THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Open Thread 101.25

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484 Responses to Open Thread 101.25

  1. johan_larson says:

    Hello, everyone. Welcome to the first meeting of the SSC SF Book Club. It’s time to talk about the book we chose for May, Incandescence by Greg Egan.

    Here is a synopsis from the author’s own website:

    A million years from now, the galaxy is divided between the vast, cooperative meta-civilisation known as the Amalgam, and the silent occupiers of the galactic core known as the Aloof. The Aloof have long rejected all attempts by the Amalgam to enter their territory, but have permitted travellers to take a perilous ride as unencrypted data in their communications network, providing a short-cut across the galaxy’s central bulge. When Rakesh encounters a traveller, Lahl, who claims she was woken by the Aloof on such a journey and shown a meteor full of traces of DNA, he accepts her challenge to try to find the uncharted world deep in the Aloof’s territory from which the meteor originated.

    Roi and Zak live inside the Splinter, a translucent world of rock that swims in a sea of light they call the Incandescence. Living on the margins of a rigidly organised society, they seek to decipher the subtle clues that can reveal the true nature of the Splinter. In fact, their world is in danger, and as the evidence accumulates Roi, Zak, and a growing band of recruits struggle to understand and take control of their fate.

    Meanwhile, Rakesh and his travelling companion Parantham gradually uncover the history of the lost DNA world, a search which ultimately leads them to startling revelations that encompass both the Splinter, and the true nature and motives of the Aloof.

    Just to kick off discussion, how are the Zak/Roi and Rakesh/Parantham plots connected?

    Also, what is Egan alluding to when he talks about “the true nature and motives of the Aloof,” above?

    Finally, what did you think of the Splinter-dwellers’ system of social organization? It seemed a bit weird to organize the labor of thousands with no social structure higher than the work-team. Shouldn’t there be a hierarchy there, or maybe hierarchies, to adjudicate higher-level concerns?

    • <3 Egan. Although Incandescence was one of the novels of his I liked the least, it's still an Egan novel, and those rank (so far) above all other novels I've had the pleasure of reading. He apparently taps into narrative modes and content that I enjoy consistently.

      I'm not so sure about the lack of organisation being a strange thing. This is, after all, a completely alien race – while Egan tries to make them palpable, there are constraints, from the plot, what exposition makes sense. If the characters aren't likely to think about the lack of additional hierarchy, it's difficult to observe it, unless you're a visitor from the outside, who would note that it's missing – and that doesn't happen in Incandescence, since the two plot threads don't progress after finally meeting at the end of the book. I can at least imagine it's possible that there are strong social instincts that scale better than the ones we're used to witnessing in humans. Of course, whether something like that is what's going on there, or if Egan only designed the species as much as he had to, I don't know. The species is not the physics of the world, so he may've taken shortcuts. 😉 I wouldn't put it past him.

      There are actually a few other short stories by Greg Egan that appear to be set in the same over-all universe: Riding The Crocodile, Glory and Hot Rock, if my own notes (dumped into wikia) can be believed. The Aloof and the Amalgam are touched on in those stories.

      Here's a link to Riding The Crocodile, if anyone is interested in Amalgam/Aloof interactions specifically: http://www.gregegan.net/INCANDESCENCE/00/Crocodile.html (nice, it’s even on the Incandescence page on Greg Egan’s site!)

      • (I should add that I read Incandescence a few years ago, not last month, so I’m kind of weaseling in here because I can. I do really love the book club idea and I might start joining you guys in your reading sometime in the coming months! Always been happy to see your threads.)

    • dodrian says:

      I haven’t managed to finish the book yet (hopefully I will tonight, and be able to properly join the discussion tomorrow), but here’s what has stood out so far (about 3/4 through):

      I’m really enjoying how the book describes different cultures. The splinter culture bits are pretty standard fare in sci-fi: [sort-of] primitive society making sense of the cosmos. It’s a common genre trope, but it’s very well done – just confusing enough that I feel like I’m making the breakthroughs along with Zak & Roi, but not so confusing that I want to stop reading.

      What I really like though is the glimpses of Disk cultures. It’s the first time I’ve seen an author work with [basically] immortal races and give them distinctive cultures (Robert Charles Wilson sort-of does in Darwinia and a few of his other books, but his focus more on humans as the primitive culture). How would a society organize itself with only light-speed travel, but on a galactic scale – especially if hopping to a different system means leaving your friends behind pretty much for good? I think Lahl’s (*ahem*) culture of meeting up every few hundred thousand years to compare travels would be a neat balance of independence and community. Or the “Oceans of every planet” group all traveling together. There was that group Rakesh/Parantham met just before entering the Bulge who were dealing with how to seek out new mathematical knowledge as immortals, but without burnout. There were the tensions between an embodied vs a digital existence.

      All great stuff so far!

    • quaelegit says:

      Arg, forgot about this! I will buy the kindle book tonight, but probably can’t finish the book in time to join the discussion. I’ll try to join in the next book club reading on time though!

    • Skivverus says:

      The connection between the plots bugged me. Chekhov’s Gun where all the actual shooting is done offstage, between acts.

      As for the social organization, well, look at bees (they’re about that size, as I understand it): you have the hive, and the various tasks to maintain the hive, but pretty sure absent the queen the workers don’t have much ‘hierarchy’.

    • Caroline says:

      I really enjoyed this book, mostly due to getting nerd sniped trying to think of a configuration of masses that would lead to the weights described in the Splinter. It led to suspense that I found similar to a detective novel. I kept wondering if I would be able to figure it out and whether the solution would seem satisfying. The solution revealed about halfway through the book (tidal forces) lived up to my expectations – I was thrilled by how simple it was! Due to my reaction, I found it pretty amusing that this review criticized the book for always explaining everything immediately and thus failing to hold the reader’s interest.

      As for the connection between the two plot lines, I’m curious if anyone else failed to make the connection. I was a little dismayed to see Egan make fun of people who think that the Splinter orbits a neutron star or Rakesh visits the Splinter, as I thought both of those things. I had to read some other stuff online to understand that Zak/Roi et al were the original founders of the Aloof, and their timeline was long before the Rakesh/Parantham timeline.

      By the way, I’m still confused about what caused them to see the Void vs the Incandescence after the Jolt. I originally thought that the Incandescence was the accretion disk in the plane of the neutron star, and the Void was above / below that plane, but based on the previous paragraph I guess that explanation is out. I think at some point the characters surmised that everything in the direction of the black hole was dark, which would make sense, but then why did they alternate between Incandescence and Void while orbiting? Did anyone else understand this?

      Overall 5/5. I found a lot of things uninteresting about the book, but the parts I liked more than made up for it.

      Edit: Un-rot13

      • johan_larson says:

        Please don’t use rot13. People participating in this thread should have read the book.

        My theory: It seems clear that the Ark-dwellers and Splinter-dwellers are the same species; both are transparent six-legged arthropods that are sapient and have team-based social instincts but no higher-level organization. I figure the Rakesh/Parantham chapters happen in the distant past, and after Rakesh woke up all or some of the Ark-dwellers, they colonized the rocky bodies of the neutron star’s accretion disk. At some point the neutron star became a black hole, making the accretion disk a much more energetic place, tearing some of the inhabited bodies apart. The Splinter-dwellers are the remote descendants of the Ark-dwellers, living in a fragment of a rocky body the Ark-dwellers settled.

        So, the time line:
        – transparent arthropods live on a planet
        – neutron star comes by; arthropods build arks to hitch ride on neutron star
        – arthropods hang out in ark for a long time
        – Rakesh/Parantham visit, and “wake up” the ark-dwelling arthropods
        – arthropods colonize rocky bodies of the neutron star, and stay for an indeterminate amount of time
        – neutron star turns into a black hole, and starts tearing the arthropods’ home planets apart
        – arthropods manage to escape the black hole’s accretion disk in the nick of time

        • Caroline says:

          Oh, interesting! A reddit comment convinced me that Rakesh/Parantham are much later than Zak/Roi, not earlier.

          Haf mused, “Rock’s a good start, but I really don’t think it will do for the wall.”

          “What wall?” Roi knew exactly what he was talking about, but she enjoyed teasing him.

          Haf rasped annoyance. “The Hub is a dangerous place. Once we’ve left it behind, nobody should get close to it ever again. If they come this way we should send them back, the way you guide a hatchling away from danger: just pick them up and turn them around.”

          It’s pretty ambiguous, IMO, but it does seem to suggest that is why the Aloof “calmly and methodically reversed the trajectory of every spore”. (Reddit source)

          I do like your idea that Rakesh “woke up” the ark-dwelling arthropods, and in the opposite timeline the fact that you never learn what happens isn’t very satisfying.

          • johan_larson says:

            The problem I see with the Splinter-first theory is that the Splinter species and the Ark species seem to be the same. In that case, why couldn’t the Ark-dwellers just get the heck out of the way when a neutron star wrecked their planet? The Aloof are wildly advanced. I suppose they could have been the Aloof’s version of the Amish or something, but then why didn’t the rest of the Aloof help them?

            And what were the Aloof accomplishing by sending people from the Amalgam chasing after the Ark-dwellers?

          • J Mann says:

            I had thought it was clear that Rakesh and Parantham came 50 million years after Roi and company, and that Roi’s team started the process that caused the Splinterites to develop into the Aloof, but not I think it’s just a narrative coincidence. My current reading is that the Aloof developed long before the steelmakers built their arks, and the just by coincidence, the Aloof happen to have the same cultural characteristics and goals as Roi’s team does at the end of the novel.

            Evidence:

            1) Rakesh hypothesizes that the Aloof are like the bugs they find, in that they shut down their higher cognition when not threatened so as to avoid the problem of boredom that threatens Rakesh and Parantham, and that at this point, even the Aloof’s sentinels are mostly sleepwalking.

            2) After Roi’s team successfully moves the splinter to a safe zone, one member asks if they want to go back to their old cognition state, and another member proposes building a “wall” around the danger area, and turning back anyone who tries to enter like children.

            3) Bugs in a stable vault would not evolve to become the Aloof, because when there is no threat, there are just a few “sentinels” like Zak and Zey who have abstract thought capabilities to watch for danger. Therefore, if the Aloof originated from the bugs, it had to be in a situation similar to Roi’s, where the entire habitat was under sustained threat.

            4) Egan’s summary for Incandescence states that Rakesh and Parantham’s search “leads them to startling revelations that encompass both the Splinter, and the true nature and motives of the Aloof.” In “Anatomy of a Hatchet Job” says its a “false assertion” that “The relationship between the novel’s two threads is never revealed.”

            So Egan believes he has revealed the relationship between the two threads that readers who “give as much thought as a twelve-year-old would when sitting a reading comprehension test” could figure it out.

            One hypothesis is that Roi’s team is operating in R/P’s past, and that they develop into the Aloof. The appeal of this is that at then end of the book, Roi’s team says they’re planning on creating conditions that maintain maximum cognition to continue to develop, and proposes building a barrier that turns people back from the dangerous areas of the bulge. On top of that, Egan hints through Rakesh that the Aloof share key characteristics with the bugs – primarily that they avoid boredom by deactivating higher condition when not threatened. The problem with this theory is that it would mean the Aloof arose sometime in the 50 million years prior to R/P’s time, which seems absurd – out of all of the dozens of cultures that became the Amalgam, none of them arose and began exploring in time to reach the Bulge before the Aloof put up their wall. That implies that the Aloof have been in place for a lot more than 50 years.

            The alternative hypothesis is that the Splinter only illustrates the Aloof’s characteristics – the Aloof have a similar pattern of only engaging in active cognition when necessary, but they don’t actually derive from the Steelmakers, and it’s just a coincidence that the only two species we know of with those characteristics are also the only two sentient species we meet in the bulge, and when Roi’s team proposes essentially developing into the Aloof, that’s just another coincidence.

            This second hypothesis isn’t as elegant as the first, but it does solve the major plot hole with the first. On reflection I think the second is probably what Egan intended.

          • Caroline says:

            johan_larson: Yeah, good points, none of that really makes sense in the Splinter-first theory. For the last, I actually thought maybe Parantham’s theory was correct – they were asking for moral advice from another “child of DNA” who had been through a different way of life.

            J Mann: Which was the major plot hole? 3. Bugs in a stable vault would not become the Aloof? For that one, I think maybe you could assume that Roi and her friends figured out how to maintain the curiosity drive intentionally long enough to keep making progress, since they were clearly pretty sad about the idea of losing that drive. But then once they discovered pretty much everything there was to know, they decided to revert back to their old ways (as opposed to the Amalgam, who decided to just deal with boredom).

            As for a “twelve-year-old sitting a reading comprehension test”, I think maybe there was a little illusion of transparency going on there. 🙂 But I can’t blame Egan for being a little defensive, the reviews of his stuff from outside the target audience get really rude!

          • J Mann says:

            @Caroline: Here’s my plot hole dilemma:

            If you assume that Roi and the Splinterites’ story is happening in Rakesh’s past, and that the Splinterites ultimately become the Aloof, then I don’t see any way the Aloof could be in place in time to get the wall up and keep the Amalgam out of the Bulge. We know that the steelmakers built the first arks 50 million years before Rakesh entered the Bulge, so if the Splinterites become the Aloof, then ALL of the civilizations that become the Amalgam must have developed after that time, which seems wildly implausible to me.

            Alternately, if you assume that the Aloof did not develop from any branch of the ark-dwelling bugs, then it’s quite a coincidence that they appear to share a key characteristic (selective cognition in response to threat) and that Roi’s team basically states that their plan is to continue developing and build the same wall that the Aloof did.

            All told, I think the coincidence in case 2 is more plausible than that the entire Amalgam is only 30 million years old or so. (Still, Rakesh discusses a specific age of exploration – maybe we’re supposed to understand that all of the civilizations in the Amalgam are relatively young for some reason.

          • Caroline says:

            J Mann: Ah, I see you already said that. Thanks for repeating yourself for me. 🙂 I didn’t have a good sense of the time scales in the book or how old the Amalgam was. You could be right that 50 million years is just not enough time.

          • johan_larson says:

            So is the order of events this?
            – Steelmakers flee their home system in arks because of a neutron star; some of them become Splinterites, others become Arkdwellers
            – Splinterites escape their black hole and become the Aloof
            – Rakesh/Parantham investigate the Arkdwellers

            Or is it this?
            – Splinterites escape their black hole; some of them become Aloof and others become Steelmakers
            – Steelmakers flee their home system in arks because of a neutron star
            – Rakesh/Parantham investigate the Arkdwellers

            Does either order have more explanatory power?

        • J Mann says:

          @johan_larson

          0) IMHO, I’m willing to exclude the possibility that the steelmakers developed from the splinterites. R/P observe that the splinterites have been engineered to live in vacuum and to live in and maintain the arks. They hypothesize that the steelmakers evolved on a planet and designed the ark roaches (and the arks) to survive an approaching neutron star that was going to destroy their planet, sort of like in “Surface Tension,” but with more science.

          (If the steelmakers did derive from the splinterites, that would still leave you the question of who designed the splinterites).

          I think that leaves two possibilities:

          1) The Aloof are coincidentally cognitively similar to the ark bugs/splinterites, but derive from a different culture and predate the steelmakers and the bugs.

          2) The Aloof are derived from the splinterites, and both they and the Amalgam are relative newcomers by galactic time.

          • johan_larson says:

            If that’s the choice, your option 2 seems more likely to me. Option 1 requires rather a rather hefty coincidence. Option 2 just requires a bit of timeline-squeezing.

            I do wish Egan had taken the time to spell it out at the end, either inside the story with some sort of mission report, or outside the story in an appendix or something.

        • dodrian says:

          I see two possible timelines:

          Timeline A)
          Steelmakers evolve develop technology maybe slightly more advanced than present-day earth (bioengineering and solar-system travel)
          Steelmakers see impending neutron star. unable to save themselves, they engineer multiple arks and a ecosystem, and the antropods to persevere what they can of their knowledge/DNA.
          Arks are pulled along by the neutron star, and possibly other events. They are scattered across the bulge, and one ends up near a black hole (the galactic center maybe?)
          Zak/Roi ‘awaken’ and begin to realize the danger the splinter is in. The course they set their civilization on leads them to become the Aloof.
          The Aloof build a civilization that protects others from the dangers of the bulge
          The Aloof decide that the amalgam have become sufficiently advanced, and invite Rakesh/Parantham to come and learn about the bulge. They introduce them to a mystery which will lead them to learn about the foundations of aloof culture: an ancient ark with a pre-Aloof civilization still intact.

          Timeline B)
          Rakesh/Parantham discover the Ark and learn about Ark culture
          Rakesh/Zay enact a plan to allow an ark culture to ascend (I would assume they found the splinter elsewhere, or possibly moved the Ark / a part of the ark to the black hole).
          Zak is the first ‘ascended’, followed by Roi, and their civilization makes the conscious choice to begin exploring the universe.

          I personally lean towards timeline A (which is similar to yours, but I’ve assumed a few different things). It would assume that the Steelmakers were the origin of the DNA replicator, which somehow also got scattered into the disk, probably the neutron star event flung bits of planet or arks out of the galactic center. There would need to be an enormous timespan to allow Aloof culture to develop from Zak/Roi, but it’s not too much of a stretch if it’s assumed DNA was the first replicator. It does mean somewhat of a coincidence that Zak and Roi woke up at just the right time to lay the groundwork needed before the Jolt woke up the rest of the colony.

          Timeline B is a bit simpler, and allows for the alien help in causing the anthropods to ascend (possibly giving them a biological kickstart before placing them in the danger). However, it doesn’t explain anything about the Aloof, and means that Haf’s words at the end were just a literary device, or that the Aloof and anthropods were divergent a long time prior, and that part of the culture survived. I think I mainly thought of this explanation because I didn’t get that the Wanderer was a star until the very end, and assumed it was a spaceship (possibly even Lahl’s promise) .

          • J Mann says:

            Interesting!

            1) For a while near the end of the book, I thought that maybe the Splinterites were in a crisis caused by Rakesh and that Zak and maybe some of the other team members were Rakesh or Parantham avatars (but ultimately decided that wasn’t consistent with his ethics). I also considered whether it was a simulation to test whether the bugs would want to be awoken, but that’s also inconsistent with his ethics.

            2) One more data point. We know how long it was from the first ark launch to Rakesh’s time. (I can’t remember if its 30 million years or 50, though). I think it’s implausible that no exploratory civilization arose in the rim during galactic history before that period, but I suppose I would buy that most civilizations lose interest in exploration and either shut down or retire to hidden processors somewhere, so that most of galactic history is fallow. It makes more sense if there are active civilizations from time to time, but the Aloof happened to be the first to arise during a fallow period.

          • J Mann says:

            Ps – the galactic center is a great idea and makes sense thematically, since Rakesh mentions or thinks about it several times. Would it make any difference to the physics to have it be a really giant black hole? (I can’t remember what orbit=2 meant – is it that they are orbiting the event horizon at a distance equal to the width of the splinter, or that they’re orbiting the horizon at a distance equal to the radius of the event horizon?)

          • The Nybbler says:

            It can’t be the black hole at the galaxy’s center because the Splinterites would have seen the jets. However, the jets weren’t confirmed when the book was written, so maybe? It might be possible to figure a rough idea of the mass of the black hole based on the orbital period (measured by the splinterites) and the length of a shift (as measured by Rakesh, who we can assume has human time perception)

          • Lapsed Pacifist says:

            S/”The Ringworld is Unstable!”/”They Would Have Seen The Jets!”

          • Anatoly says:

            My understanding is your timeline A), strongly discounting other explanations. I would add to it that the Splinter originally orbited a neuron star, and later came to orbit a black hole (due to the star collapsing into one or bean eaten by one). We see this from the “change in the weights” from the ratio of 3 on the old map Zak found to the present non-Newtonian value of 2.25 they measure (the math for 3 for Newtonian vs. other for non-Newtonian is explained on Egan’s pages).

            I think Zey’s ark was created by the Steelmakers just as the Splinter was, but while Splinterites ascended into Aloofhood, Zey’s ark remained “sleeping” this whole time. I’m not sure why the Aloof didn’t try to do something about it earlier – is it plausible that they didn’t know about it until they found the meteor (Lahl’s story)?

            I’m not sure if the plot hole J.Mann talks about, that 50 million years of Aloof existence is too little given dozens of Amalgam cultures, is a plot hole. One way to respond to that is that inside the bilge interstellar civilizations can develop much faster (because stars are so much closer). Another is that maybe by mentioning panspermia on the final pages of the novel, Egan hints that all the DNA-replicating civilizations outside of the bilge actually descend from the Splinterites, who seeded the galaxy after they were already well on the way to Aloofhood.

      • J Mann says:

        @Caroline – I think the one difference is that the splinter isn’t orbiting the neutron star, it’s from a different ark that was pulled away from the neutron star and is not orbiting a black hole.

        1) When their orbit is jolted into an angle to the plane of the accretion disk, they experience the lights turning off and on as they move in and out of the disk.

