk and sugar), I think there may be another big factor at play: risk aversion.

      Among those who decide who gets hired, what’s on the menu, which movie gets made, which tv shows get aired, etc. there are a few people with high risk tolerance due to wealth and/or personality (Elon Musk types) and a far greater number with low risk tolerance, either because they are playing with their own relatively limited savings, because they know their job is more secure doing the defensible thing than the high risk/high reward thing, because they prefer modest but reliable profits to unpredictable profits, etc. Just ask yourself, “what is the decision for which I could not be blamed?” and that will produce the decision most often arrived at.

      I notice this in restaurants: whenever a really authentic ethnic restaurant opens it seems to be a big success; yet immigrants who know how to cook authentic [Chinese, Lebanese, Mexican…] food routinely produce the same old food court stuff they know American will eat. Whenever they make the food like they did back home they seem to be a big success, yet they very rarely do.

      I think this is one: they are playing with their own money and prefer low-risk/low-reward to high-risk/high-reward, and two: I underestimate how big the market is for General Tso’s chicken because I’d rather eat real Chinese food.

      Another thought: I have noticed that the network, USA, seems only to show two TV shows on the weekdays. Literally two. One is Law and Order, which I enjoy. Imagine you are the USA network executive. Every time you try a new show, the ratings are lower than your last Law and Order marathon. How long before Law and Order marathons, to which you already own the rights, literally consume your whole schedule?

      And on the other end, I like knowing that every time I go to the gym I can switch to USA and watch Law and Order while I run on the treadmill. If they were showing something new, like as not I’d be annoyed and look for the Futurama channel. This high consumer preference for predictability may be another issue.

      And lastly, of course, there’s news, which is obviously incentivized to be sensational and partisan, and any so-called educational channels, which somehow always revert to showing Hitler, sharks, and mysteries of the pyramids over and over and over… sigh, any non-authoritarian way to improve this? The only thing I can imagine is slowly educating people to have better taste?

      • onyomi says:

        One possible libertarianish solution:

        I have a notion that strong intellectual property law tends to create a smaller number of bigger content providers, who, by necessity, cater to a very generalized, middle brow taste.

        In the absence of strong intellectual property we would expect more of a system of patronage and direct funding for content creation along the lines seen in premodern times, and more recently, in the likes of Kickstarter. Also, pay networks like HBO consistently produce better tv.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        The only thing I can imagine is slowly educating people to have better taste?

        To quote Methods of Rationality, “Sooner you could change the color of the sky.”

        In the absence of strong intellectual property we would expect more of a system of patronage and direct funding for content creation along the lines seen in premodern times, and more recently, in the likes of Kickstarter. Also, pay networks like HBO consistently produce better tv.

        Incentivizing the creation of new content isn’t the issue. As Gwern said in “Culture is not About Aesthetics”, already more than enough good TV for a lifetime (if Game of Thrones stopped airing tomorrow, I would shrug and watch The Borgias, Rome, or I, Claudius). Problem is people don’t want to watch old shows. Why?

        At least part of the problem is that television not being about content, but social interaction; everything from casual water cooler chats about the latest episode of a popular series to the most hardcore of fandom conventions. But for best results that requires everyone consume the same shows, at the same time. Hard to coordinate when you lack the Schelling point of using series that are just coming out. Authoritarian solution is a TV Czar. Libertarian solution?

        • Matt M says:

          Libertarian solution is the voluntary creation of the television equivalent to a book club. Get a bunch of friends together and agree to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation over the course of five days and then discuss it.

          Or you could take two years to do that if you’re some kind of wuss or something…

        • Alraune says:

          Libertarian solution?

          Start a podcast/youtube series/whatever promoting quality older television.

  2. Mike says:

    Any interest in the financial industry? I’ve been hearing a lot that (in the US at least) stock market valuations are high and would be interested in hearing others’ opinions.

    Personally, P/Es seem somewhat high, but I’m still bullish on the market overall, at least in the mid-long term, due to international investment and increasing investment rates due to higher inequality translating into higher investment relative to consumption. My confidence level is relatively low though overall.

    • Alex says:

      I read this piece a while ago. I didn’t understand much, but it sounded insightful.

    • Julian says:

      P/E is are high for a few reasons. Debt is cheap now. So companies can leverage up even when they dont need to. If you look at P/E after removing cash, things are so extreme. Additionally fewer big name companies are going public (think of something like a facebook, that attracts a lot of attention and a lot of money). That means investment firms are looking for places to put their money.

      And heres the key, most of the money in the market is tied to some type of asset class. Meaning that the fund has a fiduciary duty to only invest in certain assets. Usually this means highly rated bonds or S&P 500 companies (or similar). The set of companies that this money can invest in is limited and hasnt really grown much recently. That was one of the drivers of the housing debt explosion we saw before 2008: the almost everyone (pensions, sovereign wealth, etc., the real money) could buy them because these assets were “highly rates” (though that didnt mean much in the end).

      Its very likely that some companies are way overvalued. But that has always been the case, likely even in the great depression there was some company who’s shares traded way above where they “should” have been. And just because the stock market is overvalued shouldnt be much of a concern. It does say much about whats happening in the real economy. In 2001 and 1987 you saw the market deflate, but the real economy only slowed a bit. People lost their jobs yes, but with in a year we were back to strong growth (relative to what we have seen since 2008).

      The difference with 2008 was that the overvaluation of the market was just a symptom of a systemic issue in the real economy. Namely that the lending market for housing had entered into unsustainable practices and newish (they were really invented in the 80s but werent used on a large scale) financial instruments were being used that systematized the risk by connecting many different actors together thus hiding the true risk of an investment. 2008 was bad not because the market was overvalued but because many people owned houses that they couldnt afford for the long term or had jobs that relied on that situation.

      I dont see anything like that happening with this market, but of course the same could have been said in 2007. Unknown Unknowns are a bitch.

      I also think there is a lot of cash sitting on the sidelines looking for an investment. If you run a $100bn fund you cant go investing in $5mil app startups. It would cost you more in time to make the investment than you would likely make. So you sit, with your cash in something boring like low (or negative) yield bonds. But the opportunities will come.

      Despite what I wrote above, I actually think we are entering the back half of the positive part of the business cycle. I work in hospitality and hotel development has really heated up. Development is always about a year to 18 month behind the business cycle (it last peaked in 2009), so its top is going to be 3-4 years before the bottom. Demand for hotels has been historically strong so you are seeing developers get back into the market. This only started about 12 months ago.

      So maybe we hit the skids around 2018 or so. That doesnt mean we are in for another 2008. 1929, 2008, thats 2 of last dozen (?) slowdowns that lead to historical price movements. A slight contraction can be good for an economy, purge out some of the bad companies and spur companies to invest in assets (which they arent really doing right now).

      But what do I know? The best part is that we just have to wait, and we’ll see!

    • Floccina says:

      My thinking on that, is that stocks are high relative to stocks historically but that with the global diversification you can get with the VT ETF you can reduce risk to be pretty much in line with other investments. So I think compared to other investments stocks still look good. I think that stocks have always been undervalued.

  3. Andy says:

    I am thinking a great deal about the concept of programming as a kind of magic and vice versa. This, because it’s me, evolved into a sort of story egg. If it plants in my brain and gets enough nutrients, it might become something.
    We seem to have a lot of coders among the SSC commentariat. I’m just a little larval Pythoner, just starting into my career, so I don’t have personal experience with this. Has anyone here ever lost a job/been in danger of losing a job due to working hard and knowing the old language, but a new language coming in? What did you do to deal?
    If you’d like to respond off the comment thread, my email is fifthsstories at gmail. All stories will be treated with confidentiality and won’t be indirectly or directly copied into the story without your express written permission – I know roughly what my character’s going to do, but I want to figure out what the range of options and experiences are. I’m also going to be tinkering with this fantasy world to close off some options. I do know the main character’s not going to have the option of learning the new New Magic Language, to up the stakes. Nobody reads a book where someone just learns a new language and gets to keep their job.

    • Nathan says:

      Things actually work quite differently than you describe with regard to programming languages in the real world. The shift in popularity of languages is very slow; for example, if you learned C in the seventies, you could be close to retirement now without ever being forced to learn another language, depending on what kind of software you worked on. Even after no one would voluntarily use a language to start a new project, there’s always legacy software in old languages that needs to be maintained. You can still get a very lucrative job looking after a crufty old COBOL codebase if you have the stomach for it.

      • Julian says:

        A very good job with COBOL at that. A lot of bank software is still on COBOL and financial regs and other requirements make changing that very expensive.

      • The shift in popularity of some languages is slow, other not so much. C is the survivor of of a group of rival static languages…there aren’t many Pascal programmers still around, The field of dynamic languages is overcrowded at the moment, some will disappear.

        Also, as a language tails off, employers can get more selective. The surviving C programmers tend to have higher degrees.

    • MF says:

      I think you’re overestimating the difficulty involved in learning a new programming language. It’s not at all like learning a spoken language.

      The things you learn in one language apply to most others. I can pick up and be productive in a new programming language in under a week. Fully mastering and learning the idioms of it takes longer, but your job shouldn’t be threatened if for some reason your manager wants you to use a different language. And, as Nathan said, you can always find work elsewhere. COBOL programmers are still in demand!

      (This doesn’t always apply. Most anyone learning a functional language like Haskell after only knowing an imperative language like Ruby/Python/C is going to find it fairly difficult because so many concepts in other languages don’t transfer over. But even then it’s not that bad.)

      • Kyle Strand says:

        I haven’t yet learned Haskell (though I’m interested), but Python and Ruby both have enough functional stuff in them that I’d suspect that someone who has dug deeply into the language shouldn’t find the transition all that bad. For instance, all functions in Python are closures, and they bind to variables just like any other types.

      • Murphy says:

        Ya, I’d expand on the Haskell caveat: languages come in families.

        Java and C# are both object oriented and are almost the same language in many ways, you can paste small sections and they may still work.

        Assembly will make more sense to a C programmer than a java programmer etc.

        Nothing prepares you for prolog.

      • thedufer says:

        Yes, functional languages are pretty different from imperative, but the transition still isn’t terribly difficult (assuming you’re comfortable with recursion). Pure functions that deal mostly with arithmetic and array/string manipulation come very easily; it isn’t until you start hitting Monad/Applicative/Functor/MonadTransformers etc that you find any roadblocks.

        The real cost of learning Haskell specifically is the vocabulary and set of abstractions they’ve chosen. If you don’t have a solid grounding in category theory, you’re going to have one by the time you start being productive in Haskell. And that’s not an easy topic to pick up on the fly.

    • Lupis42 says:

      Has anyone here ever lost a job/been in danger of losing a job due to working hard and knowing the old language, but a new language coming in? What did you do to deal?

      Not only have I never been in that position, I’ve never known anyone, or even heard, “friend of a friend”-style, about a matching incident. Plenty of people have asked about it, and I think the key lies in a common mistaken assumption about the relative importance of languages.
      In practice, going from one programming language to another is like going from one car to another for a driver – it’s confusing at first, when everything is in slightly the wrong place, and some things that you used to be able to control may now be obscured behind a layer of abstraction, or vice versa, but you’re still doing fundamentally the same thing.

      • Jiro says:

        It doesn’t happen when you’re on the job. It happens when you lose your job for other reasons and have to look for a new one, and the language used by your old job is no longer in vogue.

        Many HR people simply will not understand that it’s easy for someone proficient in one computer language to learn another. And even when they do understand it, they will do a Bayesian update that will tell them that someone who used the language in their last job or in college is more likely to be good at it than someone who learned the language in their spare time or just promises to learn it fast, so you’ll never be hired (unless they run out of the other sort of people).

        (They aren’t going to hire you at a lower rate to compensate for the increased Bayesian risk, either, because of risk-aversiveness.)

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          It’s not just HR folks. Sometimes the developers who have been working on a specific tech stack their whole career can’t stand people who have never used it.

        • Lupis42 says:

          I have no trouble believing that that happens – keyword resume filtering is pretty common even for recent grads.
          I don’t think of that problem as specific to programming though – there are plenty of domains that use that kind of resume filter.

        • Adam says:

          It’s worse than that sometimes. My wife got rejected by HR for a radar FPGA programming job because her experience (nearly a decade’s worth) was using the other FPGA simulator (programming them is identical either way – it’s literally just different simulation software).

    • While I don’t know anyone who lost their job because the primary programming language changed, I do know some people who left because the tech stack we were using changed. They were part of the group managing our SQL deployment and we phased that out for a more scalable (trendy!) set of servers running a NoSQL project. The group was told they would have to learn how to manage th new tech but there are some pretty fundamental differences. Those who didn’t want to learn, left.

      I would think this type of story is a lot more common than leaving due to programming languages though that does remind me of a (profane) fun video.

      • Andy says:

        I think this is closer to what my father has hinted he went through – I know he does a lot of database stuff, and he’s hinted at having career problems due to changes in database design standards. I haven’t had the time to pull thestory out of him though.
        And I’m seeing something of a change in dominant language standards in my own field of Geographic Information Systems – when I started 8 years ago a lot of field calculation and scripting/processing was in Visual Basic, but in the last 2-3 years it’s gone over to Python in a big way. But I do plan to exaggerate in a big way if I can make the world kinda hang together. Maybe I should expand the question to include anyone who’s lost a job because technology changed and they couldn’t keep up?

        • Richard says:

          VB was probably the only large case where people actually got problems for several reasons:

          VB was very easy to learn and use so it became extremely popular among not-so-skilled programmers.

          It encouraged quite a few ‘bad habits’ which had to be unlearned when transitioning to a new language.

          Microsoft killed it practically overnight, replacing it with which is more like C# with familiar words than what VB was.

          This caused some problems among VB programmers, but it is still possible to get maintenance jobs on VB code if you want to.

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        Probably the most aggravating thing is that the tech stack changes for no good reason, and you have to relearn a bunch of minutia that will be completely useless in 5 years when the *next* tech stack change comes along.

        Learning the fundamentals is great, but after awhile it gets boring seeing the same fundamental wrapped in a brand new bow.

        • Largely true, but if every employee could learn endless minutiar easily, or if the industry could settle on a few core languages, the costs of entry would bes o low that it would a McJob.

        • Largely true, but if every employee could learn endless minutiar easily, or if the industry could settle on a few core languages, the costs of entry would bes o low that it would a McJob. Its rewarding because it’s annoying.

    • James Picone says:

      To back up what several people have said about programming languages being easy to learn once you already know how to program, I principally work in C/C++ professionally. Several months ago I decided I wanted to write a mod for Kerbal Space Program, looked into it, discovered that mods for it must be written in C#, a language I’ve never used before (and which is significantly different from C/C++ despite the name. Not Haskell significantly different, but different enough that it’s not a dialect).

      Picking up C# for the purposes of modding this game, while simultaneously picking up enough of how the game’s codebase worked that I could mod it (and note that it’s incredibly poorly documented – mostly I was figuring out how stuff works by reading decompiled C#) took a couple of weeks of occasional hobbyist effort, tops. And this wasn’t some great feat of skill, I’d expect any competent programmer to be able to do the same thing.

      I have been knocked back for a job because they were looking for someone with significant Java experience, and I don’t have that, but that was a short-term contract where they don’t really want me to put a week into getting up to speed with the framework they’re using (I can already program in Java, but generally try to avoid doing so as much as possible. To be honest, I wasn’t entirely disappointed they turned me down).

      With all that said, though, programming-as-magic is a thing that hackers certainly joked about. There’s a reason you ‘invoke’ stuff at the command line, I’ve referred to things as ‘black magic’ or just ‘magic’ and been perfectly understood to mean ‘something kind of ugly but also requiring serious understanding of what’s going on that you shouldn’t mess with without the appropriate expertise’ and ‘something you shouldn’t mess with without the appropriate expertise’. I’ve heard the term ‘automagically’ used to mean “automatically, and I don’t want to get into explaining how right now, it’s complicated” and ‘voodoo’ used to mean the kind of programming where you don’t really understand what’s going on at a fundamental level, you’re just changing stuff until it works and/or copying things from the internet. And despite how easy it is to be capable in another language, most language communities have idiom that is likely to be missing from someone who’s only recently picked up the language – I’m certainly guilty of writing python-in-the-tune-C, and there are very definitely certain constructions that are normal in some contexts in C/C++, but Bad and Wrong in other contexts, and I’d expect people used to other languages to run into that distinction headlong. Examples:

      SomeObj obj = SomeObj(“foo”, 17);

      is legit C++ that does what it looks like it does and would probably be written by someone used to Java or C#. But a C++ programmer would write:

      SomeObj obj(“foo”, 17);

      which does the same thing but without constructing two SomeObjs, assigning one to the other and then throwing it away.

      struct ReadLocker {
      ReadLocker(Lock* l) :lock(l) {l->ReadLock();}
      ~ReadLocker() {l->ReadUnlock();}

      Lock lock;

      //And then somewhere else:
      // Do things protected by the lock
      // end of scope

      is almost a primitive for experienced C++ programmers working in multithreaded environments. Someone coming from Java or C# would need to think a bit to work out what was going on and why you construct an object just to lock and unlock something.

      And from a C perspective, something like:

      char* somefunc(char* d, const char* s) {
      char* tmp = d;
      while(*d++ = *s++);
      return tmp;

      is tolerated for strcpy, but it would be considered Evil if you did that kind of thing with a while loop in another context.

      • Andy says:

        With all that said, though, programming-as-magic is a thing that hackers certainly joked about.

        Every time I do Python, the opening definition of variables and the ArcPy module remind me of drawing a magic circle and calling on the guardians of the cardinal directions. But most of my classmates and GIS people just look at me funny when I talk about the connections between programming and magic, and it’s certainly not something I’m gonna babble about in a job interview.
        But I’ve been listening to a few too many Warren Ellis talks so I am on this kind of brain-bender lately. Combine this with Max Gladstone and Harry Turtledove magic-as-infrastructure and my own worries about being replaced by the API curve and losing out to who learned Python and Visual Basic and .NET while I learned cartography, and… this thing popped out.

      • Kyle Strand says:

        This is pretty excellent, especially all the definitions of magic-related slang.

        Though I imagine that going from C/C++ to C# is far, far easier than going the other way, both because garbage collected reference-based languages don’t prepare one for the difficulties of languages with manual memory management and a meaningful distinction between stack and heap allocation, and because C++ has so many obscure tricky bits compared to other languages. (I guess Bash is comparable in terms of the sheer number of oddities, but that’s somewhat easier to work around in a shell script than in a systems language.)

        • James Picone says:

          There are some nasty surprises for someone coming from C++ in C#. In no particular order:

          ‘struct’ being meaningfully different to ‘class’. In C++, ‘struct’ and ‘class’ are equivalent except that things in a class are private by default and things in a struct are public by default. In C#, structs have ‘value’ semantics as opposed to ‘reference’ semantics, a distinction C++ programmers don’t think about much because the vast majority of things you work with in C++ have value semantics, and it just so happens that some of the values being moved around are pointers (& to ask for reference mostly only happens when passing stuff to functions, it’s not very common inside functions).

          An absence of destructors requires slightly different approaches to some designs – you don’t notice how useful a strict object lifecycle is until you don’t have it. For example, the locking example I gave above can’t be implemented in C#.

          Occasional annoyances with the semantics behind collections – the big one I ran into was that operator[] on std::map in C++ doesn’t invalidate iterators if it doesn’t insert a new element (i.e. you’re modifying the value of something already mapped), and it does invalidate iterators in C# (if you do it in a foreach loop you get an exception). Not, at least, a silent nothing-works, but definitely a pain in the butt.

          I’ve found there’s a kind of existential dread moving from manual memory languages -> managed languages, too. All these objects being created and then just dropped by the wayside feels wrong, on a deep level, even if intellectually you know they’re going to get garbage collected. But that might just be me.

          • For example, the locking example I gave above can’t be implemented in C#


            I actually love the way C# handles this. You get garbage collection when you want it (which is most of the time), and deterministic resource collection via IDisposable when you need it.

          • James Picone says:

            Forgot about that C# feature, thanks for reminding me.

      • Examples:

        SomeObj obj = SomeObj(“foo”, 17);

        is legit C++ that does what it looks like it does and would probably be written by someone used to Java or C#. But a C++ programmer would write:

        SomeObj obj(“foo”, 17);

        which does the same thing but without constructing two SomeObjs, assigning one to the other and then throwing it away.

        I’m just going way off-topic here, but actually, they’ll likely do the same thing.

        I forget whether they are defined to mean the same thing or whether this is an instance where they are allowed to mean the same thing and a decent compiler elides the copy; but in any case, there is no extra copy constructed and destroyed.

    • Paul Kinsky says:

      I’m sort of on the other side of this dynamic: I prefer functional languages like Haskell and Scala, and focus on Scala professionally. I’m early in my career, so it makes sense to focus on what I see as the leading edge of technological development.

      Scala is commonly used to rewrite systems written in Java, Python or Ruby that can no longer scale effectively. Scala shops tend to be the result of language switches. I notice that sometimes people have trouble moving between imperative and functional programming paradigms is much harder than moving between two languages sharing a single paradigm. It’s completely doable, but it took me much longer to become comfortable with writing functional Scala code than to learn Ruby having already learned knowing Python.

      We even have our incantations: a monad is just a monoid in the category of endofunctors, after all.

    • One language replacing another isnt something that happens overnight. What happens is more like coders keeping their skills fresh by moving jobs.

      An employer might make a wholesale shift to new technologies, in which case they will almost certainly retrain existing staff , but otherwise it is much easier for them to adapt to gradual changes by assigning new intake to new technologies….they will have been educated in the new languages, and they are cheaper, too.Its all about churn.

    • sweeneyrod says:

      I agree with the other commenters – learning a new language should be fairly trivial for decent programmers. Learning a whole new stack (like moving from embedded systems to web development) is harder, but isn’t really a problem, as it’s unlikely a job description will turn from one to the other overnight.

      In a fictional world I suppose this wouldn’t necessarily be the case. Imagine if no-one had thought of the idea of high-level programming languages, so people worked in assembly for everything for decades longer than they actually did. Then if someone suddenly produced a Haskell compiler, I would guess most of the old programmers would be out of a job.

  4. Halfwitz says:

    My AI estimates have always been based on Moravec’s paradox – Watson (for example) did nothing to shift my estimates. This development greatly changes my AI timelines:–vnU&

    Maybe moving from a 5% chance of AI before 2030 to a 20% chance. Am I placing too much weight on this?

    • endoself says:

      Yeah, there’s been a lot of work along similar lines. Look at DeepMind’s Atari demos, this article by Chris Olah, or any robotics demos (Boston Dynamics has some good ones) to get an idea of where we are on low-level skills right now.

      There’s a few different ways this could play out. Progress is reaching a point where a lot of new commercial applications are possible, which brings more money into the field. This could result in a permanently steeper growth rate until AGI. Alternatively, since there’s still a lot we don’t know, it’s very possible for the current burst of excitement could calm down once all the consequences of the current ideas have been explored. Then we’ll have to wait a while for further discoveries. A 20% chance by 2030 sounds about right to me.

    • anon85 says:

      By 2030!? No fricking chance in hell and I will bet 99-to-1 against.

      Neural nets are very bad at learning many tasks that are needed for intelligence, such as playing chess or proving theorems or anything requiring deductive reasoning. I give the deep neural net approach close to zero chance of generalizing to these tasks, let alone to full human reasoning. Other tasks, such as learning to talk grammatically and meaningfully in a language using little data (like babies do), are so hopeless that they will be beyond anything AI can do for the foreseeable future.

      If we’re lucky, in 2030, we’ll have crappy self-driving cars that don’t work in the rain and can’t drive on highways. That will already be a revolution, and I assign it roughly even odds for happening.

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        “If we’re lucky, in 2030, we’ll have crappy self-driving cars that don’t work in the rain and can’t drive on highways. That will already be a revolution, and I assign it roughly even odds for happening.”

        Your timeline is off. Google is planning to have self driving cars available to the public in 2020; they’ve been testing them on the streets for the past 3 years.

        • Will says:

          The current google cars have some pretty hard problems still to be addressed- they rely on super-detailed 3D maps of areas, in order to know where signals and signage are. This is hard to scale, and hard to keep updated. So right now the cars drive around in the small area that has been mapped.

          Maybe they’ll make their 2020 deadline, but it’ll probably be a pretty limited roll out.

          • Glen Raphael says:

            I think you’re confusing how they happen to do it now with how they need to do it. Super-detailed local maps might remove a lot of cruft from the problem space making it easier to focus on what remains. But figuring out precisely what level of detailed background info is actually necessary to do the task (and figuring out how quickly that level can be generated) is an optimization problem; “premature optimization is the root of all evil”.

            Most importantly, one might want to have super-accurate maps of what is “really there” in order to TEST algorithms that evaluate the scene on the fly, in order to verify that their scene-reconstruction is accurate. If they use the super-mapping for THAT purpose they might not even use it for actual in-the-moment driving decisions.

      • Watercressed says:

        driving on highways is much easier for self-driving cars than navigating small city streets.

        • anon85 says:

          Google has been testing a driverless car that has a maximum speed of like 25 mph. I’m not sure why, because what you’re saying makes sense.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            The car they have been testing has been going fast on the highway. The new car is small and limited to 25 mph. That is probably part of a negotiation with the California government.

          • anon85 says:

            I don’t think it’s part of a negotiation with California; why do you think that? do you have a source? It seems more like a business decision to me.

          • Murphy says:

            my guess is that they’re being ultra careful, it’s a new field and a lot of people would love to smother it in the cradle. A couple of deaths due to a self driving car fucking up would give an excuse to introduce the equivalent of the Farmers’ Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania rules ( for self driving cars.

            google are playing it very safe until there’s enough economic weight behind self driving cars to keep them on the road.

          • Carl Shulman says:

            “Prototype’s low top speed qualifies it for the less stringent vehicle safety standards the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) applies to electric golf carts. The car must have lights, mirrors, and seat belts but is exempt from many of the crashworthiness standards and air-bag requirements of normal gas and electric vehicles. In Mountain View, it will be restricted to roads with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour or less.”


        • Anonymous says:

          Humans too.

      • endoself says:

        I am probably willing to take this bet at 99-1 odds, pending clarification of the details. The hardest part is settling it, since the value of money could change dramatically if I win. You could pay me a certain amount now and then I could pay that amount back in 2030, times 1.01, plus inflation at market rates, if AGI has not yet been created. You might reasonably not want to do that though, so I’ll accept an alternative proposal if you have a better one.

        Anyway, the AGI-by-2030 scenarios involve surprising big discoveries, or large increases in AGI research funding, not business as usual. That’s the sort of thing that, added up, takes me to around 20%. There’s already research on augmenting neural networks with further capabilities, such as reinforcement learning (e.g. deep Q-learning) or interactions with non-ANN based components.

        • Richard says:

          These kinds of bets always remind me of

        • anon85 says:

          Yeah, I’m not sure how to arrange that bet in practice.

          I think you’re not appreciating just how clueless we are about what AGI requires. We don’t even know how to start approaching the problem. I think if AI research budget tripled tomorrow, there’s a chance that by 2030 there will be a Go program that can beat human players, but even that’s far from certain (and it would entail relatively specialized algorithms). Why do you think we’re at all close to anything more?

          “Big surprising discoveries” could always happen, I suppose, but people have been underestimating the difficulty of AI ever since Turing. I see us making slow, gradual process into simple, well-defined tasks like image processing, but we still use dumb brute-force or big-data approaches for almost all AI tasks. Arcade game gimmicks notwithstanding, AGI strikes me as a task that will take humanity centuries or millennia to figure out.

          • James says:

            The Long Now foundation runs a service,, to facilitate long bets like this. I think they give the winnings to a charity of the winner’s choice, though, so it’s probably more useful for the prestige of having been right than as a way of actually making money from your predictions, though.

          • Chalid says:

            Go programs have gotten way better recently. I’d be surprised if Go programs weren’t beating top humans by 2030.


          • sweeneyrod says:

            I think you’re much too pessimistic about Go – I think even if no significant improvements in algorithms were made by 2030, the hardware increases alone would give Computer Go a chance at beating world champions.

          • anon85 says:

            As far as Go is concerned, I recently asked a researcher in the field, and he assured me that 19×19 Go programs are so much worse than the top humans that it’s hard to measure the distance (maybe 600 to 800 Elo though). Hardware improvements don’t help this task much, by the way – I expect a 10x speedup to give only a 100-200 Elo improvement.

          • endoself says:

            Well, I don’t “think we’re close to anything more”; 20% is somewhat small. Prediction is hard, and that goes both for predicting things are close and predicting things are far. That alone doesn’t explain the number 20%, but it doesn’t explain 1% either.

            As for the research budget, see, for example, Stuart Russel saying “Industry [has probably invested] more in the last 5 years than governments have invested since the beginning of the field [in the 1960s].” I agree that better AGI algorithms should be able to learn from much less data than at present, but it isn’t absurd for that to happen in the near future. The performance we get for a particular quantity of data is improving.

          • anon85 says:

            @endoself, I still think trying to extrapolate the current AI progress to AGI is like trying to extrapolate the highest pogo stick jumps to a moon landing. It’s not even in the same ball park.

            The annoying thing about a 20% prediction is that when 2030 comes and we’ve made relatively little progress, you won’t even feel like you were wrong. Is there a weaker prediction that you’re willing to put more confidence in?

            As for budget, perhaps it is indeed increasing, but all the low-hanging fruits are getting eaten, so I don’t necessarily expect the speed of progress to increase.

      • Kiya says:

        Babies use little data to learn words for categories they’ve gotten through lots of experiential data. A toddler probably sees several dogs, watching each of them for several seconds, before asking “What’s that?”

        I don’t have a good story for acquisition of more abstract words, but kids do tend to wait to pick those up until they have quite a few concrete words.

        Maybe nobody’s successfully made a program that learns language from nothing yet, but they’re getting pretty good at that first step of learning categories; see for instance Google Photos.

        Full human reasoning will have to wait on figuring out what exactly “full human reasoning” means (unless it can be done by accident, I guess).

        • anon85 says:

          How many dogs do you think babies see before figuring it out? 3? 10? 20?

          I still call that little data. AI algorithms use many thousands or millions of documents or images.

      • Anthony says:

        I’d bet that the first “self-driving cars” commercially available will be limited to highways, rather than limited to non-highways. Driving on a freeway is much easier, and the processing speed to keep up with the higher vehicle speeds isn’t as much a problem for computers as for humans.

  5. Troy says:

    Medical question(?): I have a weed whacker / edge trimmer which I use on my lawn to get places my regular (reel) mower won’t reach. The trimmer is a bit heavy to use for long periods of time, however, and I have found that because of its weight and motion if I use it for more than 10-15 minutes or so, my hands will be shaking afterwards. Moreover, my left hand will shake when I’m holding something (e.g., a glass) well into the next day, in the same way that a person with Alzheimer’s’ hands shake.

    Question: is this normal? Should I be worried about this? In other words, am I doing any long-term damage to my hands? The trimmer otherwise works fine and this effect isn’t a big deal in the short term. But I don’t want to be stupidly doing long-term damage to my hands if it would be better for me to buy another trimmer or cut the weeds in question by hand.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      Vibration damage can be serious stuff:

      How often are you using the weed whacker? If very regularly, then see a doctor or perhaps an occupational therapist, I’m not sure. If infrequently, then you could use vibration dampening gloves.

      • Troy says:

        I use it once or twice every couple of weeks during the summer. I’ve been trying to not use it for too long in one sitting; if I only use it for <5-minute spurts and take breaks in which I do other yardwork, it has little noticeable effect on my hands afterwards.

        I have not heard of vibration dampening gloves before, but they look like they could be useful. Thanks for the tip!

        • Alexander Stanislaw says:

          No problem, but it there is ever tingling, numbness or a very pale color in your hands, please see a doctor, the damage can become irreversible. It’s more typical of people who work with power tools every day, but its still worth keeping an eye on.

    • FeepingCreature says:

      Does this happen if you carry other heavy things for a similar time? It does for me, but not for as long.

      • Troy says:

        Not that I’ve noticed. Admittedly I don’t tend tend to carry heavy things for long periods of time, but as far as I can remember my hands have not trembled after, say, helping someone move.

        When my wife uses the weed whacker the same thing happens to her, but worse. Hence I’m usually the one to use it.

    • Richard says:

      I had this problem too and fixed it by switching to a heavy-duty trimmer with a shoulder harness.

  6. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Steve Jobs did not allow his children to use the iPad, and was apparently part of a larger trend of technology chief executives and venture capitalists who strictly police their offspring’s access to all kinds of electronic gadgets. I find this utterly fascinating, and wish I had more to go on than a single NYT article.

    • Nornagest says:

      I’d give five-to-one odds that there’s nothing more interesting here than your average helicopter-parenting arms race.

      • Brett says:

        It’s more of a hyperactive helicopter-parenting arms race. I’ve got a friend who tutors/tutored the kids of several bigshots in the Silicon Valley area. It’s apparently pretty crazy.

  7. Simon says:

    I would appreciate some advice on how to best use SSC. I find that by the time I read a post, it usually has hundreds of comments already, and I have no way either to add to the dialogue in a way that will be visible to anyone or to ask for clarification.

    Is there like… an IRC channel where above-average community members are hanging around making themselves available to answer questions and have cool enlightening back-and-forths?

    Relatedly: can anyone share any content-filtering strategies they find useful? I find that keeping up on Twitter/blogs with what the broadly-defined LW community is up to is only possible if I disregard all my real responsibilities. Is it just me who feels like this kind of thing is his primary life problem?

    • Siahsargus says:

      I just subscribe to the SSC RSS feed so I can read new articles as soon as they are published. I then refresh the page to read comments. When I’m done reading those comments, I refresh the page to read the newer comments. It’s the most effective way to show the newest content for me.

    • Rob Miles says:

      > Is there an IRC channel where above-average community members are hanging around making themselves available to answer questions and have cool enlightening back-and-forths?

      Nope. But there is an IRC channel, on freenode.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      I’d love a mode of reading where I can just read all the new comments since I last visited — in the order that they appear on the thread, so I can logically walk down the page.

      I crudely do it by “PgDn until you see green then back up.”

      • Emile says:

        Ctrl-F for ~new~

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          Yes, and if I have a short time to read and there are 666 new comments, I change the time in the box to get only the latest comments. If any of those indicate an interesting sub-thread, I Page-Up to see the comments that were skipped, or change the time to go further back.

        • Many thanks. That was a very useful piece of information.

  8. Alex says:

    So. Hardhome. That was quite an episode. I was a little tired by the last few, but it’s forgiven. A friend said of this episode that it “was sick.” Yes.



    My favorite parts were (1) when the wildling lady chief agreed to join Jon and (2) when the ice storm began to descend and you started to realize that all hell was coming. Anyone else?

  9. Susebron says:

    I believe there are some commenters on SSC who play Crusader Kings 2. If you do, and you haven’t already checked out the Crisis of the Confederation mod, you should do so. It’s a total conversion that puts the whole thing into space. It replaces religions with ideologies, ranging from Terran Republicans to Neo-Socialists to Cyberneticists (whose description includes a quote by Yudkowsky) to Space Pirates. It’s currently pretty buggy (missing text, some CTDs, etc.) and somewhat unbalanced, but people should at least try it out.

