Contrary to the direction the comments took, my Asch story the other day wasn’t intended to make any special commentary on families. That was just the first issue I thought of that wasn’t already so politicized that the story would be interpreted as political propaganda. It was really meant to be an explanation of something I said a while back on Twitter:
So live your life that if this all turns out to be an alien simulator's Asch Conformity Experiment, the debriefing won't be too humiliating
— Scott Alexander (@slatestarcodex) May 30, 2014
The character in the story had it even worse. They were told that in the real world, not a single person believed in families. That “families” had been invented as a test concept for the conformity experiment solely because it was something so ridiculous that no one could possibly believe it for not-conformity-related reasons. That every other experimental participant had seen through the facade and denounced it as dumb.
And I feel like this is a good thought experiment. Which beliefs of yours would survive that knowledge, be so strong that you would tell the experimenter that you are right or they are wrong, or make you start thinking that it’s all part of a meta-experiment like in the story? Which ones would you start to doubt in ways that you might not have thought of back when they were common? Which, if any, would you say “Yeah, I knew it all along, I guess I was just too scared to admit it”?
I’m thinking here of antebellum Southerners, let’s say early 1800s. Their society is built around slavery. There are a couple of abolitionists around, but not many, and none who can force anyone to listen to them. Pretty much everyone around them says slavery is okay, the books they read from the past are all about Romans or Israelites who thought (rather different forms of) slavery were okay, and they have heard a lot of plausible-sounding arguments justifying slavery.
Now bring them forward to the present day. Tell them “Right now in the present day pretty much every single person believes that slavery is morally wrong. No one would justify it. Here, come out of the laboratory and spend a few years living in our slave-free society.”
I don’t know if the Southerner would learn a whole lot of new facts during this period. They might learn that black people could be pretty capable and intelligent, but Frederick Douglass was a person, everyone knew he was smart, that didn’t change anyone’s mind. Yet even without learning many new facts, I can’t imagine he would stay pro-slavery very long.
And I wonder whether this is purely a conformity thing, and upon being returned to the antebellum South he would start conforming with them again, or whether it is a one-directional effect that primes your thoughts to go in the direction of the truth and allows you to see new valid arguments, and that upon going back to the South he would be a little wiser than his countrymen.
And I also wonder whether a sufficiently smart Southerner could do all this via a thought experiment, say “I think slavery is pretty okay now, but imagine I went to a world where everyone was absolutely certain it was terrible, how bad would I feel about it?” and get all the benefits of spending a while in our world and going through all that moral reflection without ever actually leaving the antebellum South. And if this would be a more powerful intuition pump than just asking him to sit down and think about slavery for a few hours.
This is a pretty powerful ethical test for me. I imagine waking up in that Matrix pod and being told that no one in the real world believes in abortion, that pro-choice is obviously horrible, that all my fellow experimental subjects saw through it, that as far as they can tell I’m just a psychopath. And I feel like I would still argue “No, actually, I think you guys are wrong.” (but, uh, your mileage may vary)
If it was vegetarianism – if they said no one in the real world ate meat or had tried to justify factory farming, and every single one of my co-participants had become vegan animal rights activists – I don’t think there’s a lot I could say to them. “Sorry, I have an intense disgust reaction to all vegetables which has thwarted all of my attempts at vegetarianism?” “Yeah, we know, we put that in there to make it a hard choice.”
There are some issues where I could imagine it going either way. If the alien simulators were conservative, I could imagine exactly the way in which I would feel really stupid for having ever believed in liberalism. And if the alien simulators were liberal, I could imagine exactly how it would feel to get embarrassed for ever having flirted with conservative ideas. I don’t think that’s necessarily a flaw in the thought experiment. Both of those feelings are useful to me.
I had a dream once where I died and I went to the afterlife and there was God and He told me that Christianity had been right about everything all along. In retrospect, it felt kind of obvious. Then I woke up and it had all been a dream. In retrospect, that felt kind of obvious too.
I sort of cherish these feelings of obviousness. They seem like a good way to short-circuit the absurdity heuristic. Like, it doesn’t work to think “Okay, Christianity seems absurd, but WHAT IF IT DIDN’T???” You have to actually invert everything, tell yourself that lack-of-Christianity seems absurd and see what justifications and excuses your brain starts coming up with for why that is the correct position and atheism should be dismissed without a second thought.
A commenter on the story thread came up with a different application of the concept I hadn’t thought of:
I gained a lot of value out of applying this thought experiment through a motivational rather than rational frame.
I struggle with ADHD and depression, and imagined myself being told that everyone else in the simulations also had those conditions, but all of them performed better than me.
Then I imagined a different scenario, where everyone was put into a simulation where they needed to save the world, and everyone else succeeded where only I failed.
Imagining changes in others’ beliefs doesn’t effect mine much. But imagining changes in others’ standards of competence has an extremely powerful impact.
Thanks for the tool.
While this seems a liiiiiitle dangerous almost to the point of mental self-abuse, I can kind of see it working, and it helps me understand the other cases a little better. We hold ourselves to certain standards – whether moral, like the antebellum Southerner or the non-vegetarian me – or epistemic – or motivational. By altering the perceived competence of other people, we can artificially adjust the standards we hold ourselves to and pretend for a while that our standards are much higher than they are. Which might give us insights we can bring back with us.