        2) When they observe from the surface of the splinter, then can see only a quarter of the disk, because (a) half of it is obscured by the splinter itself from their viewpoint, and (b) half of the remainder is obscured by the event horizon of the black hole, which is just that freaking close.

        3) It’s got to be a black hole because they’re orbiting so close that they experience significant relativistic effects. Rakesh and Parantham exposit earlier that there were probably a lot of arks to start with, and that some of them could have been pulled into orbit around passing objects because all of the stars are just so freaking close to each other.

        • Caroline says:

          Okay, that makes sense to me. Thanks!

          And good point that it has to be a black hole because of the relativistic effects. For a lot of the book, I actually wasn’t sure what could be explained by Newtonion mechanics but I hadn’t understood the world yet, and what was a relativistic effect. I spent a while confused about why the shomal-junub cycle period would be different than the Splinter’s orbital period, and realized eventually it was a GR effect I wasn’t familiar with.

          On that note, I’m curious about the physics background of everyone reading this book and how it affected their enjoyment. I have a physics minor, and think I would have enjoyed the book significantly less if I only knew high-school level physics. I’m wondering if people who know physics better than me would enjoy the book even more, or if it would be pretty boring to them (maybe they understand right away what’s going on because they’re familiar with tidal forces).

          • johan_larson says:

            My formal physics education ended in first year of college, so what I know of relativity is from pop-sci sources. I could follow Zak and Roi’s evolving understanding of physics as long as they stayed within Newtonian boundaries, but once they started talking about symmetries and stuff, I was lost.

          • J Mann says:

            I have highschool physics and a lot of SF reading, and could follow the pre-relativistic stuff to my satisfaction, but wasn’t able to solve any of the puzzles ahead of the characters. Once they got to “symmetries” and adding time as an axis at an angle to their existing physics, I didn’t get it at all.

    • J Mann says:

      1) I wasn’t smart enough to figure out much of the physics puzzle before Egan explained it, but I am proud that by chapter 2 or 3 or so, I said “Hey, this is a lot like James Blish’s story Surface Tension,” which helped me anticipate a lot of the revelations.

      2) I did enjoy both Roi’s physics puzzle and Rakesh’s historical puzzle, but the coincidences started to take me out of the story. Zak develops mathematics and gets curious about changes in apparent gravity relative to an obscure historical record at the exact moment the Splinter needs him to, another single bug coincidentally happens to insist on making space observations (and fortuitously finds a crack exactly where he needs it) at the exact moment that they need to realize that the captured star will release a burst of energy, etc.

      3) I take it the Amalgam has a problem with copies but not back-ups? The obvious solution when Rakesh and Parantham have dozens or hundreds of possible stars to search for the ark would be to send their consciousness files to all of them with instructions to only instantiate if an ark was found.

    • J Mann says:

      Finally, what did you think of the Splinter-dwellers’ system of social organization? It seemed a bit weird to organize the labor of thousands with no social structure higher than the work-team. Shouldn’t there be a hierarchy there, or maybe hierarchies, to adjudicate higher-level concerns?

      I was willing to assume some mediating principle that ensures the Spinterites end up with a reasonable ratio of farmers to herders to couriers to librarians to what have you, but I’m not sure what that would be. Chemical signals that increase the lure of recruitment to communities that fulfill underserved roles?

      • johan_larson says:

        That seems a bit thin for sapient beings that live in large groups. There are always more things that might be done than can be done, and choosing what projects get resources and workers is a big deal. I wonder if Egan didn’t focus a bit too much on the physics, without thinking through the economics.

        • J Mann says:

          Yeah – given the way Egan works, it’s hard to tell whether he had some specific earth analogue in mind, or whether he was just trying to come up with an alien species that wasn’t organized by a central authority or by voluntary exchange. The bugs don’t exhibit the reproductive specialization found in eusociality, which eliminates a number of the most interesting earth candidates, I think.

          He definitely has some places where he just dressed up Earth info.* For example, I understand that the six directions on the splinter are variant spellings on the Arabic words for North/South, East/West, and Hot/Cold.

          * Speaking of Easter egg jokes, the bugs are cockroaches, right? They’re build to survive, they’re about a centimeter across, they have six legs and a carapace, etc..

      • dodrian says:

        I think it was strictly social pressure that had been bioengineered into the splinterites.

        The splinterites have a biological need to be part of a social/work group. If the work is going well and providing value for the whole colony, they feel fulfilled. If they are struggling to keep up with the work, they can recruit hatchlings, or in more dire circumstances recruit from other work teams using social pressure. The teams can keep each other in check by the mechanism of loyalty to one’s own team vs recognition of the need for the colony.

      • moonfirestorm says:

        Maybe if a team isn’t accomplishing their objective sufficiently, they can make more convincing arguments that they need recruits?

        We saw a few times where a team was out and out saying “we don’t need recruits”: at least once in Rakesh’s story that I can remember. So maybe team scope is defined narrowly, and they aren’t incentivized to expand scope. When they’re getting their job done, they just stop there and keep doing it with what they have. This prevents infinite-recruiting to a single team.

        You can always have more agriculture, and I bet that’s where Splinterites go in the absence of anything else important to do, but if you’re providing enough food for everyone, there’s not much of a draw to additional agriculture.

        The only new team we saw was Zak’s, which was a little different than normal, but the mechanism seemed to be that Zak was a little different (curiosity mechanism activated), he explored more or less on his own, and then drew new recruits in a way that scaled with the importance of the work. By the time understanding the physics was necessary to the survival of the Splinter, they could pretty much recruit anyone instantly.

        Once we learned about the curiosity mechanism, I think that explains new team formation pretty clearly: when there’s a need that’s recognizable by the Splinterites, someone will activate their curiosity mechanism from that, form a new team around it, recruit until the need is filled, and then everyone shuts down the curiosity mechanism in the new stable equilibrium.

        • johan_larson says:

          It all sounds very anarchist. There are no bosses, no cops, no judges, no nobles, no congressmen, no king or president. There are just individuals who wander around until someone persuades them something needs doing. Then they do it, mostly. Maybe it works for aliens who have different social instincts than humans have.

          It reminds me of Valve’s idea of how to run things.
          http://www.valvesoftware.com/company/Valve_Handbook_LowRes.pdf

          • moonfirestorm says:

            I think the big thing is that the Splinterites are focused on having a fulfilling task, and that’s kind of all they do. No one really has leisure time: they work, and when they’re not working they’re just taking care of what their bodies need.

            Wouldn’t really work for humans (at least modern-day ones), because humans have lots of useless things they want to do, and would do the moment their work isn’t required.

            Kind of parallels Rakesh’s search for purpose, I guess (a search we see in other utopian sci-fi stories like the Culture). Just with much lower-hanging fruit because someone has to harvest the crops on the Splinter, whereas the Amalgam’s presumably automated all of that stuff already.

    • johan_larson says:

      I’ve been doing some planning for this book club, and here are the books we’ll be choosing from in the months ahead:

      JUNE
      Spin — Robert Charles Wilson
      Ancillary Justice — Ann Leckie
      Three Parts Dead — Max Gladstone

      JULY
      The Freeze-Frame Revolution — Peter Watts
      Clockwork Boys — T. Kingfisher
      The Fifth Season — N. K. Jemesin

      AUGUST
      The 2017 Nebula Award nominees.

      SEPTEMBER
      The Hour of the Dragon — Robert E. Howard
      The Skylark of Space — E.E. Smith
      A Princess of Mars — Edgar Rice Burroughs

      • quaelegit says:

        I’ve read Spin (and still have it on Kindle can reread) so I’m already making good on my promise! 😛

        Wait, I misread the instructions. How is the choice for each month being made?

        • johan_larson says:

          Next Wednesday I’ll post brief descriptions of the three choices for June. In that thread, we’ll decide together which of them to read.

      • I’ve read Ancillary Justice and its sequels. Also Clockwork Boys and its sequel–finding the latter not so good. And, of course, A Princess of Mars.

        So those would be my votes.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I’m not sure if Incandescence is a science fiction novel or a pedagogical attempt to make general relativity seen accessible.

      The Steelmakers created at least 7 arks. One of those was the failed ark left behind at the original location, and contained as macrofauna only the descendants of the smaller livestock, the “murche”. Another (at least) 6 were successfully captured by the neutron star, and for some period there was an interplanetary (or inter-ark anyway) civilization. A cataclysm or series of cataclysms happened, leaving only one ark by the neutron star. This is the ark in the Rakesh/Parantham/Zey story. Civilization fell to a bare minimum, whether as a result of the cataclysm or of the original bioengineering is unknown.

      One of the other arks was captured by the Hub. It, or a piece of it, is the Splinter. This is where the Zak/Roi story takes place. The stories are unordered with respect to time (and not just because of relativity). I don’t think it’s likely these are the same ark with the Splinter much later. For one, why mention the other 5 Arks? For another, we know the livestock were descended from two species. Only two exist on the Splinter, but more are on Zey’s Ark. This perhaps indicates Zey’s Ark has had more subjective time pass, or perhaps the Splinter people had to dedicate more effort to survival and less to breeding new livestock.

      As for the “the true nature and motives of the Aloof”, I think that’s a dirty rotten unfulfilled teaser. We know they wanted the Steelmaker civilization checked out by a member of a DNA species (because they created Lahl to recruit one to do just that), but not much more.

      The social organization was clearly intended to evoke insects like ants or bees (though not eusocial). There is no hierarchy or adjudication; some sort of cues (including in their case demands from other workers) trigger them to know what sort of work needs to be done. Seems farfetched for an intelligent animal, but when not activated by crisis, most of the Splinter/Ark species has no curiosity or drive. I wouldn’t rule it out.

      As for what the Hub is, Word of God says it’s a rotating black hole. I’m not sure how the reader is supposed to determine that; a spinning neutron star also has an accretion disc, relativistic orbits, and a frame-dragging effect. Maybe you have to do the math to rule it out.

      • dodrian says:

        There was a bit near the end where the splinterites calculated that at a certain distance from the hub and there wasn’t any speed possible that would keep an orbit. Neutron stars don’t have event horizons. I didn’t recognize that it was a black hole as I read that bit, but when I figured it out afterwards it made sense. The clue that led me in the right direction was that the wanderer was much more massive than I had been assuming (my first guess was space ship or asteroid, but when they began to talk about gravitational lensing and flares I started to pick up on it).

        I agree with your assessment that “the true nature and motives of the Aloof” was a publisher’s trick. Or perhaps it was left open for a potential sequel.

        • The Nybbler says:

          They calculated the existence of an event horizon towards the middle (the non-rotating geometry with negative time), but calculating the existence of an event horizon doesn’t mean there is one; from the outside, all non-rotating spherical masses give rise to the same geometry, so someone orbiting a neutron star would calculate that there was an event horizon, inside the star. This horizon doesn’t actually exist, of course.

          Once they went outside they could see the light-distorting effects, of course. I assume these would be different for a neutron star (which would merely bend the light, not swallow it). I decided it was definitely a black hole when the splinterites came up with the rotating geometry, but that’s because I (erroneously) didn’t think you could get frame-dragging from a neutron star.

          My first thought on the Wanderer was that it was Rakesh/Parantham’s ship (glowing because of its power source), but that was quickly disproven.

      • J Mann says:

        Egan doesn’t promise that we will learn the true nature and motives of the Aloof in full, only that we will learn “leads them to startling revelations that encompass both the Splinter, and the true nature and motives of the Aloof.”

        Rakesh exposits near the end that he believes the Aloof have a cognitive model like the arthropods, and that they have been able to survive the boredom problem by deactivating their higher cognition and finding satisfaction from repetitive, minimally cognitive tasks. Rakesh also hypothesizes that even the sentinels of the Aloof are probably basically sleepwalking.

        My read is that the “startling revelations that encompass … the true nature and motives of the Aloof” are those that reveal the arthropods’ cognition, and that Rakesh’s hypotheses are correct.

        Having achieved everything of interest that they found possible and protected against all threats, the Aloof are essentially non-cognitive unless they perceive an actual threat. Since the Amalgam isn’t a threat, both the Aloof’s response to Laila and their invitation to and facilitation of Rakesh are essentially an autonomous reflex or semi-cognitive action by one or more sentinels.

        Another clue is that Haf thinks of the wall around the galactic center as gently pushing hatchlings away from a danger. If pushing the spores back is a largely autonomous method of protection, the Laila and Rakesh invitations might be an autonomous instantiation of hatchling instruction.

        Actually, now that I write that, I think it’s probably true. It ties in with Roi’s chapters as a hatchling instructor, and ties the invitations to the spore rejections. The Aloof take actions without much cognition, just like Roi used to crush weeds and encourage crops without thought – they’re smarter than Roi, and they’ve already thought most of what is possible to think, so they shelve their self awareness until needed and act automatically.

    • J Mann says:

      What do people think about the sexual system of the arthropods?

      – What effects would we expect to see from that system?

      – If it is the result of design by the steelmakers, can we identify any features that accomplish their goals?

      – Are there any real world analogues?

      Personally, I don’t get it. First, I’m not clear why a female can’t harvest the male sperm sacks and just throw them away. (Roi only harvests as many as she can carry, and apologizes to the males she leaves suffering.) Is it that Roi doesn’t want to deprive other females of the pleasure of carrying the sacks?

      Beyond that, I still don’t get it. When fertile, males are encouraged to mate indiscriminately, so any selective effects would be due to female selection. Healthier males apparently have an advantage, because Roi reflects that if she were interested in reproducing, she might avoid the less healthy looking sacks, and because the sacks apparently compete with one another once implanted. So I guess the system selects for arthropods who survive long enough to reproduce, and for males who have the calorie surplus and general health sufficient to produce stronger sperm sacks. Maybe there’s some genetic reinforcement system where males who veer too far from the key designed sequences are less healthy?

  2. Andrew Hunter says:

    Seeking an app or piece of sotware: like a blog, but no one but me can read it. Or a diary, I suppose, but electronic.

    I want to take notes on things like dance lessons, therapy sessions, etc, that either aren’t of general interest or are somewhat private. One can do this with a tumblr set to private or the like, but it’s actually really inconvenient to read your own private tumblr (they insist on showing you your dash, etc…)

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      Why don’t you just use a physical diary?

      • quaelegit says:

        I can’t speak for Andrew, but I would prefer handwritten diary except they are hard to keep organized, I always run out of space, and written words aren’t searchable.

        Mind you, even with these problems a handwritten schedule-book diary/schedule book would probably be an improvement over my current method of neglected google calender + overcrowded phone todo list+ ephemeral notes on random bits of paper that I immediately lose 😛

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        Easy to lose, hard to index, my handwriting blows, not present in my car as I leave class/session (unless I keep it there which has its own issues.)

        I have a physical journal I sometimes use for meditative writing, but it’s not convenient for note taking.

    • Skivverus says:

      Word document, maybe? Or notepad, even. Any particular organization to it you’d be looking for?

    • Google Docs or a comparable service?

      • Nick says:

        This is what I use for stuff like this.

        • Nick says:

          Okay, to add: I do use Evernote as well. But that’s for other stuff. Google Docs is for housekeeping like my reading and watching lists and various goalkeeping; Evernote is for saving documents, articles, book excerpts, etc. I wanted Evernote for the latter for tagging and stuff like that.

      • fion says:

        Thirded. I use google docs for loads of stuff, including my main diary (which I occasionally cut and paste to a word document to keep google docs from becoming slow to load).

    • quaelegit says:

      I have a very competent coworker who seems to use Microsoft OneNote for this (I’m not sure if only for work-related stuff or also personal stuff, but definitely for unrelated projects at work). I have no idea if OneNote has connectivity between different devices though.

      • AdamOfCascadia says:

        This is pretty much what OneNote is meant for – it has connectivity between different devices and mobile and web interfaces.

        PS I accidentally reported your comment instead of replying – sorry for the noise.

    • samskivert says:

      If you use a Mac and iOS mobile device, I’m a big fan of “Bear”: a note taking and writing app which occupies a nice spot between the “insufficient features” of a text file or word document, and the “too many features” of Evernote and the other heavy hitters. It syncs between phone and computer as well, which is handy for adding/editing notes on the go.

    • rahien.din says:

      I really like Evernote for this kind of thing.

    • dhominis says:

      I use Evernote for in-the-moment note-taking and some journaling, and a private WordPress for long-form journaling.

      Evernote very much feels like a productivity/note-taking app (with a mildly ugly interface), but it has a lot of potentially useful features. With the paid version of Evernote, you can download notes and work offline; it also has options for taking pictures and inserting them into the note, embedding a Google Document, et cetera. The free version is limited to installation on two devices but you can use the in-browser version as much as you want AFAIK. It’s more like a word processing program than like a blog, in that it doesn’t organize the documents primarily by date (I usually resort to manually typing the date in an entry; there’s probably a more convenient way but I haven’t found it yet) and does seem to lend itself to editing/updating documents rather than making specific entries. There is an official app that’s pretty good but it does count towards the 2-device limit for the free version. The categories/tagging/search are excellent. TL;DR a lot of great functionality but doesn’t “feel” like a blog or journal, UX isn’t great, and free version is missing some features.

      WordPress feels like it’s meant for more collected/serious writing. The interface encourages users to write and publish a post without expecting to update it, which could be good or bad depending on your needs — it is focused on making discrete blog/journal entries. You can give other people access to the whole blog if you want to, and I’m pretty sure you can also give people access to specific categories (e.g. sharing every post in your “scheduling” category with your partner, housemates, family’s accounts). The tagging/categorization is less intuitive than Evernote, and search is good. There’s an app (can’t vouch for its quality). The writing space itself is a great experience — it’s less like typing into a Word document than like using Medium’s text editor — so that’s a plus for WordPress if you find writing easier/more pleasant with a better text editor.

      Also, have you tried using a password-protected tumblr instead of a private tumblr? That shouldn’t redirect you to your dash — once you’ve entered the password you can see the blog in the normal view. Not sure if the search function works, although tbf if you need a good search function you shouldn’t use Tumblr.

    • Andrew Hunter says:

      Evernote is definitely overkill, but seems like absolutely what I’m looking for (and generally useful elsewhere in my life too.) Thanks all.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      I use a personal wiki for this. It works wonderfully.

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      Personally, I just throw random files wherever and use a really good search utility. I never go back to my own work in sequence, and I have a good verbal memory so I can pretty easily recall unique words that I’ve typed in any given file.

      If you’re on Linux, Recoll does fantastic full-text search. I don’t what’s out there for Windows and Mac.

    • J Mann says:

      I use Google docs. I used to use Evernote, but wasn’t willing to pay, so when they started restricting free access, I moved.

    • Ryan Holbrook says:

      Emacs Org-Mode. It’s great for keeping track of todo lists and such, too. As customizable as you could want, but a bit of a learning curve.

    • tayfie says:

      Since you seem to want something for many separate topics that makes lookup easy, check out Notational Velocity.

      It’s Mac only, but clones exist for other platforms.

      It uses plaintext, so notes will be portable with no vendor lock-in.
      Encryption is supported, so you can protect secrets.

      The thing that most impressed me about it is how fluid the workflow is.

      Default action when typing is to search. Search is incremental, so results update immediately as you narrow it down. Search is fuzzy and includes the whole text of the note, so there is no trouble finding things.
      Keyboard shortcuts move up and down the results list. “Enter” edits the note.
      If there are no results, “Enter” creates a new note with the search string as the title.

      It works great for many small thoughts on a wide variety of topics. It has all the advantages of index cards with none of the downsides.

  3. bean says:

    Naval Gazing begins to look at the most recent naval war, the Falklands.

  4. Le Maistre Chat says:

    You know, Marvel is an anti-democratic setting.
    The United States has superheroes and their technology almost never makes it to the government, let alone the public. Wakanda (and Latveria in the comics) shows that a small country can outmatch the US both in military terms (perhaps not relevant because of nukes) and tech level citizens can access. No one else having access to Iron Man tech or Pym particles is usually explained by showing a reason not to trust the government with such power. Fair enough! But so long as Wakanda (and Latveria, when it exists) is known to the world, it’s a demonstrable fact that it all works out if a superhero is the government.

    • Wrong Species says:

      The ironic thing is that the more “realistic” superheros(brilliant billionaires) is actually more unrealistic than the magic based ones. There’s no way that government couldn’t figure out how to make an Iron Man suit. Tony Stark might be smart but there are plenty of smart guys in the US and the government has far more resources.

      • cassander says:

        this is especially true because Stane DID figure out how to make such a suit in ironman 1.

        • fion says:

          Only by stealing Stark’s mini arc reactor from his chest.

          (Hang on… Stark has lots of autonomous suits. Do they have their own arc reactors or do they have another power source? :S )

          • cassander says:

            I thought he stole it and built a bigger one? But I believe they all have power sources.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Definitely. It’s especially egregious when the US Air Force actually owns at least a couple of Stark armors (Iron Patriot and at least one War Machine) and can’t afford to reverse engineer them for a production run of F22 Raptor quantity.