    • dragonwizard says:

      Thanks I’ll be sure to check it out. I’m always looking for a new excuse to boot that up. Some of the most amazing and ridiculous stories come out of that games chaos.

    • DrBeat says:

      Is there a guide for CKII? Like, a good one? I played through the tutorial in the game, it told me “There, you should know everything you need to play the game!” and I was all like “Noooooooooooooo I don’t!”

    • Zorgon says:

      Thank you very much, I’ll check it out as soon as possible.

      CK2 is one of the set of games I call the “accidental conservatism simulators”. After a few hours playing it I find myself loathing non-existent gay and lesbian people with a monstrous passion. Thankfully it doesn’t last.

      Similarly, Dwarf Fortress makes me hate and despise virtual immigrants for eating all the food and forcing me to create space for them all.

      • Samuel Skinner says:

        Unless you bought the Way of Life DLC, which on release accidentally encouraged you to marry homosexuals (because they tended not to be seduced).

      • Susebron says:

        Homosexuals, infidels, anyone of the wrong culture, anyone who isn’t virtuous enough, etc. I’ve never really hated gay people in CK2 that much. It’s a minor fertility penalty, which isn’t too difficult to cancel out. Anyone of the wrong religion who refuses to convert, on the other hand…

        • Zorgon says:


          But dear Garp, the lesbians.

          There is nothing in the world like finding out your very last fecking dynasty member is a lesbian.

          Worst of all the RNG keeps making them frigging awesome characters. Just, y’know, the last ones.

          • Susebron says:

            Getting holy warred by the Abbasids as the Zunbils is even worse, IMO. You know you can’t win, you can’t get a white peace because there are ten thousand troops besieging your capital, and surrendering means losing the majority of your realm.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        I haven’t had much of a problem with homosexuals, but there’s something vaguely unsettling in playing the game and realizing that you’re thinking of women as being kinda useless but sometimes useful if you manage to marry them off right.

    • Galle says:

      I gotta say, it was pretty weird Googling for mentions of my mod and seeing SSC show up.

      Hope you’re enjoying it!

      • Susebron says:

        I’ve definitely enjoyed it. I think I’m probably going to stop playing it for a while, because of the CTDs, but I’m glad to have played it and I look forwards to playing it in the future when it’s more complete.

  10. Anonymous says:

    What happened to that Cthulhu patient post?

  11. Fellow Web developers: How did you learn Web programming, and can you recommend any learning resources for people looking to start out (who already know the fundamentals of programming)? I’ve been in contact with a couple people who are looking to learn, and my attempts to figure out where to point them haven’t succeeded thus far.

    • HeelBearCub says:

      It really depends on what you mean. Do they want a career, but don’t have marketable skills? Are they looking to change the kind of work they do?

      And what exactly do you mean by “Web developer”? That’s actually fairly broad. Java/Eclipse? LAMP stack?

      • At this point I’m talking more students/hobbyists than someone aiming to change their career. For the same reason, not insisting on a particular framework or technology stack (although since I’ve been recommending Python as an intro language being based on that is a plus).

        Part of my interest here is that I’m generally interested in the question of the best ways to learn and teach computing things, and would like to know what other people’s experiences have been and what other resources are doing.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          So I am mostly a back end guy and have done extensive work developing cloud available APIs (I hate the word “cloud” but, that’s what seems to work).

          The number one easiest way to learn is by doing. I’ll take a brief detour and say the number 1 skill to learn in all of programming is what I will call “problem decomposition”. Learn how to break any problem into smaller problems that fit together logically and the world is your oyster. #2 is a good basis on both structured and object oriented techniques. Those fundamental skills underlie everything else.

          But, you said they already know the fundamentals of programming. Given that, the number one easiest way to learn, in my experience, is by doing. Want to learn HTML? Code a simple static web page from the ground up. Want to learn LAMP stack? Set up an Apache server at Amazon, with PHP and MySql installed and make a simple HTML form that lets you record a comment in the DB. Code another page that displays the comments.

          If you try and DO something that is one step past what you already know, then google will reveal to you how to do it. You will start to build a set of skills in the new technology.

          Of course, this is different than a list of skills that you need to learn. I imagine they are looking for front-end skills, and sadly I am no help there. My interfaces all look like rectangles inside other rectangles and I wouldn’t know how to skin a website even if you gave me the knife…

    • Harald K says:

      Not exactly a web developer (well, maybe for some of the definitions), but I’ll pass on the warning about w3schools. They have high google ranking, and teach people to make unsecure sites. is supposed to be the community response to it, though I can’t vouch for its comprehensiveness.

    • Artemium says:

      For starters learn this stuff:

      – HTML : Codeacademy HTML and CSS tutorial, Html at w3schools
      – CSS : W3schools CSS
      – JavaScript and Jquery (jQuery is very useful and popular library for JavaScript) : W3schools Javascript , JScript in codeacademy , JQuery in codeacademy

      Also you should get familiar with the general idea about how the web and websites work, W3schools is good starting place for that too.

      Once you understand all of the concepts I mentioned above you can choose 2 major paths in web dev:

      1. Continue getting good in the mentioned technologies, learn how to build a nice looking and useful websites than can work on any kind of device (responsive web design) , learn to utilize additional technologies to improve your workflow (.sass/.less , Grunt, CSS frameworks like Bootstrap ) …and you will be moving in the direction of becoming what is known as -> Front-End developer -Someone who is an expert in optimising the client-looking side of the web site/app.

      2. You are more interested in the architecture of the dynamic website, logic behind applications , and how does the app work on the inside -> that is known as Back-End developer and there you have choice of working with numerous technologies and programming languages but most of the web apps and sites are built using a prog.language + database of some sorts

      – ASP/C#, MS SQL – microsoft stack , popular in traditional corporations, banks, etc..
      – PHP/MySQL – most popular open source dev stack, most websites are build using this stuff or some variant of the PHP framework (ex: SSC was built using WordPress one of the most popular CMS frameworks based on PHP and MySql )
      – Python – Used a lot in education and acedemic enviornment, good language for beginners to get introduced into important programming concepts
      – Node.JS – new cool kid on the block, uses the Javascript both for Front-End and for Back-End development

  12. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    I thought the use of wireheading for human behavior modification was strictly in the realm of science-fiction, and was intrigued to learn about a 1972 case study in which wireheading was used to treat homosexuality, apparently successfully. The original paper is paywalled, but I managed to find a mostly intact copy in Google Books. Unfortunately, there was no long-term followup.

  13. ton says:

    Any good data on correlations between the heritability of different viewpoints/affiliations? For example, if I learn that someone shares a religion with their parents, what’s the likelihood that they also share political parties compared to other people? Is there some kind of general factor of heritability that’s informally “how much did this person think through things independently of what they grew up with?”

    I’d expect a positive correlation.

  14. Ever An Anon says:

    Does anyone here know any good resources on the current state of research regarding horizontal gene transfers across domains?

    I know very little about virology, really nothing aside from some half-remembered articles about viral vectors written in the 90s and 00s, but am trying to familiarize myself with the mechanics how a bacteriophage can transfer DNA to a eukaryotic organism and how that is determined to have happened. I found a few articles on Google Scholar and Web of Science but right now it’s still kind of a blind search. If anyone here knows a lit review or book outlining the current state of the field it would probably help me organize my mind on the topic better.

  15. NZ says:

    While the comments are still in double-digits and I have a hope of having this one read, I’d like to pose some food for thought. Signal-boosting would be welcome:

    There’s been high quality of deliberation on topics like AI and genetic engineering, in which even laymen do their best to think deeply about the widespread and long-term social implications of these technologies. But as far as I can tell, these technologies–sexy, sci-fi-inspiring technologies–are the exception. Most new technologies are accepted uncritically, with unfortunate side-effects not even apparent to most people, or at least not seriously being weighed against the benefits, even a decade or more in.

    Why didn’t we have these same sorts of discussions about social media 20 years ago? Why don’t we start also having them about things like driverless cars, “smart” appliances, and so on?

    I welcome your responses.

    • Ever An Anon says:

      Well the thing is, I remember there being conversations about potential unintended consequences of those exact technologies.

      People were, and still are, worried that social media would eclipse normal face-to-face interaction and further isolate us. Recently I’ve heard a lot about social media expanding and effectively ending real Internet anonymity as more and more sites tie back to social media profiles.

      Driverless cars have been a sci-fi feature long before we had any credible attempts to make them, and people had already thought about the tradeoffs between having fewer accidents and the risk of turning over control to a vulnerable computer system. I only started seeing discussions about replacing truckers and cabbies recently but that fits into a fear of automation as old as Ludd.

      It seems like the problem isn’t so much that no-one is talking about potential risks of new technologies, but that a) actual risks are often things that you can’t easily predict beforehand, b) most of the “risks” people come up with are idiotic alarmism so knowledgeable people quickly learn to ignore them and c) even if people suspect a risk the incentive structure often overwhelmingly favors moving forwards anyway.

      • NZ says:

        If there was serious deliberation about social media, it must not have gone very deep, and it must have been mostly skipped over by the people behind its design and implementation. (Contrast with AI.) Nowadays it’s a common sight to go to a restaurant and see a whole table of people sitting staring at their phones, not looking up.

        • Gbdub says:

          I think the issue is that nobody really foresaw social media as anything other than a novelty or fad until it became ubiquitous. Basically, it was under the radar and unanticipated until it was too late to consider stopping it.

          AI, on the other hand, is such a common cultural trope that everybody talks about it long before it’s actually feasible.

          • NZ says:

            Right, that’s kinda my point, though you’re stating it from the conclusion backwards.

        • Adam says:

          Unless you’re counting robot apocalypse sci-fi, this is the only place I’ve ever seen people all that seriously discuss an existential risk from AI, and that includes people working on AI. I don’t see a huge contrast.

          • NZ says:

            The main contrast I noticed was that people working on AI discussed an existential threat from it. I work in software, but nobody at the usergroups or conferences I attend ever talks seriously about the risks of new software technologies. Instead, it’s all rah rah rah.

        • I think it can sometimes help to have a theoretical framework to draw out the specific characteristics of new techs. In my mind social media is an example of social modulation and in some cases social replacement. It’s one of the reasons I prefer SSC and reddit to facebk – their structure helps filter out trivial personal stuff and lets through weightier content, whereas fb does the opposite.

          Sadly social science folks are usually pretty bad with tech, so find good analysis is tricky. I’m into both but I rarely meet others with that same combo.

          • NZ says:

            That’s a good point, and is one of the benefits of at least having these conversations early on: you’re able to create theoretical frameworks, establish vocabulary and even a sort of pattern language, etc. so that you can recognize things when they start coming about and respond to them with at least some degree of preparedness.

      • Anthony says:

        Speaking of self-driving trucks and Ludd, Megan McArdle writes that the fears of doom are mostly ridiculous. The work that truck drivers do isn’t just driving trucks. (Where it is, the stuff gets shipped on trains, instead.) So even if trucking companies were to switch completely over to self-driving trucks, that would just make part of the job of “truck driver” easier. Remember that your UPS guy is a “truck driver”. How much of his job is replaceable by a self-driving vehicle?

        • Dave McCabe says:

          Perhaps all of it. Suppose that the truck sent you a text message a few moments before it arrived at your address. Upon arrival, the truck simply parks at the curb, while conveyances inside the truck move your parcel to a chute where you can collect it. The truck drives away again once you’re gone. For parcels that don’t require a signature, the truck can simply leave them at the curb or in your drive-way.

          • NZ says:

            First problem: I sometimes find I don’t have a cell phone signal inside certain buildings. I know plenty of people for whom this is true of their own homes.

            Second problem: There are plenty of people whose homes are in areas with poor reception, where neither they nor the truck would be able to reliably send or receive text messages.

            Third problem: What if my phone’s dead? Or what if I’m one of those enviable people who don’t have cell phones? (I work with one. He’s a software developer!)

            Fourth problem: What if the package is too heavy for me to lift? UPS drivers have to be able to lift a certain amount of weight, but there’s no guarantee that people receiving the packages can lift it.

            And on and on. But this only means that the problems are trickier, not that they are unsolvable with technology. I’m interested in questions like:

            -How might the widespread adoption of that technology change our society 10 years in? 20 years? 50 years?

            -Is the change a net benefit?

            -What will be lost due to the change that isn’t obvious?


            And then on the meta level, why aren’t the people behind delivery truck technology having these conversations the same way the people behind AI are having them?

          • CJB says:

            But the ultimate driver is cost here. Self driving trucks will cost, say, 10% more than normal trucks.

            But the sorting robot + associated delivery mechanics + extended trucks to allow enough shipping room with the mechanics?

            That’s a hell of a price jump, and convenience jump.

            What self driving cars do is a slightly fancier version of what robots already do- tasks that need to be performed precisely the same way each time. Roads aren’t moving, signs and other cars must never be struck. I’d think that “driving” is probably one of the most easy to automate activities that can’t be simply described by a child.

            What’s challenging is “hey, the label is kinda ripped, but I can slide it back together and confirm that this childlike scrawl conforms to what I’m seeing out the window.”

            Retain the driver, do your savings on the back end- gas, insurance, travel time, etc.

    • Irrelevant says:

      Why don’t we start also having them about things like driverless cars?

      We have. There’s nobody who thinks the subtle but significant cultural shift that will occur from the loss of focused long-distance driving as an element of Americana will outweigh the X thousands of saved lives a year from reduced traffic accidents.

      • PDV says:

        There are also people who are wholeheartedly in favor of removing that element of Americana. (Hi!)

        • NZ says:

          That seems rather cold and dismissive. Elements of culture have value that ought to be at least considered. I find car culture to be beautiful, romantic, fun, and valuable in other practical ways. A few examples:

          In 2003 when I bought my first car (a beat up old Chevy) at age 18 I had to learn how to save a lot of money ($400!), and I had to learn the discipline of keeping a job so I could pay for the insurance and repairs, and of course to put gas in it.

          The experience of driving, and of watching traffic, and paying attention to the difference between how people behave in person vs. behind the wheel, has taught me a lot about human nature and how complex systems like roadways work, or might work better. Lots of smarter people than me have drawn even more lessons from it that are applicable elsewhere.

          Owning a car means maintaining a car, which teaches the value of being handy, imparts mechanical understanding, etc.

          Widespread adoption of driverless cars might not mean everyone still owns their own car (and thus gains these practical benefits) but is instead just driven around by computers. Rather, it could lead to huge shifts in how people think about the cost structure of automotive travel. After all, if a car can drive itself, then why pay for a car that’s just sitting in your garage or in your parking spot at work most of the time?

          • Jiro says:

            I am skeptical of that. Imagine that you didn’t own a car. Would you then say “I sure wish I had owned a car, then I would have learned a lot about human nature and complex systems”?

            And even if, for instance, you wish you learned “the value of being handy”, surely you’d have preferred “learning handiness on something else useful” + “no-maintenance car” to just “learning handiness on a car”.

          • NZ says:


            Sure, other things could have given me some of those benefits, but we don’t know which things. (What you learn fixing a car isn’t the same as what you learn fixing a toilet or a power drill. What you learn behind the wheel, looking out the windshield, is different from what you learn in the backseat looking out the window–or down at a screen, for that matter!) We do know that personal car ownership and driving, being part of American culture, presents the opportunity to give these benefits to a lot of people, which in turn further enriches the culture.

            There are technologies my ancestors used which became obsolete before I was born. That means my ancestors were enriched by those technologies in some ways I will never be, and that is indeed a loss worth considering! Now there is a whole movement of hipsters who are trying to rediscover leatherwork and artisinal coffee and straight razor shaving and so forth, in large part as a way to reclaim some of these lost benefits. Clearly, they have great value.

          • Jiro says:

            Cars are different from other things, but other things are different from cars. “Learning on and using X + using a car” is still better than “no X + learning on and using a car” even if the two types of learning are different and you have 50% confidence that each type of learning is the best type. In the first case, you learn, and you have X and a car. In the second case, you learn, and you only have a car. The first one is (loosely speaking) better on the average than the second–just because you don’t know which of the two types of learning is better doesn’t mean you can’t compare the two scenarios.

          • NZ says:


            I see your point there, though I don’t think it negates the point I was making initially to PDV, which is that car culture as part of Americana offers unique, non-obvious benefits that are valuable and ought not to be dismissed.

            To make another analogy, suppose Indian women were encouraged to stop wearing saris and to instead wear drab Victorian dresses. It’s true that there would be other benefits to wearing the dresses that they wouldn’t have gotten–and couldn’t have predicted getting–had they stuck with the saris, and that any problems created by their wearing saris would be eliminated or greatly reduced. However, the saris are a beautiful, beloved, and (literally) colorful part of Indian culture, and it seems cold and dismissive to rationalize them into obsolescence.

      • NZ says:

        “There’s nobody who thinks the subtle but significant cultural shift that will occur from the loss of focused long-distance driving as an element of Americana will outweigh the X thousands of saved lives a year from reduced traffic accidents.”

        The reduction in traffic accidents is a big assumption, and even if it turns out to be true in the long run there’s a strong argument that this would be preceded by a period of increased accidents in the short run, while the technology is transitioning.

        But in any case, are “death to Americana” and traffic accidents the only two aspects of the impact of driverless cars people have considered? (I haven’t seen any others.) If so, that helps prove my point.

        • Gbdub says:

          Actually I think driverless cars might EXPAND Americana, at least in the sene of sprawling suburbs and road trip culture. Without the need for a focused driver, the opportunity cost of time spent on the road is substantially reduced. You can be just as productive/entertained as you could be on the couch or at the office.

          • NZ says:

            I dunno, it seems like a critical element of that car/road trip aspect of Americana is being behind the wheel. There’s something empowering about it that just isn’t there when you program a route into Google maps and then sit in the backseat with your iPad. You might as well take a train, and that’s just downright European.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            …with a standard transmission and an AM radio and no air conditioning. 🙂

            Seriously, though everybody’s different, it seems to me that the essence is being in control in the broader sense — go where you want, when you want, by whatever route you want, and change your mind halfway through if you want. Nothing about self-driving cars would preclude any of that, and if it did, my guess is we would reject them.

          • NZ says:

            Yes! Don’t forget the cranks for the windows.

            I’m not so sure being in control will survive that level of abstraction and still remain coherently Americana-an (can I just say American?). And all that still presumes that you OWN the thing, which if it’s driverless there’s an increased incentive not to.

    • Leonard says:

      There’s a difference between AI and genetic engineering and most technologies. These two present existential risk to humanity. The others don’t.

      • NZ says:

        First of all, how can you be so sure? Some people still argue that there is no existential risk from AI. Or, someone might have a respectable argument that the use of microwave ovens is causing a huge increase in cancer risk and be totally ignored.

        Second of all, so what? Why does a technology have to pose an existential risk to warrant serious, deep deliberation? Aren’t other types of risk also worth trying to avoid or at least uncover and be prepared for?

    • At only a slight tangent, there is one substantial population that does concern itself with the social effects of technology: The Amish.

      There is a sense in which they are more modern than the rest of us, not less. The Ordnung, the set of rules decided on by a congregation, is at least in part a way of avoiding technologies that they believe would undercut their social structure. That structure depends on social interaction mainly within the group. Hence the Ordnung of almost all Old Order Amish congregations bans telephones in the home or owning or driving (but not riding in) automobiles, thus making more difficult the wider web of social interactions that other people experience.

  16. Barry says:

    I am a person who disagrees with most of the current LGBT agenda. The numbers I’ve seen suggest that between 40-50% of Americans have a similar viewpoint. My question is, how long do you think it will be until that number drops to below 20%? And will holding these opinions be considered the equivalent of open racism?

    • ddreytes says:

      I can’t answer the first question with any degree of certainty (if I had to guess, I’d say… 15 years?) but:

      And will holding these opinions be considered the equivalent of open racism?

      Absolutely. I would say there are many contexts where it pretty much already is, and that’s just going to expand (and I don’t really disagree with that).

      • Barry says:

        That is most unfortunate. I live in a community where the vast majority agree with my views, and I plan to raise any children I may have in this same community. Having these opinions doesn’t affect my day-to-day life in any way unless I choose so, that will most likely be the reality for my children as well. Still, it’s scary to think that a majority of my countrymen will consider my kids raging bigots for holding what will seem to them to be natural, logical positions.

        • Anon says:

          That is the case for every position which is or has been considered bigoted – it always feels natural and logical from the inside. Racism is no different there.

          • Barry says:

            I can imagine.

          • DavidS says:

            The big difference in this case between bringing up kids in e.g. a white racist community and bringing up kids in a community that has problem with ‘most of the LGBT agenda’ is that the white racist communities’ kids will at least be white, whether they’re racist or not. Whereas your kids could be LGBT.

            So there’s definitely an issue that you’ll bring them up in a way that makes it hard for them to interact with society at large: but there’s also a risk that it will cause them fundamental issues with themselves.

            How much a problem this is depends on what you mean by the ‘LGBT agenda’, of course.

            However, given comparsions to e.g. racism, I also think it’s pretty clear that generations often move on from what their parents and grandparents thought anyway, and your kids may well not end up agreeing with your position, unless you’re intending to massively indoctrinate them and cut them off from society (which would do them more harm in itself than being on the political fringe).

          • Barry says:

            My community has a pretty good success rate of propagating it’s worldview, often in the face of staunch opposition from the society at large, so I’m not worried about my children not sharing my opinions. This success also hasn’t required cutting off from the outside world, so if a child of mine turns out to be gay, he or she will know what that means.

            They also won’t have a problem from me, because as I’ve stated elsewhere on this thread, I have no problem with actual gay people, I have a problem with the LGBT agenda.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          “Having these opinions doesn’t affect my day-to-day life”

          You quite likely already know someone who is gay. Because you live in a community that regards this as anthema, you likely do not know they are gay. Therefore, your life is most likely already affected.

          • Barry says:

            I’ve had exposure to openly gay and closeted gay people both in person and online. I have a close friend who’s bisexual. Most of the gay people I know from within my community are not openly gay, but that’s because they still want to have the communities traditional lifestyle, which includes marriage and children. They are not closeted, as I understand the term, because they are open with both themselves and with select close friends and family.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            So, it does affect your life. And they aren’t publicly out, so they are closeted (close friends know but nobody else does isn’t being out).

            I’m not sure what parts of LGBT equality you disagree with, so I can’t say whether your children (assuming they adopt your position) will be thought to be bigoted.

          • Irrelevant says:

            They aren’t publicly out, so they are closeted.

            You’re getting well into “my cultural definitions are the only correct cultural definitions” there, HeelBearCub.

          • Barry says:

            I don’t disagree with any parts of LGBT equality, I disagree with the agenda. Most practically, I don’t believe that marriage should be redefined and I don’t believe that anyone, public or private should be forced to service the unique needs of trans people.

          • Mitch Lindgren says:

            I don’t disagree with any parts of LGBT equality […] I don’t believe that marriage should be redefined

            This is part of LGBT equality. If heterosexuals can get married and LGBT people cannot, that is not equality.

          • Muga Sofer says:

            Mitch, you’re switching between different meaning of “equality”, there. Anyone can get married; it’s just that Barry wants “married” to mean something different than you do.

            What you’re saying is that homosexual relationships, not homosexual people, are being treated unfairly. Which is true, IMO, although not necessarily withing a small self-selected community with strong exit rights (like Barry’s?) But it is not the usual usage of “equality”, which refers to e.g. gay people being fired from certain jobs if they admit that they are gay.

          • Tracy W says:

            I don’t believe that anyone, public or private should be forced to service the unique needs of trans people.

            On the issue of public, why not? I mean, the whole thing about government is that it’s complusory. Governments levy taxes, throw people in jail, issue licences, etc. People don’t have an option not to deal with it, so why shouldn’t public servants be forced to service unique needs of trans people in those matters that are public matters (eg the legal system, publicly-funded healthcare, etc).

            Would you agree that if the police throw someone who needs insulin to survive in jail, then the police are responsible for providing insulin? Or that if the government bans people from passing borders without a passport, then the government has the job of letting people get passports?

          • Deiseach says:

            You quite likely already know someone who is gay.

            You know what? I’m throwing down the gauntlet here. I want some serious backing-up of that statement with facts and figures.

            Because I see this thrown around but nobody ever qualifies it: yes, I might know someone who’s gay. I might also know someone who’s a serial killer. What are the odds?

            Because I’ve seen a report (how true it is, who knows?) that Americans estimate 25% of the population is gay, while in reality it’s a whole lot lower (figures there range from anything up to about 4%).

            Sure, there are probably a whole lot of people still in the closet. But do we have any accurate figures for the likely proportion of LGBT people in the general population, apart from guesstimates, propaganda, and vague statements like “You probably know someone who’s gay” which rely heavily on implying that there is such a substantial minority of LGBT people out there, it would not be uncommon to encounter someone.

            The U.S. Census says that 5.3% of the population identifies as “Asian”. Leaving aside that broad-brush description, would it be as accurate (numerically) to say “Someone you know is probably Asian”? Are there as many self-identified LGBT people as Asians in the general population?

            Wikipedia gives me a general answer of “Studies from several nations, including the U.S., conducted at varying time periods, have produced a statistical range of 1.2 to 5.6 percent of the adult population identifying as LGBT.”

            For a quick and dirty comparison, about 12% of the American population identify as Irish-American. So Barry may be more likely to meet a red-haired leprechaun than a gay person. Can we get some numbers here rather than glib soundbites?

          • Kiya says:

            Way more than 5% of the people I personally interact with are Asian. I went to a college that is ~25% Asian. I would be surprised to meet another American who didn’t know anyone Asian, but if the base rate is in fact only 5%, such people may well exist.

            We may be seeing a case of bubbles here, where LGBT people gravitate to cultures where they’re more welcome, and people from such cultures overestimate how common LGBT people are in the general population.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I’m going off of simple math here. Say we take the high-end of the range. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say 5%. Assuming equal distribution in the population (sure, citation needed) then you only need to know 14 people before odds are greater than 50% that you know someone who is gay.

            If the incidence is actually 2%, then the number of acquaintances needed for a greater than 50% chance is 35.

            I guess you can argue about whether this meets your definition of “quite likely”, but that is what I meant.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            “You’re getting well into “my cultural definitions are the only correct cultural definitions” there, HeelBearCub.”

            I’ll posit the following: Take an acquaintance, it could be personal or professional. If they are a close enough acquaintance that they would know if you had an opposite sex partner, but they do not know you have a same sex partner, then you are closeted to them.

            Does that definition of closeted make sense to you? Does it seem universal, or is there something specific to HeelBearCub-land that I am missing?

          • James Picone says:

            It’s worth noting that studies consistent find more people who’ve had sex with someone of the same gender than people who self-identify as gay. Like twice as many.

            I’m young and hang out young university-educated people, so my friendship group is going to be skewed, but just among moderately close friends I know three bisexuals and five gay people. And probably more I don’t know about because I haven’t pried. The 1-in-20 to 1-in-50 explicitly-identifying-as-gay number is easily enough to ensure that most people know someone who is gay.

          • “Take an acquaintance, it could be personal or professional. If they are a close enough acquaintance that they would know if you had an opposite sex partner, but they do not know you have a same sex partner, then you are closeted to them.

            Does that definition of closeted make sense to you? ”


            My wife, like me, is a libertarian. She makes no secret of her political views, but neither do they play a substantial role in her life. I expect that many, perhaps most, of the people who know she is married to me and had children by me, hence know that she has an opposite sex partner, don’t know what her political views are.

            Would you describe her as a “closeted libertarian?”

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @David Friedman”
            That is a straw man analogy. For two reasons.

            1) The steel man analogy would be that it is an acquaintance that would be expected to know, not that you have a wife, but that you have a (Democratic/Republican) wife. To the extent that they should know your wife’s political affiliation, YOU are closeting her affiliation. An analogous situation where one might closet her affiliation would be to McCarthy era communists or present day White Power Party members. Or, perhaps, Libertarian if your friends were all ranking members of the DNC.

            2) Knowing your wife’s political affiliation does not reveal anything about you. “I’m a Democrat, but my wife is Libertarian” parses in a way that “I’m a straight male, but my husband is a homosexual male” does not.

        • LTP says:

          A very very large majority of people under 40 support gay marriage at this point, so I would say very soon, where it isn’t already the case.

        • Hyzenthlay says:

          “I don’t disagree with any parts of LGBT equality, I disagree with the agenda. Most practically, I don’t believe that marriage should be redefined”

          Many people would consider marriage rights to be part of equality. If some people can get married and others can’t, then that’s not an equal situation.

          I’ve heard the counter-argument, “Well, technically gay people already DO have the right to marry–gay men can marry women and lesbians can marry men.” Which is true but also kinda completely misses the point.

          • Richard says:

            The major problem with gay marriage is the word ‘marriage’. To many people, ‘marriage’ means religion, and their religion says gay == evil and allowing gay marriage means treating evil as not evil.

            If you rephrase marriage to ‘any two people can decide to be a financial and legal union’, suddenly 99% of opposition disappears.

            Thus, my main gripe with LGBT demanding ‘Marriage rights’ is that is it an ineffective strategy to achieving the actual goal.

          • Anon says:

            @Richard, what if that is not the actual goal? It’s certainly part of it, but IME lots of gay people are hung up on the word “marriage” too, and some are even religious. For these people, unofficially being a couple < marriage-by-another-name < marriage.

            Of course, starting with marriage-by-another-name, or having it as a partway goal, might still be a net good in areas where marriage is out of the question.

          • Nita says:

            For some reason, religious people seem to believe that their churches collectively own the word “marriage”. But if it were truly a religious concept, it should have been removed from civil laws long ago.

            The fact that the English language does not have separate words for “religious marriage” and “marriage in general” is due to the historical cultural dominance of religion, often backed up by violence. For the Christian church to use this sad outcome of its own tyranny to claim authority over modern civil law is a pretty shameless move, IMO.

          • Richard says:

            If I were both christian and gay, I would take a hard look at leviticus 20 and figure out how that could be resolved first, otherwise I’d be required to kill myself. If we’re already cherrypicking what passages to believe, I wouldn’t have a problem with dropping the word ‘marriage’ either.

            And in any case: which would you prefer: a) Getting all the practical benefits for next to no effort or
            b) spend a huge amount of effort and get either nothing or possibly all the benefits of a) plus a bonus label?

            In this particular case, b) also includes antagonising a lot of people that would be OK if you only let them monopolise the label and would quite possibly choose to fight you at a later junction because you didn’t. Is the label really worth harder fights in the future?

            It may be because I am neither gay nor religious, and as such have zero emotions invested, that I fail to see the profit in that particular tradeoff, but I still fail to see it.

            Edit: is this getting perilously close to discussing race & gender so that it is time to shut up now?

          • Tracy W says:

            This dates back to the Roman Empire’s collapse in Western Europe. The Church was the only supply of education, so it supplied all the administrators. In medieval times, every known Chancellor of the Exchequer for the English Crown was a clergyman.

            And the other side, marriage was a pretty big moral deal when it was the only way to label a father as having responsibility for some children, and people were much poorer so most adults would struggle to raise children single-handedly. Thus the religious emphasis on marriage: marrying the mother of your children was good for the survival of your children, and we are descended from those people who survived long enough to have children on their own.

            I support same-sex marriage because hey, as far as I can tell it does no harm to that meaning, and also marriage has a number of legal advantages for couples without kids (such as handling property division when the relationship ends).

          • Emile says:

            There may be some kind of French / Anglosphere divide here, because I don’t think that the ideas of “marriage” and “religion” are very strongly linked in France; a “religious marriage” is just a subtype of marriage where you go to church after getting “properly” married by the mayor. After checking Wikipedia, this goes back to the Revolution and evolves from a tradition even going before that (where you would often sign a marriage contract dealing with property rights and all that before going to the church; the Revolution just turned that part into the compulsory marriage part).

            Also, of course, marriage is a big deal in China and is pretty unrelated to religion.

          • Devilbunny says:

            Richard –

            b) also lets you describe your cultural opponents as little better than Hitler. Perhaps not all that important to the average gay person (I live in a socially conservative area, and those who wish to live out of the closet generally move away, so my experience here is somewhat limited), but potentially quite important (because of the huge payoff if you succeed) to the activist. Crushing people is fun, after all.

          • Deiseach says:

            If some people can get married and others can’t, then that’s not an equal situation.

            Sixteen year old Sally can’t get married without her parents’ consent but eighteen year old Jane can. How unfair and unequal!

          • Barry says:

            To me, marriage is a life-contract that serves a specific purpose, which is why the government gets involved. The government does not adjudicate any other form of personal relationship and gay people have been free to engage in relationships, both short and long term, in western countries ever since those governments stopped actively oppressing them.

            The gay marriage issue is not a question of equality, it is a question of forcing normalization and wide social acceptance through government force. This I have a problem with, even though I recognize that the practical ill effects created by gay marriage are basically nil.

          • Godzillarissa says:

            @Deiseach: While you might argue whether it’s unfair or not, it definitely is unequal. In this case, deliberately so, because we assign 18 year olds a higher chance of not messing up than 16 year olds.

            So it’s unequal for a reason, which is something I do not see when it comes to gay marriage (sanctity of the holy sacrament of marriage does not count).

            @Barry: What exactly is the specific purpose of that life-contract, that can’t be fulfilled by gay couples?

          • HeelBearCub says:

            “To me, marriage is a life-contract that serves a specific purpose, which is why the government gets involved. ”

            It does, and that is why gay people want the ability to have their life long partner recognized as their life long partner. There are many rights afforded to married partners under the law, rights that have nothing to do with with religious belief. These rights are completely civil in nature.

            You either want the civil law to be re-written so that no one is “married” under civil law and these rights only afford to those who are “something else that really is civil marriage but we don’t want to use that word” OR you don’t support gay people/couples having those rights.

            You can make an argument either way. But I think it has to be one of those two options.

          • Tracy W says:

            @Barry “The government does not adjudicate any other form of personal relationship …”

            This is wrong. Eg siblings (eg when someone dies inestate), business partnerships (when there’s a dispute between partners), charities (when there’s a dispute over the direction of the charity) can all wind up in court, seeking government adjudication.

            Basically, marriage is a particular type of contract between two people. The government can get involved when the marriage ends (as all marriages do, through death or divorce) where there is dispute over property (be that between the couple in question, or between the surviving spouse and whomever would inherit if it were not for that spouse). The current form of the marriage contract provides *some* protection where one spouse gives up their career to look after children or sick relatives or what not, and thus some encouragement for entering into such deals in the first place.

            There are also a bunch of attached rights and exemptions from other laws, such as immigration rights, which cannot be achieved via contract. For example, there’s no “best friend entry visa”. Some of these rights though attach to other personal relationships, eg family reunification visas.

          • Barry says:


            If you don’t mind, could you enumerate some of the rights afforded to married couples that non-married people don’t have access too?

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            some of the rights afforded to married couples that non-married people don’t have access to

            As the surviving member of a long-term het relationship, it’s lucky that my partner and I had the same last name. Letting some people default to the assumption that I’m a legal wife, makes a lot of difference in hospital and other situations. Waving a several page legal document does not help when the person in charge refuses to read it and instead demands a sibling’s signature (and all siblings are half a continent away).

          • Hyzenthlay says:


            What Godzillarissa said, basically.