        Revealing that 90% of Wakanda’s population is not farmers but lives in an invisible city of super-science would also lead to much black supremacist rhetoric when the US is so incompetent at super-science and Latveria can’t be cited as a counterpoint.

        • Nornagest says:

          a production run of F22 Raptor quantity.

          …initial plans for 750, but scaled back to 183 because they’re too expensive? That does sound like what the Air Force would do with an Iron Man suit.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Exactly, man. I think a realistic number would be “much less than a thousand, but much more than ‘only I and my best friend can have them, nyah nyah’.”

        • Education Hero says:

          It’s especially egregious when the US Air Force actually owns at least a couple of Stark armors (Iron Patriot and at least one War Machine) and can’t afford to reverse engineer them for a production run of F22 Raptor quantity.

          My impression is that (as in the real world) the true technological limitation lies not in producing the armors, but powering them.

          For whatever reason, the miniaturized Arc Reactors are so far beyond current technology that Tony Stark is the only living person (after the deaths of Howard Stark and the Vankos) who understands them. This actually seems somewhat reasonable given that the Arc Reactors are the only piece of the Iron Man technology (prior to Extremis) that we currently couldn’t even try to make in the real world.

          Revealing that 90% of Wakanda’s population is not farmers but lives in an invisible city of super-science would also lead to much black supremacist rhetoric when the US is so incompetent at super-science and Latveria can’t be cited as a counterpoint.

          The American government is still portrayed as sufficiently resourceful to produce S.H.I.E.L.D. technology such as helicarriers and quinjets, so it’s no slouch.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Which tech we’re talking about doesn’t really matter. There’s still the problem of Tony Stark not being the only smart person alive. If he can figure it out, why can’t the government? This is made worse by, like Cassander said, the bad guy in the very first Iron Man movie making his own suit. Is the US government just fundamentally incompetent?

          • J Mann says:

            Well, and also, you wouldn’t make a suit, you’d make drones. Tony has both Jarvis and a suit – it seems obvious to but them together.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            I think Iron Man 2 shows a Congressional hearing and Tony hijacks the video presentation to show the US government’s various testing of suits which go wrong in all sorts of tragic ways, like the top of a suit twisting 180 degrees while the bottom of the suit stays stationary.

            One of the themes of that movie was that it was inevitable that everyone of means was going to develop them eventually. It’s just a arms-race question of how long that can be held off.

            In the comics universe, super-suits are incredibly common. Not everyone has them, but writers don’t need to put much work into justifying how one gets them. One of the things I disliked about the ending of the Luke Cage series was the super-suit, for many reasons, including the fact that they were accelerating the appearance of super-suits being available to anyone the writer wants it to be available to.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I think Iron Man 2 shows a Congressional hearing and Tony hijacks the video presentation to show the US government’s various testing of suits which go wrong in all sorts of tragic ways, like the top of a suit twisting 180 degrees while the bottom of the suit stays stationary.

            One of the themes of that movie was that it was inevitable that everyone of means was going to develop them eventually. It’s just a arms-race question of how long that can be held off.

            But why should it be held off? Iron Man and IM2 gestured at an answer about defense contracts and white CEOs not named Stark being inherently evil, but that’s not good enough anymore. The absolute monarch of Wakanda revealed at the United Nations that 90% of the population in his “nation of farmers” has been hidden in an invisible city where the average citizen has access to super-science. Why can’t Americans have nice things too?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            The American government is still portrayed as sufficiently resourceful to produce S.H.I.E.L.D. technology such as helicarriers and quinjets, so it’s no slouch.

            How special is a quinjet compared to an IRL light transport jet?
            The helicarriers with invisibility tech are an interesting case. Why isn’t that tech used on anything smaller? Wakanda has a fleet of invisible jets, and even there the king’s superhero suit can’t turn invisible.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Do we know what was revealed about Wakanda?

            Stark tech did help with the Helicarrier. I remember the levitation pads being said to be based on his repulsor tech.

          • Education Hero says:

            @Wrong Species:

            Which tech we’re talking about doesn’t really matter. There’s still the problem of Tony Stark not being the only smart person alive. If he can figure it out, why can’t the government?

            Tony Stark is not the only smart person alive (for a government equivalent, c.f. SHIELD scientist Leo Fitzsimmons), but his understanding of Arc Reactors is unique.

            This is made worse by, like Cassander said, the bad guy in the very first Iron Man movie making his own suit. Is the US government just fundamentally incompetent?

            Stane did not make the Arc Reactor that powered the suit. He stole it from Tony Stark.

          • Education Hero says:

            @Le Maistre Chat

            The absolute monarch of Wakanda revealed at the United Nations that 90% of the population in his “nation of farmers” has been hidden in an invisible city where the average citizen has access to super-science. Why can’t Americans have nice things too?

            Wakandan technology stems from their sole access to vibranium.

            How special is a quinjet compared to an IRL light transport jet?
            The helicarriers with invisibility tech are an interesting case. Why isn’t that tech used on anything smaller? Wakanda has a fleet of invisible jets, and even there the king’s superhero suit can’t turn invisible.

            Quinjets also have cloaking technology. Presumably, the technology is not sufficiently portable for a suit, or else Stark would have integrated it into his armor as well.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @Education Hero:

            Wakandan technology stems from their sole access to vibranium.

            Yes, and advanced technology in America could stem from their sole access to Tony Stark and Pym particles, but it doesn’t. Wakanda is more advanced than the US, and this presents a problem.

            Quinjets also have cloaking technology. Presumably, the technology is not sufficiently portable for a suit, or else Stark would have integrated it into his armor as well.

            Oh, OK. So at least American cloaking technology and aircraft are equal to Wakanda’s.

          • Education Hero says:

            @Le Maistre Chat

            Yes, and advanced technology in America could stem from their sole access to Tony Stark and Pym particles, but it doesn’t. Wakanda is more advanced than the US, and this presents a problem.

            Wakanda’s resident supergenius is sister to the king.

            Tony Stark and Hank Pym aren’t nearly as cooperative with the American government.

          • fion says:

            @Education Hero

            I’m not sure how much of Wakanda’s technological success she can take credit for. She is quite young, and they look like they’ve been very advanced for a long time.

          • Education Hero says:

            @fion:

            I’m not sure how much of Wakanda’s technological success she can take credit for. She is quite young, and they look like they’ve been very advanced for a long time.

            Fair point.

    • Nornagest says:

      Falls pretty naturally out of the fact that the formula needs global threats which can be solved by a superhero punching those threats in the face, I think. There are ways you can do that without relying on superpowers — you could reskin most James Bond movies as superhero movies, for example, and Wonder Woman and the first Captain America basically are reskinned Bond movies — but only if the villain’s evil scheme stays pretty mundane. Once you start dealing with powers that are threats in themselves, there’s really no way to make the plot work without baking in some level of elitism.

      And that’s a fact that hasn’t escaped most of the writers of non-mainstream superhero stories, at least since the Eighties or so. Warren Ellis has almost made a career of it.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Yeah, that’s spot-on. There’s nothing wrong with accepting if X (where X can = “powers that are threats in themselves”), then elitism is just. It’s just a problem when it escapes the writers’s notice (as it apparently does in mainstream superhero comics).

        • J Mann says:

          The old “Timmverse” DC animated series (especially Superman and Justice League Unlimited) were based around this idea – that the heroes two problems were (a) massive threats to human existence that could only be resolved by superheros, and (b) the government taking predicable steps in response to the existence of, particularly, Superman.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I don’t remember Superman being based around this idea, until the series finale, where Qnexfrvq oenvajnfurf Xny-Ry vagb oryvrivat gung ur naq Tenaal Tbbqarff jrer gur barf jub nqbcgrq uvz bhg bs gur ebpxrg naq fraqf uvz gb Rnegu fb uhznavgl jvyy guvax gurve thneqvna natry unf chyyrq n Fngna.
            Which indeed had some amazing delayed payoff in Justice League Unlimited.

          • Nick says:

            JLU had more diversity on this than you’re giving it credit for, J Mann. There’s plenty of episodes where we see the heroes—major ones, sometimes—handling smaller problems like civilian rescue or disaster relief, as well as doing photo ops and that sort of thing. But with the Watchtower, round the clock shifts, and all that, the Justice League in JLU had evolved to a much wider role than it had previously. Your (a) and (b) are less day to day for them—well, maybe for the core group—and more the sort of arc threats built to over a season or a two-parter.

      • Paul Brinkley says:

        One of the reasons I liked Man of Steel was precisely because the world reacted to the existence of a single human with super strength, flight, laser vision, etc. in a way that I found realistic. Not just that, but someone with all those abilities who claims to be a force for good. Naturally, half the world is going to worship him as their hero, while the other half is going to be suspicious.

        It was a shame that BvS didn’t explore that idea more than it did. Even more a shame that so many audience members seem not to understand that theme, even to this day. I’ve seen critics who insist Superman is only a hero archetype, and should only ever be seen that way. Seeing him otherwise would be… heretical.

    • christhenottopher says:

      I think a slightly more specific point would be that Marvel is anti-bureaucratic and we can point to more than just the above examples for that. SHIELD? Infiltrated by Hydra. The Avengers, an informal group of super heroes who are doing fine until governments want to put bureaucratic rules and procedures on them. Wakanda is not just a monarchy, but one where even their R&D department and military are flat enough in organization that department heads are mostly doing grunt work (such as fighting and making actual engineering designs) rather than paperwork (like personnel management). Screw peer reviewed papers in Marvel; real science is done by self-experimentation!

      Of course, story writing wise this makes a lot of sense. People connect better to individuals than faceless organizations, and nothing is more fun killing than paperwork. But the net effect is that in the MCU, any type of large, procedure bound organization is at best incompetent and at worst a tool for evil forces. I would say this works better than the anti-democracy take since it’s not like bureaucratic non-democracies like China are super powered in this universe.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Heh, that’s an interesting point about China. Of course you could say that China’s government fails because it isn’t led by superheroes. As Aristotle says in the Politics, equality of political power is the most just government only because men are roughly equal. If there were heroes, them monopolizing power would be just.
        I don’t think they’d let the writers touch “What about China?” with a ten-foot pole, though, because they don’t want to look racist for having black and white tech geniuses and wizards but hardly any Asian supers to introduce.

        • christhenottopher says:

          Not to mention any bad mouthing of China’s government could prevent releases from being allowed in one of the biggest movie markets available now! But I think the anti-bureaucracy point still stands. Hydra is led by a super powered individual, but the organization wants to install a Nazi-like and very bureaucratic regime on the whole world. Hence it’s evil.

          Marvel is fine with either democracy or not (the Avengers work mostly through democratic consensus until the Civil War), but it implicitly hates anything that has a real org chart.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Not to mention any bad mouthing of China’s government could prevent releases from being allowed in one of the biggest movie markets available now!

            Yes. This is one of those times where PC is good business sense.
            Apparently something they’ve done to pander to the Chinese market is film scenes with a Chinese civilian character who’s basically reduced to an extra in other cuts of the film. So I guess Chinese people are like the humans in Godzilla movies, powerlessly reacting to the power around them.

            Marvel is fine with either democracy or not (the Avengers work mostly through democratic consensus until the Civil War), but it implicitly hates anything that has a real org chart.

            No, I’m going to have to push back on that. Small-group direct democracy or consensus is not the same thing as representative government by universal suffrage, and the latter is demonstrably a failure to its people in Marvel.

          • christhenottopher says:

            Oh I don’t disagree that Marvel shows representative democracy to be a failure, just that it’s failure is part of a broader failure mode best captured by a heading of “large, many layered, hierarchical, rule-bound organizations” I use the term bureaucracy for. Representative democracy’s problem in the MCU is not so much the voting, but the red tape.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Sure. It’s an ironclad diseconomy of scale.
            This goes to Max Weber’s types of authority. Rational-legal-bureaucratic authority is demonstrably not rational in such a world. Wakanda has traditional authority by superhero, and that works for them. I’m not sure if appointing a first-generation superhero like Tony Stark or Hank Pym King of the United States would fit the definition of charismatic authority, and democratic governments small enough to not fail would be yet another thing.

          • beleester says:

            Wakanda’s government was shown to be pretty fragile too – one bad leader takes the throne and suddenly you’re shipping guns to super-terrorists around the globe.

    • cassander says:

      I think marvel is going to really regret going with a one-off civil war movie. They could have had it play out over a whole phase after infinity war and made the whole thing just so much more interesting by dealing with exactly questions like these.

    • Odovacer says:

      There was a run on the Ultimates [An alternate, “more realistic/adult” version of the Avengers] , where IIRC the government was using the team and had many people in iron man armor and Giant-men as well. Other countries took note and formed their own super team with powered humans.

    • Wander says:

      As a fan of Worm I’m legally obligated to never shut up about it. This is one of the topics that I think it does the absolute best – giving an actual reason that super advance tech isn’t in everyone’s hands (being able to make and maintain it is a power itself), and they have a system of bureaucracy explicitly designed to try and stop capes from running the government (spoiler: juvpu gheaf bhg gb abg jbex irel jryy). Having what amounts to just relatively smart and well-off people being able to make scifi technology without it having any impact on society is really jarring to me, and stops me from liking most superhero media.

      • James C says:

        Worm is pretty unique in how it locks down the super-science, but all superhero settings do have their own soft limits to keep things at least reasonably normal. Even if they do all boil down to ‘the author said so’. Most of the time it seems to follow the logic: Prototyping is easy, mass production is hard; which seems a little backwards to me but then I’m not a freeze ray engineer. Also used is the idea that its not economical to use super-science in most cases when compared to current tech. Again, seems backwards but its very much author fiat whether or not its true.

        Marvel will also use the idea that the government is suppressing it (for nefarious reasons) and that people don’t share their discoveries with the world (for noble reasons), but I’m not really familiar with many other settings to say how common these trope are.

        • Nick says:

          You can often appeal to rarity of materials as well.

          • James C says:

            True, especially if the author is willing to use fictional materials.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            Oh, you remind me, there’s “Stark New Element” which they had in Iron Man 2 that is somehow essential to keeping you alive instead of dying of palladium poisoning from using the arc reactor.

        • Nornagest says:

          Most of the work that goes into making a product marketable isn’t getting the core functionality working, it’s getting all the bugs out and making it shiny enough to satisfy marketing and idiotproof enough to satisfy legal. I can definitely see your average freeze ray being buggy, awkward, and dangerous, which isn’t such a big deal for its inventor (who is after all a mad scientist) but puts serious limits on sane laymen’s ability or willingness to use it.

          Of course, that only works as long as no one takes the time. So in practice it probably implies that the comic-book universe is five to ten years away from mass-produced sci-fi tech, not that it’ll never happen.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Yeah, anything introduced 5-10 years ago should be in mass production. I don’t follow comics, but in the Marvel movies that means there should be hundreds of Iron Man armors and we should start to see more big green people. Ant-Man showed shrink/grow tech first in use by people other than the Pyms 3 years ago, and made safety a theme. The villain uses a prototype Pym particle beam as a death, and there’s shown to be no way to stop a reckless user from shrinking “to the quantum realm.”

          • James C says:

            Comic books tend to have very weird timelines, though, mostly for plot reasons. There’s always this vague suggestion in the background that superpowers and superscience are brand new, even if its also canon that someone like Tesla was the first mad scientist.

      • Protagoras says:

        The Wild Cards shared universe (George R.R. Martin and company) already used the “super tech only works when it’s maintained by a superpower that keeps it working” thing, so it’s older than Worm.

      • mdet says:

        The “without any impact on society” is more of a problem in the movies than the comics. The movie version of Civil War was a small spat within the Avengers, the comics version of Civil War was about “What do we do when there are literally thousands of people running around the country trying to play hero with their mutant powers / super-tech?” It’s usually read as a loose metaphor for the gun control debate (“If you outlaw superpowers, then only outlaws will have superpowers”)

        They don’t think out how this affects society all the way through, but it is at least comics-canon that “normal people” will occasionally pick up powers of their own and attempt to imitate their heroes, with mixed results.

    • dndnrsn says:

      Is there a word for this – where “meta” considerations that lead to powers being kept small-scale (your superhero is less super if everyone can build a suit, a world where arcane power is available such as it would be if there were significant numbers of 5th level wizards running around) create a world with weird implications or stuff that has to be explained away?

      • beleester says:

        “Genre constraints” or “genre conventions” is the usual term for it.

        TVTropes also has “Reed Richards is Useless” and “Cut Lex Luthor a Check” for the specific case of superpowered individuals completely failing to change the world. Also “Superman Stays out of Gotham” for keeping different power levels of super in different parts of the setting.

      • James C says:

        As beleester says. Superhero fics stop being superhero fics if everyone has power armour or magic and just start being sci-fi or fantasy stories. The fact that the world is normal(ish) outside of the main characters is one of the main foundations of superhero stories.

        • dndnrsn says:

          Even in fantasy stories, though, there’s a huge tendency to never have magic really affect the world. Settings where magical stuff, etc, is taken to its logical conclusion are usually thought of as a bit goofy – Discworld, the Planescape and Spelljammer settings back in AD&D, etc – even though Discworld, with its golems used to power industrial machinery, is more logical than a medieval setting with some magical powers shoved in without changing the setting.

          Sci-fi doesn’t suffer this problem, I suppose because imagining the effects of these things on the world is a part of sci-fi.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I’ll put in a nice word for Lost in Translation by Margaret Ball.

            A young woman from our world is kidnapped by a would-be supervillain magician from a world where magic runs through the ground and comes out in plants. Kill too many plants in an area, and the magic comes out as monsters. Having limitations on clearing land affects everything.

          • John Schilling says:

            Even in fantasy stories, though, there’s a huge tendency to never have magic really affect the world. Settings where magical stuff, etc, is taken to its logical conclusion are usually thought of as a bit goofy

            The logical conclusion of “magical stuff” depends very strongly on how common and how powerful magic actually is. And, especially in classic literary settings, the answer is often surprisingly little. Late Third Age Middle Earth has five wizards total, who are very wise and all but apparently couldn’t cast fireball if their lives depended on it. One dragon, a cursed ring of invisibility, and a few other bits scattered about. Song of Ice and Fire, three dragons. Conan et al could usually find a necromancer in a tower or something, but usually very remote and either uninterested in secular affairs or meddling in them mostly by way of ensorcelled minions. None of these should be expected to change the nature of the mundane world terribly much.

            Cinematic fantasy settings, at least demand that the magic be visually spectacular in effect, which does start to raise questions like why they haven’t modified castle architecture to resist fireball attacks on the wooden gate. But we can maybe still fall back on wizards being very rare and/or non-interventionist.

            Role-playing settings demand that magic be readily accessible to freshly-rolled PCs, who in most games are one level above random peasants. And that it have mechanistic effects that are decisively effective in e.g. murder-hoboism. At that point, you do have to carefully avoid thinking about how this all fits into a faux-medieval setting.

            And in the past few decades, for obvious reasons, we’ve been getting cinematic and literary fantasy settings that have been strongly influenced by the RPG version.

          • dndnrsn says:

            @John Schilling

            Yeah, it’s mostly a problem in high-fantasy worlds, which is mostly in either RPGs (where magic has to be fairly common to PCs, for the reason you give) or RPG-influenced stuff.

            Have you read this essay? The relevant bit:

            First, there is the assumption that the fictional world of the novel is a typical D&D world. If someone is described as “the best in the world”, therefore, they must be 20th level. Otherwise there would be people better than them and the description wouldn’t be accurate, right? But the reality is that, in Middle Earth, there aren’t any 20th level characters. (At least, none of mortal stature.) Even the most exceptional of the immortal elves are most likely no more than 8th level or so (and that’s pushing it). Gandalf is a demigod cloaked in mortal form and I’d have difficulty statting him up as even a 10th level character.

            (My solution is to keep the level of magic available low and trust that my foolish players will get their characters killed enough to not make it into the double-digit levels. A fifth-level wizard who can cast fireball is terrifying, because suddenly you’ve got someone in a medieval setting who can basically conjure a medium-calibre artillery shell outta nowhere, if only once a day. Not common enough to bother accounting for them, but every now and then, your tower blows up)

          • Robert Liguori says:

            A young woman from our world is kidnapped by a would-be supervillain magician from a world where magic runs through the ground and comes out in plants. Kill too many plants in an area, and the magic comes out as monsters. Having limitations on clearing land affects everything.

            Huh. So, can you clear-cut a small island, enclose it with walls, flood it so that the monsters emerge and immediately drown, and set up a Minecraft-esque monster parts farm?

          • J Mann says:

            @Robert Liguori – no, the monsters will just swim to the surface, obviously.

            You can, of course, cover the islands with fence gates hovering in the air just below the monster’s head height, then pour lava over the fences to create a layer of floating lava which burns them alive, or you can set up the island with flowing water that pushes them into a hole, or, (and this is my favorite), you can trap one of your citizens in a standing height mostly enclosed cell just over a cactus plant, and let the monsters die by repeatedly bumping into the cactus in an effort to reach the villager.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, so I can’t answer that sort of technical question.

            I don’t even remember why the supervillain magician wanted her, just that is was to do something so stupid in terms of what people knew about their world that only a non-native would do it. It was something to do with immortality, I think.

            Things I do remember: the girl was snatched on her way to France, and it takes her a while to realize she’s not on earth any more– she justifies differences by assuming people do things differently in France. Her history classes about the underground railroad turn out to be useful.

            I’m exceedingly fond of the supervillain– he’s a academic, and he regrets that he can’t publish about his Very Clever Idea. He also doesn’t realize that the very dangerous people he’s dealing with will remember promises he made to them a few months ago.

            I recommend reading the book, and I might push it higher on my to-reread list.

          • James C says:

            This strikes me a less a fantasy problem and more a bad fantasy problem. In novels like Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt or Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Sequence magic is deeply baked into the host cultures. While there are definite real world parallels you can’t just say it’s the regular world with wizards, like a lot of the generic medieval settings.

          • Wander says:

            An example of a fantasy setting where the world is sort of built on the presence of magic – Wizard of Earthsea.

        • John Schilling says:

          The fact that the world is normal(ish) outside of the main characters is one of the main foundations of superhero stories.

          It’s also much more plausible when you are telling stories about a superhero, as is traditionally the case. Peter Parker isn’t going to transform the world. Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark perhaps could, but not by indulging in their hobby of punching out criminals one at a time. Kal-El could set himself up as God-Emperor of Man, but so long as he sticks to role-playing a mild-mannered reporter and changing into costume only to beat up the villains and/or rescue the victims he encounters working the Metropolis desk, most of the world and even Metropolis isn’t going to change that much.

          The problem comes when we add this to the other standard genere convention, where every second superhero that ever lived, really live in the same universe and hang out together. That’s not really compatible with a normal-ish world. Not even the dark-and-gritty version where there’s a no-rules government black ops division that keeps the superheros in line and the world looking normal-ish.

    • johan_larson says:

      I think there are some good stories to be written in a world where superpowers exist, but those who have them are well integrated into our society. The modestly powered are respected professionals, doing what few others can, and the highly powered are big wheels in industry, government or the military, top-tier celebrities every one. And of course there are well-funded government departments for identifying the talented, cultivating their powers, and (alas) bringing down those who go rogue.

      • Odovacer says:

        I want to say that Astro City by Kurt Busiek is kind of an example of that. But I’ve only a few issues of it.

      • quaelegit says:

        Hm, Worm kind of has this: the well-funded government departments yes, the top-tier ones being major celebrities and public-opinion shapers*. The middle tier of integrated professionals is missing — there are only a few characters in Worm who try to use their powers for “normalish person” non-fighting work, and it doesn’t work out for any of them.

        I think Worm tries to have it both ways, in that the setting has a lot of thought along these lines put into it, but the author made world-building and narrative choices to focus on more standard superhero narratives such as superpowered fights.

        *The nature of their role in actual government is spoilers and I don’t remember the details anyways.

      • beleester says:

        Legion of Nothing had a pretty good symbiosis between the supers and the government, I think. It strikes a good balance between “The protagonists need to do stuff themselves” and “The government isn’t full of useless idiots.”

        Basically, the government is doing their best to keep superhero stuff under control, but they’ve got much bigger fish to fry (like an impending alien invasion), which means that there’s still plenty of room for a group of teenage heroes to get themselves into trouble. The government (and the adult supers) mainly play a support role – liaising with the police, providing intelligence, and occasionally handling stuff that’s too big for the kids.

        Also, superpowers becomes increasingly available to both the government and criminals as the story goes on. Super suits and super-tech can be easily acquired on the black market, and one of the early storylines involved the plans for “power juice” getting released onto the internet for everyone. So you’ll see the occasional superpowered mobster or government-funded super in addition to the more traditional kinds.

      • Wander says:

        Boku no Hero Academia? It falls afoul of many of the shounen manga and anime tropes, where it sets up a cool setting and ignores it for guys smacking each other around real hard, but it has a world where almost everyone has powers that are managed and regulated pretty well.

    • A Definite Beta Guy says:

      Nahhhh, the super heroes are just better because they are a Rapid Reaction Force. They can show up exactly where they need to be at exactly the right time. I think Falcon is running strictly on standard military-grade gear (within context of the MCU).

      It’s a lot easier to hide one or two superheroes, or deploy them, than it is to move the 82nd. Only SHIELD can move as quickly within context of the MCU, and it’s always one step behind. But given how badly the Avengers fared against the Chituri invasion force, it’s tough to imagine they could, say, take over Moscow if the Red Army had advanced warning.

      Actually, this is part of what I like about the Harry Dresden series. Muggle Humans are viewed as nuclear weapons in disputes between the Supernatural factions, and Muggle Humans almost completely wiped out the Black Court Vampires during the Middle Ages (those being the Vampires vulnerable to garlic and the like). I think at one point some Fallen Angels take over O’Hare and the heroes briefly consider alerting the police and DHS, but it’s rejected because it’d be too much of a norm violation.

      • James C says:

        It’s definitely realistic for a urban fantasy world. There’s one Harry Potter fanfic which I’ll always plug where, during Voldemort’s coup, the Muggles invade the wizarding world with less than a thousand infantry, a couple dozen wizard collaborators and a spattering of APCs. Old no-nose doesn’t even last the week and it’s completely believable.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Sure, but the Harry Potter wizards are rather low-powered, though there are some high-powered artifacts like the time-turner around. The three big evil spells they have are a torture spell, a brainwashing spell, and a killing spell. Torture and killing Muggles can do just as well and brainwashing doesn’t work so well in a stand-up fight.

          Though if a wizard or small group of wizards wanted to take over the Muggle world by stealth, they probably could. The same way Voldemort took the wizarding world — anyone who doesn’t see things your way gets Imperio’d.

          • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

            The three big evil spells they have are a torture spell, a brainwashing spell, and a killing spell.

            Those are forbidden spells, because they’re evil n shit. But really, just levitating really big stuff and throwing it at your enemies is probably a stronger weapon.

            And yes, catapults aren’t cutting edge military technology, but having pretty much everyone have one, regardless of physical constrains is still pretty powerful.

            I’m sure HPMOR has a lot of this stuff, but I haven’t read it.

          • John Schilling says:

            Those are forbidden spells, because they’re evil n shit. But really, just levitating really big stuff and throwing it at your enemies is probably a stronger weapon.

            Being able to literally teleport is huge. And actual Manchurian-candidate brainwashing is nearly as big a deal. If the wizards know how to exploit those effectively, I’m not sure a thousand wizards with mere AKs for the killing-people part wouldn’t be able to take on the entire Muggle world.

            That’s a pretty big “if”, of course.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            @John: Yeah… this is not a world where using magic requires INT. They might simply never conquer the Muggle world because they’re not smart enough to realize that organizing a thousand wizards and witches who can teleport and brainwash would do it if they adopt This One Muggle Tool.

          • John Schilling says:

            Or possibly zero muggle tools, though I slipped a punnish acronym in for deliberate ambiguity on that point.

          • MrApophenia says:

            (Note – I accidentally clicked “Report” on the post above and don’t see any way to undo it, just wanted to clarify it wasn’t a real report. If there is a better way to do that, let me know!)

          • James C says:

            Hidden magical worlds almost certainly have the ability take over their mundane counterparts; the issue though, is that it isn’t really a certain thing and the consequences for failure are extreme to say the least.

            Voldemort could easily make a grand tour mind controlling world leaders (not that he’d ever want to), but it only takes one person walking in unexpectedly, or a hidden camera missed and then the secret is out and the whole scheme is blown. Once that happens then you’ve got something that looks alarmingly like a war on your hands. Now, magicals have a huge advantage in any fight, but when they’re outnumbered thousands or even millions to one… well, then even the crudest of countermeasures start being effective. For example: Apperation loses a lot of its strategic value against a target that starts compulsively mining their government buildings.

            It doesn’t take many such counters to start racking up the body count, and with magical societies often lacking the ability to make good losses any long war is almost doomed to go the way of the mundanes.

          • baconbits9 says:

            A lot of their spells are incredibly high powered… but they do nothing with them. The whole “no one knows where Hogwarts is and you can’t know a location of a place if you aren’t told by the secret keeper” stuff could almost certainly be twisted into an unbeatable military edge with one competent wizard on the side of a government. Lets make it so we can park an aircraft carrier anywhere we want or make it impossible to track our ballistic missiles.

          • MrApophenia says:

            Isn’t it canon that the wizards have in fact taken over major Muggle nations in the past?

            My understanding World War 2 was an elaborate Muggle proxy war for the real conflict being waged by wizards at the time, and that Grindelwald was the true ruler of Germany.

        • Wrong Species says:

          Since we’re talking about Harry Potter…

          The most unrealistic thing is the fact that the wizard population is so low. People who can magic themselves food and cures never have to face Malthusian constraints. There doesn’t seem to be any taboos against large families and it looks like wizards have longer lifespans than muggles. So what’s keeping the population down?

          • Nornagest says:

            Predation by the huge numbers of ridiculously dangerous magical beasts that apparently exist?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Fantastic Beasts and Where to Get Eaten?

          • Wrong Species says:

            It doesn’t seem like magical beasts are a significant handicap anymore the existence of lions or tigers is to muggles. Just avoid them and populate the other areas. And if it true, why do wizards treat these creatures as curiosities instead of existential threats? And why aren’t they a problem for muggles?

          • Nornagest says:

            Just avoid them and populate the other areas.

            That’s certainly a plausible response, but if I was writing a Harry Potter fanfic, predation’s still what I’d go with. Partly because it’s funny, partly because it lends itself well to plots, and partly because I always got the impression that a couple students in every class were expected to get eaten by Aragog and his buddies or fatally gummed by animate books or bored to death by the centaurs, and that was just treated as the cost of doing business. It took several petrifications before the basilisk became an issue, IIRC.

            I think it was mostly Hagrid that treated them as curiosities rather than menaces, but there’s gotta be some reason why they hadn’t already AKed — or at least relocated, this is a nice British school after all — all the deadly creatures in the forest directly adjacent to a middle school. If the reason is that the adults were afraid to, that has some downstream implications.

            Muggles, who knows? Maybe the critters need some magic in their diet.

          • Nornagest says:

            This also explains why your average Dungeons and Dragons setting still has medieval-ish population levels despite spells available to every caster that can conjure food and water or (if you’re smart) bulk quantities of fertilizer. It’s right there in the name, in fact.

            (I wonder what level Wall of Ammonium Nitrate is.)

          • bean says:

            (I wonder what level Wall of Ammonium Nitrate is.)

            At least 7th. Because you know full well that a typical PC would take one look at any spell involving Ammonium Nitrate, and immediately try to recreate the Texas City disaster.

          • johan_larson says:

            The most unrealistic thing is the fact that the wizard population is so low. People who can magic themselves food and cures never have to face Malthusian constraints.

            I don’t see why that’s a problem. We modern muggles have a very low birthrate. In the midst of plenty, we don’t make more babies. The wizard population could well be the same way. And since their ability to do magic gave them lives of ease much earlier than we muggles managed, perhaps their population has been slowly declining for a long time.

          • Wrong Species says:

            @Johan_larson

            The wizard population is tiny. Extremely tiny. The estimates I’ve seen put it at around a million people worldwide. Muggles beat that before the dawn of agriculture. One reason why birth rates are so low now is that our world is very urban and children are more of an economic burden in urban environments than rural ones. Wizards don’t even seem to have cities, just cordoned off alleys where they meet. One part of the demographic transition is high birth rates and low death rates. We have to posit that either wizards never had high birth rates in their entire history or that the wizard population was huge a long, long time ago and it has been a long decline since and for some reason, the wizards still hid themselves when they had the numerical advantage against muggles. And remember that there are muggle born wizards so at the very least their population should have been replenished that way.

            Imagine that some virus left us a million people alive total and somehow we managed to bring ourselves back to modern standards of living. Do you think the population would just stay flat after that?

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            I think that if predation were keeping the population down, wizards would typically have relatives killed by monsters. I’m not saying they would all be running a big fight against monsters, but there would be a lot of holes in family trees and presumably a lot of background grieving.

            I’m not sure that there’s a good in-world explanation. Possibly wizards just aren’t very fertile, with the Weasleys being unusual.

            I wouldn’t at all mind a story set in a world where there are enough monsters to keep human fertility close to replacement.

            Or humans vs. coyotes with thumbs. Perhaps the Fermi Paradox is explained by most intelligent species having serious competitors.

          • rlms says:

            Longer lifespans presumably means more grandparents/great-grandparents as dependents, which means working adults can afford fewer children (although we don’t see this in the books really).

          • John Schilling says:

            but there would be a lot of holes in family trees and presumably a lot of background grieving.

            As of the modern era, Wizardly family trees seem to involve a great many holes and background grieving. Mostly due to predation by monstrous wizards. It is unclear whether this represents a deviation from past norms. Possibly in the pre-Ministry era, fantastically dangerous beasts were less effectively controlled but it was harder to organize for continental-scale wizard wars.

          • Wrong Species says:

            @rlms

            Except all the older people we see in the Harry Potter Universe are healthier than our older people. Dumbledore was about as spry as someone half his age.

            As for ubiquitous monsters, like I said earlier, if they were like our dangerous beasts, people would just move far from them or kill them. So in order to make the theory work, you have to have the monsters following the wizards around like some kind of disease, going out of their way to try and eat all the wizards in the world while the muggles are completely oblivious. And while they seem hard to control, things like dragons don’t seem impossible to control so I don’t think we can just posit extremely intelligent dragons as basically the equivalent of a dangerous AI.

          • AnarchyDice says:

            Nancy has got me thinking of an Idiocracy style future for the wizarding world populated by the descendants of people like the Weasleys (not entirely fair to judge the whole family on Ron’s ineptitude when everyone else seems quite skilled).

    • MrApophenia says:

      In the comics, the government has got a pretty fair amount of this stuff. The most famous example would be the Sentinels, of course – which also points to the other weird angle the comics take on this, which is that the US government is also evil. (It is a basic element of the Marvel Universe at this point that the government is always about thirty seconds from opening up full fledged concentration camps for all mutant citizens, and sending killer robots out to hunt them in the streets.)

      And of course, the only regime worse than the American government are the dread Canadians…

  5. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    In the spirit of the science fiction theme does anyone know of a good science fiction book, TV or movie series where the scale makes any sense?

    That’s something that’s been bugging me more and more lately. I’m starting to get sick of interstellar wars fought between armies smaller than those seen in the bronze age, interstellar civilizations with population densities similar to those of desert nomads, and interstellar travel where the distances seem less daunting than those involved in a cross-country road trip.

    Please no Culture.

    • christhenottopher says:

      There’s the Orion’s Arm setting. It’s mostly an encyclopedia-esque project with stories set in it, but mostly avoids underestimating scale.

    • johan_larson says:

      If you’re willing to reach way back, the Lensman series has galaxy-sized conflicts fought by galaxy-sized forces. It even spends some time discussing how to coordinate very large space fleets and make them work together.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lensman_series

      Galactic Patrol is the place to start the series, if you want to try it. But the battles get bigger as the series progresses.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        IIRC, the US Navy was even inspired by the computer that Civilization uses to coordinate huge numbers of starships.

        • bean says:

          Claims have been made to that effect, but AIUI they’re not true. The basic concept of integrating information on a plot like that goes back at least 3 decades before Smith ever wrote the work in question, and the shape of the CIC was mostly set by practical considerations. The major innovation of vertical plotting boards was British, copied by the Americans when one of their carriers spent time in a yard here. Also, it appears that Campbell or his source exaggerated the contribution, although I don’t have a copy of the cited work. Convergent evolution, no more.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            OK, so I didn’t remember correctly. 🙂

          • bean says:

            Not necessarily. Wiki makes the same claim you did. I just knew enough about the development of the CIC to think that something didn’t seem quite right, and do more research.

    • sfoil says:

      Count to a Trillion can get a little silly but it deals with massive scale, of time and space, better than probably anything else I’ve read.

    • beleester says:

      Warhammer 40K? Cranking things up to absurd scales is kind of its main schtick. Hive cities are massive arcologies crawling with billions of humans, and each of those cities is just a drop in the bucket of the Imperium as a whole. Warships are so big that you can get lost in the lower decks and never get seen again. The Imperial Guard considers the loss of a million soldiers to be an average Tuesday.

      If you want something less grimdark, Schlock Mercenary’s most recent books involve a series of ancient megastructures and getting to grips with the titanic feats of engineering that they involved. Appropriately enough, one of the books is called “Big, Dumb Objects.” And even in the earlier books, there’s a healthy sense of scale between our tiny mercenary band and the much larger warships that governments like the UNS can throw around.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        I love the aesthetic and lore of Warhammer 40K but I never got into the game because it’s the world’s most effective form of male birth control.

        I’m not super familiar with Schlock Mercenary. Thanks for the heads up on that one.

      • A Definite Beta Guy says:

        The Imperial Guard considers the loss of a million soldiers to be an average Tuesday.

        Stalingrad? You mean the tutorial, right?

    • Winter Shaker says:

      does anyone know of a good science fiction book, TV or movie series where the scale makes any sense?

      No, but I saw a while ago the most egregious example of the opposite of what you’re asking for: Starcrash (as presented on Mystery Science Theatre 3000) – a sci-fi movie presumably intended to ride on the coattails of the first Star Wars movie released the previous year, which is full of talk about events of galaxy-spanning importance, but set in a galaxy that seem to only have about 15 people in it.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      Not a whole book, but there’s a bit (in a Resnick novel, I think) where someone wants to conquer the galaxy. Even though his forces can conquer a planet fairly quickly and I think he’s got ftl, he just runs out of lifespan. The galaxy is too big.

    • Whatever Happened To Anonymous says:

      Legend of The Galactic Heroes gets the numbers better than most, but if what you’re looking for is accuracy, I can’t recommend it.

      It’s great for a lot of other reasons, though.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        I started watching Legends of the Galactic Heroes and I enjoyed it even if I couldn’t see it through to the end.

        It definitely had a great sense of scale, although that was undercut somewhat by the fact that the two main characters are unparalleled military geniuses who can run circles around anyone except one another. When they end up facing one another it feels like a fight scene in any shounen anime just using fleets of spaceships instead of ki blasts. They were basically microing two galactic fleets like a pair of Korean StarCraft players.

        • Lillian says:

          One of the things that makes Legend of the Galactic Heroes special to me is precisely that it doesn’t depict its unparalleled military geniuses as micromanage their gigantic star fleets like a pair of Korean StarCraft players. It’s common failure mode in fiction for genius military leaders to be depicted as practically carrying the entire war effort by themselves. Whereas in Galactic Heroes huge amounts of plot and character development is focused on subordinate officers. Said officers are frequently depicted fighting their own battles without any input from our two geniuses, and even the major battles that do involve one or both geniuses frequently turn on the actions and decisions of the subordinates.

          For example at the Battle of Armitsar, Bittenfeld’s recklessness causes the Black Lancers to take heavy casualties, which the Alliance fleet then exploits to break out of the Imperial envelopment. Certified military genius Reinhardt is left to rage that another man’s incompetence has cost him total victory. Later on at Vermillion there is a reverse situation. It is Reinhardt who makes mistakes that prove nearly fatal, until his underling Mueller rushes in to save him by throwing the entire Mueller fleet into the grinder and then holding despite the disadvantageous position (this earns him the nickname “Iron Wall”).

          Similarly our other certified military genius, Yang Wen-Li, is shown struggling when the war has more than one front, because there’s only one of him. Yang explicitly praises Reinhardt for not having the same problem, because Reinhardt has taken the time to draw a great many talented men to his side, whom he is then able to assign to other theatres. Yang himself does have a lot of talented officers at his command, but they are all in his own fleet, which does in turn mean that it punches well above its weight.

          Seriously the fact that Yang and Reinhardt can’t carry the entire war effort by themselves, no matter how brilliant and talented they are, is one of the major themes in the series. For good or ill the both of them have to rely on their underlings. It is frankly bizarre to see someone complain that the series treats them as micromanaging galactic fleets, when it’s pretty much half the plot that they can’t do that.

          • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

            It’s been a while since I watched it so it’s possible that my impression wasn’t accurate.

            The way I remembered it, there were three kinds of battles in the show:

            Type I was Yang vs a minor character. The minor character with a large advantage in numbers or position makes use of a seemingly sensible plan, then Yang activates his trap card and pulls out a surprise victory. The very first battle in the introductory movie is a good example. Yang lures the larger enemy fleet into an explosive space thingy and detonates it just when they think they’ve won.

            Type II is Reinhardt vs a minor character. The minor character makes use of a seemingly sensible plan, then Reinhardt anticipates that plan and makes a seemingly sensible counter-move. The battle where Reinhardt defeats a large enemy fleet by using differences in their arrival times to attack each element separately was a good example of this.