            16-year-olds are already unequal to adults in a lot of ways: they can’t vote, can’t buy cigarettes, etc. They need their guardians’ permission for plenty of major decisions, marriage included. You could argue about whether or not that should be the case, but that’s a separate debate.

            When it comes to gay marriage, it’s a case of consenting adults who are legally recognized as consenting adults, and therefore able to make their own life decisions, not being able to marry specifically because they’re gay. I don’t think the situation with minors is a parallel for that.

            @Richard: I tend to agree that legal marriage should be viewed as a separate thing from the religious angle that often goes along with it. So, from a legal standpoint, any two (or potentially more) adults should be able to form a marriage contract; the government shouldn’t be able to arbitrarily stop them because they’re both the same gender. But if a church doesn’t want to marry two dudes because of their religious doctrines, they shouldn’t be forced to do so either.

            The battle for the word marriage is, I think, a cultural/symbolic battle–it’s the same reason why there’s currently a huge national debate about whether or not a baker should have to make a cake for a lesbian couple’s wedding, even though it would be way easier for the couple to just go to a more gay-friendly baker.

            I suspect that’s a Blue Tribe thing. For Blues the ultimate goal is wider cultural acceptance and changing public attitudes about gay people (which they’ve already been pretty successful at) and having their marriages be fully recognized as marriages is a big part of that.

          • HeelBearCub says:


            – Joint custody of adopted or biological children
            – Automatic assumption of survivor benefits (including but not limited to social security where you MUST be married to get survivor benefits)
            – Ability to refuse to testify against in a court of law
            – Favored treatment of joint assets in various liability judgements
            – Various rights afforded to close family (married people have access to information and can make decisions on behalf of their spouse in many cases by default). Including, but not limited to, hospital visitation.

            I hope you will steel-man that list, and not straw-man it. I’m not a lawyer.

            Edit: See also what Tracy W. says above.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            “even though it would be way easier for the couple to just go to a more gay-friendly baker.”

            What if the nearest gay-friendly baker is 50 or 100 miles away? The concept of public accommodation is applied as it is because “de jure” access to services can quickly become “de facto” denial when the rights of minorities are not protected as a principal, but rather than on a case-by-case basis. The onus shifts, forcing the minority to prove they have no other options, rather than assuming all accommodations should be open to them. Whole towns, counties or even states can deny the minority services, and yet they will have no remedy, because they could simply “go elsewhere”.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            That sort of argument might apply to a grocery store or a realtor or a doctor but nobody actually *needs* a baker. If there isn’t a pastry chef in 100mi willing to bake me a cake that’s kind of sad I guess but is it really necessary to call in the 101st Airborne?

            That is to say, if I invoke government force to protect someone’s de facto rights to movement speech life etc that’s a defensible position (provided the facts back me up). But nobody has a right to catering.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            @Ever An Anon:
            That falls right back to the same argument. It puts the onus on the minority to prove the have need of something because there is no substitute. Again, “de jure” availability becomes “de facto” denial.

            If you do not want to accommodate the public, don’t open to the public. Have a private baker’s club that requires membership.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            Except the conflict isn’t just between a baker and a gay couple, it’s between the government and one gay couple against a baker.

            Erring on the side of limiting governmental power, especially when there aren’t any rights plausibly being denied, is the way we’re supposed to play it here in the US. Doing things the other way around predictably results in absurd overreaches, like for example courts ordering someone to cater a wedding!

            If the state has a compelling interest or there’s a question of rights violations that’s one thing, but saying that the government doesn’t even need a justification to compel people to work is opening a really ugly door.

          • Cauê says:

            What if the nearest gay-friendly baker is 50 or 100 miles away? (…) Whole towns, counties or even states can deny the minority services

            Wow, sounds like quite the business opportunity.

            I don’t see this actually happening, but we already had this argument.

          • Jaskologist says:

            But your “de facto” is not the actual facto. The businesses being targeted for destruction are far from the sole providers of those wares, even in the case of that pizza place in nowheresville.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            “when there aren’t any rights plausibly being denied”

            Except rights are being denied. You are saying you don’t think it SHOULD be a right, which is different.

          • Hyzenthlay says:


            “What if the nearest gay-friendly baker is 50 or 100 miles away?”

            I’d be surprised if that was the case, though I guess in some parts of the country (like the rural South) that might be so. Even then, it seems like there would surely be some way to procure a wedding cake if you really want one.

            I do agree that people shouldn’t be able to deny a service to anyone on the basis of disagreeing with their lifestyle. “You can’t discriminate when it comes to providing services” was decided during the Civil Rights Movement so they’re just consistently upholding the existing law. I was just making the point that, in most cases, if a baker doesn’t want to give you a cake, it would be easier to find another baker than to start a costly legal battle. So I’m assuming that said legal battle is mostly a matter of principle.

          • HeelBearCub says:


            You started out by saying the battle was cultural/symbolic. Now you are saying it’s about principle. I agree that it is about principle.

            Do you think there is not a difference between a cultural/symbolic battle and one over principles? Or are you changing/refining your position?

          • Hyzenthlay says:


            I’d consider a cultural/symbolic battle to be about principles, yes.

            In other words, it’s less about wanting something specific and tangible (since they could probably get cake elsewhere) and more about making a public point that the baker doesn’t have a legally protected right to deny them cake. It’s about sending a message.

            I’m not saying cultural/symbolic battles are inherently bad or a waste of time or anything (though I will admit I tend to think there’s too much focus on them, and it feels like political theater to me at times, even if it has real-world implications). But I think it’s important to recognize that that’s what they are.

            And that’s why I compared it to the battle over the word marriage. People make the argument that it shouldn’t really matter what it’s called as long as they have the same rights, but it matters a lot to some people because of the cultural significance of the word marriage.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            Have a private baker’s club that requires membership

            Any thoughts on whether that would actually fly? (I have some.)

            I imagine the conversation: “Yes, we make wedding cakes. First you must join our baker’s club and agree to the by-laws, which include that the figures on top must consist of a male and a female.” “Oh, sorry, we picked the wrong baker’s club. Have a nice day.”

          • With apologies for injecting this into a serious discussion, but I can’t resist:

            Gay marriage: the database engineering perspective

            (For those of you who need something light-hearted (and that don’t yet know that article).)

        • merzbot says:

          I hope your kids don’t end up to be gay. For their sake.

          • anon says:

            You could extend that hope to everyone in the world and you wouldn’t be wrong. But who am I kidding, you’re just trying to insult or guilt the guy you’re responding to.

          • Leo says:

            I wouldn’t phrase it as a guilt trip, but yes, that is the obvious flaw with that plan. Barry, what *do* you plan to do if your kids turn out gay, bi, or trans? What about the less important but more likely case where they don’t absorb the ideas you tried to give them and think you’re a bigot?

          • anon says:

            It’s a disgusting ‘your kids will suffer because your beliefs differ from mine’ remark.

          • somebody says:

            Leo and others: I get the impression that Barry thinks gays can be happy living in that state he described, where they live a traditional lifestyle without wanting to marry a person of the same sex, and that he therefore doesn’t think it wouldn’t be a world ending disaster if his kids turned out gay.

            I agree with him that the problem with the future of his children lies in the bigotry of a society where minority opinions such as in this case opposition to gay marriage are demonized and ostracized. This is different from the ways of someone like Scott Alexander, one who tolerates opinions very distant from his own. Since Scott is such a wonderful person, I would expect the readers of his blog to agree that it would be better if society didn’t ostracize and demonize dissenters such as critics of gay marriage.

          • Barry says:

            I hope my kids aren’t gay too, it seems like a difficult life. It won’t be made more difficult by me however, if one or more of my children do turn out to be gay.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            So, if they are gay and they choose to get married, will you attend their wedding? Announce the wedding to your friends, family and colleagues? Will you stop saying you don’t think they should have the right to be married?

            That’s not a guilt trip, by the way. I am arguing that when you say that you won’t make their life harder, that you are either assuming that they will have your same views on marriage, or you aren’t recognizing that if their views differ, your views will be hard on them.

          • Barry says:

            My views will definitely be hard them in the above scenario, but I will also definitely not do anything to make their actual lives harder, and I will still love them and make sure they know that. I wouldn’t attend the wedding and I would not pretend to approve, hopefully our relationship would be strong enough to survive that.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            “but I will also definitely not do anything to make their actual lives harder”

            Forgive me, I’m not trying selectively quote or engage in “gotchas”, but this is very interesting position. You seem to be saying that a wedding isn’t part of peoples “actual lives”.

            Think back to your own wedding. Was that part of your life? Was it important to you? Would it have been as good if your parents refused to attend? How would you have felt?

            My own grandparents refused to attend to my wedding because it was not a Catholic ceremony, but rather presided over by my uncle, who is Lutheran. I assure you, that was not something our relationship ever recovered from.

          • Let me contribute a real world case to this “if your kids turn out to be gay” discussion.

            I knew someone who was opposed to gay marriage. His position was that same sex partnerships ought to have the same legal rights as opposite sex partnerships, but that they were not marriages.

            One of his daughters was in a long term same sex relationship, including adopting a daughter for the couple. As best I could tell, he treated that daughter and her partner the same way he treated his other daughter and her partner, treated their adopted daughter as a granddaughter.

            I had a blog post on the topic about a decade ago, arguing that each side of the controversy was trying to force their symbolism on the other, and the correct solution was to treat marriage as a social category rather than a legal category, leaving people free to regard couples as married or not according to what the term meant to them.


          • HeelBearCub says:

            @David Friedman:
            You can seen comments above where I basically echo the thought that one possible position is that government should not recognize marriage at all.

            However, the only feasible way for this to actually happen is for the federal government and SCOTUS to say “everywhere that any law references marriage, it actually means civil union. Marriage and civil union are identical under law.” The raw number of statutes, rules, precedents, etc. at the federal, state, and local render it impossible to be taken care of in any other manner.

            And when you tell the same people who object to gay marriage that their heterosexual marriage is no longer recognized by the government, I think you will find that they end up being quite displeased by the symbolic difference.

          • Barry says:


            Forgive me for saying this, but if you couldn’t forgive your grandparents for not attending your wedding that may be more of a problem on your end. I obviously don’t know the details of your relationship, but it sounds to me like you should have known how important religion was to your grandparents or at least respected their feelings when you found out they wouldn’t be attending.

            I would expect my hypothetical gay child who was marrying a same-sex partner to understand why I couldn’t attend the wedding and not hate me for it.

          • HeelBearCub says:

            I said the relationship didn’t recover. That is different than saying that I never forgave them. It showed me what they valued more and what they valued less. They also made a statement that it was not OK for me to be married to someone who wasn’t Catholic, that they didn’t consider my marriage to be real.

            There wasn’t anything really to forgive. They hadn’t done anything wrong. But they changed my perception of what our relationship was. That was hard.

            You might find that a gay child would also have their perceptions changed if you made that kind of a choice.

            For instance, they might wonder, “If I die, would my parents attempt to get custody of our child from my partner? Do they see my marriage as conferring the status of parent on my partner?” They might have to start thinking of you as a potential future adversary. I don’t see how these things could possibly not affect your relationship.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @HeelBearCub – I had a friend (ironically enough, a gay Christian one) who refused to attend my wedding because I married a non-Christian. My wife took this very personally, and never spoke to him again.

            From my perspective, he treated me with respect, was honest with me about his beliefs, and stuck by his principles. I might disagree with his principles, and I might wish that he possessed other ones, but it seems selfish to expect him to compromise his earnest beliefs because they are inconvenient to me.

            It seems to me that this is what actual Diversity looks like: maintaining mutual respect even in the face of fundamental, irreconcilable differences. What a lot of the people in this thread seem to want is for the gross awful people who have the wrong morals to stop existing. Since they are clearly the ones who are actually winning the real-world debate, I greet their victory with some ambivalence.

          • Tracy W says:

            David Friedman:

            the correct solution was to treat marriage as a social category rather than a legal category, leaving people free to regard couples as married or not according to what the term meant to them.

            Trouble is that this misses the fundamental point of marriage now we have DNA testing for fatherhood, which is to operate as a legal deal, for when the relationship ends (be that via death or divorce). Property needs to be allocated at the end of a relationship (including when people die), if parties can’t agree a division privately then there’s a role for a legal authority to make a ruling (not necessarily a government).

            But, when it comes to a relationship break up, there can be problems in determing what the original intentions were. Obviously in the case of a “divorce” both the richer and the poorer party have reasons to lie. In the case of death, where a blood relative disputes the existence of a relationship and thus inheritance rights, the dead person can’t testify.

            You can regard couples as married or not depending on what the term means to you, but if you think a house belong to you and start redecorating the kitchen while I think the same house belongs to me and want to knock it down to expand my garden, there’s a fundamental conflict.

            The legal authority can make a ruling about whether or not someone was in a committed relationship, but this legal case from Australia shows that the rulings by a judge can be rather variable, in that case a man and a woman who had a child, bought a home together and lived in it for 13 years, while having sex, still weren’t in a de facto relationship. In that case, I can easily see how the woman in the question thought she was in a committed relationship, but the judge ruled they weren’t because of the details of their lives together.

            A signed contract upfront, with witnesses, including a witness who has a reputation to protect in the community, isn’t immune from later dispute, but it’s explicit, which has some merits in legal stuff.

        • Tracy W says:

          I live in a community where the vast majority agree with my views, and I plan to raise any children I may have in this same community.

          My parents were raised in communities where everyone thought that being gay was wrong. Then they went to university, got exposed to new ways of thinking (very new back in the 1960s), and reassessed those ideas.

          • Barry says:

            My community has a good track record of transmitting our worldview to the next generation. It’s not perfect, but I do believe that my children have a high chance of sharing the bulk of my opinions on this issue.

        • Julia says:

          I expect raising your children with this view to ultimately be harmful to them.

          Say it’s 1960 and you are one of the vast majority of white people in your South Carolina community who oppose racial integration. Not that you have anything against Negroes, you just don’t think they should be in the same schools or train cars as your children.

          Now say you raise your children in this community and they maintain its ideals completely. They now live in a 2015 where buses, swimming pools, etc. are more or less integrated (though perhaps they choose to send their children to all-white private schools). In what ways does an anti-integreation viewpoint benefit your children? In what ways does it harm them? I’m guessing the harm – of being considered racist by employers and many of the people they encounter, and of being disgusted and uncomfortable every time they see now-commonplace sights like an interracial couple at a movie theater – is greater than whatever benefit one is supposed to derive from maintaining opposition to a particular “agenda” that the rest of the country accepted decades ago.

      • NZ says:

        I would say there are many contexts where it [being opposed to most of the LBGT agenda] pretty much already is [considered the equivalent of open racism], and that’s just going to expand (and I don’t really disagree with that).

        I do. For one thing, Barry has expressed a very particular view: he opposes most aspects of the LGBT agenda, which he went on to specify has mostly to do with redefining marriage.

        “Racism”, however, is a catch-all term people use on half a dozen views one might hold or things one might say/do, most of which are totally ethically benign (e.g. refusing to constantly update one’s vocabulary to match whatever PC-mongers demand as the latest term for a black person, or moving out of a black neighborhood for fears that it is not safe). Most of these things are also proven to be natural (e.g. preferring the company of people of your own race). Only two meanings of “racism” are morally questionable: believing one’s own race is innately superior and more valuable than others for no rational basis, and wishing harm upon someone of another race PURELY because he is of that other race and not because he or someone who looks like him did something bad to you. And only the latter of those necessarily has malice in it. So when you say someone is a racist or supports racism, what are you really saying? Is it ever true?

        Secondly, racism equated to/substituted for anti-gay bigotry is an inherently illegitimate line of argument. The two issues and their histories are very different. Gays have not suffered the way blacks have, and it’s a slap in the face to black people to say otherwise. Gays also are not oppressed anymore by any stretch of the imagination, having substantial and direct cultural and political influence. You can at least argue that blacks are still systematically oppressed in some ways and that it isn’t their fault. (Of course, there are a lot of highly intelligent and rational people who would argue against you. Some of them are black.)

        Likewise, it’s a fallacy to say that because one opposes most of the LGBT agenda that one is homophobic.

        To start with, the term “homophobic” itself is a red herring, designed to portray certain political views or moral/social tastes as a medical condition. A phobia is something that is wrong with your brain that requires psychological attention. Being opposed to aspects of the LGBT agenda is something you can reach through perfectly sound cognitive processes and argue rationally about.

        And as Barry said and as many others can testify, it is possible to support the safety, legal equality, and dignity of gay people (which includes their right to privacy by the way) but also be opposed to the redefinition of marriage.

        Supporting gay legal equality and opposing the redefinition of marriage is not a contradiction, either. Siblings have legal equality with non-siblings, for example, yet siblings are not permitted to marry. If two siblings cohabit and have sex, no police officer will pound on their door. (Thankfully, their neighbors will still raise eyebrows.) Siblings can even sign legal documents entitling each other to most of the same things married spouses have. Perfectly legal. They just can’t call it marriage. Is this a tragic breach of sibling equality? I’m a sibling. Are my rights being violated?

    • Deiseach says:

      And will holding these opinions be considered the equivalent of open racism?

      It already is so considered. LGBT rights are often and openly compared to the Civil Rights Movement, and it’s not uncommon to see newspaper columnists and the likes making the equivalence that the people opposed to (for instance) same-sex marriage would also have been opposed to inter-racial marriage back in the day.

      • Peter says:

        I think that one interesting difference that some people have pointed out it that in the case of interracial marriage, in America the law permitted it long before a majority of people approved, whereas with same-sex marriage public opinion has led and the law – in places – has followed.

        There’s also the question of how attitudes to interracial marriage are judged according to the race of people holding them, where I don’t think there’s an analogue for same-sex marriage.

        • NZ says:

          Good point.

          However, it’s not always accurate to say that “with same-sex marriage public opinion has led and the law – in places – has followed.” In many places, the law is being shoved down an unwilling public’s collective throat.

          • Peter says:

            But surely this is the case for just about any law; you can pretty much always find a sub-part of a public majority-opposed to a new law even though the whole supports it.

            (There was some graph somewhere showing people’s opinion on whether same-sex marriage was a federal matter or for the states – it seems a lot of people were prepared to say “whichever gives the right answer”. If you really wanted to stir things up, you could try arguing that it should be a global matter, and that most of the world isn’t ready for it yet.)

          • NZ says:


            In some cases, laws that sanction gay marriage are being pushed despite majority disapproval. This may be slowly happening on a national level too.

          • Peter says:

            Ah, Larry Kestenbaum below has linked to the relevant graph. Looking at it, if laws on same-sex marriage tracked public opinion state-by-state perfectly – or if it was dealt with at a federal level – then you’d expect the percentage-living-in-states-with-legal-same-sex-marriage to be more sigmoidal than the public opinion line – a square wave if it was done at the federal level. To a certain extent this is the case, but maybe not as sigmoidal as might be expected. So I stand somewhat corrected.

            At any rate, the contrast with interracial marriage is striking. The whole Proposition 8 saga was a debacle from start to finish, but one of the striking points of the whole sorry mess was that the way that by the time the Supreme Court had had their say, public opinion in California was already majority pro-same-sex-marriage.

            People might complain about the rule of judges on principle, and from my side of the pond it does look a bit like that, OTOH the result looks pretty similar to that which would have come democratically, maybe a few years early.

            Now the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 wasn’t perfect – some trans people say they were screwed over and I’m inclined to believe them – but it’s a glorious contrast with the American situation.

        • I think that one interesting difference that some people have pointed out it that in the case of interracial marriage, in America the law permitted it long before a majority of people approved, whereas with same-sex marriage public opinion has led and the law – in places – has followed.

          Here’s the graph which shows this:

          It would be logical to have different terms for religious marriage and civil partnership, but the problem is that very few people care enough about the distinction to use it in ordinary conversation.

          Hardly anyone is interested in referring to George & Mary one way, and John & Abigail a different way, because one couple were married by a priest, and the other couple used a judge.

          And what about terms like husband, wife, and spouse? Would it even be possible to limit those words to partners in religious marriages?

          Typically the response would be, well, sure, it’s okay if opposite-sex couples use those words, even if they were “just” civilly partnered and not religiously married, but same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to.

          But then, the fundamental objection isn’t about marriage being a holy religious thing. Rather, it boils down to “two men kissing is icky.”

          I have a lot of sympathy for Barry’s situation. I accept that he has a reasoned point of view, and I don’t want to demonize millions of people like him, including many of my more-conservative friends.

          Still, I think the world is better off when slurs and expressions of hatred toward LGBT people become socially unacceptable.

          • NZ says:

            You’re confusing the “fundamental” objection to gay marriage with the “basest” objection.

            It’s true, the reason virtually every 10 year-old boy recoils at the idea of gay marriage is because two men kissing is almost universally icky. And that’s probably true for many adults who haven’t progressed much mentally since they were 10.

            But in terms of people who are seriously arguing against gay marriage, the fundamental objection is much more sophisticated than that, and is not uniform either.

            For some it’s based on straightforward interpretations of God’s laws as revealed in holy texts, while for many others it’s based on something like this:

            “All government is social engineering, so our government should continue to use marriage to incentivize traditional family structures. It must do so exclusively to other structures because the other ones are either proven to have bad long-term results on average (e.g. single mom) or are unproven and therefore risky (e.g. gay couple). The purpose of marriage, let’s not forget, is to solidify bonds that facilitate the raising of children. It’s true that some straight couples don’t/can’t have kids, but they are few and there’s no practical way to prevent them marrying without doing away with the whole institution anyway, and nobody wants that.”

            That doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker of course, so it’s not as fun or easy to attack.

            This sophistication is glossed over and dismissed when you equate that kind of opposition to gay marriage with “slurs and expressions of hatred toward LGBT people”. You aren’t responding to the fundamental argument, you’re bulldozing over it.

          • Deiseach says:

            Larry, my objection to the Yes campaign in the recent referendum on marriage equality in my country was its dishonesty.

            It was presented that way: “I only want the right to love! I just want to get married like anyone else! This is all about love and relationships and will have no effect on anything, including the law!”

            The amount of treacle produced by our Tánaiste when the referendum passed made me gag:

            But in this profoundly uplifting campaign, we were only part of a much wider movement – a rainbow movement to help create a rainbow nation.

            Now, if the only acceptable relationship in current society was marriage, I’d agree that it was unfair and unequal treatment to deny that civil status to LGBT persons.

            But given the dismantling of old attitudes, given that cohabitation, ‘serial monogamy’, single parenthood, having children outside of marriage is now accepted, two people of whatever gender living together in a sexual and romantic relationship is normal. You don’t have to go down to the courthouse or registry office to get a licence to set up house with your partner anymore. You can claim them as dependents for social welfare and tax purposes, you can get them put on your health insurance, you can put them in your will.

            Sure, a lot of the legal and financial rights come “baked in” with marriage, but the campaign for marriage equality has got feck-all to do with who you are permitted to love; it’s to do with accessing those legal and other benefits and most crucially with normalisation and making homosexuality socially acceptable by removing any threatening aspects: it’s just two people who want to settle down to a suburban life of two kids, a dog, and roses round the door!

            My previous position would have been apathetic acquiescence to permitting same-sex civil marriage, but the unctuousness, self-righteousness, assumption of moral superiority and progressivism, and emotional manipulation by the Yes side drove me to vote No in the referendum.

            The last straw for me was a finger-wagging article by a columnist in our (wants to be) paper of record about how permitting same-sex marriage would change nothing in Irish society – at the moment when we were going to vote on changing the Constitution. That was like saying “I am going to crack this egg open, scramble and cook the contents, and eat them – but the egg will remain the same, unchanged, unbroken”.

            Plus the little dig the columnist got in about how all the previous liberalising changes in Irish society had been forecast to have dire changes but these didn’t happen – well, maybe not amongst their circle, but I’m in a job where we’re dealing everyday with the new liberalised Irish society where the cultural brakes were taken off and the sexual revolution finally happened, and I’m seeing the results of all the things we were told wouldn’t happen once sex outside of marriage was accepted as normal (oh if only free love was permitted there would be no more unhappy relationships and then oh if only birth control was legalised in Ireland there would be no more unwanted pregnancies – yeah, right), divorce was legalised (it only means a second chance for happiness once a marriage ends and there will certainly be no fallout affecting the children or ex-partners) and more.

            I have no reason to believe our new marriage equality state won’t have the same pitfalls in times to come. I await the first messy and vicious divorces of some of the couples who “just want to marry the person I love like everyone else” and the fights over property, maintenance, and custody of the adopted or surrogate children.

            And yes, we’re going to have to see how these first cases dragged through the courts require changes in family law, etc.

            Love and romance? My arse!

          • Unique Identifier says:

            To follow up a bit on NZ about infertile, heterosexual couples:

            Marriage has traditionally been an institution specifically designed for providing the woman with a caregiver or breadwinner for herself and her children, while providing the man with someone to give birth to his children and housekeep.

            Infertility is/was often seen as just grounds for divorce, even (or maybe particularly) in the cultures most staunchly opposed to anything else than ’till death do us part’.

            If you take this sort of functional view of marriage, homosexual marriage seems rather odd. The parallels are stronger if you consider marriage to be some sort of long-term cohabitation contract. Some people don’t think this is what marriage is supposed to be, without necessarily being blinded by ‘icky’.

          • NZ says:

            @Unique Identifier:

            I think your model of the traditional institution of marriage is close but slightly imprecise.

            The vast majority of the immediate and visible benefit of marriage goes to the woman. Even in a society where marriage is expected of nearly everyone, an unmarried man can still find women to have sex with (prostitutes) and keep his house (maids). For the woman meanwhile, marriage provides her with a dedicated protector (women are weaker and more vulnerable than men, on average) and breadwinner. The breadwinner role is not to be diminished either, because the children need to be materially supported too.

            It’s probably uncommon for someone to hold only the functional view of marriage and not the religious or traditionalist one. That marriage is socially beneficial per the above arrangement is, to the religious, only further evidence that it’s the “Right” arrangement intended by God.

            An intelligent person can no doubt have these reasoned views and still find the prospect of two men kissing icky. He needn’t be “blinded” by it.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            Marriage has notable benefits for men too; particularly, it helps low-status men break the high-status men’s monopoly on the women. The old version is called polygamy, the modern version serial monogamy.

            Marriage also helps men ascertain paternity. [The extreme version is to marry a young virgin and keep her at home.] This is very important, because it allows them to (sensibly) invest in bringing their children up.

            Marriage also has countless second order effects, which benefit men just as much as women, that can be summarized as enabling civilization.

            I’m not religious – these are simple ideas to understand, if one’s not to preoccupied vilifying those who espouse them.

          • Nornagest says:

            Marriage also has countless second order effects, which benefit men just as much as women, that can be summarized as enabling civilization.

            Enumerate. I could as well cite the Sacred Band of Thebes, or spiders, or Bernie Madoff, as enabling civilization.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            Countless things are, by definition, innumerable. I can’t do this topic justice in a highly nested post, but I’ll have a stab at it nonetheless.

            The first thing I described is how monogamy increases a man’s chance of mating. The importance of this cannot be overstated, both because dissatisfied low-status men tend to cause trouble, and also because high-status men competing to assemble the largest possible harems tend to resort to violence. Tribal warfare is a lot about killing the other tribes men and children and taking the women. Monogamy lowers the reproductive stakes immensely, and thus also lowers the feasibility of high-variance strategies such as violence.

            Marriage also helps men know whether kids are theirs. An increase in paternal certainty increases the reproductive payoff for paternal investment. [Note that there is a tipping point involved here, which can be relevant even when the increase in certainty is relatively small.] A man with a family is incentivized to leave an inheritance. A father with a son might build a business and teach the son the ropes. Both skills and tools get passed on.

            Monogamy means that every woman won’t get pregnant with the biggest and baddest guy around. The possibility of parental investment motivates women to select for builders, farmers and workers over warriors and warlords. Monogamy forces men to compete to impress women, rather than with other men about dominating the tribe. The skill sets involved are profoundly different.

            Often, it is the extended family who does the choosing rather than the woman herself. Marriage and family formation enables people to form alliances outside of a tribe, which is mostly synonymous with extended family. This is a pacifying force, because a larger in-group means there is less contact with an out-group, and this contact tends to get violent.

            That should be a good enough starting point.

          • You’re confusing the “fundamental” objection to gay marriage with the “basest” objection.

            Okay, you’re right, and I withdraw that paragraph.

          • NZ says:

            @Unique Identifier:

            I agree completely with your response to my last comment addressed to you:

            Well put.

        • Jaskologist says:

          The law has clearly been the leader in America, without regard to public opinion.

          Ponder this: was the purpose of Proposition 8 to let the people decide whether to recognize gay relationships as marriages, or was it to identify heretics for later purging?

          Bonus points: what’s the next “vote” that will be carried out for the same purpose?

          • Ever An Anon says:

            There’s no reason to assume a sinister plot, particularly when sinister opportunism is a more plausible explanation.

            Hounding people who supported Prop 8 because it was an embarrassing setback is more parsimonious with American politics than an elaborate false flag operation to embarrass yourself.

          • Matthew says:

            Meanwhile, back in the reality where the sky is blue, Proposition 8 was sponsored by opponents of gay marriage.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Oh, certainly, it was sponsored by them, but it’s the ones who count the votes that actually matter. The sponsors believed they were being allowed a say; this was clearly not the case.

            This really is important: what is the next show vote that will be used for the same purpose?

          • Lightman says:

            If the vote-counters were part of some strange Protocols of the Gays of Zion conspiracy, why wouldn’t they just declare that proposition eight had failed (it was a close vote, after all)? Your theory is pure lunacy.

      • Barry says:

        The biggest difference to me between the two is that the Civil Rights Movement was about getting rid of government enforced and enabled discrimination. The LGBT rights movement on the other hand won that battle very early, and is now consumed with the goal of society-wide acceptance and normalization, often through the use of government force.

        • Emile says:

          Aren’t you yourself already accepting of gays and lesbians?

          Referring to “redefining marriage” as “the use of government force” is a bit of a stretch, especially since it seems that the “redefinition” has been pushed even more by various activists and public figures than by the government.

          It’s not very clear to me what it is you *actually* object to. Isn’t it just that you don’t like sanctimonious holier-than-thou Social Justice Warriors threatening their critics with lawsuits and public shaming?

          • Barry says:

            Anything the government is involved in carries with it the threat of government force. If gay people can get married I can be penalized for refusing to recognize the legal legitimacy of their union in the context of withholding various services or even hate speech prosecution.

            The fact that the militant SJW agenda is really, really annoying is a secondary concern.

          • Tracy W says:

            If gay people can get married I can be penalized for refusing to recognize the legal legitimacy of their union

            Well, fair’s fair. Other people can be penalized for failing to recognise the legal legitimacy of your union (assuming you are, or will be, married).
            Backing up property rights with force is what the government does.

          • Barry says:

            100%. I didn’t say it would be an improper use of force, just that the LGBT movement is hoping to create social acceptance via a strategy of creating new laws and redefining others that the government will then be obligated to enforce.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            How is the government fining me for failing to cook a cake for someone’s gay wedding protecting the gay couple’s property rights?

            Maybe I just have a very different view of property rights, which would mean I couldn’t steal the gay person’s car (and can’t reproduce their copyrights, and can’t rent out use of their house).

            I can see very well that the government should recognize their marriages in order to protect their property rights, w.r.t. inheritance and taxes. But how is making me bake them a cake or else suffer wrath protecting their property rights? No one has a right to my labor.

          • Lightman says:

            There is no such thing as hate speech prosecution in the United States (my apologies if you’re non-American). Regardless of who you target, hateful speech is fully protected under the first amendment. You’re worried about a threat that doesn’t exist.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            No one has a right to my labor.

            Sorry, son. That shipped sailed, for good or ill, a long time ago.

          • FacelessCraven says:

            @Lightman – “You’re worried about a threat that doesn’t exist.”

            Kind of like it was wildly irresponsible paranoia to worry that religious people who objected to homosexuality might be forced to cater gay weddings, right?

            It’s not hard to see where we’re headed, especially when you notice all the people saying how they’re all for free speech, so long as it’s the right speech.

          • Tracy W says:

            @Edward Scizorhands:

            How is the government fining me for failing to cook a cake for someone’s gay wedding protecting the gay couple’s property rights?

            Not that case. More things like transferring property on death to the surviving spouse.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            More things like transferring property on death to the surviving spouse.

            So that’s the government.

            What example did you mean by “other people can be penalized for failing to recognise the legal legitimacy of your union”? If Bob transfers his house to his widower, that doesn’t require squat from me.

            I mean, I guess I could insist that the house was mine, and Bob’s widow needs to call the cops to kick me out. But that’s irrelevant if Bob’s spouse was named Bruce or Caitlin.

        • J. Quinton says:

          The fact that lifelong homosexual couples can be legally barred from visiting their sick/dying partner in the hospital — at the behest of the sick/dying partner’s “traditional, conservative” family, no less — is the reason that gay marriage should be legalized.

          The abhorrence of that situation far exceeds the minor squick factor I get thinking about homosexuality.

          • Jaskologist says:

            This is true for any live-in partner, regardless of sex. If that’s not what the potential sick person wants, there are legal documents that can be drawn up to fix it. If you don’t make your wishes clear, stuff will default to the family for obvious reasons.

          • Deiseach says:

            Okay, here’s another one where I want hard numbers. I see this “I wasn’t permitted to see my dying partner by the heartless hospital/cruel family” sob-story trotted out again and again.

            I’ll believe it did happen. How often does it happen now, though? In 2015? And only to gay/lesbian people but not to unmarried straight people or people with no surviving family and/or next of kin living nearby, so that friends can’t visit them?

          • DavidS says:

            @Deiseach: how often would it have to happen to concern you?

            And if it was a case of hospitals not letting the person’s partner see them because the partner was of a different race, how often would that have to happen to concern you?

            It seems to me that if we have a system that explictly allows that sort of injustice, you reform it unless there are clear reasons otherwise. You don’t demand proof that it’s affecting lots of people first. Both because it’s a matter of principle, and because application is more flexible than law and it can easily become a bigger problem.

            @Jaskologist+Deisach: on the comparison to other live-in partners, the point is that they can choose to marry. Some people think you should be able to get the same rights through a ‘civil partnership’ without marriage, basically because they agree with the people against gay marriage that marriage has religious/cultural overtones, but they want to avoid those overtones. But at least they have that option. Saying that a gay couple can try to piece together SOME of the rights married people get automatically through a series of discussions with lawyers doesn’t really cut the mustard.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            It’s interesting how things change. I remember a time when forward-thinking people considered the bundle of rights and responsibilities that comprised marriage to be unspeakably oppressive.

        • James Picone says:

          What about the places where gay relationships don’t have a full set of entirely-civil rights that come attached to heterosexual civil unions and marriages? Like, for example, being able to file a joint tax return, power of attorney stuff, medical stuff, child custody stuff if one of the partners dies…

          This isn’t an empty hypothetical. There are states in the US, right now, where gay couples can’t get those things at all, and some where they have to go to enormous effort to get some of them.

          Do you think gay couples shouldn’t be able to have those legal arrangements, or do you think state governments should expand civil union laws to allow gay people access to those legal arrangements without calling it ‘marriage’, or something else?

          • Barry says:

            I believe that any two people, regardless of their relationship status or family situation, should be able to assign each other the status of “life partner”, and with it should come all the relevant rights and responsibilities.