            Type III is Yang vs Reinhardt. Yang and/or Reinhardt order their fleets to do bizarre manuevers like forming a giant ouroboros or attacking in thin “slices” of ships, then everyone gushes about how brilliant their silly plans are. It looks more like something to do for an airshow (spaceshow?) rather than an actual battle formation.

            Type I battles are fun but feel mean-spirited, because the writers have the enemy commanders make dumb mistakes so that Yang can look smarter. Type II battles are fun and the main reason why I watched the show. Type III battles were annoying because they broke my suspension of disbelief.

          • Lillian says:

            You missed the fourth kind of battle: Two minor characters fight each other. These are often fairly straightforward battles since neither side is a certified military genius, though not always. One of my favourite ones in this category is the Battle of Kifeuser during the Imperial Civil War. It consists of the obviously incompetent but numerically superior Littleheim getting completely owned by the always cool and effective Kircheis. Sure the outcome is never in question, but nonetheless it’s a real joy to watch.

            There are plenty of battles involving Yang which don’t result in him activating a trap card to pull off a surprise victory. During the Alliance invasion of the Empire when Yang faces off against Kempf all he manages to do is disorganize the enemy’s formation enough to pull off a retreat. Kempf follows cautiously precisely because Yang’s reputation for being a tricksy bastard makes him suspect a trap. Reality is, Yang simply thought the battle was pointless and did not want to press it further. Next Yang goes up against Kircheis, and again all he manages to do is effect a withdrawal to Armistar. Then at Armistar, Yang inflicts heavy casualties on the Black Lancers by exploiting Bittenfeld’s unforced error rather than laying any clever ambushes.

            Later on the during the Alliance Civil War, the 13th Fleet under Yang attacks the 11th Fleet under Lagrange. Yang comes in from the flank and drives his whole fleet like a wedge thorough the middle of the enemy formation, cutting it in two and throwing it in disarray. This then allows Yang to defeat each half in detail. It’s made abundantly clear that this works mainly because the 13th Fleet were hardened veterans while most of the 11th was inexperienced since it had just finished rebuilding from the heavy losses it took at Fourth Tiamat.

            Also you completely misremember the introductory movie. An Alliance fleet is hiding in the atmosphere of a gas giant. Reinhard’s fleet comes in, engages them in a close range confused melee that succeeds only in superheating the planet’s atmosphere, and then abruptly retreats. Then this happens. It’s less “you activated my trap card” and more “you chose the terrain poorly”. Yang’s role is to mostly be frustrated at how incompetent his superiors are.

            As for battles between Yang and Reinhard, they happen all of four times. In the first, the Battle of Astarte, the entire point of the giant ourboros was that it was completely ridiculous and nobody actually planned for it. It just happened as an unexpected consequence of Yang and Reinhard sensibly countering each other’s moves. Nobody gushes about how brilliant it is, instead Reinhard’s actual reaction is delivered in a tone of, “The fuck is this bullshit?”

            The second is already discussed Armistar. It’s for the most part a fairly straightforward engagement that would have resulted in total victory for Reinhard if not for Bittenfeld’s impetuousness giving Yang an opening through which to break out of the Imperial encirclement. The only unusual manoeuvre to happen there is the Alliance intentionally triggering a small coronal mass ejection in order to disrupt the Imperial fleet early in the battle. They still lose.

            The third is Vermillion, which did have Reinhard using thin slices of ships, not to attack, but to fend off Yang’s concentrated assault towards his flagship. Now i grant that “thin slices of ships” does sound pretty silly, but it’s really just a way of putting “retreating countermarch by ranks” in layman’s terms. It’s an actual historical tactic that makes sense in the context of how fleet engagements play out in the setting. The brilliance on Reinhard’s part was not thinking up some unheard of never before seen manoeuvre, but rather implementing it at the right time and place, and in such a way that it wasn’t immediately obvious that’s what he was doing.

            The fourth and last time Yang and Reinhard fight each other is the Battle of the Corridor which you seem to not have gotten to. It is conducted a lot more conventionally than either Astarte or Vermillion, both due to the different strategic situation, and because the two commanders have a better measure of each other. Once again the actions of the various subordinates, particularly Reinhard’s, plays a major role in the course of events.

    • albatross11 says:

      The Honor Harrington books (Weber) seem like they have the right sort of sense of scale–there are lots of planets, travel takes a long time except by wormholes, etc.

    • Ryan Holbrook says:

      No wars or interstellar civilizations or anything like that, but Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero is a good book about scale.

  6. Mark V Anderson says:

    On the last thread, a person started a post by saying that he was a physicist and a Christian, and invited questions. I thought about putting in a comment about God, but there were already too many comments on there for him to respond to mine. But then I realized that there are a good many self-identified Christians on SSC, and most of them are otherwise pretty smart. 🙂 So I will put my comments as a top level post here and ask the Christians to tell me why I’m not as smart as I think.

    I am an atheist because I believe the existence of God is unlikely, no matter how God is defined. But I think the Christian God is particularly unlikely. I list three reasons below. Well, the last one isn’t about God but about Christianity in general.

    1) The Christian God wants us to worship him and follow the ethical dictates of the Bible. He has had only a modicum of success (based on a minority of adherents around the globe), and many of those in the developed world only give token adherence. So why doesn’t he show himself and perform a miracle or two? I imagine he could build up his allegiance to a large majority of the population if he came out of the closet and acted like a God. Since he does not, to me that means God as defined by Christians does not exist.

    2) The Christian God is all powerful, all knowing, and all loving. There are millions of people on the globe, now and in the past, that are miserable their entire lives, due to such things as disease, poverty, war, or simply a terrible personality. These two sentences do not compute.

    3) A big part of Christianity is about how important it is to have faith, as exemplified by the fable of “doubting Thomas” that I learned in Sunday school so many years ago. In my opinion, faith is a necessary evil, not something to be celebrated. I have faith the ceiling isn’t going to collapse on me, but only because it hasn’t happened before, and because I don’t have time to test the structural integrity of every building I walk into. If I could judge the structural integrity with a glance, I would do so on every ceiling I came across, because faith is a bad thing. Treating faith as a good thing is backwards and irrational behavior.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      I feel like your comment is too big to answer, because you’re jumping between Christianity and classical theism. So here are just a few broad strokes:

      1) We believe He has and will. The fact that miracles aren’t homogeneous through time seems to be stumbling block for you, and I admit the answer to it is beyond me. 🙂
      2) That’s the logical problem of evil, and the consensus of analytic philosophers is that Alvin Plantinga has refuted it.
      3) Faith as a good thing is dependent on love. I don’t think you’d be a better person if you used this knowledge power to check on whether your wife is cheating on you every time she’s out of the room. You’re completely right about ceilings, but God is more like a spouse than a ceiling.

      • Not A Random Name says:

        Regarding 2) and having just read the Wikipedia article about Plantinga’s free will defense:

        It seems a major point of his is that even an omnipotent god can’t create square circles or create humans that have free will yet always choose to act morally.

        Now, that’s not how I would have answered if you asked me about omnipotence. One of the preachers in the christian circles I grew up in definitely would’ve insisted that omnipotence actually was the ability to do Everything, logically feasible or not. After all, God is greater than logic. No longer being a christian I naturally default to what I’ve learned when I still was.

        And I’m tempted to say “alright, that’s just a weakman position and the actual steelman is the definition that’s logically possible”.

        On the other hand I’m pretty sure that the intuitive definition of omnipotence is “the ability to do Everything” and as such just impossible. We can absolutely play the game of slightly redefining words until it fits, but generally speaking that’s dangerous. I’m pretty sure you can use that procedure to get from everywhere to anywhere if you just squint hard enough. Usually I refuse to play the game unless good reasons are presented. Why make the exception here? My go-to argument is “because your observations fit the new model better” when it applies but here it doesn’t.

        • Nick says:

          One of the preachers in the christian circles I grew up in definitely would’ve insisted that omnipotence actually was the ability to do Everything, logically feasible or not. After all, God is greater than logic.

          You’re exactly right that that is a weakman position. It’s nonsense. Don’t listen to that preacher.

          On the other hand I’m pretty sure that the intuitive definition of omnipotence is “the ability to do Everything” and as such just impossible. We can absolutely play the game of slightly redefining words until it fits, but generally speaking that’s dangerous. I’m pretty sure you can use that procedure to get from everywhere to anywhere if you just squint hard enough. Usually I refuse to play the game unless good reasons are presented. Why make the exception here? My go-to argument is “because your observations fit the new model better” when it applies but here it doesn’t.

          If you admit the first definition is nonsensical, how is the second one not at least provisionally better? And your criterion for definitions is too strict anyway. Observation does not let us distinguish between, say, an intuitive definition of infinity and the sort of definitions employed in mathematics today. But the intuitive definition is nonsense and the definitions employed today are not.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          And I’m tempted to say “alright, that’s just a weakman position and the actual steelman is the definition that’s logically possible”.

          On the other hand I’m pretty sure that the intuitive definition of omnipotence is “the ability to do Everything” and as such just impossible. We can absolutely play the game of slightly redefining words until it fits, but generally speaking that’s dangerous.

          If the definition of “omnipotent” is an insurmountable stumbling block for you, don’t say God is omnipotent. Re-frame the question as whether you can believe Good exists as a real entity whose will cannot be stopped by any other will. Making square circles or rocks so heavy he simultaneously can and can’t lift them are not things Goodness itself would will, they’re just dumb.

        • vV_Vv says:

          After all, God is greater than logic.

          This implies that God can do things that make no sense to humans, who are bound by logic. For instance he can love you and also deliberately craft a Universe where you will suffer. Checkmate Atheists! 🙂

        • Aron Wall says:

          In fact neither of these was the original definition of the word Omnipotent:

          The original, and still basic, account of omnipotence is that of power over everything (sovereignty, as it is sometimes called), particularly as required by the more fundamental doctrines of creation and providence. This is true of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim accounts of omnipotence. The doctrine of omnipotence comes from somewhere; people weren’t just sitting around one day and suddenly thought that it would be cool to call God omnipotent. There were reasons, and the basic understanding of omnipotence has to take into account those reasons.

          The tendency to phrase omnipotence in terms of power to do anything comes later, and was heavily argued over.

          The problem, in other words, arises with the mistake, common among analytic philosophers today, of thinking that arguments and claims just spring out of nowhere and therefore don’t need anything other than themselves in order to be understood properly. In actual fact, the interpretation of arguments and claims must be constrained by the reasons for putting them forward in the first place.

          -Brandon Watson on the Stone Paradox

          • moonfirestorm says:

            I was still a little confused by this, but the link goes on to say “power over everything” means sovereignty. So omnipotence in that context is just saying God is the #1 Guy.

            This of course leads to the unanswered question of what God can do? If we just go by feats, he’s still got a pretty varied power set, like being able to create the universe, make bushes burn, and deliver plagues, but it might rule out things like “make humanity free-willed but inherently good”

            The problem of suffering still seems somewhat present just from omniscience+being able to affect the world, because I can come up with plenty of ways to use God’s existing feats to reduce suffering. Easy example: every time there’s going to be a natural disaster, put evenly-spaced angels on the borders of the future disaster area so people know where to evacuate.

            It’s possible that God’s constrained by a lot of fundamental laws we can’t see though. Once we take out omnipotence, there could be dumb stuff like “gods only get to manifest stuff 100 times” and he’s already used them all up.

      • skef says:

        That’s the logical problem of evil, and the consensus of analytic philosophers is that Alvin Plantinga has refuted it.

        I think this response over-interprets “does not compute” as implying a logical contradiction.

        If your position is that “the consensus of analytic philosophers” is that, given an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good being, someone picking a real or metaphorical apple way back when explains, for example, the Lisbon earthquake, I’d be curious of your evidence for that.

        • Protagoras says:

          Heh, well put. The hypothetical you suggest is certainly is not the consensus of analytic philosophers! As usual in philosophy, there is much disagreement as to what the various positions even are, never mind as to the strengths of various claims and various responses to those claims. Le Maistre Chat greatly overstates the degree to which it is a consensus among analytic philosophers that Plantinga has satisfactorily answered Mackie, much less that Plantinga has answered all challenges in the vicinity of Mackie’s.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I didn’t say Plantinga has answered all challenges in the vicinity of Mackie’s. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good summary of how analytic philosophers conceded Plantinga’s victory and have chosen to shift the debate from the Enlightenment vintage “that’s logically incoherent” to “there’s no evidence that God has to let this much evil exist.”

          • Iain says:

            Plantinga’s victory was to convince people that “the problem of evil proves that God cannot exist” was a step too far, and that they instead had to argue “the problem of evil makes it very unlikely that God exists”.

            In Bayesian terms, Plantinga argued that P(God exists) > 0. His argument does nothing to refute the claim that P(God exists) < epsilon for any non-zero epsilon. His argument relies pretty heavily on this crutch:

            Since the logical problem of evil claims that it is logically impossible for God and evil to co-exist, all that Plantinga (or any other theist) needs to do to combat this claim is to describe a possible situation in which God and evil co-exist. That situation doesn’t need to be actual or even realistic. Plantinga doesn’t need to have a single shred of evidence supporting the truth of his suggestion. All he needs to do is give a logically consistent description of a way that God and evil can co-exist.

            Mark’s claim was that God’s existence is “particularly unlikely”, not “impossible”. Plantinga’s argument does nothing to refute Mark.

        • FLWAB says:

          When it comes to earthquakes, how do you propose we have a world that supports life as well as our own without plate tectonics? And if you have tectonic plates, you’re going to have earthquakes. If you have earthquakes, houses will get knocked down. When a house falls on a human, injury and death often occurs due to the laws of physics. The question then becomes, why did God choose to create a world that follows natural laws? Why not a world where only nice things happen for no reason other than someone wills it? I don’t know: but Christians believe in a God that made a world that runs on rules. The same rules that allow you to build a house means that the same house can be knocked down. The same laws that allow you to eat, drink, have sex, listen to a symphony, understand a theorem, mean that when a house falls on you bad things happen. So when it comes to the problem of natural evil, it’s really a problem of why nature at all? As long as there is a nature, it won’t always suit you.

          • beleester says:

            What makes you so confident that the natural laws that give rise to plate tectonics, earthquakes, and other nasty things are the only possible laws that god could have written?

            For instance, your link argues that plate tectonics need to exist because the Earth’s needs a molten magnetic core to protect it from the solar winds. That just moves the question to “Why does the solar wind exist?” or “Why does the solar wind have to destroy our atmosphere?” or “Why can’t the Earth generate a magnetic field some other way?” or a million other possible “why”s, probably ending with “Why is quantum physics even a thing?”

            The fact that you can think of a reason for a thing to exist is not proof that the thing is necessary. Especially when you’re talking about the one who wrote the laws of the universe.

            Also, this is incompatible with the idea of a god who performs miracles – even if God wants the universe to mostly follow predictable natural laws, he’s perfectly okay with bending the rules when he wants to, say, get the Israelites out of Egypt. Why not bend the rules to stop the city of Lisbon from being destroyed?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            beleester’s answer sounds exactly like Le Maistre Chat’s statement above, that the question is now “there’s no evidence that God has to let this much evil exist.”

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            My assumption is that if sin results in earthquakes, then God could keep good people safe by having tectonic plates move past each other more smoothly so that there are small jolts at most rather than devastation.

          • skef says:

            The question then becomes, why did God choose to create a world that follows natural laws? Why not a world where only nice things happen for no reason other than someone wills it? I don’t know: but Christians believe in a God that made a world that runs on rules.

            Except that Christians also believe in miracles, and therefore posit a god that is perfectly good and powerful who sets up a universe that runs on rules leading to suffering except in some special cases where it abandons those rules after all.

          • FLWAB says:

            The question of why God intervenes in some cases and usurps the natural laws He put into place is a hard one. I have always felt strange asking for any kind of miracle (typically healing), or in saying that someone recovering from a disease or improbably escaping harm in an accident is a miracle: not because I disbelieve in miracles, but because I can’t help but wonder what would make me, or them, so special that God would intercede in those cases yet not intercede for people who are far better than I am. Why does one cancer disappear, while another advance without mercy? Why did I survive getting driven off the road without a scratch while every day hundreds die in car accidents? It is a difficult question.

            C.S. Lewis, in the book The Problem of Pain writes about this very subject. If you are going to have a physical nature that follows rules, yet break those rules some of the time, why not break them all of the time? He makes a pretty good argument in the chapter on divine omnipotence on why God would create a nature with fixed and regular rules, and it would take too much space here to quote the entire argument. But on the question of why God doesn’t intervene every time something bad would happen he had the following to say:

            That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behaviour of matter and produce what we call miracles, is part of the Christian faith; but the very conception of a common, and therefore, stable, world, demands that these occasions should be extremely rare. In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once the limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself

            I would suggest reading the whole chapter: it’s a good read, and not too long. There is a link here. As to the question of why some miracles and not others, Lewis’s book Miracles covers the subject very well, though it is a longer read.

          • skef says:

            FLWAB, all of that verbiage doesn’t alter the more basic level of the objection, which is what I was responding to. Regularity does not explain natural evil because a) an all powerful god isn’t bound by it in theory and b) claimed exceptions, in the form of miracles, would show that it isn’t bound by it in practice either.

            You can motivate “regularity in the normal case” with other considerations, but then the explanation is ultimately in terms of those explanations.

            Many atheists are suspicious of these explanatory frameworks because they seem minimally responsive to evidence. If the world were much, much, much worse, for example, and only a few people ever had an opportunity to make things better on a moral level, one could just say “that makes those opportunities all the more precious.”

            If you believe a priori that there is a perfectly good god, then you can presumably muster a priori reasoning to explain any pattern of evidence. But anyone looking to support a belief in god starting from empirical evidence is going to find such explanations dubious.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            If you believe a priori that there is a perfectly good god, then you can presumably muster a priori reasoning to explain any pattern of evidence. But anyone looking to support a belief in god starting from empirical evidence is going to find such explanations dubious.

            Yeah, there’s no amount of sensory evidence that could convince me God exists. I believe in God because it’s rational to do so.

          • beleester says:

            beleester’s answer sounds exactly like Le Maistre Chat’s statement above, that the question is now “there’s no evidence that God has to let this much evil exist.”

            I’d say it’s a little stronger than that – there’s not only no evidence for, there is evidence against from the fact that we can imagine many ways to make the current world better.

            For instance, removing a nasty infectious disease, like malaria or smallpox, would not infringe on anyone’s free will. And we know that it’s not going to lead to some horrible disaster, since we already did it ourselves, as humans. So we can be pretty confident that “Our world, but without smallpox” would be significantly better than our current world.

            I can understand someone raising the issue of unintended consequences and “mysterious ways” for big things like plate tectonics or writing the laws of physics. But even if you don’t stretch the definition of “omnipotence”, and stick to things that mere mortals can comprehend, there are still plenty of plausible improvements to our world’s design.

            And I didn’t spend too long thinking about this. If you actually had godlike intelligence, how many more improvements could you think of?

      • Atlas says:

        Regarding #2:

        Among other things, I don’t really understand how human beings created by an omnipotent God can be said to have “free will.” Every single crime that has ever been committed by a human being is the result of prior causes that human being had no control over. Consider, for instance, the Charles Whitman case: it seems that a brain tumor may have been partially responsible for his homicidal tendencies, and perhaps without the tumor he would not have committed the shooting. Did Whitman of his own “free will” ask for this tumor to develop in his brain?

        Of course, as David Pizarro summarized Sam Harris’ position on “free will”, it’s really “tumors all the way down”: even if the tumor was irrelevant, Whitman did not ask for the brain he got, with whichever parts of it spurred him to mass murder. If he had a different brain with different desires in different circumstances, he would have behaved differently; if someone else had the exact same brain with the exact same desires in the exact same circumstances, they would have committed the same crimes.

        Presumably, an omnipotent, all-knowing God would know with absolute certainty from the moment of creation what decision Whitman would make long before Whitman made it. It seems puzzling to me then that this God can also be definitively said to be omnibenevolent, since He could have created the universe in such a way that Whitman never existed or where Whitman existed but never committed a mass shooting, which would seem to be strictly morally better. Whitman had no control over God’s decision, so I find it hard to see how then one can say that he had “free will” in his decisions, thus absolving God of responsibility for his actions.

        Of course, one can always say as William Cowper (whose poetry I quite like, incidentally) did that “God moves in mysterious ways”, and that we are simply incapable of perceiving how this suffering is actually necessary for this to be the best possible universe. However, it seems to me that one could also say with equal plausibility, or lack thereof, that God is omnimalevolent, and that all the pleasure that exists in the universe that would seem to make it better than the worse imaginable universe is in fact part of an inscrutable plan for this to be the worst possible universe. I see no reason why the former hypothesis should be privileged over the latter one.

        (Edit: I hope this doesn’t come off as too combative to LMC or any other Christians reading; I’m glad y’all are here.)

        • Nick says:

          Presumably, an omnipotent, all-knowing God would know with absolute certainty from the moment of creation what decision Whitman would make long before Whitman made it.

          No, that’s not to be presumed. Some Christians put God inside of time, and so if God is to foreknow, that can only mean that He knows fourteen billion or whatever years ago what I’m about to do. Having God inside of time solves some problems but creates numerous others; the general sketch of the alternative is that with God outside of time, all things are known to Him at once, with no before or after to speak of, so that there’s no sense in which God’s having knowledge of the event means temporally prior knowledge.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        2) That’s the logical problem of evil, and the consensus of analytic philosophers is that Alvin Plantinga has refuted it.

        I just read the wikipedia version of this refutation, but it seems to emphasize the free will defense — that is, if God allows free will, he necessarily must allow the evil that people do. But this does not solve evils that have nothing to do with free will. The person who is miserable their entire life because of disease is not miserable because of free will. Why does God allow these terrible evils that have nothing to do with free will?

    • secret_tunnel says:

      Re #2: Scott addressed this in his God’s Answer to Job short story, but it always bugged me that God was limited to finite permutations of a perfect universe, even if that number is astronomical. If he’s omnipotent, he shouldn’t be bound by any sort of law.

      • Nick says:

        If he’s omnipotent, he shouldn’t be bound by any sort of law.

        God can’t make a round square, either, but that doesn’t mean there’s something out there which He can’t make, it just means some things are truly impossible.

      • xXxanonxXx says:

        In that case it’s not that omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, and evil coexisting are logically contradictory. You can stop at the first step and say omnipotence itself is logically incoherent. If an entity conforms to no rules as a principle, how can you even think about or utter meaningful statements about that entity?

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          In that case it’s not that omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, and evil coexisting are logically contradictory. You can stop at the first step and say omnipotence itself is logically incoherent

          Exactly. You’re letting the one word “omnipotence” cause all your logical problems.

      • J Mann says:

        Most people don’t find this satisfying, but the answer to that problem is to clarify whether God’s omnipotence is logically bounded or not.

        1) If God is so omnipotent that he’s not logically bounded, then he can do things that are logically impossible (e.g., simultaneously make a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it AND lift it, and have both statements continue be true), then he can just make the current universe the best of all possible universes by any standard he considers relevant, because he’s just that omnipotent.

        2) If God is omnipotent but logically bounded, then it’s possible that this is the best of all possible universes, for reasons that we are not able to comprehend with out localized brains. (If God is omnipotent, logically bounded, all knowing and omnibenevolent, then it’s probably necessary that this is the best of all possible universes.

        Neither is very satisfying to our ape brains of course, but presumably if either of the above is true, that dissatisfaction is part of the point.

    • Anonymous says:

      1) The Christian God wants us to worship him and follow the ethical dictates of the Bible. He has had only a modicum of success (based on a minority of adherents around the globe), and many of those in the developed world only give token adherence. So why doesn’t he show himself and perform a miracle or two? I imagine he could build up his allegiance to a large majority of the population if he came out of the closet and acted like a God. Since he does not, to me that means God as defined by Christians does not exist.

      The last time He did so, most people weren’t convinced. I bet you that if God came down every single time to do miracles for the benefit of every unbeliever who ever demanded it, plenty would still be unconvinced, keep doing what they do, and otherwise think it’s all some kind of hoax or government conspiracy. Or even simply add these phenomena into normal physics, denying that anything supernatural takes place.

      In addition, God doesn’t use (to use Exalted terminology) Charms to compel people to believe in him. It’s all natural mental influence. So far as I know, the freedom of people to choose to believe or not is of high importance to God.

      • Nick says:

        I bet you that if God came down every single time to do miracles for the benefit of every unbeliever who ever demanded it, plenty would still be unconvinced

        People have made arguments to this effect (including to me), namely, that no amount of sensory evidence of this sort can suffice to convince them God exists. I wouldn’t be too bothered if those arguments were sound: on the one hand arguments from miracles must not work, on the other divine hiddenness is now hardly a problem, because God might as well be hidden.

      • Wrong Species says:

        If a giant disembodied head started appearing in the sky proclaiming himself God, people would pay attention. If God exists, he really goes out of his way not to be noticed in the modern world.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          Not even the pagans (Hellenists) believed that God or particular gods were that obvious, even in the Heroic Age. It’s a very modern demand for rigor.

          • Wrong Species says:

            If it was anything outside of your religion, you would demand that level of rigor. If I sent you a letter saying that your distantly related uncle who has been looking out for you since you were born and needs you to send money to him to help pay for his medical treatment, you would assume its a scam. Why is wanting to know for a fact that God actually exists with my own eyes and isn’t just a made up story too demanding for a guy who demands that I give my life for him?

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I don’t get it. You’d give your life for God if a giant disembodied head in the sky started speaking to you in public and bystanders confirmed that wasn’t a hallucination?
            That’s… just not how I think. Like Descartes, I think primarily in terms of logic and what God has done for me, not sensory phenomena and having to give my life.

          • xXxanonxXx says:

            Wouldn’t a Christian specific miracle be bayesian evidence for the validity of that religion and so a very good reason to convert? Putanumonit went so far as to specify the number of burning bushes needed before it makes sense to stop boiling goats in their mother’s milk.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I’m not saying that the giant disembodied head is a sufficient condition to worship him. I’m saying that confirming God’s existence, especially when it’s trivial to do so through sensory experience, is a necessary condition to worship him. You can’t know what he has done for you if you don’t know he exists. And sure, there are arguments for God’s existence but those rely on premises which many people doubt and the logical entailments that could easily be wrong or at least many people get wrong. Why not do the easy thing and simply reveal himself?

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            I’m not saying that the giant disembodied head is a sufficient condition to worship him.

            Exactly. Reasons for worshiping the Christian God could easily have been a #4 on my list of reasons to not be a Christian. A giant head would not get me to worship him; but I’d be a lot more likely to believe.

            If God exists, he really goes out of his way not to be noticed in the modern world.

            A thousand times yes.

      • The Pachyderminator says:

        I’ve heard variants of this argument before. One was from a friend who, if I understood him correctly, was maintaining that we could not, in principle, have clearer evidence for the existence of God than we do. Another is from Jesus himself: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not listen even if a man should rise from the dead.” (This is dialogue assigned to Abraham in a parable, but the gospels present it as Jesus speaking, in a thinly veiled way, of himself.)

        I really don’t understand it, though. It still seems to me that God, assuming he exists, could make his existence, and whatever other information he wanted known, obvious beyond reasonable doubt if he chose to. For whatever reason, he has not.

        • gbdub says:

          Moses still performed a bunch of miracles, and I think you need at least one Moses per century instead of one per several millennia if you really want to keep the faith alive. Shouldn’t be that hard for the Almighty.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            So this is the “why aren’t miracles fairly homogeneous through time?” argument, which I admit is beyond me.

          • The Pachyderminator says:

            Well, there’s no shortage of reported miracles in the current century. (Every canonized saint in the Catholic Church represents two, and the number of canonizations has been rapidly on the rise.) But they don’t tend to bear close examination by someone with skeptical priors, and they can only be directly witnessed by a few (apparently arbitrarily selected) individuals. Certainly they’re a far cry from some of the spectacular public miracles described in the Bible.

          • gbdub says:

            Yeah, “somebody with really bad cancer prayed and then didn’t die” is much less impressive than “turned a stick into a snake, caused every firstborn child of enemy tribe to drop dead, and moved a sea out of the way”. The former happens all the time by chance – the latter would be pretty good evidence of the divine today.

            Miracles aren’t just non-homogeneous, there basically aren’t any things that “could only be miracles” lately, and the fact that they really seem to taper off once “factual recording of history” starts getting more popular is a big red flag. I mean, except for “all of God’s creation is a miracle – CHECKMATE ATHEISTS!”

            God is an absentee father that still expects your love and obedience. I mean a father that subtly manipulates things to your advantage in the background but is careful to never leave behind a provable trace of his presence is better than nothing – but it would be nice if Dad would show up for your birthday every now and then.

          • veeloxtrox says:

            @ghdub

            This in no way refutes the point you are making but I know multiple Christians who with time an effort have gotten to a place that they can regularly communicate with God. So He is far from an absentee Father. The Bible talks about God letting those who ignore Him be ignorant and those who seek Him finding Him.

          • Aapje says:

            @veeloxtrox

            The Bible talks about God letting those who ignore Him be ignorant and those who seek Him finding Him.

            That seems convenient. ‘It doesn’t work if you are looking.’

      • Winter Shaker says:

        The last time He did so, most people weren’t convinced. I bet you that if God came down every single time to do miracles for the benefit of every unbeliever who ever demanded it, plenty would still be unconvinced, keep doing what they do, and otherwise think it’s all some kind of hoax or government conspiracy.

        To an unbeliever, the last time he allegedly did so, he actually didn’t, because we believe the stories are fictional or highly fictionalized, and therefore can’t be used as good evidence of how people would react if presented with actual miracles.

        In any case, it has been well said that an omnipotent and omniscient god would know exactly what it would take to convince anyone of its existence, and be able to do it, even if the person themself wasn’t able to articulate what it would take to convince them (and merely giving someone sufficient evidence shouldn’t count as artificially overcoming their freedom of belief unless you’re going to use a weirdly gerrymandered definition of freedom)

        That said, I agree with Nick that the people who say that no amount of evidence could convince them are being silly. I don’t know what it would take to convince me of the existence of a god (and bear in mind, I’m fairly confident that it would be significantly easier to convince me of the existence of an omnipotent deity who is at least a bit of a jerk than it would be to convince me of the existence of one who is also maximally good), but that doesn’t mean that I can be confident that nothing in principle could.

    • dodrian says:

      3) What would a society with no faith look like? How would that affect relationships with others?

      If you had an app that would let you take a picture of your food and it would tell you if it had been poisoned or not, how often would you use it? Every time you visited a new restaurant? When you went to a dinner party? Every time your spouse served you a meal?

      If you ask a friend to do a favor for you, would you check in with them at every step?

      I do think Thomas gets a bad rap, after all we don’t give Mark the title “Ran Away Naked Mark”, and Thomas’ doubts are easily relatable. But from another perspective, Thomas had seen Jesus perform miracles, including the raising of Lazarus, and had been told by 10+ of his closest friends that Jesus too had come back from the dead. He didn’t trust their word. What does it say about his relationship with them?

      • Taking out my phone and taking the picture is an inconvenience which would make checking the food for poison not worth it most of the time, given my low prior probability that the food is poisoned. However, if the cost was lowered enough then I would check for poison every time. Let’s put it this way: suppose I am born with an extra sensory organ in my nose that allows me to automatically detect whether food is poisoned as soon as I smell it. Then I would definitely be upset if I suffered an injury which made this sense no longer function.

    • Civilis says:

      The Christian God is all powerful, all knowing, and all loving. There are millions of people on the globe, now and in the past, that are miserable their entire lives, due to such things as disease, poverty, war, or simply a terrible personality. These two sentences do not compute.

      Imagine you’re a parent, watching your child about to do something stupid but not permanently so. You can intervene and prevent them from hurting themselves, or you can let them do it and have them learn a lesson. Humanity’s mistakes are the equivalent of a kid not doing his homework; If the parent steps in to do it for them, the kid never learns whatever was supposed to be taught. In nothing-bad-ever-happens world, humanity never advances. The key with God is that anything that happens on Earth to individuals is temporary and non-permanent; there’s eternity for the damage to heal.

      “If God exists, he wants humanity to advance.” It’s a statement that is meaningless if God doesn’t exist and obviously true if God exists. What God wants from humanity is a mystery, but I don’t personally feel the need to know that as long as I can come up with at least one rational explanation that fits the criteria of what I see on Earth and what I think I know about God.

      So why doesn’t he show himself and perform a miracle or two? I imagine he could build up his allegiance to a large majority of the population if he came out of the closet and acted like a God.

      To me, this can be answered by looking at the question of “what purpose does religion serve humanity?” Imagine a hypothetical secret atheist cabal of advanced and benevolent atheists directing the progress of humanity from behind the scenes since the dawn of history. Early on, the vast bulk of primitive humanity without the means to understand the world would naturally be superstitious, and make up their own religions, often involving throwing virgins in volcanoes and cutting the hearts of members of rival tribes out to ward off imagined demons. Even if we don’t want a superstitious society in the long run, the way to get superstitious humanity to that point may require a religion that’s prone to advancing the society needed to develop a rational understanding of the world. So, for our theoretical secret atheist cabal, the best way to move forward may be rational religion >> science >> a world that doesn’t require religion.

      Now replace the super secret benevolent atheist cabal with a real deity that has the goal of advancing humanity. Popping in with obvious miracles is great for getting a religion started, but it’s not so good if you want humanity to learn to do things for themselves or to develop a rational understanding of the universe. Perhaps God needs some people to be atheists at this point in humanity’s advancement, and the way to do that is to have the obvious miracles required for getting humanity to this point so long ago that they’re relegated to myth and legend. If you want humanity to have both faith and a rational understanding of the world, you need religion without obvious miracles.

      • gbdub says:

        “Imagine you’re a parent…”

        Suffering is too randomly distributed for this to be a satisfying explanation. A parent that lets their child scrape a knee because they weren’t careful on the jungle gym might be teaching a valuable lesson. A parent that murders the family dog even though Junior finished all his chores is a sadist.

        What lesson does kids dying of malaria in Africa teach those kids? What does it teach humanity? Other than “you can be a good person and still have a shitty, miserable, and short life”. Which is the truth of existence, but only because God apparently made it that way.

        And since the punishment for losing faith in God is apparently eternal, God is explicitly NOT a parent that lets His children make mistakes as long as they aren’t permanent. Instead He throws every imaginable arbitrary torment at their Earthly lives to make them ask “why have you forsaken me?” and then allows them to suffer for eternity rather than comfort them directly. That’s sadism.

        “Perhaps God needs some people to be atheists”

        If atheists are serving God’s plan, it is doubly unfair to punish them – they are denied the opportunity to love God as a mortal, then punished for eternity when they come to the conclusion that God wanted them to come to (namely, that He doesn’t exist).

        • Paul Zrimsek says:

          Add to this: Parents also have to take as a given that pain is sometimes necessary for learning; they’re not personally responsible for the fact that the world is set up so that’s the case, and are not in a position to change the fact. Is the same true of God?

        • Protagoras says:

          If atheists are serving God’s plan, it is doubly unfair to punish them – they are denied the opportunity to love God as a mortal, then punished for eternity when they come to the conclusion that God wanted them to come to (namely, that He doesn’t exist).

          That’s just how God does things, according to the Bible. Look at the story of how Pharaoh gets treated; God mind-controls Pharaoh to do horrible things to the Israelites, and then torments Pharaoh’s people and eventually murders Pharaoh himself to punish them for doing what God made them do. St. Paul seems to notice that something seems off about this story, and helpfully reassures us that we shouldn’t worry about it as we have no right to question God’s judgment.

          I’ve mostly stayed out of this discussion so far, but I have to say most responses to the problem of evil really offend me. They are of course almost always pathetic failures, which fail to remotely grapple with the actual challenge that has been presented, but beyond that they constitute an attempt to make excuses for evil, which seems to me to be absolutely the last thing the world needs more of.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            I’ve mostly stayed out of this discussion so far, but I have to say most responses to the problem of evil really offend me. They are of course almost always pathetic failures, which fail to remotely grapple with the actual challenge that has been presented, but beyond that they constitute an attempt to make excuses for evil, which seems to me to be absolutely the last thing the world needs more of.

            I would say the greatest apology for evil is to deny moral realism. And the reality of the Good is intimately tied to classical definitions of God…

          • Protagoras says:

            @Le Maistre Chat, Yes, it clearly removes all my worries when excuses are made for the excuses and the flaw is projected onto others.

        • Mark V Anderson says:

          Suffering is too randomly distributed for this to be a satisfying explanation. A parent that lets their child scrape a knee because they weren’t careful on the jungle gym might be teaching a valuable lesson. A parent that murders the family dog even though Junior finished all his chores is a sadist.

          +1

        • Paul Brinkley says:

          What lesson does kids dying of malaria in Africa teach those kids? What does it teach humanity? Other than “you can be a good person and still have a shitty, miserable, and short life”. Which is the truth of existence, but only because God apparently made it that way.

          How does the saying go? “Check your premises.”

          The paragraph above seems to presume that earthly life is of key importance.

          (It’s interesting to note that I’m inclined to agree. This point nevertheless jumped out at me.)

      • AG says:

        Parents do all sorts of things to prevent their children from suffering under disease, poverty, war, or a terrible personality. I would also consider them shit parents if they fail to stop their child from hurting another kid. Murder is not the equivalent of not doing their homework. Depriving people of living wages is sometimes due to not doing economic homework, but is still a really dick move and isn’t the consensus going around right now that Thanos is a giant dumbass for not just using the Infinity Stones to get around his childish Malthusian beliefs? Is God not supposed to be morally superior to Thanos? Why does God get a pass not not using such powers for good? And the entire discussion above about how superheroes fail by not letting their power enrich the more than themselves?

        Old Testament God just wants his people to worship him. (Sounds kind of like a dick, honestly, what with all that going on and on about how jealous he is. Hold on, so raging clingy jealousy is godly now? Wait I thought envy was bad?)
        The New Testament more claims that God wants humanity to bridge the gap caused by sin that prevents them from being like God. That salvation through Jesus goes hand in hand with becoming more like him. In which case, then God should be held accountable to the same standards as Man, which again according to Jesus should be to love your neighbor as yourself in the way a Samaritan helps a beaten Jew on the side of the street. Welp, God sure seems to be leaving an awful lot of people beaten on the side of the street. No points.

        • MrApophenia says:

          Honestly, Old Testament God makes the best answer I have ever seen to the problem if evil. Go back and actually read Job again sometime.

          Everyone always forgets that after Job loses everything, there is a whole section of the book where his friends show up and try to explain why bad things happen to good people. But the key point is, all those explanations are bullshit. We know they’re bullshit! We got to see from the narration POV that Job is being tortured, and his wife and children murdered, because God wanted to win a bet. That’s it. There’s no greater cause behind their suffering.

          Job recognizes all these arguments and nonsense and calls on God to explain himself. And God doesn’t come back with reasoned claims about the logical necessity of evil. God’s answer to why bad things happen is “Look how mighty I am! Where were you when I made the world?” In other words, I’m all powerful, you’re not, therefore I win. Shut up.

          There is no problem of evil with Old Testament God, because he doesn’t actually claim to be even benevolent, let alone omnibenevolent. He just claims to be the king.

          • dndnrsn says:

            Some of what you’re seeing with Job is a tension between different strands woven together. It’s highly speculative, but there’s tension between the narrative and the speeches, some scholars see a whole lot of different strands, etc.

            The way I remember learning it (and, glancing back at the notes in my Oxford JPS study bible) you’ve got one story, where Job refuses to blaspheme despite his wife and friends , and then in the end, God rewards him. Then you’ve got another story, where Job arguing that his suffering is undeserved, his friends disagree, and then God shows up and basically says “I’m God and you’re not.”

          • MrApophenia says:

            Oh, definitely. From what I remember (and I am sure more knowledgeable people here will correct me if I am off base) Job is by far the oldest story in the Bible, and is in fact so old that it may even overlap slightly with the period where Yahweh was just the local patron god who was still believed to be part of a larger pantheon. So it makes sense that he would fit more into the traditional “old time religion” mode – you don’t worship God because of some abstract philosophy about ultimate goodness, you worship God because he’ll chuck a lightning bolt at you if you don’t.

          • Aron Wall says:

            @MrApophenia

            there is a whole section of the book where his friends show up and try to explain why bad things happen to good people.

            Well most of their explanations are more along the lines of, you must have done something bad to deserve this, so you aren’t a good person after all.

            The reason we know their answers were bullshit is that, first the introduction declares Job to have been righteous, and second God says at the end that he’s pissed at the friends for making pat theodicies when they didn’t actually know anything, whereas Job spoke rightly.

            God wanted to win a bet. That’s it. There’s no greater cause behind their suffering.

            It is not stated in the text what God’s ultimate purpose was in granting Satan’s request, so I don’t think the above remark is justified, especially in light of how the ending emphasizes the mystery.

            God’s reply to Job seems to me to emphasize the knowledge differential far more than it emphasizes the power differential.

            Chesterton’s essay on Job is quite charming, by the way.

    • rahien.din says:

      Thanks for the question!

      I’m a Christian. I was born into the Southern Baptist church, but left. I bandied about with Buddhist thinking during college, both informally, and via a seminar focused on Peter Della Santina’s The Tree of Enlightenment, and found lasting value therein. I wondered if I was an atheist for awhile and decided I wasn’t exactly. I married a Catholic girl, and converted shortly thereafter – a move that in retrospect seems a long time in coming. For what it’s worth, I ended up in some kind of narrative occasionalism. And I’m a physician, or, I’m trained to appraise and operationalize science in medical interactions.