            I further believe that traditional marriage should be removed from the purview of government and be replaced with enforceable parenting contracts.

          • NZ says:


            What about any three or four people? What if those people are siblings? What if they are biologically a parent-child pair? What if the people are 9 years old? What about one person and one computer running an AI program? What about one person and one highly intelligent chimp able to express consent?

            I’m guessing you will eventually support some restrictions on who can assign or be assigned “life partner” status. In that case, you must be thinking more deeply about the issue than just “It’s not very nice or fair to deny this status to some people and not to others.”

            So then, why should we trust your deep thinking more than the deep thinking that’s evolved across human societies for thousands of years or longer?

          • Cauê says:

            NZ, I’ll accept all of your examples (except the 9 year old, for the standard contract law reasons). Why not? It doesn’t even feel like I’m biting bullets.

            You seem to be trying to push intuitive buttons here, rather than presenting the kind of deep thinking you’re talking about.

          • NZ says:


            My point was that in general, most people (even pro-gay marriage activists, I suspect) eventually support limits on who can marry or practically call themselves married. This support for limits is the inevitable outcome of having a definition (there’s an important root word buried in there: finite) of marriage. To have a definition of something and then stress-test it is to do some deeper thinking.

            I hope you’ll give me more credit than to just assume I’m on here to push buttons. 😀

          • Barry says:


            Why not 3 or 4 people? Too messy and complicated legally. What if the people are 9 years old? Below the age of consent, cannot make binding legal agreements. What if it’s an A.I? That question would be settled when we decide what the status of A.I’s are in general. Same for artificially intelligent chimps.

            What if they are biologically parent-child? That doesn’t matter. Life-partner status would have zero romantic or sexual connotations and would be available to any pair of consenting adults.

          • NZ says:


            What you’ve illustrated is that there are rational reasons that can be given for opposing calling these arrangements “life partners” without it meaning you *hate* polygamists, children, parents and children, robots, chimps, etc. It merely takes some deeper thought to consider what these reasons might be.

            My point earlier was that over the years human societies have already done most of this heavy lifting and it’s been time-tested. Thus we should probably be skeptical of modern attempts to suddenly redraw the lines according to the sensibilities of the day.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m sympathetic to Chesterton’s fence, but as it’s usually cited in this context, it seems to be a precaution without an acceptance state. Traditions often encode some wisdom, but there’s a lot of noise in them too. It’d be nice if there was a process that allowed us to discriminate between the two, since some flexibility is needed to adapt to changing conditions (technological, if nothing else).

            What do you propose that process be?

          • Unique Identifier says:


            In Chesterton’s original:
            “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

            As for marriage, I think this entails an understanding of marriage as a structure explicitly crafted to provide women with a breadwinner, men with a womb and children with caretakers. It is not obvious why same-sex couples should fit into this framework based around human reproduction and sexual dismorphy.

          • Nornagest says:

            Yes, thank you, I’ve already read Chesterton.

            It seems quite unlikely to me that marriage was “explicitly crafted” in any meaningful sense. It’s certainly held a historical role in traditionally reinforcing a stable format for reproductive families, but that’s by no means its only historical role (formalizing alliances between lineage groups is probably just as important, for one). Nor is it its only present-day role.

            Which brings me back to my initial question. Chesterton reasonably asks that reformers understand the function of a social institution (not its purpose; social institutions rarely have a purpose) before they propose to make renovations to it. Do you believe that any such understanding of this issue could exist and allow for reforms?

            Because if you don’t, then you’re not really invoking Chesterton’s fence; you’re not saying more information needs to be gathered in order to be confident of making positive reforms, you’re saying that the facts are already known (though perhaps stubbornly ignored by prospective reformers) and that they say no.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            I will mostly refer to our parallel discussion in a parallel thread.

            Levirate marriage, which wasn’t codified yesterday, betrays a lot of what they used to think was the purpose of marriage as an institution.

            I’m not sure what it’s supposed to mean that social institutions (generally) don’t have a purpose. I think it’s better if you give examples, than for me to make guesses.

            I think Chesterton’s fence is rather applicable, because nearly every argument in favor of gay marriage shows that people don’t understand marriage, in a functional sense. When both parties are equal in an economic sense and there are no children involved, what is a marriage contract even supposed to do?

            In a heterosexual marriage, if the wife gets pregnant, the husband is supposed to be the father and he is supposed to take responsibility for the child, and if he wants to leave a wife, he needs to go through a divorce so we can figure out who gets to keep what and how the children will be taken care of.

            It’s precisely because marriage didn’t use to be simply ‘two adults want to live together’, that homosexual marriage seems odd, and in the process of extending marriage to homosexual couples, it will inevitably become this thing it didn’t use to be.

            If I asked you why living people can’t have a funeral, you’d probably think I was an idiot.

          • Nornagest says:

            I’m not sure what it’s supposed to mean that social institutions (generally) don’t have a purpose. I think it’s better if you give examples, than for me to make guesses.

            Social institutions generally evolve rather than being created; even if they’re invented by someone, iterative selection and incentive processes usually have more to do with their actual (as opposed to nominal) function than anyone’s sense of their purpose by the time they’ve reached maturity. Actually, I think our notion of institutional maturity might relate directly to how much of their creators’ volition is left.

            Which takes me back to Chesterton’s fence. Marriage as an institution has evolved rapidly over the last fifty years; it’s shed most of its role in lineage politics, for example, and much of its role in childrearing, and picked up some new roles along the way. You mention couples without children who are equal in an economic sense; and yet, we still call heterosexual couples in that position married, without any evident misgivings on most people’s parts. Perhaps gay marriage proponents aren’t the only ones who need to do some thinking about its functional role in our society before they propose reforms.

          • Doctor Mist says:

            it’s shed most of its role in lineage politics, for example, and much of its role in childrearing, and picked up some new roles along the way

            And there are those who consider this a mixed blessing, at best. What picks up the slack for the role it used to have in childrearing? Those who fear that the institution of marriage is already dropping the ball with regard to its most tangible cultural utility might well be skittish about making further wholesale changes.

          • Nornagest says:

            It’s quite reasonable to think the current implementation of marriage has its flaws; I think it does a terrible job of balancing interests in the case of divorce, for example. But any changes we propose to make, we’d be making to the real, present-day institution, not to some idealized version of it where men are strict breadwinners and women are strict housekeepers and every child is above average. And they too would be subject to the evolutionary forces that made modern marriage that way in the first place.

            If Chesterton’s fence has anything worthwhile to say about those changes, it must say it in the context of the institution as it stands; the wider and physical social environment has changed too, and reasoning through nostalgia goggles is rarely a good idea. And, of course, it’d apply just as well to conservative attempts at reform as to liberal.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            Your bit about purpose just confuses original purpose with something being repurposed.

            ‘Evolved’ is a curious choice of words with regards to marriage. You might as well have said ‘degenerated’.

            But every way I can read your post, you are essentially saying that there is something more or less new which is different from traditional marriage, which is clearly true. What I don’t get is why this new thing must be born from the ashes of traditional marriage and hijack the name, all the while insisting it’s just a matter of ‘equal rights’.

            I’m not sure what sort of conservative reform you are referring to, the conservative stance is usually ‘stop tinkering, damnit’.

            Using Chesterton’s fence to argue for changing something seems profoundly backwards. At best one can say, reassuringly,’I know the purpose of this thing, chill’, and hope people find it reassuring.

          • Nornagest says:

            Your bit about purpose just confuses original purpose with something being repurposed.

            If marriage has an original purpose, I don’t know it, and neither do you. The Deuteronomic codes do not encode it; they merely present a snapshot of what the Jewish lawmakers of the 6th century BC thought the institution should be doing, or what they wanted their constituents to think it should. It’s safe to say that the concept was about as old then as it is now.

            Which is to say, there is no Platonic ideal of marriage that you can point to and say that the modern institution has degenerated from. We can talk about its function at various times and places with much more clarity, though, and we can say, for example, that marriage in (e.g.) Iraq in 700 AD worked better by such-and-such a criterion than in Brooklyn in 1990.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            And now the discussion has degenerated into sophistry. Just like it is, of course, impossible to talk of the purpose of marriage historically, it is also impossible to look at a remarkably well preserved wheelbarrow from ancient China and to say anything about it’s purpose. Maybe it was for sitting it? Maybe it was for storage? Maybe it was exhibited as an art piece? How would we ever tell?

            Imagine if we had to set up courts of law, where the required level of proof would have to be fairly high, and we would have to infer something about people’s intentions from, say, judging how they acted before and after murdering someone? Such a system could surely never be made to work.

          • Nornagest says:

            You can reasonably infer a designer from a wheelbarrow, and you can fairly reasonably infer a single intent (though objects with e.g. ritual uses do trip archaeologists up all the time). You can’t do the same for a social institution, unless it’s something like a code of law where the founders were kind enough to write their intentions down, and that still manages to drive vast and contentious fields which are all about interpretation.

            Imagine all the debate over the intent behind the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, and then transpose it to a domain a hundred times older, vastly more varied, and without an original text. You don’t think purpose might be a little difficult to infer there?

            tl;dr: Interpreting marriage isn’t like trying to interpret a wheelbarrow. It isn’t even like trying to interpret a poem. It’s like trying to interpret a city.

            (Originally I said “interpret a clam”, but a city’s a better analogy. It’s the sum of choices by many people with many purposes, which could in principle be disentangled, but which in practice can’t be.)

          • NZ says:


            While I agree it’s impossible to infer a designer or single historical intent of marriage, we can infer why monogamy predominated and remained popular in high-functioning societies over the ages while polygamy and other forms of marriage are now mostly relegated to such serene utopias as rural Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa.

            And we can discern even more clearly than that why the US government may have chose to ascribe certain legal and financial privileges to married couples exclusively.

            By the way, people DO interpret cities. They don’t apply to every inhabitant or event that goes on of course, but they generally encapsulate the narrative around how a city was formed, why it survived, why it might be in its present state, etc. You’ve probably heard such interpretations for cities like Las Vegas, Cleveland, or San Francisco. I don’t find these to be nonsense. They are somewhat useful to understanding the city.

          • Nita says:

            Many same-sex couples are already raising children, and many married couples are vocally childfree. So, if the purpose of marriage is to provide a social structure for childraising, then the former should get married, and the latter should have their marriages annulled.

            However, if the purpose of marriage is to provide every man with sex and babies, then I don’t see any easy fixes. Womb-entitlement already doesn’t work due to women’s freedom to use contraception and the prohibition of marital rape. As for paternity, a more effective system would be genetic testing + the Roman / Norse custom of letting the husband either claim or reject his wife’s newborn children. The current system protects the child at the husband’s expense.

          • NZ says:


            Many same-sex couples are already raising children, and many married couples are vocally childfree.

            Unique Identifier and I already addressed this, so instead let’s qualify your use of the word “many” there.

            How many same-sex couples, as a fraction of all same-sex couples, are raising children? 5%? 10%? I’d guess less than 1% if we’re being totally realistic. That’s maybe a few thousand gay couples.

            (My math: 300 million Americans; gays are about 3% of the population, making 9 million gays. I’m being generous and supposing that a ninth of them (1 million) are adults in a stable cohabiting relationship. That’s 500,000 stable cohabiting gay adult couples. 1% of that is 5,000 gay couples.)

            Meanwhile, how many traditional married couples are “vocally childfree” (meaning they do not intend to have children, and follow through on that intent past the childbearing age of the female)?

            What I wonder is why those couples get married at all. The benefit package the government gives to married couples is really intended to facilitate childrearing, so by marrying and deliberately not having kids they’re kind of abusing the system. But since there isn’t much of a public issue being made out of this, my guess that very few people are doing it, and/or we already have latent mechanisms to keep it in check or deal with it if we can’t.

            That considered, I don’t see it as a big problem. But let’s suppose that some large proportion of married couples were vocally anti-child-rearing. What could be done? As far as I can tell, nothing practical that wouldn’t also destroy marriage as a whole. So there’s not much use worrying about it, though I’m totally down for thinking up ways to encourage married couples to have/get kids (or not marry if they don’t) if things start clearly heading in that direction. Fortunately, biology takes care of most of the problem since people generally want to reproduce anyway, and people who can’t often try to adopt.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            Note that there is nothing profound about the purpose/function distinction with regards to the wheelbarrow. All you are saying is that we can never be entirely certain about something, without knowing all the facts. Generally, function is easier to figure out, though in the case of for instance buggy program code, the opposite is often the case.

            Yes, figuring out the purpose of marriage is non-trivial. Perhaps you find it too difficult to try yourself, and perhaps I am wrong about my inferences. But I absolutely refuse this sophistry where, since we cannot be entirely certain about the purpose, we cannot talk about it either. (Note that this principle only applies when convenient.)

            I have given some reasons for why I think marriage has fundamentally been about parents providing for their children, and by extension husbands providing for their wives. I maintain that Levirate marriage, divorce rights in case of infertility, marital rape not being a thing, etc, strongly suggests this purpose. You are of course free to disagree.

            A marriage contract used to serve as a formalization of a set of duties. In the past, if two adults wanted to have sex with each other, it was absolutely haram – this was not a natural right, but something one -obtained-.

            The to-be wife had a duty, towards her family (which was not expected to provide for adult women, but was expected to help their daughters ‘get married off’) to not have sex with a man who wouldn’t provide for her. The man would have to volunteer this duty through a marriage contract, and the woman’s parents would have to give their blessings, i.e. find the man able to actually provide. Since it was the wife’s parents’ responsibility to find the man suitable or unsuitable, they could (and would) be expected to resume responsibility in the event that the husband and his family failed to fulfill their duty to provide.

            I could further elaborate on the duties involved, but let’s leave it at that for now. What changes in the case of an childless couple?

            Barely anything. The woman was still considered to need a provider, regardless of whether there would be any children. Generally, nobody would know beforehand whether a couple would be fertile. Marriage was a necessary precaution for the not unprecedented event of pregnancy. This is much like how adults are required to get a license before driving a car. [Note that we do not revoke the licenses of people who do not drive.]

            A childless, married couple is no more of a problem (for the institution) than a driver with a car insurance who never crashes.

            You are absolutely right that modern technology and society dramatically change the conditions that made marriage a necessity. What normally follows is that families and individuals who do not see the need for marriage, simply don’t get married. [And this has indeed happened. I am not sure if this is a change for the better, all things considered. In one sense, I don’t care, because I am free to choose how to live my own life, but in another sense, I am obligated to pay child support to single mothers through my taxes. But this is mostly a different topic.]

            Homosexual marriage seems to be to only be meaningful in two different cases:

            – Marriage is disentangled from husband providing for wife and parents providing for children. This development has long been underway. One might discuss if this is a good thing, but removing the duties from marriage in order to leave it a mostly symbolic nothing, is not the same thing as ‘equal rights for romantic partners’.

            – Homosexual couples are given the tools and rights to have children; i.e. adoption, sperm donation, surrogacy. I am fairly ambivalent on this point, but it’s a question of same-sex parenting, not ‘equal rights for romantic couples’.

            But everybody seems to insist that homosexual marriage has nothing to do with the two above issues, mostly I assume because they lead towards a more nuanced discussion, all the while insisting that civil unions are not good enough.

          • Nornagest says:

            All you are saying is that we can never be entirely certain about something, without knowing all the facts.

            No. What I’m saying is that attributing a fixed, original purpose (as opposed to a current function) to social institutions is a waste of time. It’s not so much that we can’t uncover one (though we often can’t, for reasons I’ve already spilled too much ink on) as that, whether we can or not, it’s completely irrelevant to the incentives the institution creates, which are what actually matters. Any purpose we attach after that says a lot about what we want the institution to be and not a lot about how it actually works.

            Which in this context means we should be looking at the ugly modern institution of marriage, not the idealized traditional version you’ve been trying to invoke. You might recall that this grew out of a discussion of Chesterton’s fence? That parable’s all about object-level functionality, not idealized purpose; its point is that real-world institutions — including those you might find novel or “degenerate” — might work in ways that aren’t immediately obvious, and that one should strive to understand them before changing them, lest we invite unintended consequences.

            You don’t seem very interested in doing that.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            The traditional invocation of Chesterton’s fence states: there is a fence; maybe it has a purpose; we should figure it out before removing it.

            It is not much of a stretch to talk of Chesterton’s face like this: there used to be a fence; there used to not be wolves in the pasture; there are now wolves on the inside; maybe the fence was what kept them out.

            The ‘purpose’ of marriage, in the recent past, historically and originally is of course relevant to the discussion of whether same-sex relationships are marriages in the relevant sense – such that marriages should be extended to cover these cases too – or if they are something different, such that whatever function we might want to achieve should be under a different institution.

            If I wanted people who care for their elderly parents to be compensated financially, I might advocate a new institution, but I certainly wouldn’t say that ‘child support’ should be extended to cover these cases, even if there are some parallels and even if it might ‘functionally’ achieve exactly what I wanted.

            This discussion is -not- about what institutional functionality homosexual couples should have. It is about whether it’s defensible to have different institutions for homosexual couples (civil unions) and heterosexual couples (traditional marriage).

            -If- heterosexual marriage was nothing but a cohabitation contract between equal adults, it would be a perfect fit for homosexual couples. -Since- (I posit) it is something profoundly different, I argue it isn’t a good fit. I also suggest that extending marriage to homosexual couples will (further) pull marriage towards this profoundly different form.

            One might of course argue that this profoundly different form is what marriage should be in our time, and that this is a change for the better. This seems to be the focus of your argument from functionality. This is a fine thing to discuss, too, but what I have been trying to establish is how it’s possible to be against, or perhaps merely unenthusiastic, about homosexual marriage, without being a bigot.

          • Nita says:

            @ NZ

            That is an extremely weird argument. Why should the law treat the children being raised by same-sex parents differently from other children? “Because there are so few of them” is not a just answer. There are very few female serial killers, but that doesn’t mean that the few that do exist shouldn’t be arrested and tried.

            Actually, I have a hunch why traditionalists haven’t been making an issue out of childfree people, divorcees, atheists, and even childfree divorced atheists getting married, but do have a huge problem with gay couples — but, as you can imagine, it’s not very charitable.

            @ Unique Identifier

            So, you’re saying that the purpose of marriage is to handle two issues:
            – one partner being the main breadwinner,
            – taking care of children.

            Although most modern couples are less vulnerable to these issues, same-sex couples are certainly not immune. Gay and bisexual people can have become parents in their previous opposite-sex relationships, they can suddenly gain full custody while in a same-sex relationship (for instance, if something happens to the other parent), lesbian couples can use sperm donations.

            And of course a stay-at-home partner will be at an economic disadvantage regardless of anyone’s sex.

            What’s the justification for treating them differently?

          • Nornagest says:

            It is not much of a stretch to talk of Chesterton’s face like this: there used to be a fence; there used to not be wolves in the pasture; there are now wolves on the inside; maybe the fence was what kept them out.

            I think there’s some basic asymmetries there than don’t you seem to recognize; but I’m tired of arguing semantics anyway. Whatever we call it, sure, you can make that argument. But we are now, effectively, proposing to build a road through that (possibly wolf-infested) pasture, and you’re saying that we shouldn’t because we need to keep the wolves out. We can argue whether the road’s a good idea or not on its own merits, but surely the presence or absence of wolves shouldn’t play into it — though the fence that existed fifty years ago may have made building the proposed road a bit less convenient.

          • NZ says:


            The argument you were using is one I’ve heard a lot before, and is supposed to make it sound like there are gay people lined up outside city hall just waiting to get married and have kids if only the mean bigoted people would let them.

            This argument misrepresents reality in several ways. The one relevant here is to inflate the number of gay people who are seriously interested in participating in the institution of marriage, and thus inflate the urgency of the issue. (If there was only one gay couple anywhere in the US who wanted to get married, I suspect we’d still be told that all gay people’s rights are being violated.)

            I’m also used to hearing the one about straight couples who get married and purposefully don’t have kids. In case you missed it the first time, I think it is in fact a problem for the institution of marriage (I guess I disagree with Unique Identifier on that one) as well as being an abuse-of-benefits issue, though I don’t think it’s a major problem, again for the reason I already stated. But, to repeat myself some more, there’s not much that can be done about it anyway without gutting the whole institution. (A lot of couples like that change their minds eventually, for example.) THAT’s the reason nobody’s making an issue out of it.

            My hunch is that your uncharitable hunch is that marriage traditionalists are simply finding any way possible to justify their base emotional repulsion to gay people (“men kissing men is icky!”). I think that’s rather lazy thinking, since even if somebody has a base emotional repulsion it doesn’t cancel out his ability to reason as well. (And notice there I’ve already been charitable about the extent of this repulsion. In reality it’s obvious that not all marriage traditionalists–and probably only a small minority of eloquent ones–have this. There are even one or two gay people making the same arguments.*)

            Just because a woman screams and jumps up on a chair in primal fear when she sees a mouse run across the floor does not mean she cannot also present a reasoned argument about why she does not want mice in her house. And it doesn’t mean she wants to go around killing every mouse she sees either.

            *A while ago I noticed that gay people do not seem to have an equivalent to what blacks have in someone like Thomas Sowell. There are indeed only a small handful of gay people to be found making traditionalist arguments, and even if they write very well and are well-credentialed they are not given any media spotlight.

          • Nornagest says:

            Funny, a few years ago I personally witnessed several hundred gay people lined up outside city hall just waiting to get married if only the mean bigoted people would let them. I didn’t ask any of them about kids.

          • Unique Identifier says:

            You assume that the road will have no effect whatsoever on wolves in the pasture, or to unpack the analogy, that extending marriage to homosexual couples will have no effect on marriage. I assume that such a road would let even more wolves in, i.e. that marriage will be twisted yet further away from a framework to assist in family formation as discussed previously, to a mostly symbolic formality for consenting adults who refuse to have their ‘freedoms’ limited by a rigid institutional framework.

            This seems to be our fundamental disagreement, and I’m not sure if I see any way to determine which assumption is correct.

            Once we have agreed that homosexual couples are just as good parents as anybody else, then homosexual marriage makes a fair bit of sense. Most people opposed to homosexual marriage, I assume, think that children should grow up with both their biological parents, and that adoption might sometimes be necessary, but is fundamentally undesirable.

            As long as same-sex couples are childless, there are no fundamental imbalances (pregnancies, paternity) and no third parties (children), and all issues can be handled between the consenting adults however they please.

            In my view, marriage contracts are primarily about protecting the (potential) children. As such, I see individual childless marriages as harmless, except for the issues that arise when for instance the husband wants to leave his infertile wife. Special benefits related to having children should attach directly to the children, and not to the marriage itself.

            In my view, people have no obligation to produce children, only to make sure they provide for whatever children they happen to produce.

            If voluntarily childless heterosexual marriage ever became normative for marriage as an institution, as homosexual marriage is wont to be, that would indeed be a problem. This is unlikely to happen – childless marriages are seen as non-central examples, whereas homosexual marriages are apparently supposed to be ‘just the same as any other marriage’.

          • Nornagest says:

            You assume that the road will have no effect whatsoever on wolves in the pasture, or to unpack the analogy, that extending marriage to homosexual couples will have no effect on marriage.

            No, I’m assuming it’ll have no further effect on the aspects of traditional marriage you’re upset about losing. But those aspects were lost for specific reasons (no-fault divorce, effective birth control, closing wage and employment gaps, etc.), not through a general deficit of traditionalism. We cannot reasonably conclude that gay marriage will cause more of the same changes that we’ve previously seen, merely by making the institution of marriage less traditional.

            I’m not ruling out different changes, of course, some of which we might not like, but no specific threat of those has been raised in this conversation so far, just a general precautionary principle. You may recall that my first question in this thread was about what point we can consider those precautions satisfied at. I still don’t think it’s been answered.

          • NZ says:

            @Unique Identifier:

            Your last paragraph actually sums up pretty well part of what my response was going to be. I’m just kind of sensitive to the fact that individual instances can become normative without anyone noticing.

            Besides, “normative” might be too late anyway. The required critical mass for the undesirable effect to happen could be very small–perception is not strictly based on statistical facts. (E.g. if, say, just one groom out of a hundred is a gay guy, or a guy who is unwilling to prove he is capable of fathering children, the role of “groom” could become associated in most men’s eyes with a kind of emasculation, effeminacy, etc. and this would greatly hinder their willingness to get married.) So, there’s a crystallization effect to be wary of there too.

          • Nita says:

            @ Unique Identifier

            It would make sense to argue about what sort of family is ideal for raising children in a world where children can be born only with our collective approval. In this world, children are born in non-ideal families every day, and sometimes families change or fall apart, and we have to handle that somehow.

            As for adoption — there have been cases of good, traditional, opposite-sex Christian parents beating and starving their adopted children to death. Not in a fit of rage, but as a systematic effort to “break the child’s spirit”, as some Christian parenting books demand. They thought beating the kids into compliance was their religious duty. I’m pretty sure whatever effect same-sex parents have on a child’s delicate psyche, it can’t be worse than that.

        • Tracy W says:

          “other people can be penalized for failing to recognise the legal legitimacy of your union”? If Bob transfers his house to his widower, that doesn’t require squat from me.

          If you’re Bob’s estate’s executor it does. (Let’s assume that Bob in his will wrote “I leave my house to my husband, or, failing that, to my best friend John, who is also my executor.”)

          Or, if Bob’s life insurance pays out to Bob’s spouse, and a clerk at the life insurance company refuses to recognise the legal legitimacy of the union and thus transfer the money to Bob’s widower, they can be penalised.

      • Largely true, but if every employee could learn endless minutiar easily, or if the industry could settle on a few core languages, the costs of entry would bes o low that it would a McJob. Its rewarding because it’s annoying.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          I think this is in the wrong thread, but I’m having a truly enjoyable time imagining the train of thought that would make it not be a non sequitur. 🙂

    • Adam says:

      I’m guessing you’re LDS, since you say your community is so successful at exporting its views? I’ll give you credit for spreading your views to South Pacific islands where the GDP per capita is $20, but that’s doubtful to continue. Religion is dying in the industrialized west. The U.S. holds on tighter than most, but it’s still dying. How quickly the number drops below 20% is just a matter of how quickly old people die off. Our increasingly inverted demographic pyramid is the only reason that number is anywhere near that high.

      I can only speak from my position. My mother is Irish, dad Mexican, so obviously I had a Catholic upbringing (ironically, her parents disowned her for dating my dad, but at least that brand of bigotry has died more quickly). Neither of my parents approved of homosexuality. I probably wouldn’t have, either, if it were only a matter of community messaging, but the reality is, a whole lot of friends I grew up with and loved deeply turned out to be gay, and as they kept coming out, it got harder and harder to hold up the veil of ignorance and believe they were deviant sinners and part of some sinister conspiracy to use government force to impose an evil agenda on me. If your kids have any level of meaningful interaction with the larger world beyond the borders of your “community,” the same thing is probably going to happen to them.

      • Barry says:

        I’m not LDS, and attributing my positions to ignorance is not a good way to generate healthy discussion.

        • Adam says:

          I’m not sure where you got that. I attribute your position to your parents telling you what to think, which is exactly the effect you hope to have on your own kids.

          • NZ says:

            I think he got it from

            I’m guessing you’re LDS

          • Adam says:

            How is LDS the same thing as ignorance? I do assume he thinks the same thing as every other person in his community, because they taught him to think that way, but that isn’t ignorance. I’m sure he’s well aware of the outside world and competing arguments.

          • Barry says:


            I got it from:

            “If your kids have any level of meaningful interaction with the larger world beyond the borders of your “community,” the same thing is probably going to happen to them.”

            I took that to mean that these opinions can’t withstand contact with the outside world, ergo the only way for my kids to hold them would be for them to be ignorant.

          • Adam says:

            Not the only way, but the most likely way. People with your opinions almost never seem to speak of gay people as actual people that they’ve known and loved and shared meaningful life experiences with. They speak of them as abstractions and symbols of a larger cultural war they imagine themselves to be fighting. I believe a great deal of the reason the world has become more generally cosmopolitan and less bigoted over time is that it is becoming easier and easier for people to meet and spend significant time with others who are nothing like them.

            I don’t know enough about your general level of knowledge to call you “ignorant,” but the way you speak of your community, I suspect it doesn’t include many gay people.

          • NZ says:

            People with Barry’s opinions (I’m basically one of them in this case) may very often talk about gay people as actual people we’ve known and loved and shared meaningful life experiences with, but over time we (or I anyway) get tired of hearing the same “Oh there you go saying you have a gay friend again, trying to distract us from the fact that you’re a bigot” line, so we just skip it and keep the argument more abstract. Also, I’m not sure how meaningful it would be to you anyway.

            Here, I’ll provide you examples of three of the gay people I’ve been very close friends (not sure what you mean by “love” there, actually) and shared meaningful life experiences with, and we’ll see if you can resist writing “Yeah yeah yeah, you’re saying you’ve had a gay friend or two, that doesn’t prove anything.”

            Throughout high school one of my best friends was a black lesbian. We hung out almost every day after school, walking (later, driving) around the ‘hood, talking about everything under the sun, shooting pool, drinking and smoking, bobbing our heads while her cousin would rap over fantastic beats her cousin produced, etc. I helped her overcome her fear of approaching a girl she had had a crush on for about a year. Later on she used to ask me my opinion of girls she was thinking of asking out. She and I continued to be close friends for a couple years after high school as well, then we fell out of touch.

            As an upperclassman I was also close friends with a gay guy who was a tuba player in the high school orchestra. Our orchestra went on tour that year and we were “tour buddies”, basically walking around and discovering downtown Chicago a lot on our own. While we’re not that close anymore, he is one of my wife’s best friends. He attended our wedding and we all enjoy hanging out when we’re in town together. I hold him in very high regard.

            In college I became close friends with a nontraditional student in his 40s who was gay. He had some emotional/developmental problems that became apparent later. We initially bonded over music, and spent a lot of time together jamming, writing music, having long philosophical discussions, watching movies, and volunteering. I lent him money a few times, and I let him move into my apartment while he was between places to stay and my roommate had disappeared. He was a pretty good roommate. Together, we had a huge garage sale in which I helped him confront his mild hoarding problem. (Actually, throughout the duration of that friendship I wore the “therapist” hat quite a bit, without even a twinge of resentment.)

            So there you go. Real, living breathing people about whom I cared or still care deeply. I hope all of them find or have found people they love and can have the joy of coming home to for the rest of their lives. But I don’t think that’s what “marriage” is for. Their happiness is not contingent upon redefining an institution that evolved over thousands and thousands of years.

      • Religion is dying in the industrialized west.

        Intellectuals and social critics have been saying this for a hundred years or more, and yet, religion somehow still thrives.

        • NZ says:

          Well, some religions are dying, some are growing. I can’t help but notice your last name and recognize it as Jewish; Jews are up according to the census. (I wonder, is it the high birthrates or the previously irreligious 20- and 30-somethings like me who, around the time of the birth of their first children, have sudden profound realizations about the importance of heritage and legacy and then go out and buy a JPS Tanakh and start reading it a lot?)

          The general trend, unfortunately, appears to be going down for religion. But we’ll see, it may not be permanent. There may be a leveling out or even a rebirth.

          At any rate, it remains to be seen what effect this has on social mores; many religions are by now fully infiltrated by leftist PC-mongers and SJWs.

          • BBA says:

            I’d chalk up any growth in Judaism to the extremely high birth rates among Hasidim/Haredim. The “modernist” branches of Judaism are still slowly declining. As someone who got bar mitzvahed in a Conservative shul it pains me to think the future of my religion is in theocratic dystopias like Kiryas Joel – but then I haven’t set foot in a synagogue in ten years, so I’m as much to blame as anyone.

          • NZ says:


            The growth I’m thinking of was recorded in a Pew study, and was according to self-reporting among adults. So, those high birthrates would have to have existed a couple decades ago and are only now paying off. Possible, I suppose.

          • Emily says:

            Your description (“around the time of the birth of their first children…start reading it a lot”) exactly fits me. Is this a thing in general? I haven’t actually met anyone else who has done this.

          • Anonymous says:

            American Jews have sub-replacement fertility. Hasidim are too rare to make a difference. The population has grown over the past 30 years for the same reason the country has grown: immigration.

          • BBA says:

            @NZ: Well, you mentioned the census so I thought it was a more universal count. It may be that self-identification as ethnically/culturally Jewish is on the rise even as participation in organized Jewish life is declining (outside the Hasidic enclaves). That’s my story certainly.

            I haven’t seen any reporting against the long-term decline of the established modernist denominations (URJ, USCJ, etc.) and although there are more non-denominational synagogues now than in the past, they don’t seem to be making much of an impact.

            @Anonymous: immigration from where? The trickle of Israeli immigration to the US is counterbalanced by US Jews making aliyah, and none of the other countries with notable Jewish populations are significant sources of immigration.

            Meanwhile, there may only be a few hundred thousand Hasidim but there are only a few million Jews to begin with, so I could easily see their high birth rates overcoming the secular decline (pun intended) in modernist Judaism.

            (I note that nobody has contested my representation of Kiryas Joel as a theocratic dystopia.)

          • Anonymous says:

            Immigration from the former Soviet Union.

          • NZ says:


            Oops, you’re right, I misspoke earlier. I don’t think it was the census.

        • Adam says:

          Religiosity has declined greatly over the last hundred years and I see no reason at all to think that won’t continue.

          • NZ says:

            I make no predictions one way or another. I just think it’s possible that the decline could be a short-term “adjustment” response to industrialization, urbanization, etc. before we return to the long-term trend of all recognizing the same One God.

          • Adam says:

            Sure, that’s possible, but I doubt it. It seems much more likely a response to humans having tenable materialistic explanations for the appearance of order and intention in nature. Some apparently hardwired desire for community and sense of purpose that religion provides keeps a subset of the scientifically literate clinging on and that may continue for some time, along with the simple inertia of tradition and early childhood indoctrination.

            The way even the non-religious here create their own technology-based eschatologies and salvation narratives suggest the basic story structures have quite a draw, but supernaturalism and explicitly faith-based epistemology has far less of a draw.

          • NZ says:

            I think you’ve modeled the situation well. The problem is that eventually rational, materialistic explanations become unsatisfactory.

          • Winter Shaker says:


            …before we return to the long-term trend of all recognizing the same One God.

            Out of curiosity, are you speaking just of the USA when you talk of that? Because I’m not sure there ever was such a time. Sure, you can point to a belief in one god as having been much more dominant than now (if you’re happy to elide the differences between denominations and claim that the god of, say, Roman Catholicism is identical to the god of, say, Southern Baptist-ism), but there always were dissenters in the past, and now there are enough Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs in a multicultural society that it seems extremely unlikely that the number of gods commonly worshipped by an overwhelming majority will ever reduce to one.

            The problem is that eventually rational, materialistic explanations become unsatisfactory.

            Can you elaborate what you mean by ‘unsatisfactory’? If you mean intellectually unsatisfactory, in the sense that we do not yet have a fully fleshed-out materialistic Grand Theory of Everything, then sure – but the theories that we currently do have are surely no worse, and in some cases much better, than any supernatural-based rivals (in terms of actually explaining the evidence, having predictive power etc).

            If, on the other hand, you meant emotionally unsatisfactory, that no matter how much better a non-supernatural theory might be at explaining the evidence and allowing us to make predictions; no matter how much more intellectually justifiable a non-supernatural theory may be, the architecture of our brains is such that many of us will still reject it in favour of a supernatural theory simply because we find the supernatural theory more comforting, or easier to think-we-understand, then sadly you may be right.