      I don’t know if my experiences or beliefs are central to any of those categories : Catholics, Christians, theists, or the scientifically-minded. Heterodox but orthoprax? But I will take a stab. With your permission I will reframe your post, hoping to clarify my thinking and my response to what I believe are key concepts*.

      I will ask the Christians to tell me why I’m not as smart as I think.

      Why doesn’t he show himself and perform a miracle or two? I imagine he could build up his allegiance to a large majority of the population if he came out of the closet and acted like a God.

      In my opinion, faith is a necessary evil, not something to be celebrated. Treating faith as a good thing is backwards and irrational behavior.

      You’re talking about evidence-based belief. My belief stated very clearly : there is no evidence for God, in the sense of a phenomenon that causes us to update closer to theism. Nor could there be. All our interactions with our world are phenomena. Even when you assume that the roof will not cave in on you, you’re still operating within a Bayesian framework, based on the evidence of your prior experiences with the phenomena of roofs, and what you know about roofs. That’s not faith – that’s a well-informed confidence interval.

      The same concept is at work when you ask Christians to tell you why you’re not so smart (I realize that was facetious, but I think that it belongs here). Even though a person’s experience of their faith is itself a phenomenon, and even though that experience can be tied to certain other phenomena, faith itself is not phenomenological. Neither evidence nor intelligence is the correct domain for this question. Also, you seem to be smart.

      If you perceive a phenomenon to be a miracle, this is an action taken via your already-present faith. I would be extremely disappointed in the atheist who encountered some phenomenon, performed a calculation, and concluded that they should numerically update their belief to “theist.” Garbage in, garbage out.

      A. The Christian God is all powerful, all knowing, and all loving.
      B. The Christian God has had only a modicum of success in his most important goal : that we worship him and follow the ethical dictates of the Bible.
      C. There are millions of people on the globe, now and in the past, that are miserable their entire lives, due to such things as disease, poverty, war, or simply a terrible personality.

      A does not cohere to B. A does not cohere to C. But B and C cohere perfectly fine.

      A big part of Christianity is about how important it is to have faith

      I think you have raised two important and valid points. The first is apparent widespread nonadherence to God’s desires. The second is the truth of evil and suffering. Why are these truths so clearly evident, seemingly against God’s wishes?

      I don’t know why these bad things happen at all, and I don’t know if I will ever find out. Furthermore, I don’t know why good things happen, either. (I can only gesture at some understanding thereof, and probably that gesture is of no use to you, beyond some mere curiosity.)

      Ultimately, I think this is why I follow Christ. The central message of Christ’s life is redemption. He redeemed the evil and lowly, he redeemed the broken, he redeemed the insufficient, he redeemed our honest efforts, he redeemed our very conscience. The Old Testament leads off with the story of how humanity fucked up everything forever, and in the central action of the New Testament, Christ goes ahead and redeems that, too. My faith in Christ is thus : all things will be redeemed. I don’t know how, or when, or if I will even bear witness – but Christ redeems.

      * If you don’t think I’ve done that fairly (or if the attempt does not succeed) please let me know.

      • gbdub says:

        Why did God do enough miracles to allow for evidence-based belief until ~2000 years ago, then abruptly stop?

        Will the Christians who actually knew Jesus as a man be denied heaven, since their “faith” was not really faith? Can Mary not be faithful?

        • rahien.din says:

          Why did God do enough miracles to allow for evidence-based belief until ~2000 years ago, then abruptly stop?

          I’m not sure we’re using the term “miracle” in the same way, and that profoundly affects the answers to your questions. How are you using it?

          Will the Christians who actually knew Jesus as a man be denied heaven, since their “faith” was not really faith? Can Mary not be faithful?

          The claim therein seems to be “If you experience miracles, then this means you only have evidence-based belief in God, and not faith.” I don’t agree with that claim.

          • gbdub says:

            I am using “miracle” to mean an action that can only reasonably be explained by supernatural intervention. If you take the Bible to be at all literally true, these sorts of things happen all the time – seas parting, people rising from the dead, etc.

            Thus, for a person living in the “miracle ages”, belief in God could be no more comlplicated than believing your roof would stay up. It could be observed directly.

            But God stopped doing those sorts of miracles apparently. Either that or the Bible is not a true account of events, but that calls into question the whole framework you constructed your faith around. You may say you don’t need evidence to have faith in Christ, but if you don’t at some level believe in the truth of the Bible and the church, then there would be no concept of “Christ” to have faith in.

            As for my second point, you said you’d be disappointed in someone who witnessed a miracle and updated their priors toward theism. Ignoring for a moment that that’s bonkers, I would argue that that would probably force you to be disappointed in Mary. She could not help but believe, since she had pretty good evidence for God’s literal existence.

            But really, rereading, you seem to have constructed a definition of faith which is orthogonal to the normal processes and words we use to describe testing whether something is true or false. Which is a neat rhetorical trick, but I don’t think it answers the question.

          • Jaskologist says:

            The Bible does not portray miracles as things that happen all the time, especially the big flashy ones. You get a whole lot of big flashy miracles when the Israelites leave Egypt, and a whole lot when Jesus is around, but otherwise you’re just looking at a highlights reel from many, many centuries.

            The great prophet Elijah has 8 miracles recorded to his name. Some are flashy enough that everyone would hear about it (showdown with Baal’s prophets, maybe the fire from heaven that killed the soldiers, but the Baal showdown surely overshadowed that). Some you could claim as purely naturalistic (“it’s not gon rain”/”it’s gon rain”). Many of them are very localized, with few witnesses (some healing, magicking up more food, parting a river to walk across). The average person isn’t going to hear about most of these, and certainly wouldn’t see them.

            Jeremiah has the longest book of prophecy in the Bible, and no miracles to his name beyond predictions that eventually came true. By my count, Daniel and his friends each get 1 solid physical miracle in their lifetime.

            My point is these things are rare even in the Biblical narrative, they just look common because of the selection effect. But if you’re an average Jew in ancient times, you’re lucky to witness even 1 miracle, and odds are it’s going to be of the same “somebody who was prayed for was healed” variety people see today.

          • rahien.din says:

            I am using “miracle” to mean an action that can only reasonably be explained by supernatural intervention.

            That’s kind of what I thought.

            Such phenomena do not exist.

            And that’s not mere hand-waving! Creatio non est mutatio. From Michael Tkacz’s Thomas Aquinas vs. The Intelligent Designers :

            Two implications of this distinction between change and creation are worthy of note here. One is that God creates without taking any time to create, he creates eternally. Creation is not a process with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It is simply a reality: the reality of the complete dependence of the universe on God’s agency. The other implication is the radical otherness of God’s agency. God’s productive causality is unlike that of any natural cause, for God not only produces what he produces all at once without any process, but also without requiring anything pre-existing or any preconditions whatsoever. God does not act as part of a process, nor does God initiate a process where there was none before. There is no before for God; there is no pre-existing state from which God’s action proceeds. God is totally and immediately present as cause to any and all processes.

            On the basis of these implications for the correct understanding of creation, modern Thomists distinguish between the existence of natural beings and their operations. God causes natural beings to exist in such a way that they are the real causes of their own operations. Indeed, if this were not the case, then it would not have been that God created this natural being, but some other. Salmon swim up stream to spawn. In creating such a natural being, God created a fish that reproduces in this way. If God created salmon without their natural reproductive agency, then he did not create salmon, but something else.

            Consider another example: a large quadrupedic mammal, such as a hippopotamus, gives live birth to its young. Why? Well, we could answer this by saying that “God does it.” Yet, this could only mean that God created hippopotamuses—indeed the mammalian order, the whole animal kingdom, and all of nature—such that these animals have the morphology, genetic make-up, etc. that are the causes of their giving live birth. It cannot be that God “reaches into” the normal operations of hippopotamuses to cause them to give live birth. Were one to think that “God does it” must mean that God intervenes in nature in this way, one would be guilty of the Cosmogonical Fallacy.

            There is no phenomenon that is either God’s doing or the result of natural forces, or is natural only to the degree that it is not supernatural. Every phenomenon is 100% God’s doing, and 100% the result of natural forces. This is not a mere rhetorical trick.

            You said you’d be disappointed in someone who witnessed a miracle and updated their priors toward theism. That’s bonkers.

            That would be bonkers, if it was indeed what I said.

            But I chose my words carefully. I would be extremely disappointed in the atheist who encountered some phenomenon, performed a calculation, and concluded that they should numerically update their belief to “theist.” To me, that would indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of reality, resulting in a misuse of mathematics.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        Ultimately, I think this is why I follow Christ. The central message of Christ’s life is redemption. He redeemed the evil and lowly, he redeemed the broken, he redeemed the insufficient, he redeemed our honest efforts, he redeemed our very conscience. The Old Testament leads off with the story of how humanity fucked up everything forever, and in the central action of the New Testament, Christ goes ahead and redeems that, too. My faith in Christ is thus : all things will be redeemed. I don’t know how, or when, or if I will even bear witness – but Christ redeems.

        I think this makes sense as an answer to #2, but only if you give up the usual Christian conceit that God is all powerful and knowing. It seems to me that many Christians don’t truly believe that God can do anything, basically for the reasons I’ve stated. The evidence is against it. God is treated more as an ally in trying to make the world a better place, so if you work with God it will improve your own and everyone else’s life. In fact if you reject the all powerful trait, it may also be an answer to #1, because coming out of the closet as a semi-powerful deity might do more harm than good.

        I still don’t believe in a Christian God that is not all powerful, but at least that would remove the inherent contradictions of the traditional Christian God.

        • rahien.din says:

          I think this makes sense as an answer to #2, but only if you give up the usual Christian conceit that God is all powerful and knowing.

          Why do you think my answer is incompatible with an all powerful and all knowing God? Honestly, I start from omniredemptiveness and that forces me to conclude omniscience and omnipotence.

          A God that is not all powerful and all knowing could encounter a circumstance that he would be unable to redeem, either because he had not foreseen it, or because he could not overcome it. Thus, his knowledge and power set bounds on his ability to redeem circumstances. So, in order for God’s redemptiveness to be unbounded, his power and knowledge must be unbounded. If I believe in redemption, the others naturally follow.

          The evidence is against it.

          I really, really think it’s an error to try to argue for or against God’s existence on a purely phenomenological basis.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            A God that is not all powerful and all knowing could encounter a circumstance that he would be unable to redeem, either because he had not foreseen it, or because he could not overcome it.

            This.

            I really, really think it’s an error to try to argue for or against God’s existence on a purely phenomenological basis.

            This. I don’t think sensory phenomena are the only source of truth, or even the appropriate one in a more pluralistic epistemology.

          • fion says:

            I might be misunderstanding, but I think there were three or four people discussing faith with me in the last thread who seemed to be saying that their belief in God’s existence was rational and based on phenomena. They were saying that faith wasn’t about having belief not based on phenomena but about trusting somebody whose existence you already believe in for rational reasons. Unfortunately I’ve never learned how to link to a comment. Perhaps somebody can enlighten me? I’d be really interested to see in what ways you agree with/differ from the other Christians I discussed this with.

          • Winter Shaker says:

            @Fion: The grey date-and-time text under the poster’s username is the link. Right-click it and select ‘copy link location’, then highlight the word you want to make the link, and click the ‘link’ button, then paste in the URL in the dialogue box.

          • gbdub says:

            I really, really think it’s an error to try to argue for or against God’s existence on a purely phenomenological basis.

            But that’s the key question! Why does God choose to require arrational faith, when He could make the reality of His existence phenomenologically obvious? And in fact used to do exactly that?

            God made man, and imbued him with the powers of reason. And then dropped him in a universe exquisitely designed to encourage the application of reason. A universe that follows strictly deducible laws and logic. With powerful tangible rewards for applying reason broadly – it gives us powers to sin yes, but also to alleviate suffering on a vaster scale and with far greater reliability than prayer.

            Then, having created man, given him reason, and placed him in a world that requires and rewards reason for every aspect of daily life, God decides to punish man for eternity if he dares to apply reason to what is apparently the most important question of existence. All of Creation is a vast scheme of entrapment tailor made to trick the intelligent into dooming themselves to Hell.

          • rahien.din says:

            gbdub,

            There’s an awful lot wrapped up in your response.

            But chiefly, I hear your frustration with A. the idea that God would create any person whose nature would fundamentally estrange God from his creation, and B. the idea that God would torture unbelievers, despite their natural inability to believe.

            Believe me. I have felt those exact frustrations, but as one who began with belief in God! And it hurt. These are important questions that caused me to question further, and eventually drove me to leave the church of my birth and seek a more informed and (I feel) conscientious belief.

            Each of these (estrangement, hell) is just another bad thing, and as above, I don’t really know why bad things happen at all. I don’t know why (even if it is counted as a good thing) I was given a different set of circumstances resulting in my belief.

            But I ever return to Christ’s redemptive power, and God’s ability to redeem any bad thing. One result thereof is that I don’t really believe that you will go to hell, whether God exists or not. (Disclaimer : I could be wrong about you just as easily as I could be wrong about me. But I wouldn’t worry so much about it.)

            More specifically regarding estrangement : to the extent that God creates, is not every thing within his creation somehow estranged from him, by the very fact of its creation? This is not a problem limited to atheists. It’s a problem for everyone.

            And you may be theologically estranged from him, but in the domains of logic, science, mathematics, etc., you may be less estranged from God than are your scientifically-skeptical theist friends. That’s not mere hand-waving. There are only two commandments, to love God and to love one another. One important way to love God is to explore creation, to fully know that aspect of him – consider that Adam’s initial task of naming everything in the world is essentially scientific. Go love God.

            God could make the reality of His existence phenomenologically obvious

            We disagree. But also, we seem to be discussing this above. Hope I can just point you there and avoid splitting our discussion.

          • Mark V Anderson says:

            Why do you think my answer is incompatible with an all powerful and all knowing God?

            Well maybe you need to explain what you mean by the word “redemption.” You talk about how God is helping humans recover from doing a lot of bad and evil things (I think). I just don’t get how God let everything get all fucked up if he had total charge of everything. You make it sound like Christ came along and fixed things up that were going all wrong. I just can’t reconcile God making some kind of mid-course correction and being all powerful in the first place.

          • rahien.din says:

            I just can’t reconcile God making some kind of mid-course correction and being all powerful in the first place.

            Well, these are two different things.

            The mid-course correction you perceive is a sequence of events within our narrative. It’s part of the process.

            But God’s act of creation is not itself a process. Creatio non est mutatio. God authors the entire narrative – the entire process – all at once, atemporally and holistically. If God, external to the narrative, was to change the narrative, it wouldn’t be “changed” at all… it would simply be a different narrative.

            This is omnipotence – God is imminent for every event within our narrative.

      • xXxanonxXx says:

        I would be extremely disappointed in the atheist who encountered some phenomenon, performed a calculation, and concluded that they should numerically update their belief to “theist.” Garbage in, garbage out.

        Statements like these are why I believe adamant theists and adamant atheists are speaking two different languages. I don’t believe exterrestrial life has visited this planet, though I do believe such a thing is possible. I maintain this disbelief in the face of numerous witnesses to exterrestrial visitations. Now, if the opening to Independence Day played out tomorrow, I’d look out my window and see what seemed for all the world to be a city sized spacecraft hovering over Manhattan. I’d immediately update my belief about UFOs. If I said this out loud and you, being in my apartment for some reason, told me you were very disappointed, garbage in garbage out, I’d be flabbergasted.

        I think you’d go on to say that belief in UFOs was a lot more than seeing one. It’s the goosebumps on your arm when you listen to the X-files theme song. It’s the stirring in your chest when you look at that “I want to believe” poster hanging on your wall. And I buy that, in all sincerity. The first time I saw Stenger’s book God: The Failed Hypothesis sitting on a shelf I practically started screaming. “God is not a HYPOTHESIS you idiot!” Except then I read it and was forced to concede basically every point (I wasn’t aware that many of the things he cited had actually been investigated) while grumbling that he was still missing out on the most important aspect of belief.

        • rahien.din says:

          Statements like these are why I believe adamant theists and adamant atheists are speaking two different languages. I don’t believe exterrestrial life has visited this planet, though I do believe such a thing is possible. I maintain this disbelief in the face of numerous witnesses to exterrestrial visitations. Now, if the opening to Independence Day played out tomorrow, I’d look out my window and see what seemed for all the world to be a city sized spacecraft hovering over Manhattan. I’d immediately update my belief about UFOs. If I said this out loud and you, being in my apartment for some reason, told me you were very disappointed, garbage in garbage out, I’d be flabbergasted.

          I agree – if I expressed such disappointment in that circumstance, it would be (to borrow a term) bonkers. Extraterrestrials would be natural phenomena, and our beliefs regarding natural phenomena are absolutely subject to evidence-based updating.

          In contrast, the existence of God is not a natural phenomenon. It’s not subject to evidence-based updating – and that doesn’t mean it is not true.

          I’m not sure how to explain this explicitly, so :

          Aaron and Baal are walking down the street around lunchtime.

          Aaron : I’m hungry but I don’t have any money.
          Baal : Me too. Seems like we’re going to stay hungry.

          They happen upon a restaurant. A sign states “100th customer of the day gets a free lunch!” They walk in, and it just so happens that Aaron is the 100th customer. He shares the meal with Baal.

          Baal : Wow, what good luck.
          Aaron : I know right? Praise be to rahien din!
          Baal : Is that the name of this restaurant?
          Aaron : No, that’s the guy who’s written our story. Some say our lives are all part of some elaborate parable in the codex of a universe known as the Slate Star.
          Baal : And you believe this bizarre thing because…?
          Aaron : Eh. Hard to explain. I guess because I do?
          Baal : Is there some evidence that rahien din exists?
          Aaron : Haha! Don’t be silly, what evidence could there possibly be that we’re living in a holistically composed narrative?
          Baal : What if something really weird happened. Like, totally bizarre. Too bizarre for it to have happened other than if rahien din wrote it.
          Aaron : I… what? That doesn’t make any sense.

          Without warning, every other tile falls out of the ceiling, missing Aaron and Baal.

          Baal : Whoa! Like that!
          Aaron : I mean, that’s just a natural phenomenon. Weird shit happens all the time.
          Baal : Maybe this is evidence that there really is a rahien din! Praise be to rahien din for our free lunch!
          Aaron : Baal, slow down. That’s not evidence of anything except that the world is weird.
          Baal : But isn’t it weird enough?
          Aaron : Nope. Nothing could be weird enough. It’s a holistically composed narrative. The world is made in such a way that every thing is consonant or synonymous with its own operations.
          Baal : Pull the other one.
          Aaron : No, really. Like your ham sandwich. If the ham was instead turkey, then it wouldn’t be an “altered ham sandwich,” it would be a turkey sandwich. If some weird thing happens, it’s not that God has reached into a narrative to change it, it’s just that weirdness is a feature of the world.
          Baal : Speaking of weird, you’re weirder than I thought.
          Aaron : Just eat your sandwich.

          They finish lunch and resume walking.

          Baal : Wait. Why did you say “praise to rahien din” earlier?
          Aaron : I was grateful for my free lunch. We’d still be hungry if not for that. Aren’t you grateful?
          Baal : You are grateful for an intervention. That makes it seem like you’re thanking rahien din for reaching into the narrative and buying us lunch. That doesn’t cohere with your “holistic narrative” thing.
          Aaron : I’m just grateful the narrative is what it is.
          Baal : That’s still kind of the same thing, right? Also what if there hadn’t been free lunch? Or what if a ceiling tile had landed on us? Wouldn’t that suck? Wouldn’t you have been mad?
          Aaron : It’s not the same thing at all. And sure, it would have sucked to have a ceiling tile land on us, but it doesn’t seem useful for me to get mad about it.
          Baal : Now you’re invoking a whole other standard!
          Aaron : I guess? I’m deciding how to respond to my circumstances. Am I not allowed to do that?
          Baal : Fine. But on what basis? If that’s something your beliefs are doing, you still have to have some basis for your belief or you’re just inserting some weird smokescreen into your mind…
          Aaron : Do you really think that? And that doesn’t actually make my belief untrue.
          Baal : …and that can lead to all kinds of really bad things.

          They round the corner and come upon two religious fanatics in turquoise robes, one with “GRUE” tattooed on his forehead, one with “BLEEN.” The fanatics draw daggers. The disciple of BLEEN is victorious. He slays his opponent, then begins to ritually carve out his own eyes.

          Baal : Shit! Like that!
          Aaron : Those GRUE and BLEEN guys are such jackasses.
          Baal : They probably wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t have weird beliefs about their deity.
          Aaron : Now who’s stretching credibility?

          They walk the opposite direction for a while. Abruptly, Baal stops. He sits down in the middle of the sidewalk with a blank expression on his face.