            But as I understand it, religiosity tends to correlate negatively (among individuals) with levels of education, and also at a societal level with levels of socioeconomic development (wealth, security…) more generally, so if those things continue on their current trajectory, we should not expect a return to the levels of religiosity more typical of lower levels of education / wealth / security. And to the extent that we can can figure out ways of getting the benefits of things that religions do well (the sense of community being the really big one as far as I can see), without the negatives (of which being expected to believe in extremely low-probability supernatural hypotheses is a pretty major sticking point for a lot of people), it’s worth devoting efforts to trying to do so. Of couse, that can be quite a challenge.

          • NZ says:

            @Winter Shaker:

            The long-term trend I’m thinking of is over the last 5-7,000 years, if you think about the birth of Judaism and then the spread of Christianity. I take it as given that Jews and all denominations of Christians worship essentially the same God. While Islam is currently the fastest growing religion, I don’t count Islam in this trend because Muslims worship a different god than Jews and Christians.

            I mean “unsatisfactory” in the sense that most humans use it after they’ve spent years applying rational thinking as best they can to the mysteries of life and the existence of the universe. I think Carl Sagan’s novel “Contact” was largely an expression this; it was the knowledgeable atheist admitting he isn’t knowledgeable enough to know he’s got the answer.

            As I understand it, religiosity follows a kind of U-curve across the education spectrum, where it reaches its bottom around the undergrad level but then rises again at the Master’s and PhD level. The right extreme of the curve is of course not as high as the left extreme (which is in the process of lowering, I imagine), but it is significantly higher than the bottom.

          • onyomi says:

            Uh, Muslims worship the same god as Jews and Christians…

          • Jaskologist says:

            Uh, Muslims worship the same god as Jews and Christians…

            Well, that’s a pretty loaded statement. The answer will depend heavily on which theological school you come from. Muslims are pretty much committed to saying they worship the same God as the Christians and Jews. A lot of Christians would dispute that, but are committed to saying they worship the same God as the Jews. Jews would likely dispute both claims. I don’t know what the Sikh view is on how their one God matches to the others’.

            You could certainly claim a long-term trend for general monotheism, though.

          • onyomi says:

            They’re all Abrahamic religions…

            Do Jews really say that Christians don’t worship the same god? I have never heard that. From what I understand, they worship the same god, only they don’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah. Similarly, Muslims recognize Jesus as a prophet, but not the Messiah. I’m not sure what the Christian view on Mohammed is: whether he’s considered a legit prophet, but not as important as Muslims take him to be, or if he’s a false prophet. In any case, I’ve never heard anyone claim that Muslims worship a different god from the Christians. The question is who is that god’s official representative and/or avatar, which books are his divinely inspired word, etc.

          • Jaskologist says:

            Jews are skeptical that the Trinity isn’t really just polytheism, and they certainly don’t accept Jesus as God, which Christians do. “Abrahamic” isn’t really much of a classification so much as a self-identification. Christians can at least legitimately claim that their founders were all Jews and they accept the Jewish scripture. There’s much less connection between either of those and Islam, except that Muhammad was aware of Christianity, and gestured in the direction of “God talked to them, but they got it all wrong.”

            God’s nature as revealed by Christianity and Islam is very different, hence some of the dispute over whether it’s really the same God. For a very simplified example, science was effectively squelched in the Muslim world because cause and effect were declared counter to Allah’s will, since He can and will do whatever He arbitrarily wants. In Christendom, science was birthed instead, because the idea that God was a God of Law and Reason (and probably was Reason itself) was embedded in that religion, so it made sense to look for the laws He had made for nature.

          • Nornagest says:

            There’s much less connection between either of those and Islam, except that Muhammad was aware of Christianity, and gestured in the direction of “God talked to them, but they got it all wrong.”

            Although Islam doesn’t accept the Christian and Jewish scriptures as such, it definitely takes place in their context; a lot of the Koran restates narratives from them, or builds on ones that it only summarizes.

            I believe the Islamic approach toward the Torah and Bible can be summed up as saying that they’re the word of God insofar as they’ve been accurately passed down. Mormonism, as I recall, takes a similar approach.

          • Cauê says:

            The “same” part must be stretched a lot to get to everyone worshiping the same God.

            The differences from one person to the next in what they understand as “God”, even when they consider themselves as sharing the same religion, are by no means trivial (does he even have a “personality”? is it the personality we see in the Old Testament? the one we’re told about in the New Testament? something else? does he answer prayers? does he care about human sexuality? is the Trinity an adequate way to think about him? does he even want something from you? what?).

            People don’t usually talk about how the God they believe in actually is, but when they do, by my standards it’s hard to find five people who believe in what could be reasonably described as the same God. Of course, this is magnified when looking at the thousands of religions and variations that have constantly existed for thousands of years.

          • Jaskologist says:

            That’s true. I guess I was thinking that there’s less continuity, in that Muhammad and his followers weren’t Christians/Jews who broke off, although I’ve seen occasional speculation wrt Muhammad himself. On the other hand, Arabs do claim descent from Abraham’s son Ishmael, and Christians and Jews don’t dispute that.

          • NZ says:

            It’s much simpler than all that.

            Muslims worship a god named Allah, who goes by something like 99 other names as well.

            Jews and Christians worship a God named Yehovah (actual pronunciation uncertain) who, while sometimes referred to with other words, only has that one name. It’s used from the very first sentence of the Bible onwards, consistently.

            Christians have introduced a complexity to the God figure by adding the Trinity, but their trinity still represents one God, namely Yehovah. (Just don’t ask me to explain how exactly.)

            “Ibrahimic” refers to a lineage of humans and their shared identity, not to who they worship. So, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam may all be Ibrahimic religions, but that doesn’t mean Muslims worship the same God as Jews and Christians.

          • AJD says:

            I take it as given that Jews and all denominations of Christians worship essentially the same God. While Islam is currently the fastest growing religion, I don’t count Islam in this trend because Muslims worship a different god than Jews and Christians.

            This is a very Christian-centric perspective. For example, Jewish authorities uniformly, as far as I know, consider Muslims to worship the same God as Jews, or at least to be fellow-monotheists, but rabbinic opinion is divided on whether or not Christians are idolaters.

          • AJD says:

            Muslims worship a god named Allah, who goes by something like 99 other names as well.

            Jews and Christians worship a God named Yehovah (actual pronunciation uncertain) who, while sometimes referred to with other words, only has that one name. It’s used from the very first sentence of the Bible onwards, consistently.

            “Muslims worship a god named Allah” is equivalent to “Jews worship a god named Elohim” (or “Anglicans worship a god named God”) not “Yehovah”—Allah is simply the Arabic word for ‘God’, not a name. Arabic-speaking Christians use the word Allah to refer to God as well.

            The name YHWH does not appear in the first sentence of the Bible. The word Elohim, which means ‘God’, does. The first occurrence of the name YHWH in the Bible is Genesis 2:4, in the second account of the creation of Man. The use of YHWH is hardly as “consistent” throughout the Bible as you assert; it flips back and forth between YHWH and Elohim ‘God’ quite frequently, especially in Genesis and the first part of Exodus.

          • onyomi says:

            I agree with NJD about different words for “god,” and my anecdotal experience is that believers of all three religions think the others are worshiping the same god, but they have gotten some of the details wrong.

            On that note, it’s interesting to think whether all monotheistic religions do not, almost by definition, worship the same god.

            With these three monotheistic religions, however, it’s more than that, since there is a direct line of descent, with Jesus being a Jew and Mohammad familiar with Judaism and Christianity (though I’m a little vague on what exactly he believed before his religious experiences).

          • Nornagest says:

            Sikhism, mentioned upthread, is a more complicated case; it developed in the 15th and 16th centuries in the context of North India, which then as now had both Hindu and Muslim influences. It claims descent from neither. By my not-terribly-well-informed reading its doctrine looks closer to Hinduism, but on the other hand Hinduism (insofar as you can call it a single religion) is far more amenable to monotheistic interpretations than many Christians suppose.

            Mohammad familiar with Judaism and Christianity (though I’m a little vague on what exactly he believed before his religious experiences).

            It’s damnably difficult to find hard information on pre-Muslim religious practices in Arabia, let alone Muhammad’s personal views. He was a merchant and is generally thought to have traveled widely, so he’d have been exposed to a broad cross-section of religious views, but that’s about as much as I can say definitively.

          • NZ says:


            I just checked my Hebrew-English Tanakh, and you’re right, Elohim is the word used for the first chapter. I misremembered. However, Yehovah (or YHWH) is consistently used as God’s name. He might go by other titles, but not by other names.

            You’re also right about Allah being the general Arabic word for God (in fact, it’s a cognate of Elohim). I was wrong about that. However, I was right about Muslims using 99 other names for their god. I will admit I don’t know whether the Quran claims these are the actual names of God or just titles or terms used to refer to God.

            We can also differentiate the Judeo-Christian God from the Muslim one by looking at the characteristics and actions of each one. If they are not in accord, and if no text of divine origin allows for this dischord, then we know they aren’t the same. As far as I know, this is the case: Yehovah does things and says things in the Torah that the god in the Quran contradicts.

            Of course, if you reject that the Torah is divinely originated, then this all goes away. But then, the question of whether two religions worship the same god would be moot to you anyway, right?

            BTW: Maybe some Jewish rabbis say that Christians don’t worship the same God as the Jews and are idolaters. I think they’re wrong on the first count, and on the second I think it might be irrelevant to the issue: you can worship the real God but do so in a way you’re not supposed to. That’s what the Golden Calf incident was all about.

          • Nornagest says:

            You’re probably giving the 99 names of God, famous though they are, more significance than they really deserve. They consist almost entirely of epithets for attributes of God, not of proper names, and they originate not from the Koran but from the hadith, a sort of secondary canon of wisdom literature and reports of Muhammad’s life; there’s no direct Christian equivalent, but you could compare it to the Jewish Talmud.

          • NZ says:

            Fair enough. The Talmud ought not to be taken as authoritative by Jews (even if it all too often is), so I have to consider that any analogous Muslim texts ought not to be taken as authoritative by Muslims either.

            Maybe someone with more specific knowledge of Islam can explain why their god, if it’s really Yehovah, never goes by the name Yehovah.

            In any case we can still tell one God from the other by comparing their actions and attributes. They’re clearly not the same.

          • AJD says:

            Not to be rude, but, uh, where do you get off telling Jews that they “ought not” to take the Talmud as authoritative? Is that different from me telling Christians that they ought not to take the New Testament as scripture?

          • NZ says:


            I “get off” saying that because it’s clearly said or implied many times in the Torah that men’s words are not to be elevated above God’s. It’s probably the most fundamental lesson in the Torah.

            I don’t know enough about the NT to answer your second question with 100% confidence, but my tentative answer is “Yes, it is different” since the relationship of the NT to the OT is different from that of the Talmud to the Torah or Tanakh.

            Plus, the matter of whether the Tanakh (i.e. OT) is dissolved is nonexistent in Judaism, but it is an issue even in non-replacement theology Christianity.

          • AJD says:

            I don’t think you’re in a position to decide, on behalf of Jews, what they should think the fundamental lesson of the Torah is, or what the Talmud’s relationship to that lesson is.

          • NZ says:


            Is it possible that you really believe a Jew must be in a certain “position” in order to make judgment calls based on his reading of the Torah, and that if he lacks this status he must defer to what other Jews have historically decided is meant by the Torah, and to accept uncritically the towering authority other Jews have given the Talmud?

            I suppose the answer to this question is yes: there’s a chance that you really believe this.

            But if that’s the case, then you still need to 1) explain the grounds upon which your system of credentials is founded, since I’ve never heard of it, 2) define what qualifies one for this lofty position, 3) prove that I’m not already in that position, and 4) lay out your specific arguments for why the things I said were wrong.

            Since you did none of those things, you’re just making an ad hominem attack, and not really even that.

          • AJD says:

            I suppose I jumped to the conclusion that you’re not Jewish yourself, since the positions you were arguing for seem typical of Christians, in conflict with all main streams of Jewish thought, and misinformed about Jewish texts. If I was mistaken in doing so, I apologize.

          • NZ says:

            I happen to be Jewish, but that’s beside the point. Anyone can read the Torah and most who do, I’d argue, would come to the same conclusion I did if they were asked to think about it: that the Torah pretty clearly states that you shouldn’t elevate man’s laws to the level of God’s, and that this is one of the most fundamental lessons offered in the whole text. Therefore, the Talmud, being a compilation of men’s laws, ought not to be raised up to the level of the Torah.

          • AJD says:

            “Most who do” read the Torah and “are asked to think about it” are probably Talmud scholars, so I don’t think your inference that they reach the same conclusion as you do is likely to be true.

            And I do think there’s a difference between whether a Jew or a non-Jew is the one telling Jews how best to interpret Jewish texts from a Jewish perspective.

          • NZ says:

            It’s possible to recognize the existence of a lesson but then ignore it.

            For example, a gay rights activist will basically never tell you he’s against the 1st Amendment. It’s even likely that he knows what the 1st Amendment is and that he sincerely believes he respects it. But that won’t stop him from wishing Christian cake bakers tarred and feathered for refusing to bake cakes for gay weddings.

            It’s not unthinkable for this phenomenon to be widespread in a population either, so that from a high level a law or lesson is effectively being ignored while each individual believes he is upholding that law or lesson diligently.

            I do think there’s a difference between whether a Jew or a non-Jew is the one telling Jews how best to interpret Jewish texts from a Jewish perspective.

            Why? The Torah can be read by anyone. It doesn’t contain any messages that only Jews can understand for some magical reason. A lesson that a Jew might learn by reading the Torah can also be learned and discussed by anyone else who reads it. If a lesson is clearly observable in the Torah yet it’s also clearly observable that most Jews are ignoring the lesson in some way, it doesn’t make the observation any less true whether the person making it is Jewish or not.

          • AJD says:

            I don’t understand your analogy regarding cake-bakers.

            A non-Jew telling Jews how to interpret Jewish texts presumably doesn’t share the Jews’ perspectives, values, or goals in interpreting the text; why should a Jew believe that the interpretations the non-Jew brings are relevant for Jewish purposes?

            I mean, again, I could tell a Christian that it is “clearly observable” that the “most fundamental lesson” in the Torah is that God is One, and on that basis they should reject the New Testament, but I don’t think they’d consider my opinion on the matter very relevant.

          • NZ says:

            The analogy with the cake-bakers was that the gay rights movement generally responds to people who disagree with their goals by going around stomping on the first-amendment rights of those who disagree. Yet if you ask an individual in the gay rights movement whether he supports the first amendment, he’ll typically say yes in earnest.

            Most observant Jews follow the Talmud (which is a collection of laws unequivocally written by men) as if it were divine law, despite the fact that the Torah says not to elevate men’s laws to the status of God’s laws. If you ask an individual Jew, he’ll agree that this is what the Torah says.

            I hope that makes the analogy clearer.

            If I’m talking about the Torah, then Jews’ perspectives and values and goals don’t matter. Those things change. Those are human things. The Torah is what we’re talking about, and the arguments I’m making are what we’re evaluating. It doesn’t really matter whether I’m a Jew or a space alien.

          • AJD says:

            I don’t know what you mean by “stomping on the first-amendment rights”.

            Most observant Jews will tell you that the laws stated in the Talmud are the merely a more detailed exposition and analysis of the same laws stated in the Torah, not “a collection of laws unequivocally written by men” that supersedes or contradicts the Torah.

            If you’re giving Jews advice on what actions to take, they should (tautologically) only follow that advice if doing so will aid them in reaching their goals and acting in accordance with their values. If you don’t share those goals and values and your advice is derived from principles ignorant of those goals and values, then what reason to Jews have to consider your advice relevant to them?

          • NZ says:

            don’t know what you mean by “stomping on the first-amendment rights”.

            Oh, that’s okay. Just refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding because it goes against your religious principles and then you’ll find out shortly.

            Maybe laws in the Talmud are supposed to be simply a more detailed exposition and analysis of laws in the Torah, but they haven’t remained limited to that.

            Nowhere in the Torah, for example, does it say that Passover should be celebrated with a tedious four-hour process of reciting prayers, occasionally sipping ritual wine, and staring at food you aren’t allowed to eat until around midnight. But this is how observant Jews insist on celebrating the holiday, and it’s become canonized to the point where there are prescribed responses to children who object or ask a lot of questions. There’s even a standard (and rather thick) Jewish prayer book just for the holiday.

            The Torah’s instructions for Passover are simply that it should last from one particular Shabbat to the next one, that there is to be no leavened bread in one’s home, nor may one eat it for the duration, and that there is to be a spiritual “coming together” on each of the two bookending Shabbats. Consider that if a Jewish family celebrated Passover this way, onlookers today–even devout Jewish ones–would not recognize the holiday they were celebrating.

            What do humans’ values and goals have to do with whether certain lessons are clearly evident in a widely-read text? Either those lessons are there or they aren’t. Sure, the person telling you this may not share your values and goals, but to ignore him for that reason is folly.

            If a British person can read and understand our Constitution, should we ignore that British person if he offers an insight into how the gay rights movement ought not to trample on people’s First Amendment rights, simply because he doesn’t share all our values and goals?

          • AJD says:

            Oh, that’s okay. Just refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding because it goes against your religious principles and then you’ll find out shortly.

            I’m glad you’ve decided to mock me rather than clarify your meaning, since it means we can drop this unproductive sidetrack of this discussion.

            What do humans’ values and goals have to do with whether certain lessons are clearly evident in a widely-read text?

            …But in any event, I feel like you’ve shifted the goalposts enough from the original question I intended to ask (“where [does a non-Jew] get off telling Jews that they ‘ought not’ to take the Talmud as authoritative?”) that it’s not really worth pursuing this that much farther anyway. The question you have shifted to is ‘Is the principle that men’s laws are not to be elevated to be equal to God’s clearly evident as a primary lesson of the Torah?’—but whether or not the answer to that question is even relevant to the normative question of whether Jews “should” take the Talmud as authoriative depends on values, goals, and background principles that are not presumptively shared or understood by non-Jews.

            By the way, the text of the Torah does not say that Passover begins or ends on Shabbat.

          • AJD says:

            …And also, you’re mistaken that what you cite (from Leviticus 23) is the extent of the Torah’s instructions for Passover. There are also instructions in Exodus 12 and 13, (such as “you shall observe this as a feast forever” and “tell your child on that day, ‘I do this because of what YHWH did for me when I came forth from Egypt,'” which commandments the seder, including answering children’s questions, is in fulfillment of).

      • CJB says:

        That’s…..naive in the extreme. I think you’re making the classic mistake of going “hey, lookit the past FORTY YEARS!”

        I think anyone looking at say, Regency England would have a great deal of difficulty in saying that it’d be followed by the Victorian Era.

        Typically, religion tends to be EXTREMELY cyclical, and often reactionary- people rebel against hyper-religious parents (Regency/Georgian england) or against the perceived degredation of the non-religious.

        Particularly, the el numbero uno predictor of “Christianity gets a big kick in the ass” is happening again-

        Islam is getting more expansionist. That does WONDERS for church attendance.

        Also, you’re basing your statistical data off a group that is currently still, what? Under forty? most under 30? A huge fraction under 18?

        Yes to all of those, btw.

        People tend to be very rebellious at those periods. when people start settling down, getting jobs, paying taxes, having children, having, ultimately, to worry about consequences in a very different way, they tend to become more conservative and religious.

        Trying to extrapolate the beliefs of older, settled family people from their young, college/partying selves is always a fools errand.

        • Adam says:

          We’ll see. That sounds a lot like the wishful thinking of someone who wants religion to survive to me. I’m clearly biased in the opposite direction, but I’m not extrapolating from current millenials. I’m extrapolating from a multi-century shift of power from religious to secular authority and from superstition and dogma to naturalistic explanations of the world. This isn’t a flash in the pan.

        • Jaskologist says:

          If I could hammer one thing into Rationalist’s heads it would be this: religions are not primarily concerned with explaining natural phenomena. It’s rarely even a secondary concern. Christianity isn’t, Islam isn’t, Buddhism isn’t, Hinduism isn’t, Judaism isn’t, and most of the rest that I’ve looked at aren’t either.

          You have a distorted view because Creation/Evolution debates have been elevated to The Most Important Thing in your particular bubbles, but even that revolves around a small handful of Bible chapters. You won’t find discussions of natural phenomenon in any of the Pauline epistles, or the Gospels for that matter. Psalms and Proverbs aren’t concerned with the interactions/existence of atoms. Religions want to answer, “what is wrong with the world, and what are we to do about it?” (Everyone agrees that all is not right in the world.)

          Yes, overlap does occur, because no sphere of knowledge is fully distinct from all the others. That is why you get the evolution/creationism debate, and that is also why the physicists of the day needed Lemaitre to school them about the origin of the universe. Similarly, when Rationalists wonder whether we live in a simulation, they are simultaneously reinventing the Buddhist idea that this is all an illusion, and reasserting faith in a Creator God.

          • Nita says:

            “what is wrong with the world, and what are we to do about it?”

            There’s nothing wrong with the world in itself. In fact, it’s wonderful in multiple ways.

            If you mean “why is the world not very nice to us?”, then the most likely reason might be that it wasn’t created with our needs in mind.

            If you mean “why are we not very nice to each other?” — again, the lack of an all-powerful benevolent creator is a likely explanation.

            Considering the circumstances, we’ve made fairly good progress on both fronts. But there’s still a lot of work ahead, and knowledge of natural phenomena seems to have been more useful than religion so far (e.g., surgery vs prayer, antipsychotic drugs vs exorcism, CBT vs Catholic guilt, forensic science vs trial by fire).

          • NZ says:


            I think you are correct in everything you said, except for your theory about what religions want to answer.

            They aren’t trying to answer the question of what’s wrong. They’re trying to answer the question of what’s right.

            I heard a Jewish guy put it once, “What’s God’s opinion?”

          • Jaskologist says:


            Indeed, those are the answers given by some religious traditions:
            Evil is an illusion. (Nietzsche)
            Evil is God’s fault for not existing. (r/atheism)
            We’ll fix it all with Science! (Neil deGrassbyterianism)

            Usually, they don’t try to claim all of those at once, though.

    • DavidS says:

      Replying to the original post on ‘LGBT agenda’ as discussion’s got long and arcane. I think an underlying thing I don’t quite understand is why you assume/desire your views on this to be particularly passed on to your kids. I mean, it sounds like the relevant values are ‘government shouldn’t intervene’, although others disagree on whether that’s really a relevant argument.

      But if you’re not actually antoi-gay per se, opposing gay marriage for rather complex “relationship of state, community and tradition” reasons doesn’t feel like the sort of thing you’d particularly aim to pass on as a value in itself. Sure, if you raise your kids to think in that way they might well reach the same conclusion. But they might not, and it would be clearer to others they met that their unusual (and potentially offensive) position was the result of a political philosophy, not just an anti-gay thing.

      I can see someone actively bringing their kids up as pro-equality, because they feel passionately it’s right. Or as opposed to gay marriage because they think it’s an abomination. I’m just not sure why it would be a noticeable part of the values you pass on. Unless you expect your kids to imbibe ever last jot of your political stance, which would be pretty worrying.

      • Barry says:

        My stance is based on both religion and politics, with religion winning out when the conflict. My religion is definitively not OK with gay marriage and literally can never evolve to become so.

        I hope to pass my religion to my children. if I am successful, my values and opinions with respect to gay marriage will follow naturally.

  17. LTP says:

    This is an earnest question I have for utilitarian effective altruists (UEAs): how do you justify being so concerned about saving the lives of very very poor people living in unstable parts of the world?

    What I mean is, most of these people will live pretty crappy lives all things considered. A life saved in poor, rural Africa is a life that will be likely to add negative utility to the world, while letting them die of malaria or some other disease will mean that they will add 0 net utility for the rest of time. This seems like a valid concern for the utilitarian, and yet I’ve never seen it or anything like it addressed.

    I can think of a few responses, though I am not a utilitarian so maybe I’m missing one:

    1. UEAs believe that technological and economic progress will lead to places like the poorer parts of Africa to rapidly become much less poor and much less unstable within our lifetimes, so saving these lives will dramatically increase utility in the future.

    2. Perhaps the lives of poor people in the third-world aren’t as bad as we westerners think aside from easily treatable diseases that hurt and kill. Either we westerners have a caricature of how bad their lives are, and in fact many will lead lives that create a net positive utility if they could just not be killed by malaria and harmed by easily treatable diseases and parasites. OR, perhaps their lives are as we westerners imagine, but due to people’s loss aversion, they imagine all the pain *they* would experience living in those conditions and assume that a person who actually lives in those places has that much pain, but they don’t.

    3. Perhaps UEA are humble and feel that they just don’t know enough to be able to predict with much certainty at all how good or bad the lives of the poor people in the third world will be. Thus, due to the uncertainty, they hedge towards saving lives rather than ending them (though, in that case, maybe then they should be focusing on other issues where there’s a greater chance of improving utility).

    4. UEAs think that maybe the people they save won’t create net positive utility, but their descendants will, and so having more future people is good (but, in that case, they should also be encouraging westerners to have tons of children).

    5. Dying is just so painful for the person, especially of disease, and for the emotional distress it will cause their families and communities, that letting people die is actually worse then the lives they will live (though, there will still be some negative utility from their eventual death in any case, it’s just later).

    So, what’s the rejoinder to this critique?

    • HeelBearCub says:

      “Poor people in Africa are worth less than nothing” seems like a poor opening gambit.

      More charitably, I’m not sure whence you are arriving at negative utility. If you ask them, they almost all would prefer to live. I think that means that their lives have positive utility (to them)

      • LTP says:

        “”Poor people in Africa are worth less than nothing” seems like a poor opening gambit”

        Well, I don’t believe that, but I’m not a utilitarian!

        I suppose the self-reporting data is the best response. After all, until (if) we can measure pleasure and pain accurately, we should probably take their word for it.

        • Dude Man says:

          But your argument falls apart if you don’t accept that premise. If you assume that African lives provide net positive utils, then the explanation because obvious.

          • houseboatonstyx says:

            @Dude Man
            If you assume that African lives provide net positive utils, then the explanation because obvious.

            Veering away from Africa and back to philosophy, can there ever be such a thing as a life of negative utility? Or of negative net utility? If there can, what values of X,Y,and Z might produce a score of the net utility of a life with X happy moments / Y neutral moments / Z miserable moments?

          • Brad says:

            @ houseboatonstyx

            I can think of an example from the book of Ecclesiastes:

            >6 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: 2 a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil. 3 If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 4 For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. 5 Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. 6 Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?

      • Brad says:

        >If you ask them, they almost all would prefer to live. I think that means that their lives have positive utility (to them)

        This part of utilitarian logic – if it is utilitarian logic – bothers me, that utility is somehow decided by what people want, rather than by how happy they are. Excuse me for being something of an edgelord, but it seems to me that if you *could* somehow measure utils as some sort of measure of happiness, I suspect that vast majority of people -not merely Africans, but westerners too – would have a “net negative” amount of utils by the end of their lives, having experienced more bitter suffering and loss than happiness and fulfillment, regardless of whether they’d object to their own lives being ended against their will. In fact, while people – even poor people – may report happiness, I am also willing to bet most people are have an incentive to inflate self-reports of how happy than they are – I mean, who wants to admit to being miserable all the time, and add that to their problems?

        Ergo, it would be a net gain in utility if people in general were never born. (/devils advocate).

        Now, again – I’m not a utilitarian, but it seems to me that on this logic, any serious utilitarian would be a member of the voluntary human extinction league.

        • HeelBearCub says:

          “Ergo, it would be a net gain in utility if people in general were never born.”

          This is a different statement than saying it would be a net gain in utility for all the suffering people to immediately die. Death is close to the largest net negative utility available. Various forms of continuing torture, whether intentional or unintentional, have a larger negative utility and so people in those situations may choose to die.

          And the most actually effective method available to bring fewer individuals into the world who suffer seems likely to be improving living conditions and availability of birth control. The second, by the way, is not effective without the first. You have to improve mortality rates in order for people to voluntarily lower their birth rates (much).

        • FrogOfWar says:

          ‘Utils’ is not synonymous with ‘hedons’. It can refer to either hedons or a numerical representation of preference satisfaction (the latter is what is pretty much always being referred to in decision theory and econ).

          Admittedly, it’s not at all obvious how one gets from the individual utils derived from preferences that one finds in decision theory to a ranking of states of affairs with respect to their satisfying everyone’s preferences. In any case, this is why both hedonistic and preference forms of consequentialism are called “utilitarianism”.

          TLDR, your opponents might not be making the contingent claim that preference satisfaction maximizes hedons. They might rather be arguing from the tautology that preference satisfaction maximizes (preference) utils.

        • Anon says:

          Others have pointed out that “utility” and “happiness – suffering” are not synonymous. I’d like to take issue with the other half of your claim: I think you are wrong that most people experience more suffering than happiness on the net. I think you may doing the typical-mind thing.

        • “Ergo, it would be a net gain in utility if people in general were never born. (/devils advocate).”

          “Better never to be born. But who could be so lucky–not one in a million.”

          (From Leo Rosten, _The Joys of Yiddish_, by memory so probably not verbatim)

      • CJB says:

        In defense of his point: The africans are not able to act to increase or decrease their situation, ergo their definition of “utility” doesn’t matter.

        In abuse of his point. The number of people that have killed <1,000,000 people is far greater than the number that have saved <1,000,000 people. Ergo, having babies is anti utilitarian. No people= no murder.

    • Anon says:

      It does not appear to actually be the case that the lives of the African poor are not worth living, per, among other things, self-report. Keep in mind that most people badly overestimate how unhappy they would be in worse life situations, like suddenly becoming paraplegic.

      Also, while EAs like to talk about “lives saved” when addressing the public, most the good done is actually just preventing terrible diseases which are not in fact fatal – the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, for example, provides deworming, worms being extremely painful in children but rarely fatal. Similarly, only about half of people in Africa who get malaria die of it; the other half just suffer horribly.

    • Irrelevant says:

      Perhaps the lives of poor people in the third-world aren’t as bad as we westerners think,

      If hedonic set point theory is correct, this is the case. You also can’t do much to make them happier by intervening though.

    • endoself says:

      Mostly 1. In particular, people have argued that societies become wealthier and more stable when there is less risk of, for example, death from malaria. Point 4 is also related to this; by helping people now, we can improve the state of the society that their descendants live in. Many EAs do believe that the world would be better if Westerners had more children.

      Regarding point 2, views on this differ a lot within EA.

    • zz says:

      A life saved in poor, rural Africa is a life that will be likely to add negative utility to the world

      I’ll join above commenters in disagreeing with this. If poor, rural African lives were lower-utility than not being alive, then we’d expect them to commit suicide. Looking a list of countries by suicide rate, we don’t see African countries having a particularly high suicide rate; quite the opposite, in fact.

      • Zykrom says:

        I don’t get why you would expect this, unless a whole lot of things that seem like they would matter don’t.

        • zz says:

          So, if you use ordinal utility, talking about “negative utility” is nonsense. However, if we set 0 utility to being dead, and therefore not having any experience (which is what I believe OP is doing), then we can create an order-preserving mapping from the set of bundles to the set of real numbers. (nb that utility is still ordinal)

          Let Bob be an arbitrary poor, rural African and assume that Bob has the ability to commit suicide (if you disagree with this assumption, then my argument falls down, but you’re stuck arguing that Africans are unable to kill themselves.) If all other bundles available to Bob given his constraints are negative utility—that is, of lower utility than the suicide bundle—then what we expect Bob to choose the bundle of highest available to him, which is the suicide bundle. We don’t observe this, so we conclude there is some bundle available to Bob of higher utility than the suicide bundle—that is, our observation of lack of widespread suicide among Africans implies that their lives have positive value.

          (This is basically the argument that David Friedman makes below. It’s obvious if you’ve read the first hunder or so pages of Varian’s Intermediate Economics.)

          I understand rejecting the economics argument, but also hope you understand why I have the expectations I do, even if you disagree.

      • c says:

        Religion alone makes this argument void.

        • Belabored Yearning says:

          Not really – religious people do commit suicide.

          • c says:

            Sure, some do. But this tells you nothing about the base rate.

            Let’s assume a speculative threshold model for suicide. As a trend, people kill themselves if they are suffering and they expect their future to be net bad. But the threshold is not at zero. It is distorted by some factors:

            + religion
            + social shame of suicide
            + bad method availability
            + fear of death
            + lack of competence (e.g. children)
            + underestimation of low-probability risks of severe outcomes (torture)

            – depression
            – guilt about being a burden
            – time discounting and scope insensitivity for moderate positive quality of life

            And so on. If you want to argue, as has been argued here, that the suicide rate is the best available measure for the badness of lives, then you have to acknowledge these distortions and adjust accordingly.

            Imagine a hypothetical surveillance state with a civilian suicide rate of 0 because guns and drugs are banned, people are constantly watched, and failed suicide attempts are punishable with imprisonment or torture. Would the suicide rate still reflect the zero quality of life rate? No.

            Of course, Africa is not that surveillance state. I just mean it as an example. But the distortions still apply.

            The suicide rate also tells you nothing about whether there is overpopulation or underpopulation or just the right population; the suicide rate may be low, but everyone could still be better off with fewer people and more hot showers.

    • houseboatonstyx says:

      3. Perhaps UEA are humble and feel that they just don’t know enough to be able to predict with much certainty at all how good or bad the lives of the poor people in the third world will be. Thus, due to the uncertainty, they hedge towards saving lives rather than ending them (though, in that case, maybe then they should be focusing on other issues where there’s a greater chance of improving utility).

      Most of this sub-thread is speculation about what will happen to the saved people, and how they will feel — and projections of one’s own personal feelings, as well as philosophical issues like whether there is such a thing as ‘negative utility’, whether a moment of less pain out of a lifetime of more pain is enough utility to justify the pain, etc.

      I prefer to give (time and/or money) where I know who it is going to and how efficient it will be in increasing known utilons for people whom we know will produce utilions for many other viable people in good circumstances. For example, a scholarship to a student of art or medicine (who may invent a vaccine that wipes out malaria).

    • Peter says:

      I’m not speaking either utilitarian or EA, but I kind of lean that way, and a substantial part of my charity budget does follow the EA recommendations.

      Anyway, for me, number 2, the version before the OR. It looks like lots of others agree with me; it appears that we Westerners have a mixture of views about what African lives are like.

      • Peter says:

        To add: my inner SJW is muttering something about the dehumanisation of Africans; they’d be shouting and screaming if I hadn’t turned the volume down on them. Although I wouldn’t express their sentiment in quite that way, I think that with a little steelmanning someone could come up with a workable argument there.

        Let’s try.

        Putting one’s money where one’s mouth is, and saying, “African lives are worth saving, here’s lots of cash to show I’m serious” – that’s going to be a way to influence people, in a way that makes people behave better – more respectfully – towards Africans. So I’m in.

        OTOH, I did say I wasn’t full EA, and some of my charity budget goes towards causes that affect expensive Westerners, in quite a few cases things that affect me. And, y’know, saying, “Expensive Westerners with problems are worth saving, here’s some cash to show I’m serious” has got to be beneficial too.

        Part of me thinks this is good non-naive utilitarian reasoning, part of me things this is just sophistry intended to reconcile me with things I wanted to do anyway, and another part of me thinks it’s sophistry to allow me to stay utilitarian-leaning despite me knowing and doing what I ought to be doing.

    • Esquire says:

      Related Question: Is it possible that UEAs significantly over-estimate the utility of saving lives in the present?

      Say we posit that: (1) A desperately poor African life has substantial positive value, but also (2) Saving one such life will make little difference to the rate of global technological progress and furthermore will likely lead to more desperately poor lives down the road making additional claims on UEA resources.

      It then seems entirely possible that total human utility over the long run might be better served by investing in medical/space/FAI (etc.) technology.

      There’s a “3^^3 dust-specks”-type argument where you say that it’s a moral travesty that we have iPhones because the resources that went into Apple could have saved X lives. If we think it was good that we got iPhones… are we overlooking a lot of iPhone-type opportunities when we focus on lives saved as the key metric for our UEA budget?

      • Anon says:

        For the first part: sure, but is there any particular reason to posit that? It doesn’t seem very likely.

        For the second: individuals have basically no opportunity to influence “iPhone-type opportunities”, so it’s a moot point. The point is to determine what is the most good you can do, not what the most good institutions over which you have no control could do.

        • Esquire says:

          I don’t think it’s really true that you can’t influence iPhone-type developments. If this line of reasoning is extremely right, it suggests that investing in a tech angel fund is probably much more ethical than investing in a “social entrepreneurship” or charity fund. It also suggests that Bill Gates may be doing more good with his non-charity focused wealth than his charity focused wealth, and that the “giving pledge”, in which billionaires agree to on their deaths divest from capitalist investments and invest in charities is counterproductive.

          Tyler Cowen puts this better than me i a recent tweet:

          Until “effective altruism” figures out what drives innovation, those recommendations simply aren’t that reliable.

    • Tracy W says:

      I know a fair few Africans, including refugees to the West, and I’ve never heard any of them as talk about their lives in Africa being so bad as to not be worth living.
      So I think it’s (2), just drop the word “we” please. Most Westerners, like most Africans, think the vast majority of African lives are worth living.

      • Lightman says:

        I feel as if many people fetishize Africa as a sort of mythical Hell on Earth – a uniformly bad place where starving orphans live in conditions reminiscent of Auschwitz. Certainly, there are many places where conditions in Africa are not good – but the whole continent is not some endless pit of suffering and despair.

        • LTP says:

          Right, but aren’t EA dollars going to the worst off Africans?

          • Anthony says:

            Having malaria, sleeping sickness, or various parasitical infections while in most of Africa is probably closer to “hell on earth” than having those diseases somewhere else, so even if living in poorer parts of Africa isn’t that great, going from being sick to being not sick is a *huge* increase in hedons, and probably utils.

      • LTP says:

        I think African lives are worth saving too, but I’m not a utilitarian, just to clarify. I’m saying that *if* I was a utilitarian, I wouldn’t be as sure about that. But, I think I’ve been convinced that there are many ways to escape the reasoning I laid out.

    • The only objective definition I can see for zero utility is the suicide point. It isn’t perfect, since some people believe in post-mortem costs, but, absent that problem, it’s the obvious definition from the standpoint of revealed preference. If you believe the present value of your future utility is negative, you raise it to zero. By that definition, people now alive in Africa believe the expected value of their future utility is positive.

      • c says:

        Problem is, the psychological model is unrealistic.

        • Nicholas says:

          When I wanted to kill myself, my expected life utility was negative. I do not want to kill myself now, and the estimate is positive. The arrow still needs a head, but there’s definitely a correlation.

      • Zykrom says:

        This only makes sense, to me at least, if you model humans as utilitarian optimizers. I definitely don’t think evolution programmed humans to suicide if faced with an expectation of more negative sensation than positive. Even if it had, humans are bad at predicting.

        Meanwhile, the op seems to be thinking about some hedonic utilitarian thing.

    • Zykrom says:

      I think people who advocate for “utilitarianism” in this sense mean something more like impersonal consequentialism than the hedonic utilitarianism you seem to be implying.

      Secondly, as others have said, you’re probably overestimating how bad life is for the people being saved. This isn’t really a “we westerners” thing either.

      • LTP says:

        “I think people who advocate for “utilitarianism” in this sense mean something more like impersonal consequentialism than the hedonic utilitarianism you seem to be implying.”

        This may be part of the issue. I’m a philosophy major (and don’t really engage with EA or LW as a community except through this blog and Ozy’s blog), and in academia saying you are a”utilitarian” *without any qualifiers* means you believe that what is good just is to maximize utility, with utility being pleasure minus pain.

    • Jon Gunnarsson says:

      My (uncharitable) suspicion is that the real reason isn’t to be found in utilitarian philosophy, but in the prevailing egalitarianism of contemporary Western culture. One of the popular (mostly unexamined) dogmas of our time is that all people are equal in value. Even for a utilitarian, departing so radically from this dogma is difficult, so most utilitarians don’t, even though the logic of their position would require regarding the lives of poor Africans as being greatly inferior in value to those of rich Europeans and North Americans.

      • Zykrom says:

        Even if you’d rather save a euro-American, it costs a lot more.

        Unless the difference is REALLY big, the third world is likely the best place for EA.

      • Adam says:

        Usain Bolt can only get so much faster. If Africa can become China over the next fifty years, that will be a tremendously better gain for the world than for North America to see 0.05% greater growth or whatever you think is realistically achievable by focusing all efforts here.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          The only way Africa becomes China in the next 50 years is if China exports it’s entire surplus male population there Australia-style and something very unpleasant happens to the natives, which I suppose also qualifies as Australia-style.

          If your goal is to save lives for the sake of saving lives, which is a noble goal if perhaps a shortsighted one, then Africa is the place to donate. But pretending that increased charity is going to hit some tipping point where the continent turns into a rotated version of Eurasia is wishful thinking.

          If anything, western charity has done more to hold African development back over the last half century than the reverse. EA is better in this regard since it isn’t undercutting local businesses, other than fishing net manufacturers I suppose, but we’ve been following the general ‘schools and hospitals’ approach since the first missionaries went there centuries ago and have little to show for it. Actual investment, even so-called sweatshops, has a much better track record of lifting people from poverty.

          • Adam says:

            I don’t really advocate donating one place or another. It makes no difference to me. I’m just pointing out the logic of a really crappy place being made moderately good being more desirable than making a nearly very good place actually very good.

            We’ll see about Africa. I’m pretty bullish on them. Places like actual China can’t keep up the act forever, developing middle classes and what not that are going to want weekends, single-family homes, and pollution regulations. Global sweatshop and factory peddlers are going to have to turn elsewhere. Africa just needs to sustain a decent run of political stability and the investment will come. Country risk isn’t nearly as across-the-board bad for the whole continent as it was in the 90s. Or maybe I’ve just heard one too many Nile Fund ads on Bloomberg.

            Of course, you seem to be implying Africa can’t ever prosper, regardless of anything else, because it’s full of Africans. I guess that’s a separate issue.

    • FullMetaRationalist says:

      [I made a longish response. Supposedly, it got eaten up when I hit “reply”. Is there some kind of word limit, or is this more likely a tech issue? In any case, I’ll try a condensed version.]

      p.s. now that I think about it, I had a billion tabs open again, and my ActiveX ShockwavePlayer WidgetThing crashed. This was the most likely cause.

      Gates Foundation 14th Annual Letter
      (the 2015 version is out, but I haven’t read it yet)

      tl;dr charity works like compound interest. When life expectancy increases, mothers birth fewer kids. They don’t need extra kids to compensate for the high mortality rate. This means mothers can invest more resources in each child. When they mature, they contribute more to the economy, which increases life expectancy, which compounds into the next generation.

      Wait But Why: Nigeria

      19) A study done by World Values Survey found Nigeria to be the world’s happiest nation.

      2) Nigerians have an unusual level of optimism. This isn’t just an observation. Consecutive Gallup polls in 2010 and 2011 found Nigeria to be the world’s most optimistic nation. Optimism has long been linked to happiness in psychology, and Nigerians tend to believe that though things may be bad, they’re looking up. My experiences corroborated this—everyone I got to know in Femi’s family had big ambitions and an excitement about the future.

      Nigerians being exceptionally happy is yet another piece of proof that happiness is completely about your mindset and not at all about the external world around you.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        When life expectancy increases, mothers birth fewer kids. They don’t need extra kids to compensate for the high mortality rate

        Correlation =/= causation. A single factor — availability of medical care — will promote both longer life expectancy, and availability of contraception.

  18. Liskantope says:

    I’ve often pondered the legitimacy of claims of quite a lot of people I’ve known (almost all college-aged or 20-somethings) that their “natural” sleep schedule requires them to sleep until around noon or later. I have heard of extreme cases backed by science of people who apparently cannot function during morning hours. However, I haven’t heard of any evidence to suggest that this kind of disorder is at all common. I’ve always found it intuitively implausible that we humans, who stay inside so much of the time anyway, can be so affected by the position of the sun in the sky or how many hours it’s been up / down. Instead, I always sort of assumed that many people, particularly young people and students, find it easy to stay awake by default in combination with not feeling that much motivation to conform to the general schedule expected by society.

    I really don’t have any kind of evidence or scientific knowledge to back up my intuition with this, so I’m bringing it up here in hopes that someone like Scott with more medical knowledge, or at least someone generally more savvy about such empirical claims, can weigh in.

    • Bugmaster says:

      FWIW, I personally can function in the morning hours, to some extent. However, it takes a lot of effort to do so, and dramatically reduces my productive hours throughout the day. On the other hand, if I manage to wake up around noon, I can usually stay awake and functional for at least 12..14 hours.

      I’m not claiming to know the mechanisms behind this (genetic, environmental, or whatever); and, of course, I’m just one data point. Still, I am pretty sure that I, and people like me, do exist.

      • Anthony says:

        I have read that it’s easier to adjust to later bedtime/waketime than to earlier, so that if you really have a need to adjust, and have some time, that you should keep a 25-hour day – go to bed an hour later every “day”, until your bedtime (or wake-time) rolls around to where you want it to be.

        Unfortunately, this takes about three weeks, and requires you to spend a substantial number of days asleep while all your chances for social interaction, work, school, etc., are happening.

        • Liskantope says:

          It’s not hard to imagine why it’s easier on a given day to stay awake longer than you feel like than it is to wake up earlier than you feel like. (Although I wonder if this stops being true for many people as they get older.)

    • Irrelevant says:

      My natural sleep schedule has me in bed in the 7-9 range and awake at 4 AM, which would make perfect sense if I were a farmer.

      Social demands, however, don’t let me keep that sort of time. The backup plan where I stay awake until the next level of exhaustion takes me and wake up naturally after that does pretty well match with the pattern of sleeping into the early afternoon you describe.

    • Ralph says:

      To me it seems more likely that, rather than having some strange medical condition, these 20-somethings simply like to stay up late at night and sleep until noon due to personal preference (hobbies are more geared toward drinking and socializing and less toward outdoor activities or other things that require daylight). Then they try to rationalize their lifestyle by self-diagnosing what may actually be some extremely rare condition (or not), that they may or may not know exists.

      Possibly, they may be trying to signal some kind of rebellious refusal to succumb to the norm of a 9 to 5 workday/lifestyle.

      Maybe someone with some medical knowledge can shine some light on the probability that an individual truly has a condition where sleeping until noon is healthy/productive.

      • Liskantope says:

        This is similar to my suspicions, except that I suspect it’s just more a matter of self-discipline (maybe I’m projecting a bit here — right now I’m writing this to procrastinate instead of getting ready for bed!). I don’t know how many people sleep in out of a sense of rebellion. I think more 20-something student types just don’t care that much about conforming to the societal expectation of being up in the morning. But of course, suggesting this as the main cause to a late-riser who believes their schedule is mostly out of their control is liable to kind of piss them off. And at least from my end, it’s all speculation anyway.

        • Ralph says:

          Yes agreed. Trying to convince someone that a habit (destructive or not) is within their control to change, when they have gone as far as inventing a medical condition (reminds me of “alcoholism is a disease”) to convince themselves that it is out of their control, seems like a lost cause.

          Also my comment about rebellion was less about sleeping in for the purpose of rebelling, but more about inventing a biological condition to signal some sort of “natural” explanation, to show the extent to which the signaler is “not like the rest of them”. Kind of a weird speculation that might fit under the umbrella of my first response.

    • Richard says:

      There are a problem with your chosen demographic.
      *People who are young need/produce more growth hormone.
      *Growth hormone is only produced during sleep. (or at lest mainly so that melatonin is a decent substitute for artificial growth hormone after excessive muscle damage due to overtraining.)
      *Combine larger than average need for sleep with late night partying and you get your typical college ‘kid’.

      • Liskantope says:

        Hmm. Most of the people I know who claim they need to stay up every night until the wee hours of the morning are not frequent late-night partiers, though.

    • James Picone says:

      Late-night computer use is probably a relevant thing here – bright light inhibits melatonin production, which delays when you feel ‘tired’ and when you get to sleep and so on. If you habitually use a computer late at night, as many tertiary students do, it’s quite possible for it to push your sleep schedule forwards. This is very well supported in the scientific literature.

      Sleep disorders and general insomnia are definitely real things though. I’ve spent several months talking to a sleep psychologist because of difficulty entraining to a normal sleep cycle, and spent at least two months complying with a 9PM computer curfew, 2PM caffeine curfew, and going to bed at midnight, even if I wasn’t tired, and attempting to get up by 10AM, even if I didn’t feel up to it. And compared to when I just slept whenever I felt like I needed to sleep, the ultimate result was… ~10% lower sleep efficiency, I just couldn’t get up at 10 in the morning, and I felt awful and out of it and like I hadn’t had enough sleep approximately all the time.

      Prior to seeing the sleep psych, I’ve had a few people play the “Have you considered just sleeping?” game, or some variant thereof, and it’s utterly infuriating. Feels like that thing where people tell depressed people to ‘just cheer up’. I’ve tried just going to sleep, I’ve tried putting significant amounts of effort into my sleep hygiene – more than the average person, certainly – and I still can’t sleep when it’d be convenient. Since I got a prescription for melatonin and started taking it before going to bed, things have gotten a lot easier, and I’ve been waking up in the morning and feeling rested.

      tl;dr: there certainly are people who have difficulties meshing sleep cycle with what is considered normal, myself among them, and no it isn’t because we just stay up late for kicks.

      • Ralph says:

        It seems like insomnia and having a natural sleep cycle severely displaced from the norm are two different things. I think the OP is referring to the latter.

        I’m pretty sure insomnia is real and common. It seems consistent to recognize that, but also be skeptical that someone sleeps soundly every night, but has a medical condition where the optimal time for their 8 hours, or whatever, is 4am to noon, and not 11pm to 7am. More likely that this displaced sleep schedule is simply just more accommodating to a specific lifestyle.

        • Lightman says:

          Is “medical condition” really the right word for this? I think my natural sleep cycle is between 4am-12pm, but can accommodate myself to a normal sleep schedule with only minor issues. I don’t think of my natural sleep schedule as being pathological; it just seems to me to be part of normal human variance (some people prefer to go to bed relatively early, some people prefer to go to bed relatively late).

          • Ralph says:

            Yes exactly. My main point was that most people claiming to have a “medical condition”, self-diagnosing, etc., are likely just rationalizing their preferences as something out of their control.

      • Liskantope says:

        Interesting point about computer use, I hadn’t thought of it. This may be one reason for the increase in late-risers among the 20-something demographic.

        I can’t tell from your explanation to what extent your problem is general insomnia and/or inability to conform to a sleep cycle of sleeping 8 hours starting at a consistent time. This I’ve never doubted is a fairly commonplace problem (I used to majorly struggle with insomnia myself). If what you’re describing is really an issue with which time of night you’re able to go to sleep for 8 hours, then… I realize it’s incredibly aggravating to be repeatedly told that a condition seriously affecting your life is something you could just decide to stop, and I don’t mean to imply this. I am sure that it is a disorder some people have. I’m just curious to hear a clear enough explanation of the mechanism behind it (more than “your body is sensitive to whether it’s been 4 or 8 hours since it got dark outside the window”) before I find it plausible that this condition is so common that half the people I know have it.

        • James Picone says:

          Broadly speaking, before I was taking melatonin regularly, I’d end up falling asleep about an hour to two hours later every night – so if I started out going to sleep at midnight, it’d be 1 to 2 AM the next day, even if I went to bed at midnight again. Still got about 8 hours. Cutting computer use out late at night made it possible to get to sleep earlier, but it was then quite low-quality sleep – woke up a lot in the middle of the night, felt exhausted when I woke up. I haven’t been tested for sleep apnea, but melatonin has essentially fixed the problem. It’s been a lifelong thing to some extent – I didn’t sleep much as a baby, in primary school I used to read under the covers with a torch at night, etc. etc.

          I’m not an expert, but to the best of my knowledge what’s going on is that my circadian rhythms are ‘set long’ – for whatever reason, the cycle is ~25-26 hours long rather than 24ish. For most humans the cycle is slightly longer than 24 hours naturally, but the various mechanisms that keep it entrained with the day fix that problem – the big ones being when you first get bright light in the morning, and when you stop getting light at night. Light in the morning sets the starting point of the clock, to an extent, and light at night inhibits the signal that ends the clock, by messing with the production of the hormone melatonin. If you don’t get the light cues, people end up with ~a 25 hour day – completely blind people often have problems with that, for example. There’s a limit to how far you can entrain your circadian rhythm, though – most people wouldn’t be able to manage a 20-hour sleep-wake cycle, or a 30-hour one. For whatever reason, I can’t seem to pull it back to 24 hours. Taking melatonin at night helps because it provides the signal early, artificially inducing tiredness and pushing sleep cycle earlier.

          Most of your friends probably just have bad sleep hygiene – using a computer close to bedtime being the big one here, because of the light thing – but for some people, and as far as I can tell that includes me, circadian rhythms just don’t work right. The keywords to look for here are ‘delayed sleep phase disorder’ for people who can actually entrain to a 24-hour rhythm but who feel they need to be night owls. It’s not incredibly rare, AFAIK. Wiki has a reference claiming 7-16% prevalence in teenagers, but it goes to a website that doesn’t reference its claim at all.

          If they’re really complaining about it get them to buy melatonin (~0.5 mg dosage) and take it an hour before they go to bed, if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere where melatonin is over-the-counter.

          • Anthony says:

            Teenagers need to be out late at night because in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (1960s), that’s when they sneak off from their parents to be with the opposite sex.

          • Liskantope says:

            I understand having a longer-than-24-hour natural rhythm, even if the internal causes of this kind of condition are still mysterious. I find the body going through natural cycles that are hard to overcome quite plausible. I’ve even noticed, during continuous sleep deprivation, that one can go through distinct periods of relative wakefulness and relative sleepiness which seem unrelated to surroundings or activities. It seems that your case is much more severe than average, but I wouldn’t be surprised if most people naturally operated on 25+-hour cycles.

            What frustrates me on an intellectual level is that I don’t see any explanation for the underlying mechanism behind being forced into a 24-hour cycle that is much later than societal norms, even after all the comments in this thread. For instance, even the Wikipedia page on delayed sleep phase disorder doesn’t seem to explain much beyond repeatedly referring to longer circadian rhythms. And whenever someone I know describes themselves as a night owl, their only explanation involves “something something circadian rhythms”, which they never seem to acknowledge doesn’t make sense on its own. It’s interesting that melatonin helps so much, and next time someone complains about it I’ll mention it to them. However, a lot of the time the complaints I hear are more directed towards the fact that they’re scheduled to teach a class at 9am despite requesting not to be, or some authority figure isn’t sympathetic to their need to sleep in, rather than that their bodies can’t seem to cooperate with a consistent schedule and they wish they could fix this.

          • Liskantope says:

            Yeah, I can’t find where the link gives the 7-16% prevalence in teenagers either. I do from time to time hear it claimed that high schoolers would sleep much better if they had later schedules; I think I remember a study on this being brought up on an SSC comment thread. Anyway, the prevalence in adults is given as 0.15%, a precipitous drop from the ratio for teenagers; this does seem to be sourced, although the papers cited are not online AFAICT.

          • James Picone says:

            Hypothetical: imagine someone’s circadian rhythms are very sensitive to light, for whatever reason. They get more melatonin-suppression from less light.

            You’d expect them to sleep later, because melatonin production needs to ramp up to closer to its peak before it overcomes the suppression effect of indoor lighting.

            Then, in the morning, the light coming in from windows and getting through their eyelids while they sleep is sufficient to start resetting the clock, and when they get up that kicks into full gear, pulling the cycle back so they don’t end up going to bed even later.

            (alternately they could just have a long cycle by default and their body is sufficiently good at resetting rhythms via light that they can pull back by three/four hours every moring).

      • In regards to computer use, what seems to help me a bit is f.lux, though your mileage may vary.

        Regarding what I would consider my natural sleep cycles, when I was unemployed immediately after my studies finished, I ended up reliably stuck sleeping between 07:00 and 16:00, regardless of whether I had anything to do entertain myself with outside that timeframe (and if I had to get something done in the real world, I would just ‘stay up late’ and catch morning opening times, which was marginally better than trying to wake up while it was the brightest time of the day).

        In my case, a contributing factor is probably that I have fairly light sensitive eyes, so daytime is actually quite exhausting for me. I can usually notice I start to feel noticeably better once the sun is down – all of a sudden I have energy and could actually get something done.

        Nonetheless, I’ve managed to hammer myself into a 00:00 to 09:00 sleep schedule for the sake of being a functioning member of society. Unfortunately, that occasionally gets wrangled with inexplicable spikes of insomnia that last for several days. The worst one was three weeks of terrible sleep quality, with three nights of zero sleep somewhere in the middle.

        That being said, I can also report that in melatonin helped me. \o/

    • MichaelM says:

      My girlfriend just recently got a tentative diagnosis with an (extremely) rare, probably partially genetic disorder that actually does flip her circadian rhythm on its head, to where her best time to sleep is in the late morning and afternoon. She rarely sleeps well outside that time period and has some series issues when she tries (ie., chronic movement, something that was mistaken for sleep apnea until recently, etc etc).

      Learning about it all (through her – she’s already deep into biology as a passion and she’s been studying the subject since her diagnosis), it’s pretty clear we actually don’t know a great deal about the biology behind circadian rhythm. There’s great work being done right now, but it’s still just a first few really solid steps.

      So exactly how people develop healthy sleep cycles and schedules is actually not something that’s clearly understood. Sure, a good portion of it for most people who make these claims is just laziness — it’s why I’m at 1:30 in the morning before a full work day for example –, but there is also the possibility of something deeper being a contributing factor and we just can’t identify it.

    • Murphy says:

      I know I was dramatically more successful and productive at a job where I could work 10.30 to 6.30 vs one where I had to work 8 till 4.

      I’m pretty sure I’m literally dumber in the mornings. Problems which completely stump me at 9am are childsplay at 7pm.

    • CAE_Jones says:

      I’ve been going to bed in the afternoon and waking up in the wee hours of the morning quite a lot since 2003. I don’t see the value in staying up late, and sleeping in just annoys me as a concept. (Presumably the latter is a consequence of the former, since I can get enough sleep and still wake up before the people who don’t.)
      Yet it seems like most people would prefer a much longer day than 24 hours. I’m kinda curious if, given our access to artificial light, someone could set up a community or business that throws the 24 hour cycle to the wind. I recall reading that 25 hours is more normal, given lack of sunlight as a cue, but I’ve always gotten the impression that it’s more like 26-30 for most people.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      I’ve long suspected without scientific support that my brain learns to recognize the situations when I want to be awake and resists attempts to sleep then. So if 10:00-3:00 is consistently the most fun part of my day, and then one night I try however earnestly to sleep at ten, I’m gonna be awake in bed for a while.

      • Liskantope says:

        I notice that multiple replies here refer to sleep cycles, or circadian rhythm (which I had always understood to mean sleep cycle, independent of starting time, but I could be incorrect). I often hear late-risers citing a 25-hour sleep cycle in reference to their sleep schedules. But this has never made sense to me, because a 25-hour sleep cycle should make it equally difficult to stick to any regular schedule; it has nothing to do with how late one insists on staying up and sleeping in.

        [EDIT: This was not intended as a direct response to ADifferentAnonymous, but to be on the same tier as all the responses to my original post.]

        • Evelyn says:

          I am one of those people who believes they have a longer-than-24-hour sleep cycle and I actually do have an extremely hard time sticking to any consistent sleep schedule.

          When I am free to sleep and wake whenever my body naturally feels like doing so, I tend to stay up 2-3 hours later each successive night and wake 2-3 hours later the next day. Eventually I stay up so late that my sleep schedule has shifted around the clock and is back to “normal” again…for a day, until it gets shifted another 2-3 hours into the future and starts traveling around the clock again.

          This would happen all of the time if I didn’t have to work, which makes me to wake up before my body “wants” to and forcibly shifts my next sleeping time back from where it would otherwise have been.

    • zz says:

      Right now, I’m working on a personal programming project, so the only time-sensitive obligations I have are ultimate frisbee games. Right now, I’ve settled in comfortably to Korean time, which is 13 hours off of my local time zone. Has worked so far: my days look something like “wake up, short work period, play ultimate, long work period, watch StarCraft*, sleep,” and it’s awesome, especially because I’m doing most of my work in the middle of the night when it’s quiet and cool (because, seriously, fuck summer; you can keep on putting on clothes when it’s cold, but can only take off so much when it’s hot.) Also, I can watch the sunrise whenever I want.

      So, take +1 anecdata to “people’s sleep schedules are hardcoded to time of day.” Actually, make that +0.5; I’m extremely atypical in this arena for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is my once and future engagement with ubersleep.

      *Because I’m ‘on Korean time’, there’s Korean StarCraft (which is, by quite some margin, the highest-level play in the world) here every weekday.

      • Peter says:

        It’s come to the point where in Starcraft circles, “foreign” universally means “not Korean”. They have a championship specifically for people living outside of Korea, and it still tends to get won by Koreans.

      • Liskantope says:

        I expect that a lot of people choose to stick to unusual sleep schedules simply because they prefer to be awake and doing things at a certain time of day or night, out of increased utility in some way or even for purely aesthetic reasons.

    • Unique Identifier says:

      For what it’s worth, self-observation seems to indicate that my personality strongly depends on time-of-day and sleep schedule.

      If I center my sleep around midnight and get up around 3:00 AM, my sleep schedule self-regulates. I wake up rested, get tired in the hours around noon, and the last few hours before bedtime I am so tired that I look forward to going to bed and have to limit myself to ‘simple’ activities. I am rather energetic and good at getting things done this way, and fairly sociable, but have next to no creative output – i.e. writing, composing. I generally don’t even enjoy reading or watching movies.

      If I center my sleep around morning, i.e. 2:00 AM to 10:00 PM, getting up is a struggle, I am drowsy, irritable and unpleasant. The morning hours are fairly unproductive. I am never tired throughout the rest of the day, except right after getting up, and have trouble getting to bed on time. I have less productive hours throughout the day, but am much more productive towards night, and by far more creative.

      For the purposes of writing fiction, the first schedule is frankly useless. I can sit myself down and force myself to write, but the prose never turns out good, or even serviceable for that matter. The second schedule is terrible for maintaining good habits, but overall more enjoyable and by far more conducive to being creative.

      I hope to find a best-of-both-worlds solution, but I’m not optimistic.

  19. Cauê says:

    Has either Popehat responded to “The Spirit of the First Amendment”?

  20. zz says:

    Based on the Popehat depression article Scott linked to last links post and as a person who’s known to occasionally (once a decade-ish) depress hard, but otherwise be completely fine, I’m wondering if there’s any way of monitoring my mood so I can start taking action the second the depression sets in better than the naive solution of regularly self-administering depression inventories.

    • brad says:

      As far as I know, not yet. But there’s some very interesting work being done in machine learning. It requires some fairly intrusive monitoring though, so I’m not sure how it will be received, even with privacy assurances.

    • onyomi says:

      What has sort of worked for me is to think back carefully on what was going on in my life and what sort of feelings I was having in the times leading up to bad episodes. This may sound obvious, but, for me, at least, it has, over time, led to me having a much better sense of what is good for me, psychologically, and also of the warning signs of bad things in the works.

      For example, I like solitude and privacy, but I start to get depressed when living alone. It begins by manifesting as a kind of “dark” mood which hits me in the evening.

    • Adam says:

      I’m not sure if this is what Brad was referring to, but they do this already to diagnose autism, using machine learning and remote monitoring. I don’t think you can get a service like this for self-use just yet, but there’s no good reason down the line you couldn’t install a sensor system in your house hooked up to an automated monitoring program that tells you when your behavior indicates you’re about to have an episode.

  21. Here’s a question that polyamorists may be able to answer.

    Can having sex with someone can make you love another romantic partner less? That is, in an open relationship, is it a legitimate worry that having sex with a new partner will make you love your current partners less?

    I’m looking for psychological research, not just anecdotes, because I expect that it would be too hard to attribute any anecdotal decrease or increase in love to the sex act in particular.

    I tried searching for such research on Google and Google Scholar, but closest I got was this Daily Mail article that claims that sex releases oxytocin, which aids in falling in love with your partner. And for this question, I don’t care whether sex makes you love that partner more – only whether it makes you love other partners less.

    Assume an open relationship – discount any negative effects of guilt while having sex. I would be interested in results for either gender. And I am mainly concerned about the effect of the sex act itself, but wouldn’t mind also hearing about the effect of dating another partner on love.

    • Nita says:

      Um, maybe if your first partner was a complete asshole in bed (e.g., not stopping when asked), but you thought it was normal until you tried sex with the other person? I can’t really think of anything else sex-specific and love-related.

      Personally, I haven’t experienced any negative effects on my feelings toward my primary partner while our relationship was open.

      edit: I think finding actual research on this is unlikely, because you’d have to randomly assign people to sex / no-sex groups to isolate the effect — and good luck getting enough volunteers for that!

    • Esquire says:

      Not saying this is necessarily a trustworthy source, but the advice of Western literary traditions seems to net out strongly in the “yes it can” camp. Seduction (both of men and women) is an extremely common plot device, and while often the seduced party is repentant and wants nothing more than to be reconciled with their original partner…. often they aren’t/don’t.

      And intuitively… think about Nita’s answer that it could have that effect if partner #1 is “a complete asshole in bed”. Then think about all the other instantiations of the general response “yes if partner #2 is better than partner #1 in X way”.

      We are mostly all a little insecure about ourselves and naturally worry if our partners have any monogamous instincts at all that those monogamous instincts will find a more worthy target. It’s not at all crazy to think that sex could turbocharge that process.

      • Bill G says:

        I guess one of the counterpoints to this is that the price of violating monogamy was quite high in most of these cases. The person who is being seduced to be unfaithful is doing so with the knowledge that they are defying social conventions and risking their relationship. The level of one’s dissatisfaction with their current relationship or expectations of the experience they’ll gain must be quite high to overcome these barriers. In a modern polyamorous/non-mongamous/monogamish situation, this level could be much much lower.

      • Nita says:

        No, the problem with being a complete asshole in bed is not that it makes them a little worse on one of many partner-quality dimensions.

        The problem is that it indicates either a fundamental lack of respect, or a chronic inability to translate abstract care into not hurting the ones you care about. A person with either of those traits is not safe to love. Therefore, anyone with a working sense self-preservation will become disillusioned upon discovering these qualities in their partner.

        • Esquire says:

          I don’t really see how you disagree with me – maybe instead of “#2 is better than #1 in X way” I should say “#2 is better than #1 in X *really important* way”?

          At any rate, many of us are insecure enough to imagine that we might be deficient in some *really important* way. And we might be right!

      • Adam says:

        I’m not exactly “poly,” in that I barely even have friends and mostly don’t want them, let alone multiple romantic partners that I have any obligation to, and my wife is about the same. But she travels a lot and we both have sex with other people.

        Just one datapoint, but I don’t feel all that insecure about it. I had two monogamous marriages before her and both ended in divorce. I’ve been single for at most a cumulative year out of the last 20. It’s not hard to find a new person if one leaves. If she finds a more worthy partner, good for her. I will, too. It won’t be because the sex was bad.

    • Ever An Anon says:

      Are you sure you can “discount any negative effects of guilt” just by changing the name of the relationship?

      It seems like some people are cut out for poly, with low guilt and (no offense) weak connections with their partners, and those people are the ones who try it and enjoy it. But quite a lot of people, particularly women ime, have a lot of trouble with open relationships and end up feeling abused.

      I’ve never been officially poly, since I don’t like the ideology and am not fond of sharing women, but in terms of casual dating where there isn’t a requirement to be monogamous a lot of women will still feel betrayed if you sleep around and that seems to make some guys feel guilty. And you definitely feel your concern for your “primary” decrease once it becomes easier to have sex with other women.

      Obviously if you guys can handle it then, well, that answers your question by itself. But it’s not guaranteed that every couple who opens up their relationship ends up better off.

      • Nita says:

        some people are cut out for poly, with low guilt and (no offense) weak connections with their partners

        Eh, some of us are actually rather clingy.

        And you definitely feel your concern for your “primary” decrease once it becomes easier to have sex with other women.

        Are you sure it’s really your concern for your partner that decreases, and not your concern about steady access to sex and affection? Or perhaps your concern about maintaining your public image and feeling desirable?

        • Ever An Anon says:

          I don’t know, that’s a good question. I’m generally pretty introspective but I don’t really have access to that sort of information about myself.

          Nevertheless, romantic love is at least mostly about sex and affection anyway. There’s a reason Eros shares so many letters with erotic after all. Chaste romance is a nice concept but I’m not convinced it really exists.

          As for being clingy in a poly relationship, how does that work? It seems inseparable from jealousy, although I could be wrong about that, and jealousy is the cardinal sin of poly.

          • Nita says:

            Having sex and feeling affection is different from being concerned about your future access to sex and affection. Food analogy: the more food you have, the less time you spend worrying about it — but that doesn’t mean that you love your favourite foods less when you’re not terrified of starvation.

            As for being clingy in a poly relationship, how does that work? It seems inseparable from jealousy

            Well, I don’t mean clingy in a jealous sense — more in the “let’s share all our friends and hobbies and ideas and feelings and cuddle a lot” sense. So, the more central/deep/committed each relationship is, the more clinginess it contains.

          • To add to this, as another clingy individual, perhaps also in the way that you mean it, on top of the way Nita meant it:

            I would be devastated if I lost any of my partners for any reason. I don’t see it as being related to jealousy at all, though – I’m always very happy to hear when my partners get other partners, though this happens too rarely, and thus far has never lasted, which makes me really sad, because I want my partners to have someone else who can care for them.

            (I think that plays into my thoughts about mortality; if bad luck strikes and I’m out of the picture, I want them to have someone that they can fall back on. I generally try to be appreciated but on at least some level, redundant; a philosophy that extends to my work place as well, actually, as a somewhat awkward tangent.)

            Perhaps a different angle might help unpick this: I got into being poly because I didn’t want to end up having to break up with one person that I loved so I could be together with another person that I loved. So I suppose you could say, for me, poly is fundamentally about staying together. If someone were to break up with me “because they found someone else”, that would make no sense to me: They’re breaking up with me because they have a problem with me, because the poly framework doesn’t require them to make that choice. And then my upset about the break-up has nothing to do with their new partner. (Though I’m sure there’s an emotional component that will say otherwise; but I’m in the very fortunate situation that since I started being poly, no one has broken up with me.)

            Time management is also tricky, of course, but only occurs to me as an afterthought, because whether one of my partners is away because they’re hanging out with friends / are on a business trip / are working overtime, or if they’re away because they’re spending time with a different partner, doesn’t really make much of a difference. They’re not there, and that makes clingy me approximately equally sad regardless what the underlying reason is.

          • Hyzenthlay says:

            “Nevertheless, romantic love is at least mostly about sex and affection anyway. There’s a reason Eros shares so many letters with erotic after all. Chaste romance is a nice concept but I’m not convinced it really exists.”

            Asexuals do fall in love. Though for those who experience sex and romance as a totally blended thing it might be difficult to imagine.

            I guess it also depends on how you’re defining romance, since that’s a pretty subjective thing, but I think of romance as differing from friendship because it’s much more intense; it usually involves a certain degree of obsession, passion, and longing, along with heightened emotional states (feelings of euphoria if your love is reciprocated, despair if it’s not, etc.) Those feelings don’t necessarily have to go hand-in-hand with a sexual attraction, even if they often do.

      • blacktrance says:

        “Sharing women” is a misleading framing for a couple of reasons. First, it treats women as not having agency – I can’t share my girlfriend because I don’t own her to begin with. It would be more accurate to say that women (or, more generally, people) choose to be in multiple relationships. Second, it’s as much about men as it is about women – if “sharing women” is an acceptable description of polyamory, then “sharing men” is too.

        Re: guilt, I don’t think it’s relevant to polyamory because it’s consensual nonmonogamy, which means that if you sleep with someone else, you’re not entitled to guilt your partner (and if you do, your partner shouldn’t feel guilty) because the two of you agreed to this relationship structure. I can see how cheating is more appealing to low-guilt people than to high-guilt people, because it’s a betrayal of your partner’s trust, but nothing like that is the case for polyamory – sleeping with someone else isn’t doing anything wrong, so there’s no reason to feel guilty to begin with.

        It seems like some people are cut out for poly, with low guilt and (no offense) weak connections with their partners

        As for weak connections with one’s partners, that may be true for some poly people, but I know other poly couples who are as dedicated and connected to each other as an idyllic monogamous couple, and that in no way detracts from them being poly. My girlfriend and I are poly, and we definitely have a very strong connection.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          Whether or not people do in fact feel guilt has very little to do with whether they are guilty under any particular interpretation of sexual ethics. And similarly people will guilt their partners whether or not they are ‘entitled’ to by said interpretations.

          That was my point: that you can’t just erase someone’s feeling of betrayal with the stroke of a pen.

          As to the sharing thing, that comes back to “I don’t like the ideology [of poly].” Language policing works from the same baclwards logic as above: if you change the word, you change the reality behind it. You wouldn’t have appreciated my sentiment regardless of whether I expressed it clearly or through euphemism so objecting to the phrasing is absurd.

          Anyway I’m glad you guys are close.

          • blacktrance says:

            Whether or not people do in fact feel guilt has very little to do with whether they are guilty under any particular interpretation of sexual ethics. And similarly people will guilt their partners whether or not they are ‘entitled’ to by said interpretations.

            People can certainly try to guilt you regardless of what you’ve agreed to, but whether you’ve agreed to something or not is still highly relevant. If you actually betray someone (e.g. go behind their back and cheat) then you’ve done something wrong, and your partner would be right to trust you less and hold it against you. But if your partner tries to guilt you for doing something they’ve said you’re free to do, then they’re the one in the wrong and you shouldn’t feel bad about what you’ve done. If you feel betrayed when your partner sleeps with someone after you said it was okay for them to do so, you’re not entitled to hold it against your partner – similarly to how a past employer isn’t entitled to hold it against you if you leave to work for a competitor if you didn’t sign a non-compete agreement.

            If you agree to non-monogamy, you may still feel betrayed if your partner sleeps with someone else though you’re much less likely to feel that way. If you expect to feel betrayed, then don’t agree to non-monogamy. If you unexpectedly feel betrayed, you can try to negotiate monogamy, but you still can’t hold that instance of non-monogamy against your partner, and if you do, then you’re giving them cause to downgrade or end the relationship.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            Right, look that is in fact what your ethics say. I get that.

            The point is, that’s not how human brains work. People have expectations and desires beyond (and often contrary to) their explicit agreements and stated preferences.

            You don’t necessarily know how you’ll feel about sex outside of the relationship beforehand when you’re deciding whether or not to open it up. And if you feel guilt or betrayal afterwards, someone saying “well you shouldn’t feel that way” is not going to magically transmute those feelings into the ones you should have.

            Some people do fine, some feel awful. Just because it’s consentual doesn’t mean it wasn’t a harmful mistake for the latter group.

          • blacktrance says:

            Of course saying “you shouldn’t feel that way” may not change your feelings, but feeling betrayed is only the first step, because you can also choose how you act on that feeling. You can think “I feel betrayed, but I agreed to this, so I should deal with it” or “They betrayed me, how dare they! It doesn’t matter that I agreed to it, they’ve still wronged me” – in the first case, you merely acknowledge your feeling of betrayal, but in the second, you endorse it. If you feel that non-monogamy was a mistake, you can try to renegotiate the terms of the relationship, or end it altogether – you’re not stuck having to endure it.

            Your original point was that poly is for people with low guilt, but it no longer seems to be about that. You can feel a lot of guilt when you’ve actually done something wrong but still not feel any guilt here.

          • Ever An Anon says:

            I say low guilt because it seems (to me, obviously) that guilt is the natural response even if it’s an unwarranted one. The same way bungee jumping is a sport best suited to low fear people because even if you’re not in much actual danger your amygdala doesn’t know the difference.

            As for acting on feelings I agree it’s best to talk it out or get out rather than blaming the other person, though again it’s a predictable and understandable reaction even if not one we endorse.

          • blacktrance says:

            I say low guilt because it seems (to me, obviously) that guilt is the natural response even if it’s an unwarranted one.

            The natural response to being accused of betrayal in this context? Perhaps I’m typical-minding, but to me the natural response is “I’m sorry that you feel bad about it, but you agreed to it, so I haven’t done anything wrong and I’m not going to feel guilty”.

            I think part of our disagreement is the definition of “low-guilt”. Someone can feel very guilty when they believe they’ve done something wrong while not feeling guilty merely because someone told them they’ve done something wrong – is this person high-guilt, low-guilt, or something else? Perhaps it’d be more accurate to divide it into being guilt-prone (feeling guilty when you believe you’ve done something wrong) and being ethically credulous (likely to believe someone when they tell you that you’ve done something wrong). By this framing, polyamory is for people who are low in guilt or ethical credulity (or both), so someone who feels really guilty when they believe they’ve done something wrong but isn’t prone to believing other people’s accusations would still be fine.

          • Anthony says:

            A part of the guilt issue may be experience. In one’s first poly relationship, one might have trouble believing that it really is ok to have sex with someone else, and feel guilty about it even though one’s partner reassures one that it’s ok. Similarly, but not identically, feelings of betrayal.

    • J. Quinton says:

      Not sure if this exactly answers your question, but I read this a while back:

      Subjects in the control group first judged the artistic merit of abstract paintings such as Josef Albers’s Homage to the Square. The men in the experimental group saw centerfolds from Playboy and Penthouse; the women saw handsome naked men from Playgirl. After they had looked at either paintings or centerfolds, we asked our participants to rate their feelings about their current relationship partners. Again, there was a cover story — that psychologists were divided on whether being in a relationship opened people up to new aesthetic experiences or made them less open to novelty. To test which side was right, we told them, we needed to know about the extent to which their reported level of commitment depended on whether they had seen centerfolds.


      Men who had viewed the centerfolds rated themselves as less in love with their partners; women’s judgments of their partners were not so easily swayed.


      Seeing a series of socially dominant men undermined women’s commitment, just as seeing attractive women had done to men’s.

      Of course, beware the man of one study and all that.

    • Anthony says:

      No research, but I’d bet the answer is “yes, it can, but not consistently across relationships”.

  22. Arne says:

    What is this TV thing i hear talking about, and why is it relevant?

    • Godzillarissa says:

      It’s like a one-way internet, where you choose which “channel” gets to scream at you to buy their stuff and endorse their ideas and policies for hours on end.

      Relevant, though, it is not.

  23. DrBeat says:

    It’s high time someone around here asked the tough questions.

    If Scott or other noted commenters around here had a Stand, what would their Stands be?

    • This sounds very similar to J. K. Rowling’s concept of a patronus.

      • DrBeat says:

        You mean that a Patronus is similar to Hirohiko Araki’s concept of a Stand. Jojo did it first!

        Also, I shouldn’t have said “commenter”, I should have said “personality”, because ridiculous semi-related abilities are fun, and because

        Eliezer Yudowsky’s Stand, 「Electric Light Orchestra」, is a special Stand that resembles billions of miniscule robots, which look like a grey paste from far away.

        Information Accelerant「E.L.O.」has the ability to deconstruct any piece of matter broken off a larger entity, such as a tooth or a gas cap, and learn everything about the entity it came from (ie, the human or the car), including its current contents, whereabouts, and goals. Data is only current at the time of deconstruction, and new samples must be obtained for updated information. Any material dropped into 「E.L.O.」’s mass triggers this ability regardless of whether Eliezer needs it, which is a pain every time he has to clip his toenails.

        Hard Takeoff: 「E.L.O.」is also capable of forming a protective sphere around its user in which time is accelerated infinitely, allowing Eliezer infinite time to think of a new plan. The user does not age, tire, or grow hungry/thirsty while in the infinitely accelerated time, but does get bored just as easily as normal.

    • Brad says:

      Maybe you could drop by /tg/, see if there’s any reader crossover, and ask them to stat Scott.

  24. Carinthium says:

    Question. What do people here think of Dennett’s idea that the Self is a center of narrative gravity, or as I would word it a theoretical fiction?

    I’m noting this in particular because although Dennett seems to have a powerful case for it, the sheer changes from it are catastrophic. If selves do not actually exist, caring about some people more than others becomes philosophically incoherent. Not wanting to die becomes philosophically incoherent. Instrumental philosophy (i.e. the philosophy of how people should act) thus requires a fundamental reworking.

    This is admittedly motivated reasoning on my part, but I want to see if there is a viable alternative to the theory which allows ideas such as “I do this because I want to” and at least the concept of being both selfish and rational to be philosophically coherent before I put that kind of work in.

    (Disclaimer: I anticipate a lot of arguing against Dennett here. I may end up having to defend him quite a bit. This is not because I agree with him, but because I want a Dennett refutation that works)

    • James says:

      I’m in agreement with Dennett on this one, I think, but only because I come from a (pragmatism-esque?) perspective that views *everything* as a theoretical fiction of some kind. Of course it must be granted that some categories cohere more tightly than others and hence seem more like what we might call ‘natural categories’. But I would argue that there’s only a quantitative difference between that kind of concept and the more fluid, flexible, less-cohesive sorts of concepts that are apt to be called ‘useful theoretical fictions’–a kind of ‘literalness’/’literariness’ spectrum, if you will–rather than any fundamental difference in kind. ‘Self’ is probably closer to the latter end of the spectrum, I guess. I don’t know how useful that is to your concerns, though.

      Actually, I’m calling it pragmatist, but Eliezer approaches something like this view when he starts describing categories and concepts as ‘clusters of objects in thing-space’, or what-have-you, and talking about blergs and rebes or whatever.

      I’m surprised you anticipate anti-Dennett backlash. My impression has been that rationalist-types tend to skew fairly pro-Dennett–perhaps even a bit too uncritically, if you ask me. Then again, maybe that’s more LW than SSC.

    • Peter says:

      Adding to Dennett – Julian Baginni wrote a very readable pop-philosophy book called The Ego Trick that I recommend, and of course there’s Parfit – Reasons and Persons is the relevant one here. I’m not sure which of the two mentions “bundle theory”. I’m also reading Sam Harris’s Waking Up, which seems to include similar themes. Also, lots of Buddhist thought appears to lean that way, at least if the Westerners who have been interpreting it for me have been doing their jobs right. Removing or mitigating selfishness and the fear of death sounds a lot like spiritual wisdom to me.

      Pushed to its extreme, you seem to end up with an idea of instrumental rationality that looks like total utilitarianism; i.e. no reason to prefer self over others, no reason to prefer close over far, no reason to prefer soon over later, no reason to be attached to particular lives; life as a prerequisite for value rather than an intrinsic value in itself.

      There’s no need to go that far though; the “bundle theory” idea is that there are various aspects of myself, all potentially separable and no single one of them can be singled out as the “true self”. Imagine a little internal Senate where various aspects of myself get voting rights – vertebrate-me and Cambridge-me and uncle-me and scientist-me and a large number of other $SOMETHING-mes get voting rights. What I think you get is something like social-temporal discounting where a big benefit to someone socially far from me now, a small benefit to someone socially close to me now or a small benefit to me later could all have similar weights. Of course, you then get problems with rationality due to things like voting paradoxes (see for example Arrow’s theorem), and if you have temporal discounting then quite possibly you have hyperbolic discounting with the rationality problems that that implies (odd preference reversals etc.) Somewhere along those lines there are interesting questions about the existence and coherence of “duties to yourself”, and I expect there’s plenty more to ponder.

    • Tracy W says:

      What do people here think of Dennett’s idea that the Self is a center of narrative gravity, or as I would word it a theoretical fiction?

      If it’s a narrative gravity, or a theoretical fiction, who is the narrative or fiction being told to?

      William Wilkinson has a good response to these arguments about the self, that they play the trick of setting up an extravagant definition of what the self requires, disproving that definition, and then claiming that the disproof of that definition means that there is no self. To quote Will Wilkinson:
      “If the self isn’t a hard gem-like flame literally flickering somewhere east of the pancreas, then there is no self!”

      • Peter says:

        Thus we get onto the philosophical-linguistic debate about whether revisionist versions of things count or not; we’ve had discussions elsewhere on SSC about whether compatibilist free will is free will, or whether it is like vegetarian bacon and Bombay duck. Oddly on that one, Dennett seems to end up as a revisionist, hence the joke about him ordering coffee made by immersing a tea bag in hot water, and on being told “that’s not coffee, you know, it’s tea”, replying “ah, but it’s the variety of coffee worth wanting”.

        Illusions: possibly you could say the self is an illusion in the same way that the Müller-Lyer illusion is – in the latter case there’s definitely various straight lines that form an arrow (or several, depending on the version), it’s just that those lines don’t have all of the properties they appear to have. People who have played Ars Magica might like to think of Muto Imaginem (“change image”) rather than Creo Imaginem (“create image”) here.

        • Tracy W says:

          possibly you could say the self is an illusion in the same way that the Müller-Lyer illusion is

          Possibly you could. And if you did, you’d be open to fundamentally the same objection that I made to the narrative gravity/theoretical fiction statement.
          If the self is an illusion in the way that the Müller-Lyer illusion is an illusion, what is the subject of the self-illusion?

          Let me put it this way. “The Müller-Lyer illusion makes the viewer think that the midpoint of a line is somewhere other than where it is.”
          “The illusion of the self makes the viewer think that they have a self.”

          One of these claims is not like the other.

          • Peter says:

            The subject – let’s try: my I-don’t-know-enough-about-the-structure-of-the-mind-to-say-what. Possibly several of them; in fact, it would be more in keeping with Dennet’s Multiple Drafts model to say several of them; or possibly a loop or some other feedback structure consisting of several of them.

            My feet aren’t my self. My fingers, typing on my keyboard, aren’t my self. My eyes, which in the past have received light from Müller-Lyer figures, aren’t my self. It’s not too hard to anatomise the parts of me outside the cranial cavity. Inside it’s a bit more complicated, there are lots of interesting results from neuroscience, but functions don’t seem to map one-to-one to anatomy. So I’m afraid I can’t give more details.

          • Tracy W says:

            Peter, I also don’t know enough about the structure of the mind to say. But, to go from “we don’t know where the self is” to “therefore the self doesn’t exist” is an argument from ignorance.

            Especially as I have empirical evidence that there is a self. (You might not have a self: I know of no disproof of solipsism.)

          • Peter says:

            Tracy: You’re trying to get me to say “I’m perceiving my ‘self'” and thus to implicitly presuppose the view I and Dennett are trying to argue against. I tried the direct approach of not trying to fall into that trap, and you don’t seem to be going for it, let me try the Gom Jabbar route and to defend myself from within the trap.

            Suppose I have diabetes. I could say, “I’m not producing enough insulin” or “my pancreas isn’t producing enough insulin”. It would be deeply odd, however, to say “my self isn’t producing enough insulin”. Likewise, if you shoot me in the leg, then I could say “you shot me” or “you shot my leg” but not “you shot my self”. So I can perfectly well say that “I perceive the illusion of my ‘self'” (or even “The illusion of my self is perceived by me” if you want to drag grammatical subjects into it) while denying that there is some self doing the perceiving.

            (See also my complaints about the word “self” downthread).

          • Tracy W says:

            Peter: Really? I didn’t know I was trying to do that. I thought I was trying to point out that an illusion presupposes someone being illusioned. Anyway, my apologies for accidentally trying to get you to do that, please feel yourself free from any obligation on my part along those lines.

            Turning to your other points:

            I don’t follow your insulin analogy nor do I follow why you are dragging grammatical subjects into this.

            I agree that you can *say* that “I perceive the illusion of myself” while denying that there is some self doing the perceiving. I also note that I can say that 2+2 = 3, or that Lake Eerie is the largest mountain in the world. Doesn’t mean that it’s true. To use your insulin analogy, to me it sounds like you’re saying “My pancreas is producing enough insulin” while denying that you have a pancreas at all. Yes, you can say that, but at least one bit must be false.

            (Yes, I’m being pedantic about the distinction between “say” and “is true”. That’s because I find this discussion is at the outer edge of my intellectual zone, so I’m going very carefully for my sake.)

          • Peter says:

            Denying that I have a pancreas: more denying that my pancreas is my self. If you removed my pancreas, I’d still be me – yes, dealing with the consequences might be a major life change, but I’d still be me – i.e. my pancreas is an inessential part of myself. I think, by definition, if you removed my ‘self’, whatever it is, whatever was left would no longer be me. In other words, a ‘self’ must be an essential part of me. One common claim by bundle theorists is that it is in principle possible to split a person in two, such that the two halves both have an equal claim to being the original person – Parfit claims that the only part of the process that seems “deeply impossible” is that part that has already been done. If this is true then there is no part of me that is essential to me; i.e. there is no ‘self’.

            The grammatical subject bit comes up, I suppose, because a lot of this is about language – for example Pinker has a quip about The Pronoun In The Machine which seems to be referring to the sort-of self that Dennett et al. are denying, Dennett says he’s influenced by Wittgenstein who says that various philosophical conundrums were bewitchments caused by language. When I say ‘I could say, “I’m not producing enough insulin”’ this is a claim about how language – in particular pronouns – works; I’m saying that it is felicitous to use the word “I” when I’m talking about an inessential part of myself doing something. Thus, I think can affirm that I am perceiving my ‘self’ while denying that my self is perceiving my self. Of course if those particular perceiving parts of me are essential parts of me then my argument fails, and whatever they are they do feel at least closer to being essential than my pancreas.

          • Tracy W says:


            more denying that my pancreas is my self.

            Happy for you to deny that.

            My pancreas analogy was about you claiming that your pancreas is doing something while simultaneously denying that you have a pancreas.

            In the case of visual illusions, there is a viewer of the illusion to be illused. If the self is an illusion, who is the viewer of the illusion?

          • Peter says:

            Elsewhere in this thread you have the situation of people receiving brain injuries, undergoing personality changes and thus not being themselves anymore. This often involves unconsciousness but I don’t see any reason why this is necessarily so. These injuries may not necessarily be to the parts of my brain required for self-perception (i.e. the parts of the brain I use to perceive myself – note that I can talk about self-perception without presupposing a ‘self’); thus these parts don’t have to be the ‘self’ that is being shot.

          • Tracy W says:

            note that I can talk about self-perception without presupposing a ‘self’)

            Nope. You used the word “I”. Looks to me exactly like you were presupposing a self.

          • Carinthium says:

            There is clearly a strong cognitive bias in human brains in favour of believing in the existence of independent selves. To the extent there is a belief in such, however, it is deluded (even if there are slip-ups) and therefore something to be avoided.

            Why could it not be that belief in a self is a cognitive bias, and therefore slip-ups ‘ought’ to be treated like any other cognitive bias?

            The problem here is primarily linguistic limitations.

          • Peter says:

            Tracy W: elsewhere I’ve established that “myself” and “my self” aren’t synonymous; we may disagree about what exactly “I shot my self” means but we both agree it means something different from “I shot myself”.

            “Myself” is the same as “I” semantically, the only difference is in the grammar. “I washed myself” and “I was washed by myself”, well, there might be some difference of emphasis, but the truth conditions of these two sentences are the same. “Myself” is just the first-person pronoun used as a grammatical object when the grammatical subject is “I”. So if “I” and “myself” mean the same thing, then “I” and “my self” mean different things.

            Therefore, I can perfectly well use first person pronouns without presupposing selves, whatever they are.

          • Tracy W says:

            I don’t know what you mean when you say an “independent self”, so I have no opinion on whether we do have an independent self. But I note that claiming that we don’t have an independent self is different to Dennet’s claim that we don’t have a self at all. If we don’t have an independent self but do have a dependent self (whatever that means) then Dennet’s claim is false.

            Why could it not be that belief in a self is a cognitive bias

            How do you have a belief in a self without something doing the believing? Do you think that beliefs wander around unattached to anyone?

            The problem here is primarily linguistic limitations.

            Yes, I’m finding it quite frustrating actually. Peter keeps talking about what he can say, as opposed to what is true, and you now have brought in an adjective apparently out of thin air, without feeling any need to define it, and then muddled it up with Dennet’s claim.

            @Peter: we can agree that “I shot my self” means something different to “I shot myself”. But your statement, may I remind you, was ” I can talk about self-perception without presupposing a ‘self’”. That’s a different matter. If you have self-perception, but no self, then what’s doing the self-perception?

            Therefore, I can perfectly well use first person pronouns without presupposing selves, whatever they are.

            Yes, but when you start using first person pronouns about self-perceptions, or about beliefs, or about illusions, you’re presupposing a self.

            You still haven’t answered my question as to, if the self is an illusion, who is the viewer of the illusion?

          • Peter says:

            Tracy: you are insisting that in order to perceive, or self-perceive, something must be a self. I can self-perceive, I am myself, we have already established that “myself” and “my self” are different things, so there’s no need to talk about “my self” self-perceiving. (Note that if I say that I self-perceive, that’s different from me saying that the part of me that perceives me self-perceives. I can’t even say what that part of me is, so I’m pretty sure it doesn’t. The “self” in self-perceiving is for reflexivity, just like the “self” in “myself”, it isn’t perceiving a self.)

            Self-perception and personal identity are different concerns – elsewhere we’ve established that sudden major personality changes can break personal identity for some purposes but not others, personality and self-perception may interact but they’re not the same thing. “self” as a free-standing noun (rather than as a component of “myself” or “self-perception”) is used about personal identity (we seem to agree about this, see our discussion about “I shot myself”).

            The “for some purposes but not others” is the important bit when it comes to cashing out real consequences from the existence or otherwise of the self, and the coherence of the notion. The most charitable thing I can say about said notion is that it is one of those things like Newtonian mechanics – a model or approximation or abstraction or whatever that works well in some circumstances, badly in others, and thus can’t be the underlying reality.

            When Parfit discusses the existence or otherwise of personal identity – and more importantly – it’s importance or otherwise – he seems to go straight from strange hypotheticals to “I seem to care more about others and fear death less”. But it’s not just strange hypotheticals. Julian Baginni talks about dementia patients and their relationships with there spouses (there was a case of one husband feeling he owed his wife care but not fidelity), there’s the brain injuries we’ve been talking about. There was a time when I was taking sertraline and complaining I didn’t really feel like myself, but if I had turned up to work and they said “Who are you? You don’t work here” I would not have been pleased.

            I read the Will Wilkinson article, I think a lot of confusion would be removed if we retired the word “self” as in “the self”, and talked about things such as “personal identity”, “personal integration”, “personal integrity” etc. instead. I may be personally integrated (a part of me laughs mockingly at this notion) but to say that I have a personal integration is a bit silly.

          • Tracy W says:


            You are insisting that in order to perceive, or self-perceive, something must be a self.

            Yep. Nice to see that you’ve grasped this.

            we have already established that “myself” and “my self” are different things, so there’s no need to talk about “my self” self-perceiving.

            This is a non-sequitor. My foot and my pancreas are different things, but that doesn’t mean that I have no need to talk about my pancreas producing insulin, or not producing insulin, as the case might be.

            I am saying that the bit of me that does the perceiving (be that of self or of other things) is part of my self.

            I can’t even say what that part of me is, so I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

            You’re committing the argument from ignorance fallacy.

            The “self” in self-perceiving is for reflexivity, just like the “self” in “myself”, it isn’t perceiving a self.

            I have no idea what you are trying to say in this sentence. Why should the “self” be for “reflexivity”, rather than for something totally different, like “ensuring the survival of our genes”, or “for God’s amusement” or “for nothing at all, it’s just a emergent outcome of a brain.”? (Note, I’m not arguing that any of these statements are true, I’m just giving them as alternative possible explanations of what the self is for.)

            And, also, you put quotes around words like “self” and “myself”, I tend to read them as referring to something other than the typical signifier. In this case, it reads to me like you are referring to the words “self” and “myself”, but, well, who cares? If we were talking in French or Chinese we’d be using different words for self, but I can’t see how that would make any change to the actual argument. I’ve never heard any argument that the self is an illusion for bilingual speakers when they’re speaking English, but totally true when they’re speaking French (or whatever). So presumably you mean something else by those quote marks, but I have no idea what.

            Anyway, if the self in me isn’t perceiving a self, then why, whenever I think about it, I have a feeling that I have a self? If the self is an illusion, what is being illused?

            Self-perception and personal identity are different concerns

            Maybe. Don’t know what any of this has to do with the claim that the self is an illusion. You can separate out self-perception and personal identity all you like, but if you’re going to claim that the self is an illusion there’s still the question of what is being illused.

            The “for some purposes but not others” is the important bit when it comes to cashing out real consequences from the existence or otherwise of the self, and the coherence of the notion. The most charitable thing I can say about said notion is that it is one of those things like Newtonian mechanics – a model or approximation or abstraction or whatever that works well in some circumstances, badly in others, and thus can’t be the underlying reality.

            Huh! Will Wilkinson’s critique of the “self is an illusion” type arguments seems to tie nicely into this. The people making the “self is an illusion” type arguments make up some model or approximation or abstraction of the underlying reality, then criticise the model they just made up for being incoherent, and then jump from that criticism to asserting that the underlying reality doesn’t exist. But, then, they wind up creating an even more complex and incoherent model, in which there’s an illusion, implying something that is subject to an illusion, but they have no idea what that subject is. I note that no one has ever come up with any independent evidence (so outside this argument) for this thing that is the viewer of this illusion of a self.

            So, Occam’s Razor: dump the idea of needing a model/approximation/abstraction or whatever. Go with whatever empirical evidence you have to hand (eg I am fooled by optical illusions, brain injuries produce changes in thinking that injuries to other parts of the body don’t so the self probably has something to do with the brain), be agnostic about the self where you don’t have empirical evidence, and don’t multiply entities unnecessarily.

            I think a lot of confusion would be removed if we retired the word “self” as in “the self”, and talked about things such as “personal identity”, “personal integration”, “personal integrity” etc. instead.

            I disagree. Swapping one word that’s ill-defined for two words that are ill-defined is something that is just going to add confusion because it adds length without adding substance. I have limited mental bandwidth.

            And I note that in all of these words, you still haven’t even tried to answer my question as to, if the self is an illusion, what is being illused?

      • Carinthium says:

        I didn’t want to have to go into full details, but it seems I’ve got no choice but to at least try. I’ll use an analogy here.

        1: Functionalism Would Save Alchemy
        This is strictly speaking an attack on functionalism, but I’ll explain how it applies in the next section.

        “Churchland supposes that alchemists could have tried to save alchemy by creating a functional definition of alchemy terms, e.g. �ensouled by mercury� means �having certain properties such as being shiny, liquifying under head, etc.� Then alchemists could continue using alchemy concepts, while admitting that all elements are not literally, physically made of up Mercury, Sulpher, Yellow Arsenic and Sal Ammoniac.”

        You might question why I put this, but I need to show the problem with this broad kind of approach first.

        2: Observer Dependent Features of the World
        The existence of observer dependent features of the world (and yes this includes the existence of, for instance, money) creates a severe philosophical slippery slope most people cannot see the consequences of.

        By the theory shown in “The Self is Not an Illusion”, any conception of the self can be said to exist as long as enough selves believe it. Firstly, this means that selves exist because people (who have not been established to exist yet) believe they do.

        Second, take a hypothetical “person” (that is a person by Wilkinson’s conception) A. Everyone arbitrarily decides (religious reasons?) that A is no longer A, that some other person B is. No actual empirical facts change, only beliefs (including A’s and B’s of course). Yet by Wilkinson’s logic, assuming the actual beliefs of everyone change A has switched bodies.

        There are many variants of this. A person can avoid death merely by the consensus he’s switched bodies, or stop being a person as a question of objective fact because everyone stops thinking he is, for example.

        Believing there is no such thing as a self is more intuitive than this, frankly.

        • Tracy W says:


          Firstly, this means that selves exist because people (who have not been established to exist yet) believe they do.

          Yep, this step seems pretty airtight. If I believe something, then logically I must be able to believe something. If I observe my one year old walking unsupported, logically she is able to walk unsupported.

          For the rest, I will leave Will Wilkinson to argue that out (though I would watch with interest). I referred to his article for the point about the “fallacy of disappointed expectations”, not the particular theory of self he suggests.

          Believing there is no such thing as a self is more intuitive than this, frankly.

          Harsh criticism.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      It all adds up to normality.

      • Carinthium says:

        Replying to all replies to my original comment, so I’ll say this much- we can’t really assume that. If I remember correctly, that claim was first made regarding physics after all.

        I’m not quite sure how to express the problem myself, but the “Functionalism would save Alchemy” argument applies here.

    • Peter says:

      While we’re here, can I complain about how terrible a word “self” is. Compare and contrast:

      I shot myself in the foot (literally)!
      I shot my self in the foot (literally)!

      The former is definitely a coherent sentence, people know what it means, I’d expect it would mean a trip to A&E, unless it was with a water pistol, in which case a change of socks and shoes would be indicated. The latter, well it seems pure nonsense to me. You could just about try arguing that with some preparatory neurosurgery you could try shooting out a tiny part of your brain, just maybe if you found that there was one part of your brain solely devoted to representing your foot (and that nothing else represented your foot) you could shoot that part… but really I’m not buying it.

      • Irenist says:

        Well, “I shot myself in the foot” makes a lot more sense than “I shot myself in the conscience,” or “in the mathematical ability” or “in the ability to recognize faces,” because moral reasoning, mathematics, and facial recognition are actions rather than objects. But to the extent there is a “self,” surely on any materialist account it’s in the brain, right? E.g., you could argue that Phineas Gage’s self had railroad spike driven through its left frontal lobe: all his friends seemed to think he was “not Gage” after his brain injury radically altered his personality. If one’s moral character is part of one’s self, then shooting oneself “in the self” would seem to be a distinct neurological possibility.

        • Peter says:

          I bet that if Gage or a person with a similar injury went to the bank hoping to make a withdrawal, and the bank manager turned him away because the person asking to withdraw the money wasn’t the one who opened the account in the first place, then he wouldn’t be pleased. Likewise if he had committed crimes prior to the injury, and I was on the jury, and he tried claiming he wasn’t the person who had committed the crimes, that – probably – wouldn’t stop me convicting.

          • Carinthium says:

            It is at least theoretically possible that there is a popular idea of what it is to be a self that is simply wrong due to philosophical incoherence.

            If this is the case your argument about ordinary behaviour doesn’t apply.

          • Peter says:

            I think, in fact, I’m precisely trying to argue that the popular notion of a self is incoherent. Part of this is showing that ordinary behaviour presupposes inconsistent ideas about what a self might be.

          • Carinthium says:

            Oops. Misunderstood. Sorry about that.

      • Tracy W says:

        One of my brothers got a severe brain injury a few years back (medical definition of severe is that you’re unconscious for over a day. He was unconscious for over a month), and at the time I did a lot of reading about brain injuries, and people who have had severe ones often do talk about being a new person, losing their old friendships as they were just too different people, and having to put themselves back together again. Apparently it’s hardest on brain injury victims who are about 17 or 18, as they have a strong sense of themselves, but no accomplishments in their old personalities.

        So, I can see “I shot my self (literally)!” as a possible, although unlikely sentence. Unlikely as (a) you’d have to survive (b) you’d have to have hit a bit of your brain that destroyed your sense of self while avoiding hitting bits of brain that are needed to form such sentences, (c) brain injuries tend to interrupt the memory writing process so even if you succeeded at (a) and (b) you almost certainly wouldn’t remember doing so.

        • Carinthium says:

          You’re assuming that a sense of self and an actual self are identical.

          As for c, it’s possible “you” could figure out later what “you” did from evidence “you” see later.

          • Peter says:

            You’re assuming that a sense of self and an actual self are identical.

            Bingo! The map is not the territory; even when the map is part of the territory, even when the map contains a representation of itself, it is not the territory.

          • Tracy W says:

            You’re assuming that a sense of self and an actual self are identical.

            Nope. Wrong. I’m assuming that a sense of self requires an actual self to be sensing it.

            And I’m rather annoyed that you think that I’m such a moron as to assume such a stupid thing. What sort of idiot would think that one’s actual self can be reduced merely to a sense of self? Shouldn’t it be totally obvious that I do things with my self that are other than sensing my self, for example being fooled by visual illusions? Can you please tell me what on earth I said that led you to assume that I would believe such a ridiculous thing, so I can avoid repeating such foolishness in the future?

            (Seriously, please tell me. I’ve re-read everything I’ve written and I can’t see *anything* that makes me sound quite that stupid, so now I’m desperately worried that I’m so stupid that I can’t see how stupid I am.)

          • Tracy W says:

            Bingo! The map is not the territory; even when the map is part of the territory, even when the map contains a representation of itself, it is not the territory.

            Yes, the word “self” is not the same as the self. The self views visual illusions, but viewing visual illusions is not all that the self does.

            And while we’re at it, water is wet, fire burns, the pope is Catholic and bears shit in the woods.

        • Carinthium says:

          “(b) you’d have to have hit a bit of your brain that destroyed your sense of self” apparently translates to “I shot my self (literally)!”.

          In addition, there are plenty of philosophers who think like that. Elizier Yudowsky thinks a human perception of morality translates into an actual moral code, economists think a belief in the existence of something being money counts as money, etc.

          • Tracy W says:


            “(b) you’d have to have hit a bit of your brain that destroyed your sense of self” apparently translates to “I shot my self (literally)!”.

            Remind me never to hire you as a translator.

            But I appreciate your intellectual modesty that led you to add the adjective “apparently”.

          • Peter says:

            I think Carinthium’s “apparently” means, “by Tracy W’s apparent standards” – by which I mean the standards revealed by your actual practises, rather than your explicit beliefs. It is remarkably common for people’s explicit beliefs about language to be contradicted by their actual practises, see the parts of Language Log where they complain about Strunk and White and other bad writers of style guides who routinely flout the very rules the proffer.

            You say: ‘So, I can see “I shot my self (literally)!” as a possible, although unlikely sentence. Unlikely as (a) you’d have to survive (b) you’d have to have hit a bit of your brain that destroyed your sense of self’.

            OK, there’s a difference in person here, and quite a few other differences, but I can see no other way to interpret that remark except as presupposing that “self” and “sense of self” are synonymous. You can’t even escape by saying you were talking metaphorically because of the “literally” bit.

          • Tracy W says:

            but I can see no other way to interpret that remark except as presupposing that “self” and “sense of self” are synonymous.

            Well, I can. Let’s take the analogy of a car engine and spark plugs. You can stop a car from going by removing the spark plugs. That doesn’t mean that the spark plugs are synonymous with the engine.

            So, you destroy your self by shooting a bit of your brain that contains your sense of self. But that doesn’t mean that it is logically necessary that the self is synonymous with your sense of self, any more than the car engine is synonymous with the spark plugs.

            I think Carinthium’s “apparently” means, “by Tracy W’s apparent standards”

            So, you think that *I* believe that shooting yourself in the brain is the same as (translates into) saying “I shot myself (literally).”

            I propose a test, in the interests of science. You and/or Carinthium offer me $100 to say “I shot myself in the brain, (literally).” Then you and/or Carinthium offer me $100 to actually shot myself in the brain.

            I predict that I will take the first offer and refuse the second. If your theory is right, I would either take both offers or refuse both.
            (Note, I’m not going to propose this to you two. I’m scared that Carinthium would accept both offers.)

    • ” If selves do not actually exist, caring about some people more than others becomes philosophically incoherent.”

      If selves do not actually exist, then what you are caring about is, quite coherently, another character in you internal fiction, equal in ontological status to your own fictive self.

      For details, see JB Cabell’s Garden Between Dawn And Sunrise.

      • Peter says:

        I think… somewhere along the line someone’s not understanding someone.

        Suppose I’m in the world of The Princess Bride and I care about The Dread Pirate Roberts; I’m dimly aware that the DPR is a series of actual people but I prefer to forget that. I continue to care about the DPR even when there’s a switch of underlying person, I cease to care for people when they stop being the DPR. This would be… really quite odd, but not like caring about the DPR from the real world where The Princess Bride is just a book/film.

        I’m intepreting the Dennett view as being like the former case, not like the latter case.

        • Carinthium says:

          I’m trying to answer every comment line, but I don’t actually need to say more than this. This is a better argument for my posistion than what I had.

    • Adam says:

      You’re going to have a hard time. Dennett’s ideas are tough to swallow because they’re so counterintuitive, but he is unparalleled as a philosopher that uses experimental evidence to back up his positions. In particular, the cases with severed corpus collosum seem completely damning to me, if not definitive. If “self” means anything here, it’s the shared memory providing a central point of reference for all running brain processes, but privileging one process over another, for instance calling the process that controls speech and says it, over the process controlling hand function that reports it sees green, and calling one the “self,” sure seems philosophically untenable.

    • onyomi says:

      Didn’t the Buddha say this over 2000 years ago?

  25. This may or may not be an inappropriate place to make a request, but could anyone take a look at my CV for me and see if it’s ok?

    • Bill G says:

      What’s your background? I have a few limited fields in which I’d be very helpful regarding this, but many others where I’d have little to offer.

    • Tracy W says:

      Also which country are you looking for work in? Different countries have different customs, even amongst the English-speaking ones.

    • James says:

      I am similarly no expert but also live in England and could also take a look if you want. jmckernon at the webmail domain operated by google.

  26. Anonymous says:

    So… what concept *did* the phrase “bravery debates” denote? I feel like I’ve picked up the gist of “All Debates Are Bravery Debates” but can’t get my head around the title :/

    • James says:

      The title is a call-back to a previous post, ‘Against Bravery Debates’, which actually *is* about a set of things that can reasonably be called bravery debates. However, the (much-more-important) concept described in the second post actually only relates tangentially to the one in the former, and, I think, remains unnamed. (Any suggestions?)

    • FullMetaRationalist says:

      “Bravery”: denotes the expression of a commonly held opinion as if it were controversial. E.g. “I may be downvoted for saying this, but Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy.”

      It’s used mostly around reddit. “Unpopular opinion puffin” memes are an easy target.

  27. Murphy says:

    Given your interest in the genetics of intelligence you might find this interesting.

    It’s preliminary but I’ll be watching some of the related studies.

    In most people, the number of repeats ranges from nine to 35. These people are healthy. Those with 36 or more repeats are, however, at risk of developing Huntington’s—and those with more than 40 will definitely develop it, unless they die beforehand of something else.

    Harmful dominant mutations such as this are rarities. Unlike recessives, they have nowhere to hide from natural selection. It is that which has led some people to wonder if there is more to Huntington’s disease than meets the eye. That even the healthy have a variable number of repeats suggests variety alone may confer some advantage. Moreover, there is a tendency for children to have more repeats than their parents, a phenomenon known as anticipation. This suggests a genetic game of “chicken” is going on: up to a point, more repeats are better, but push the process too far and woe betide you.

    Huntingtin-like genes go back a long way, and display an intriguing pattern. A previous study had found them in Dictyostelium discoideum, an amoeba. Dictyostelium’s huntingtin gene, however, contains no CAG repeats—and amoebae, of course, have no nervous system. Dr Cattaneo added to this knowledge by showing the huntingtin genes of sea urchins (creatures which do have simple nervous systems) have two repeats; those of zebrafish have four; those of mice have seven; those of dogs, ten; and those of rhesus monkeys around 15.

    The number of repeats in a species, then, correlates with the complexity of its nervous system. Correlation, though, does not mean cause. Dr Cattaneo therefore turned to experiment. She and her colleagues collected embryonic stem cells from mice, knocked the huntingtin genes out of them, and mixed the knocked-out cells with chemicals called growth factors which encouraged them to differentiate into neuroepithelial cells.

    A neuroepithelial cell is a type of stem cell. It gives rise to neurons and the cells that support and nurture them. In one of the first steps in the development of a nervous system, neuroepithelial cells organise themselves into a structure known as the neural tube, which is the forerunner of the brain and the spinal cord. This process can be mimicked in a Petri dish, though imperfectly. In vitro, the neuroepithelial cells lack appropriate signals from the surrounding embryo, so that instead of turning into a neural tube they organise themselves into rosette-shaped structures. But organise themselves they do—unless, Dr Cattaneo found, they lack huntingtin.

    Replacing the missing gene with its equivalent from another species, however, restored the cells’ ability to organise themselves. And the degree to which it was restored depended on which species furnished the replacement. The more CAG repeats it had, the fuller the restoration. This is persuasive evidence that CAG repeats have had a role, over the course of history, in the evolution of neurological complexity. It also raises the question of whether they regulate such complexity within a species in the here-and-now.

    They may do. At the time Dr Cattaneo was doing her initial study, a group of doctors led by Mark Mühlau of the Technical University of Munich scanned the brains of around 300 healthy volunteers, and also sequenced their huntingtin genes. These researchers found a correlation between the number of a volunteer’s CAG repeats and the volume of the grey matter (in other words, nerve cells) in his or her basal ganglia. The job of these ganglia is to co-ordinate movement and thinking. And they are one of the tissues damaged by Huntington’s disease.

    • Ever An Anon says:

      Actually, increased numbers of trinucleotide repeats aren’t “better” in the sense of being evolutionarily favored, it’s just that our mis-match repair (MMR) system has trouble with long repetitive sequences and often inserts or deletes repeats. There is a tipping point effect where longer repeat sequences make further insertions more likely and after enough of them the protein stops working properly.

      This is from memory btw so don’t take it as gospel, if you’re curious I can dig up the articles.

      • Murphy says:

        Damn, I meant to blockquote the first bit.

        Yes that is how anticipation works in this case.

        Thing is: It’s a dominant, fairly common genetic disease, a rare beast which usually implies *something* interesting is going on.

        Also there’s some evidence that it correlates with something non-trivial since humans apparently show assortative mating re the number of repeats in the gene.

        • Ever An Anon says:

          Maybe, but I’d guess that the interesting part is more to do with MMR than Huntingtons (or other TNR expansion disorders) in particular.

          Fixing the problem would require successfully screwing with ancient highly conserved repair pathways, which is not likely, or coming up with new repeat-sequence-free versions of a lot of proteins which is a tall order even if it’s simpler than fixing MMR.

          If our current understanding of how this works is correct, then this seems like the sort of problem you wouldn’t expect natural selection to sort out within such a short timescale as human history.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Very neat. But if true, I would expect premorbid Huntington’s patients to be unusually smart, and this doesn’t seem true (note that there are some genetic diseases that make you unusually smart, like torsion dystonia, so people are certainly looking for this).

      Also, if trinucleotide repeats are important, I wonder if that would help explain why we find so little variation explained by looking at SNPs.

  28. Bill G says:

    For any who care for any update- I’ve been surprisingly successful in my quitting nail biting. The most useful strategies so far have been a combination of mindfulness about when I was most prone to bite (driving, certain nervous situations, when I’m particularly focused at worked), and then a mix of applying deterrents (icky tasting stuff) before them and making sure that my nails were well groomed at those times. This seems to reduce temptation enough to eliminate the immediate bite, and with a couple seconds of contemplation I can avoid doing it all together. I still have plenty of work as the nails get longer, but happy for all of the progress/help so far. Thank you!

    The whole exercise has also increased my interest in mindfulness as a whole. Does anyone have any good guides/direction on meditation? I’m particularly interested in whether there are particular practices/approaches that better achieve increased concentration/calmness/etc.

    • What’s often called ‘mindfulness’ can sometimes be a conflation of two different types of meditation, usually from the Buddhist tradition. The first type, called ‘shamatha’, is intended to (metaphorically speaking, but I know of no words to describe the experience directly) stabilise the mind, to make it non-reactive to emotions and thoughts, and to make it more aware of what is being perceived. (Non-reactivity doesn’t mean a lack of awareness (awareness is actually sharpened considerably), dulling, or non-responsivity. It means the ability to feel an emotion without it distorting your cognition, or to think a thought without reflexively and non-reflectively believing it, or to think a thought without automatically thinking the subsequent thoughts that you’ve formed the habit of thinking after this one.)

      The point of this is to make the mind stable enough to be able to contemplate/become aware of what are believed to be the ‘three marks of existence’ – suffering (that’s a really bad translation; it actually refers to dissatisfaction, the sense of discontent, of wanting more, of not being happy with what is there, of constantly being on a treadmill, of there never being enough), impermanence, and non-self (the awareness of the self as a somewhat-arbitrary narrative fiction, constructed out of the raw material of experience). This type of meditation is called ‘vipassana’.

      Having these insights can be distressing/destabilising. The purpose of shamatha is to get your mind to a state where it can understand these insights without ‘losing its balance’. IMO, many psychological problems that aren’t physical in origin are caused by people who are either not psychologically ready (too young, too inexperienced, too mentally reactive, or lack a stable sense of self/have an unresolved problem) or who have some other unresolved psychological or psychiatric problem (possibly physical) being forced to confront one of these truths without being prepared for them, due to being made to experience them.

      Even if you do not wish to do any vipassana, there are many guides to meditation. For the type of meditation you’re talking about – shamatha – there’s a significant literature, though I wouldn’t suggest starting with it.

      I’m currently reading ‘Turning the Mind Into an Ally’, by Sakyong Mipham, which I think would fit your purpose. The first two parts of the book deal with Shamatha, and I think they’re a pretty good guide to it. I’d recommend it as a starting point. (Alan Wallace writes about shamatha, though I disagree with him on many things, and don’t like his style, and in other ways am not comfortable with a lot of his writing. They are some of the best material on this, though, even if they’re not accessible. His ‘The Attention Revolution’ is completely shamatha-focused, and beginner-comprehensible.)

      There are many Buddhist traditions, and equally many approaches to shamatha – far too many for me to go into here. Look around, and try to find one that works for you; Mipham’s book is merely my suggestion, and probably even a biased one.

      If you’re just starting out, my recommendation is Mipham’s book, and starting meditating on the breath as outlined there. Within a week or so, I expect you’ll notice changes in your awareness and mindfulness of whatever you’re doing (though you may not; a week isn’t very long). You certainly should within a month, and the effects should get more pronounced the longer you continue.

      • Peter says:

        That’s very interesting, especially in the light of comments upthread, also this article – I wonder if some of the side effects described are a result of trying to do vipassana-type meditation without proper preparation.

    • SanguineVizier says:

      Mazel tov! I am glad you have had success in breaking the habit, and I hope you keep it up.

      Regarding mindfulness meditation, Sam Harris has two guided mindfulness meditation recordings available gratis on his website. They have largely the same content, but differ in length, being 9 minutes and 26 minutes, respectively. I believe they have been uploaded to Youtube as well. I have done the 9 minute version a few times and found it very relaxing.

  29. Cauê says:

    Bryan Caplan has posted about a study on the personality traits of internet trolls, which apparently finds a link to “Dark Tetrad” traits, especially sadism. I don’t have access to the thing, and I’m very curious to know how it was set up, and if they took any precautions against the fact that the subjects would troll them if at all possible.

  30. Sigivald says:

    “N genders are running a marathon…”

    “There’s no punchline, because race isn’t a joke!”

    • Sigivald says:

      (I hope that was 100% meta enough to comply with the spirit of the ban while flaunting its literal language.)

    • Zykrom says:

      There’s no punch-line, because none of the N gender roles go well with that particular kink.

    • Zykrom says:

      Also, the race underwent a selection process that disfavored individuals prone to violence.

  31. Joseph Porter says:

    First-time commenter who very much enjoys this blog!

    Did you ever finish your review of Feser’s The Last Superstition? Haven’t read the book myself (just picked up his Scholastic Metaphysics from the library yesterday), but would be curious to hear the rest of your thoughts on it.

  32. Z.Frank says:

    Blunt questions:

    Are there any psychedelics that interact with bupropion? Are there any psychedelics that are dangerous to use alongside bupropion?

    I’m asking since I’m on bupropion for persistent depressive disorder and am considering occasionally using psychedelics as part of my treatment. I’ve heard from people who have suffered from depression for years say psychedelics helped them recover, so I figure it is worth a shot.

    I’m considering using mushrooms or some synthesized psychedelic.

    This is not a request for medical advice.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Bupropion increases seizure risk. Anything else that increases seizure risk will combine with it to increase seizure risk more.

  33. Anonymous says:

    I’ve been harbouring an idea for a while now, for a website that laid out the state of debates on certain subjects, with all the points and counterpoints to a specific thesis laid out in a directed graph of rebuttals and comments about logical fallacies to each individual point, without commenting about which points of view are correct. Each point and counterpoint would be backed up with references, in a Wikipedia-like system of user contributions.

    I believe it would be a great educational tool in debates and eventually be an authoritative point of reference for commonly traversed strands of debate, rather than the simplistic “state of the debate” articles on a certain subject where only the points one level down are represented (supporting and opposing points).

    I feel like Scott is one of the few people who would be disciplined enough to run such a site, given his opinions about charitability to arguments and giving people space to make their point before rebutting them (any point anyone didn’t agree with would still be presented as an argument that exists in fact, but could be rebutted against in principle). How do you think such a site would be received, and would it work?

    • Nornagest says:

      Imagine all the wrangling over notability and NPOV that goes on on Wikipedia, then multiply it.

    • DavidS says:

      I think ‘all’ is setting this up to fail: few issues are simple enough for that sort of thing. But it’s an interesting idea. Could end up almost feeling like a ‘choose your own adventure’: you can’t just say ‘I oppose X’ or ‘I support X’, you have to trace the arguments and identify what argument/rebuttal you find convincing. Assumes that decisions are based on a single logical point rather than broader empirical ones though: might be best if first applied to something where this might fit more naturally, e.g. interpretation of a constitution or human rights.

      It would be interesting if you (deliberately or organically) would end up with hubs: articles/pages setting out some major ethical principle (e.g. utilitarianism, or ‘do no harm’ Mill-style liberalism) as an argument which would be brought to bear in many cases.

      You could also end up with a very rigid set of ‘if you except premises A, B, C and arguments 1 and 2, you must accept the conclusion. In the style of Spinoza:

      • Anonymous says:

        I think ‘all’ is setting this up to fail: few issues are simple enough for that sort of thing.

        I admit that might happen. We’d need some damn good curation and initial seeding (for a period of years, even) to make a site like this get off the ground.

        But it’s an interesting idea. Could end up almost feeling like a ‘choose your own adventure’: you can’t just say ‘I oppose X’ or ‘I support X’, you have to trace the arguments and identify what argument/rebuttal you find convincing.

        That is sort of the idea. It’s not just points that keep being iterated, it’s also lines of debate that can span multiple counterpoints, and such a site would consolidate the possible paths and let you find the one you were referring to.

        Assumes that decisions are based on a single logical point rather than broader empirical ones though: might be best if first applied to something where this might fit more naturally, e.g. interpretation of a constitution or human rights.

        Hmm, I’m not sure what you mean by “broader empirical points”. There would be multiple points to support a thesis, which might themselves be backed up with empirical evidence. And then those points would possibly have multiple counterpoints, et cetera.

        • DavidS says:

          On empirical, I mean that if you support e.g. euthanasia out of ‘right to die’ on the basis of human rights, the line of argument is clear. But if you believe in it on the basis of a complex set of different utilitarian calculations from a range of perspectives, it’s more difficult.

    • Adam says:

      No single person could maintain a site like that, but the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a pretty good start if you just want the classic debates and not current-events politically-charge stuff.

    • DanielLC says:

      Sounds like Truth Mapping.

    • FullMetaRationalist says:

      Something in the back of my mind tells me that Leibniz/Frege attempted/wished-for something similar. I doubt it’s a new idea.

      How would this be different from wikipedia? Would the graph be made explicit? And if so, how would the graph be organized? Would each node freely associate with other node? Would each stance preside over a tree of supporting arguments where each node contained a list of immediate rebuts? Or would each topic preside over a tree of arguments which alternated between rebutting its parent node?

    • I saw a site very much like this two years ago, though I can’t remember its name right now. I think it was called something short like “Syllogic”, though searching for that particular name doesn’t find anything. I will describe what I remember of it, to help you find it in case it’s the exact thing you’re looking for, and also as a model to consider taking features from when designing a new site.

      It was basically a wiki with a tree of syllogisms. Each syllogism had exactly two premises and one conclusion. You could not edit existing syllogisms; you could only create new syllogisms, with your username attached to them. You could use the conclusion of any existing syllogism as the premise of a new syllogism. (Premises were not required to have been the conclusion of a previous syllogism; that would make bootstrapping impossible.)

      If you disagreed with an existing syllogism, you were required to create a new syllogism whose conclusion was the negation of one of the bad syllogism’s premises. For example, if someone wrote “crime is bad, Martin Luther was a criminal, therefore Martin Luther King was bad”, you could create a new syllogism saying “political activism is a crime, some political activism is good, therefore some crime is good”, and then mark your conclusion as negating the first premise of the other syllogism. That was the only way of countering arguments – you could not “comment” on syllogisms. I don’t remember what you could do if the argument was fallacious/invalid – maybe there was a Report button.

      The site had a visualization of the tree of syllogisms and which other syllogisms each relied on for its premises. It also had a page or filter that showed only a syllogism if it currently had no refutations to either of its premises. The site trusted that all syllogisms marked as refutations were actually refutations, even if they consisted of just random words – it trusted its users to at least not lie blatantly.

      I think the site described itself as an experiment with the mission of fostering logical discussion of important issues that focused on the facts. I remember seeing some syllogisms relating to murder on it, and maybe some relating to abortion too. It had about 100 syllogisms at the time.

      • Anonymous says:

        “political activism is a crime, some political activism is good, therefore some crime is good”,

        I might be nitpicking here, but don’t you mean “political activism is good, some political activism is criminal, therefore some crime is good”?

        I would hate to live in a world where all political activism was outlawed.

    • Mark says:

      This came up in the comments a while ago
      . I’ve also thought something like that would be nice and even prototyped some stuff, but I never got anything really useable.

      Someone please figure this out.

      • Mark says:

        And here’s the prototype

        If anyone want to start a github chat about this i’d love to share my notes.

        • Anonymous says:

          You’re making the same sort of stuff I was thinking of, pretty much. Although my idea was to plot them into circles that branched out from a main point, and whenever you clicked on it it would expand with the supporting arguments and data and stuff.

    • I generally like the theme of your idea, and just want to note that it’s worth thinking about the community as well as the mechanics of the site.

      Structures of knowledge that are built by people who are interested in the truth of a topic are superior to those built by people who are interested in a particular hypothesis being true. I think that’s one of the reasons Scott is quite nice to read – he’s usually truth-seeking rather than agenda-pushing, even when he’s looking at relatively politicized topics.

      For a truth-seeking website, good structure and procedures aren’t generally enough because people with agendas will, deliberately or not, find ways to sabotage the process. It’s almost impossible to procedurally specify impartiality. People have to care about it. Pluralist cooperation alone isn’t enough, because then sleek/easy/compromised/rhetorical hypothesis rise to the top instead of the truth, or alternatively you’ll be constantly dealing with flame-wars.

      What we really need is a subculture of truth-seekers. They would descend on random topics with the intention of gathering all major arguments and evidence, consolidate the fundamental points, refining them to their most eloquent forms, then present them in a sensible (hierachical?) structure.

      I want to suggest as a starting point someone needs to write (or perhaps as a group we need to agree on) an underlying philosophy for the project for people to rally around. Here’s my own efforts of something vaugely similar in the area of moral philosophy (part 1) and politics (part 2), but I’m not as fluid a writer as Scott and it would be nice if we could convince him to weigh-in on this. I am still interested in contributing in some way if this becomes a thing.

      Obviously the website mechanics will be fairly important to discuss too. Just don’t neglect your driving philosophy and subculture.

      • FullMetaRationalist says:

        What we really need is a subculture of truth-seekers. They would descend on random topics with the intention of gathering all major arguments and evidence, consolidate the fundamental points, refining them to their most eloquent forms,

        This sounds like how academia operates. Also, the internet was literally created to consolidate science papers. Larry Page’s thesis discussed creating a map of citations. He turned it into Page Rank, which now powers Google. I feel like if we want to explicate this map of citations, then we might want to use Page’s thesis as a starting point. I’m not sure exactly what this entails, I’m just drawing comparisons.

        Thinking further, I think the logical conclusion I’m meandering towards is: dump all academic papers into some software program that maps dependencies (citations), and then build an explicit hierarchy of knowledge out of that. Has this ever been tried before? Maybe we can use wikipedia itself as the data?

        After that happens, we can label each link as a either a rebut or a buttress by coloring it green or red. Contributors may have to accomplish this manually. Hm… why don’t we make this a wikipedia plugin instead of starting a site from scratch?

        Another thought, what if we convinced the IEEE to draft a new html spec where links could include a thumbs up or thumbs down? Isn’t that what they did with the no-follow tag? Google inc will do the rest. Also, something something semantic web.

        • I think you’re right about it being a little similar to academia. My experience of academics does point to two problems though (1) many don’t subscribe to truth-seeking approaches (2) many biases operate in the academic system, such as citation gaming and publication bias.

          I still think you need the subculture, and because I think starting a uni is going to tough, the above idea seems like the next best thing.

      • Troy says:

        What we really need is a subculture of truth-seekers.

        And thankfully, if we don’t like what they find, there’s always hemlock.

      • Anonymous says:

        What we really need is a subculture of truth-seekers. They would descend on random topics with the intention of gathering all major arguments and evidence, consolidate the fundamental points, refining them to their most eloquent forms, then present them in a sensible (hierachical?) structure.

        Accompanying the principal idea above there was also a proposal for such a forum/community/subculture, appropriately enough named “Truth Seekers”, that would curate and manage the debate-graph. The central principle of that forum would be “don’t argue to win” (or “no eristics”):

        Truth Seekers is about using debate to expand knowledge and help people learn about themselves, not as a battle ground for promoting your own ideas or forcing other people to adopt uncomfortable stances. People are encouraged to assume both sides of an argument and explore hypothetical scenarios to discover more about their positions and themselves. There is no winning or losing of arguments here, and anybody who starts to treat it as such will be barred from participating.

        I believe that if everybody commits to this rule as a principle, that it will improve the civility and quality of debates greatly.

        If your position is refuted by somebody else but still you don’t feel entirely convinced or don’t want to accept the conclusion, you don’t have to change your opinion because of that refutation. At the same time, it is unacceptable to expect somebody else to change their behaviour or attitude due to the result of a discussion where you successfully managed to refute a point of theirs.

        In short, eristics are disallowed here.

        The above was the closing paragraphs of a charter that I wrote for such a hypothetical site where debates took place. But yes, the community that ran such a site would be equally as important as the site content itself.

    • Anonymous2 says:

      Some of the things listed on this page might be what you’re looking for:

      This might also be of interest:

  34. Bjorn says:

    Has Scott ever reviewed or issued an opinion on Julian Jaynes theory of the bicameral mind in ancient civilizations? I am fascinated with this book but I’m not sure how much plausiblity I should assign to the premise. Certainly he hasn’t got everything exactly right, but if he is on the right track in considering consciousness to be primarily a cultural, rather than biological phenomenon, that alone is extremely interesting.

  35. Sniffnoy says:

    Bits of human anatomy that people missed until now: Apparently, until now, it was thought that the lymphatic system doesn’t connect to the brain. But it does; the lymph vessels to the brain are just really well-hidden, apparently!

    (news article, original paper; H/T Hacker News)

  36. onyomi says:

    Do people have any comment on this? It seems kind of sensationalist, but I guess some people must genuinely have this kind of body dysmorphic disorder.

    I bring it up because I think most doctors’ reaction to someone saying “I feel a strong need to have my left arm amputated” would be “you need psychiatric help, not surgery,” yet most of us have come to accept that this would not be the right response to a trans person seeking gender reassignment.

    I don’t mean to turn this into a gender post, and Scott can feel free to delete it if he thinks it is going too much in that direction, nor am I trying to take an anti-trans stance, as I am quite convinced that some people really do have bodies that just don’t match their brain chemistry or hormonal profile, or what have you. I also hate to make a kind of “slippery slope” argument, as that can also be used to justify all kinds of stupidity like “what’s next, dogs marrying people???”

    I’m more genuinely interested in the question of, at what point does a bodily dysmorphia become a pathology, and what point is it something we should just accept as someone knowing what would make them happy?

    For example, if an extremely obese person says “I must have lapband surgery because I know I’d be much happier and healthier if I were lighter and I’ve tried everything else,” then most people would say “that seems like a healthy attitude to have.”

    Conversely, if an anorexic who was already thin suggested that he/she really really needed lapband surgery because his/her ideal self is skinnier, then we’d say “see a psychiatrist.”

    Maybe in the end it’s all about first approximations and heuristics and getting at root problems when possible and having people bring their hairdryer with them when that works, but, I don’t know?

    Something about the above-linked article strikes me as inherently pathological or perverse, though there have been cases where people get transplants of things, I think, and are overwhelmed by a sense of “otherness,” and a need to get rid of the offending part, so, theoretically, maybe one could be born with that too.

    Unless it is more about the fetish of having not a particular disability, but just any disability, in which case I worry about the “victimization olympics” so infecting some brains as to result in some people being unable to be happy in a cis, hetero, white, male, able body (and they do note it seems to happen more to men)?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      See here.

      I tend to think body integrity identity disorder (“transablism”) is not a body dysmorphic disorder, on the grounds that cosmetic surgery is famously useless against body dysmorphic disorder but seems to treat body integrity identity disorder very effectively.

      • onyomi says:

        I can believe that transablism may be a mismatch between mind’s “map” and body’s reality, as transgender seems to be. It also seems a good idea to generally trust a person’s own assessment of their own “map.” Yet is there ever a case where it is appropriate to say “no, we are not going to fix your body, we are going to fix your map”?

        Like, if, as in your example, the brain region associated with the offending limb is dormant, could we not first try to stimulate that area into “waking up,” for example? Or do attempts to “fix the map” always just end up horrible like those camps where people send children to “pray away the gay”?

        • Jaskologist says:

          “Transablism” sounds like an excellent example of what comes of incentivizing people to feel aggrieved/oppressed. I’d be interested to see numbers on whether this is something that has risen over time, but honestly I suspect that the number of sufferers is so small that no significant conclusions could be drawn.

          • onyomi says:

            That was also a thought I had, though I think it would be more likely if it were the case that these sufferers simply desire to have a disability of some kind, as opposed to desiring to have a particular “foreign-feeling” body part removed and being willing to put up with the resultant disbility.

            The article seems to skirt the issue, maybe intentionally implying that these sufferers are after the preferential treatment accorded disability sufferers, but Scott seems only familiar with the latter kind (where you have a very specific body part that displeases you and will be happy when that part is removed, but not with just any disability).

    • DanielLC says:

      I’d say the main problem is that someone who surgically removes an arm now has to live without one arm, and they can’t get it back again no matter what. It’s possible that it would be good in the long run for them to lose that arm, but I’d want to be really sure before I hack it off. If we could regrow limbs willy-nilly, then I’d think it’s perfectly fine.

      • Anthony says:

        I’ve thought that if somehow, it was possible to change sex, and then change back, with no long-lasting effects, I’d be very interested to try being female for a month or so, and willing to pay quite a lot to perform the experiment. But I’m not interested in becoming female permanently.

        • But I’m not interested in becoming female permanently.

          I was going to quip “Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” but then I remembered us women have a uterus. It promptly occurred to me that I wouldn’t want to be female permanently, either, but… alas… 😉

          I’d also like to second your interest in a temporary sex change, but I have a sneaking suspicion I wouldn’t switch back, even though I don’t identify as trans. Depends on whether I’d be fine with the social ramifications; it would certainly completely change my interactions with members of my previous sex. It’d totally be worth a try, though!

          • Cauê says:

            it would certainly completely change my interactions with members of my previous sex.

            Ok, I don’t mean to pry, but this got me curious. Can you expand on the how and why of this expected change?

          • Prying is fine! I originally elaborated and then deleted it because I thought it was going too far off topic. Here’s what I think:

            This may not be true in reality and just the narrative I’ve been presented with, but I had the impression it’s much easier to flirt with a girl if you’re also a girl – mostly because (on average) it’s not identified as flirting. That it’s not identified as flirting if I flirt with a girl I can at least attest to, however! I have no idea what it looks like from a male perspective, short of anecdotes.

            Even if not true, I would be very scared it is true, and so I guess my interaction would change, whether this would be a silly thing to do or not. anxiety++

          • Cauê says:

            Thanks! I’d say you’re basically right, but I won’t elaborate to avoid steering the conversation into forbidden waters.

  37. Deiseach commented:

    I might also know someone who’s a serial killer. What are the odds?

    Serial killers are extremely rare, but I went to high school with one — Donald Miller. He murdered four women in the late 1970s before being caught.

    I can’t say I “knew” him, though — he was an anonymous-looking, fade-into-the-woodwork kind of guy who I never really noticed.

    He was in the same year with me (a group of about 350 kids), and I thought maybe I remembered him from one of my classes, but I attended his pretrial hearing, and didn’t recognize him at all.

  38. Max says:

    If you could sum up the universe in three words what would it be?
    And the same in one word?

    p.s. 42 is not a word

    • onyomi says:


      • Max says:

        When I initially read your answer I liked it and hated at same time.

        It is simple
        It is true

        The Con was not so apparent initially but imho devalues the pros:
        It contains no new information

        • onyomi says:

          Yes, I know my answer was rather glib, and for that I apologize.

          What I was smartassedly trying to point out was that it seems strange to “sum up” a word in just one word, as what word could better capture all its definitions and associations than the word itself?

          I assume you mean something more like, “if you could describe the universe in just three words…” or “if you could sum up the meaning of existence in just three words…” etc.

    • PsychoRecycled says:

      Mostly empty. Mostly.

    • Matter and energy.


    • 27chaos says:


      Packs a lot of punch, a lot of concepts go into that little word.

      • Max says:

        yeah I like it . I personally would make three word version like this:
        Entropy is reversible

    • Brad says:

      An organized whole.


  39. sarah says:

    I recently started working, and I’m looking into doing Does anyone know of any good resources on the logistics of how people do it?

    Do people set up separate bank accounts, do they donate monthly or yearly, important tax information, records to retain, etc?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t think it’s that hard. They work on the honor system, so no need to keep any more records than you usually would for eg tax purposes. I just divide my salary by ten and donate that amount via credit card at the end of the year.

  40. Is there any drugs known to increase rationality? (as opposed to just increasing memory etc.). For example it might supress emotions known to overwhelm logical thought?

    Does anyone think there is a chance that such things would be developed? Would it be intellectually useful? Dangerous? Interesting?

    • Anthony says:

      Mood stabilizers are known to suppress emotions generally, but I have no idea if this makes people more rational. I suspect that would first require knowledge of, and commitment to, rational thought processes.

      However, the research indicates that our emotions drive our reasoning, so suppressing one’s emotions may not actually help.

      • Harald K says:

        Makes sense to me. Where would you get commitment from, if not emotions? You can tell yourself about the virtues of rationality until you’re blue in the face, but if you can’t hold on to the feeling that any of that matters, you’re not going to succeed at convincing your post-emotional self to stick to any plan.

    • Adam says:

      You could always take lithium and feel nothing, but in practice, rational behavior requires emotion just because you have to care in the first place and subjectively value rational behavior and belief. Antonio Damasio’s research is really informative for this.

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      Cold water in the left ear.

      (Didn’t actually work for healthy users)

  41. creative username #1138 says:

    Today I tried to find the answer to a seemingly pretty simple question: Did San Marino declare war on Austria Hungary on June 3rd 1915?

    There’s a twitter account, called 100 Years Ago Today, that claimed it did. Never knew about San Marino’s involvement in WWI so I did the natural thing and looked it up on Wikipedia. Now Wikipedia claims that a New York times article about the declaration of war was Allied propaganda and that San Marino never entered the war. However the source Wikipedia gives for this is a San Marino tourism site about the early history of San Marino that has nothing to say about WW I. Searching a little bit more on that site on does find claim that San Marino was not involved in the war. (the site seems to be run by the tourism board of San Marino, unlike the NYT or its sources in 1915 it’s hard to see why they would make stuff up about this).

    A quick Google search shows some other sources agreeing that San Marino was neutral during the first World War. The consulate of San Marino in Georgia also agrees.

    However Google reveals plenty of sources stating that San Marino did in fact declare war on Austria-Hungary. They seem to only mention that they declared war on June 3rd without any further details so it seems possible that this is a case of everyone just copying each other starting from the (false?) NYT article.

    In conclusion: San Marino probably did not declar war on Austira-Hungary and the Allies were really good at propaganda.