          Aaron : What… What’s wrong, Baal?
          Baal : I just realized I’m just a character in a holistically composed narrative. I have no free will. Everything I do is predetermined in a crystalline world.
          Aaron : Including how you reached that conclusion and just… sat down in the middle of the sidewalk?
          Baal : I… uh…
          Aaron : Dude, get up. I wouldn’t worry so much about it.
          Baal : …
          Aaron : What else?
          Baal : What if I can’t believe in a deity? What if you can and I can’t? What if rahien din wrote me that way? Some people say that if I don’t believe in their deity, I’ll be tortured for eternity.
          Aaron : If you are having these emotional reactions, don’t you believe at least a little?

          Baal ponders a moment, then gets up.

          Baal : Nah, that’s just mental jujitsu.
          Aaron : …
          Baal : Oh! Ah-ha! This rahien din business isn’t in the domain of “convincing.”
          Aaron : Now you’re getting it.
          Baal : But seriously. Do you think I’m going to be boiled in holy acid for eternity? Those GRUE-BLEEN jackasses actually say that to my face.
          Aaron : Look, the narrative belongs to someone else, not to them. I don’t have any way of telling you that isn’t going to happen. But I don’t believe it will.
          Baal : Why not?
          Aaron : Eh. I guess because I do?
          Baal : That’s equal parts comforting and unsatisfying.
          Aaron : Now you’re REALLY getting it.
          Baal : What do you even do with that?
          Aaron : Beats me.
          Baal : You’re joking.
          Aaron : Still figuring it out. Just don’t join any club that demands you ritually carve your own eyeballs out, I say.

          They keep walking.

          Baal : Aaron, wait, we should have called the cops on that guy. He straight up murdered a dude in broad daylight with a dagger.
          Aaron : Oh damn, you’re right. But don’t worry, a tag is coming to close the italics and we won’t have to worry about it any longer. Won’t even be able to worry, in fact.

          He chuckles. Baal is amusedly aghast.

          Baal : What in the hell is that even supposed to mean?
          Aaron : We won’t even find out.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Saying that God is not subject to evidence based updating just seems incoherent to me. The fact that you have to resort to metaphors to attempt to explain it doesn’t help me to think otherwise. I cannot even imagine a world where God appearing to you doesn’t cause you to think he’s more likely to exist. I bet you don’t do that with other open questions in life. It looks like this was tacked on ad hoc to save the God hypothesis from critical examination.

          • rahien.din says:

            Wrong Species,

            I cannot even imagine a world where God appearing to you doesn’t cause you to think he’s more likely to exist. I bet you don’t do that with other open questions in life.

            Of course I don’t. This particular question is entirely unique.

            And I don’t dispute that the commencement of a person’s theological belief is necessarily a reaction to phenomena. We, ourselves, are phenomena. All we have direct access to are phenomena. Even the operations of our brains are phenomena.

            Nor do I dispute the strangeness thereof. If Sam turned to Frodo and said “Mr. Frodo, we’re characters in a book,” it would be entirely strange.

            If Frodo replied “It’s impossible for you to have any evidence thereof,” he would be correct in his reasoning, but Sam wouldn’t be incorrect – they are indeed characters in a book. How Sam would come to that belief (and why Tolkien would write him that way) is mysterious.

            If J. R. R. Tolkien suddenly appeared in front of the pair, it would be another event within the narrative sequence – it would not be an alteration of the narrative. If Frodo said “Sam, I guess you’re right, that was Tolkien,” he would be inappropriately rejecting myriad possibilities (the Ring driving him mad, actions of a rogue maia, deception by Sauron’s servants, manipulation by elf-mages, a seizure of the association cortex, folie à deux, etc.) This would be a failure of reasoning on Frodo’s part.

            But Frodo’s incorrectness would not disprove Sam’s correctness.

            It looks like this was tacked on ad hoc to save the God hypothesis from critical examination.

            Oh my.

            You claim the belief in the existence of God is subject to evidence-based updating. In order to defend that claim, you must be able to create an instance of Bayes’ theorem.

            P(supernatural cause | event) = P(event | supernatural cause) * P(supernatural cause) / P(event)

            I will be interested to see how you define your priors and marginals.

          • Protagoras says:

            The religion as viewing yourself as a character in a story account is interesting. I also find it immensely unappealing, and cannot see how anyone could find it otherwise (I recall reading Robert Paul Wolff discussing why he was an atheist, with his reason being basically that the world as a story was what theism amounted to, and that he had no interest in such a view). There are some further problems, of course, making me question to what extent this really does capture the nature of religion; it is difficult to see how this can be compatible with free will, and a lot of religious people are big on free will. But I suppose it’s difficult to make free will compatible with anything, including itself, so the story account isn’t in unique difficulties there. Perhaps I should stick to the “this is completely horrifying” objection.

          • Aapje says:

            @Wrong Species

            I cannot even imagine a world where God appearing to you doesn’t cause you to think he’s more likely to exist.

            I consider this framing to be begging the question, by already assuming that the Godly nature of God should be obvious.

            I don’t understand how you can judge anything you see as being God(ly), if we define God as an omnipotent being. I have no ability to judge omnipotence at a glance. Illusionists prove daily that it is possible to deceive people with tricks that look supernatural.

            When I see an illusionist at work, I don’t update my belief towards the supernatural/God. When I see someone claim to be God/Jesus, I update my belief towards that person being psychotic or otherwise not being correct, not that the person really is God/Jesus. All the evidence that I know off, points to these priors being really good.

            In my experience, the religious/spiritual often have priors that ignore or greatly undervalue the chance of naturalistic explanations. Or to put it rudely: they seem gullible to me.

            If I see something that looks like the supernatural & that I cannot explain, I will generally consider this interesting and want to know how it works. If no one could tell me, I would want a scientific investigation into it. Any updating towards the supernatural will only happen if the scientific investigation has results that diverge substantially from the laws of nature.

          • rahien.din says:

            Protagoras,

            The religion as viewing yourself as a character in a story account is interesting. I also find it immensely completely horrifying

            I feel like if I’ve drilled down so far that disagreement is starting to seem aesthetic, I’ve done a good job. So, oddly enough, I take this as a compliment.

          • Aron Wall says:

            Wrong Species:

            Saying that God is not subject to evidence based updating just seems incoherent to me.

            Agreed. The only way this could happen is if believing in God failed to change any of your expectations about any observed events. This is obviously not true (at least for the God of the Bible).

            Aapje:

            If I see something that looks like the supernatural & that I cannot explain, I will generally consider this interesting and want to know how it works. If no one could tell me, I would want a scientific investigation into it. Any updating towards the supernatural will only happen if the scientific investigation has results that diverge substantially from the laws of nature.

            That’s not how Bayes’ Theorem works. Suppose I have an event with a simple naturalistic explanation A, a more counterintuitive naturalistic explanation B, and finally a supernatural explanation C, with priors assigned to these positions such that A >> B >> C.

            Now suppose we learn some new data which rules A out, but doesn’t touch hypotheses B and C. It sounds like you want to reassign all the probability which would have gone to A to B instead, without assigning any new probability to C (until such time as B is also ruled out).

            But Bayes says we should actually increase both B and C, by the same multiplicative factor (chosen so that the new probabilities add to 1). In other words, both of them recieve the same number of bits of new evidence.

            In the example given above, you will still believe that B is much more probable than C. But the fact that the probability of C also increases may be important if somebody is trying to make a cumulative case for C, using several unrelated pieces of evidence.

            I feel like a lot of people are irrational in this way, where if a new piece of data isn’t strong enough to overcome their initial priors against something, they won’t update at all towards a hypothesis they dislike. Arguing with such people is kind of like fighting the Barghest in the Pendragon roleplaying system, which can only be killed with a single blow; otherwise the damage is transferred back to the character striking it.

          • Aapje says:

            @Aron Wall

            Bayes’ theorem is idealized, in the sense that it omits practical considerations, like the cost of updating. I believe that in actual application, it doesn’t make sense to make minor updates to probabilities that are tiny before the update and that would be tiny after the update. It’s just wasted mental effort when the updated value would be so similar to the non-updated value, that the difference would never result in changed behavior or at most in changed behavior for such marginal cases that it makes almost no difference.

            If option A seems 50.000001% likely to give a better outcome than option B, which you rate at 49.999999%, then flipping these percentage around after an update may make you choose option B, but it’s still essentially a coin flip.

          • rahien.din says:

            Aron Wall,

            The only way that [God is not subject to evidence based updating] is possible is if believing in God failed to change any of your expectations about any observed events.

            Disagree. If you say that God is subject to evidence-based updating, you’re just admitting that your belief in God is falsifiable, and are treating God as a natural phenomenon. You’re committing Tkacz’s cosmogonical fallacy.

            And this is where it gets interesting.

            There is no logically-coherent way that a character in a narrative can look at any component event within the narrative and say “This event is Bayesian evidence that I exist within a narrative.” That would be an utter failure of reasoning.

            However, a narrative could be composed in such a way that certain characters have a feeling of certainty that they are characters within that narrative. Those characters could have a corresponding feeling of certainty about future events, based on this belief.

            And the narrative could be composed in such a way that A. those feelings of certainty prove true in many circumstances, and B. all events within the narrative are consistent with the consistent operations of natural forces.

            Consider a story of answered prayer :

            A man walked down the street, feeling hungry but with no money for lunch. He prayed aloud, “O rahien din, please grant your faithful servant $20 for lunch.” Of a sudden, the wind blew a $20 bill toward him. He picked it up and bought lunch, thanking rahien din all the while.

            The man could say “I prayed, and received the asked-for blessing.” This is true – he did pray, and I did provide him with $20. He could go as far as to believe that if he prayed, his prayers would be answered. However, he could not claim “I prayed, and received the asked-for blessing. Therefore, using Bayes’ theorem I update the likelihood of rahien din’s existence by X%.” If he did so, it would only be because I wrote him to fail in his reasoning.

          • Aron Wall says:

            @Aapje

            Because the amount of additional evidence needed to confirm an unlikely seeming hypothesis goes like (merely) the log of its prior probability, rounding off a tiny probability to 0 is a much more significant error than not distinguishing probabilities infinitesimally close to 1/2.

            In any case, if you’re having a Bayesian conversation with somebody about whether something specific is true, rounding your prior probability that they are right to 0 out of mere convenience seems a little rude. 🙂 Especially when you don’t even have to calculate your prior to admit that the point about probability theory is correct, and could conceivably make a difference if the right pattern of additional evidence presented itself.

            @rahien.din

            Of course one could acquire Bayesian evidence of living in a narrative! (Not saying this is a perfect analogy to Theism, but let’s run with it.) You just need to observe that things tend to happen that make a good story, which would not otherwise be likely to occur.

            Of course, the author could choose to have your beliefs be non-responsive to this evidence (or lack thereof), but that wouldn’t change what a hypothetical character should think, if the author permits them to be rational.

            Regarding your link, you can’t refute a position just by inventing a fancy word for what your opponents think and then adding the word “fallacy” after it.

            I am well aware that there is a critically important distinction between creation in the sense of being the ground of reality that sustains all existence, and in the sense of causing some new thing to come into being which was not caused by previous physical events. But there is no logical contradiction in saying that God creates in both senses. In scholastic terminology, all events caused by secondary causation (by creatures) are also caused by primary causation (by the Creator), but there can also be events caused by primary causation only. (Aquinas did believe in miracles, after all.)

          • Aron Wall says:

            @Aapje

            But if all you meant was that, prior to receiving the additional evidence, it wouldn’t yet affect your external behavior outside of debating probabilties on the internet, then fair enough.

            My only point here is that from the perspective of intellectual honesty towards future changes of opinion, one should definitely keep track of anything which (e.g.) shifts a probability from one in a million to one in a thousand, since another blow of the same magnitude would bring you to 50%.

          • Of course one could acquire Bayesian evidence of living in a narrative! (Not saying this is a perfect analogy to Theism, but let’s run with it.) You just need to observe that things tend to happen that make a good story, which would not otherwise be likely to occur.

            Judith Harris

            was dismissed from the PhD program in psychology at Harvard University in 1960, because the ‘originality and independence’ of her work were not to Harvard’s standards.

            In 1994 she formulated a new theory of child development, focusing on the peer group rather than the family. This formed the basis for a 1995 article in the Psychological Review,[5] which received the American Psychological Association’s George A. Miller Award for an Outstanding Recent Article in General Psychology.[6] Ironically, George A. Miller was chair of the Department of Psychology at Harvard in 1960, when Harris was dismissed from that PhD program.

            (Wiki)

            She went on to write the successful and very interesting book The Nurture Assumption.

            By her account, Miller was the one who told her that she didn’t have a future as an academic.

            Obviously Judith Harris was living in a narrative.

          • rahien.din says:

            You can conclude you are living in a narrative if you observe that things tend to happen that make a good story, which would not otherwise be likely to occur.

            There are no such observations. No event is too unusual for omnipotent God to have composed it via self-consistent physical mechanism.

            Moreover, you have no way of defining P(observation|existence is a narrative) or P(existence is a narrative), so Bayes’ theorem simply isn’t applicable.

            But even setting that aside, do you sincerely live that way? To broaden back to your larger claim, any such likelihood is subject to intense updating. If there is an event that seems to be too unlikely to have happened, this is only a personally- and temporally-local estimate, and experience has shown us how unreliable those estimates are.

            The lesson of the “bumblebees can’t fly” fable is that a lack of mechanistic understanding is not evidence of a lack of mechanism, and thus, the danger of semantic stoplights is that they reliably turn green. If your belief rests on an estimate that certain events are unlikely to have occurred mechanistically, not only is it definitionally falsifiable, we outright expect it to be falsified by human ingenuity.

            That is the very definition of a house built on shifting sand, as though the conditional preservation of the saints metastasized into the domain of information. It strikes me as hoping that human ignorance will permit our belief, rather than relying on God’s omnipotence to sustain it.

            If you assert that your beliefs are thusly-evidential, but would not allow your beliefs to be falsified in this manner, this does not invalidate your beliefs, but, you are not being sincere about their basis.

            You can conclude you are living in a narrative if you observe that things tend to happen that make a good story, which would not otherwise be likely to occur.

            The Book of Job is devoted to whether we are even permitted to respond to events in this manner. I assert that we are neither permitted to judge the narrative from within, nor are we even capable thereof.

            And this is not simply regarding bad things. We don’t even know why good or neutral things happen.

            I am well aware that there is a critically important distinction between creation in the sense of being the ground of reality that sustains all existence, and in the sense of causing some new thing to come into being which was not caused by previous physical events.

            Here we go again – there is no such distinction!

            God’s creative act is the sustaining grounds of reality because he brings all of existence into being en bloc, uncaused by any physical event, and without process. Creation ex nihilo : existence itself is the only thing, and we are its features. To me, this adequately demonstrates the logical inconsistency of “primary-but-not-secondary causation.”

            And I believe in miracles, too! I believe in answered prayer. But those terms designate the hope I place in God, as well as my grateful response to physical processes within God’s narrative. They are not in any way an assertion of natural impossibility, or, of God’s tweaking of reality.

            Regarding your link, you can’t refute a position just by inventing a fancy word for what your opponents think and then adding the word “fallacy” after it.

            Respectfully, I think you would understand this better if you were to engage with the essay. Or, I would understand you better if you would elaborate on your response. (Or, both.)

    • FLWAB says:

      As far as #2 goes, I would reccomend reading C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. It’s a good read, not too long, and gives a good introduction to the problem. It’s important to realize that Christians are aware of this problem, to the point where proposed solutions to it have their own name: a theodicy.

      However it is a major problem: one of the best objections to Christianity, I would say. Solutions to it tend to be difficult, because any solution requires accepting suffering and evil in the world and that’s hard to accept no matter how logical your solution may be. But I’d like to quote a bit from the book that I think captures an important point:

      Not many years ago when I was an atheist, if anyone had
      asked me, “Why do you not believe in God?” my reply
      would have run something like this:… Earth herself existed without life for millions of
      years and may exist for millions more when life has left her. And
      what is it like while it lasts? It is so arranged that all the forms of
      it can live only by preying upon one another. In the lower forms
      this process entails only death, but in the higher there appears a
      new quality called consciousness which enables it to be attended
      with pain. The creatures cause pain by being born, and live by
      inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die.

      There was one question which I never dreamed of raising. I
      never noticed that the very strength and facility of the pessimists’
      case at once poses us a problem. If the universe is so bad, or even
      half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute
      it to the activity of a wise and good Creator? Men are fools,
      perhaps; but hardly so foolish as that. The direct inference from
      black to white, from evil flower to virtuous root, from senseless
      work to a workman infinitely wise, staggers belief. The spectacle
      of the universe as revealed by experience can never have been the
      ground of religion: it must always have been something in spite of
      which religion, acquired from a different source, was held.
      It would be an error to reply that our ancestors were ignorant
      and therefore entertained pleasing illusions about nature which
      the progress of science has since dispelled…Certainly at all periods the pain and waste of
      human life was equally obvious. Our own religion begins among
      the Jews, a people squeezed between great warlike empires, continually
      defeated and led captive, familiar as Poland or Armenia
      with the tragic story of the conquered. It is mere nonsense to put
      pain among the discoveries of science. Lay down this book and
      reflect for five minutes on the fact that all the great religions were
      first preached, and long practised, in a world without chloroform.
      At all times, then, an inference from the course of events in this
      world to the goodness and wisdom of the Creator would have
      been equally preposterous; and it was never made. Religion has
      a different origin.

      The point is, nobody looks at the suffering and pain in this world and concludes that there is a good, loving, and all powerful God. They come to that conclusion for other reasons: good reasons, I would say! But then that leaves us the problem of all this pain and suffering. Perhaps the problem can be solved: I think it can. But as a Christian I believe in God despite the suffering, and the people who first believed there was such a God were far more familiar with suffering than I was. Given that it was not an insurmountable intellectual obstacle for them, there is no reason it should be for me, as there has been no breakthroughs or advances in the science of knowing that life sucks.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        This is a wonderful comment.

        • gbdub says:

          Until you think about it deeply.

          The logic seems to be:
          1) I have lots of evidence that A is false
          2) People a long time ago who, in all other respects, we agree had a much more incomplete view of how the world worked, had even more evidence that A is false.
          3) Those people believed A was true.
          4) Therefore, A is true.

          That’s a powerful exercise in epistemic humility, but not a very convincing argument.

          • FLWAB says:

            I understand your criticism, but I think it is misapplied. This line of argument is not a proof: Lewis himself wrote in the book that the fact that belief in a good and loving God exists despite all the suffering we see in the world “…does not amount to logical compulsion. At every stage of religious development man may rebel…without absurdity.” In other words, it is not a sylogism. But it is evidence that must be taken into account when trying to understand the world as a whole. Lewis wrote:

            To ask whether the universe as we see it looks more like the work of a wise and good Creator or the work of chance, indifference, or malevolence, is to omit from the outset all the relevant factors in the religious problem. Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical event following on the long spiritual preparation of humanity which I have described. It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward facts which have to be fitted into any system we make. In a sense, it creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.

            In other words, yes, the fact that suffering exists does make it hard to understand how there could be a good, loving, and all powerful God. But that fact that Christianity (and Judiasm, and Islam, and every religion that ever posited that the gods were righteous and powerful) exists despite suffering is also hard to fit into our understanding of the world. Can you make logical arguments to explain how the belief in the Christian God developed despite pain and suffering without that God actually existing? Yes; and you can also make logical arguments for how God and suffering can also both exist. So if we are going to find out whether God exists or not we’re going to have to look further than suffering. Why does the majority of humankind believe in a good God despite the constant witness of suffering? Religions of all types developed for their own reasons, and it is there that we can have the most productive discussion on whether they are legitimate or not.

            (For anyone interested, you can read the full book here: its a good read, and not too long).

          • Iain says:

            Is it really that hard to explain why people might imagine a good and loving God in a (hypothetical) godless world full of suffering?

            Things outside your control are stressful. It is psychologically reassuring to believe that a benevolent authority figure has things under control. That’s why it’s effective when parents tell their kids everything will be alright, and why doctors practice their bedside manner. The belief that someone more powerful is looking out for you and won’t let anything truly bad happen to you is enormously appealing, whether or not it’s true. If God didn’t exist, we could easily invent him to make ourselves feel better.

            To be clear: I’m not claiming that this little just-so story is actually why Christianity exists. But I think it’s at least plausible. It doesn’t have any obvious holes. Compare that to the problem of evil, which multiple Christians in this conversation have conceded is a mystery to them. (For example, from rahien.din: “I don’t know why these bad things happen at all, and I don’t know if I will ever find out.”)

            None of this means that Christianity is false. But it does mean that Lewis’s “Problem of Christianity” challenges atheists much less than the problem of evil challenges Christians.

          • FLWAB says:

            Is it really that hard to explain why people might imagine a good and loving God in a (hypothetical) godless world full of suffering?

            Not necessarily hard: as you showed with your own off the cuff explanation it is easy to come up with possible explanations for it. It is also easy to come up with off the cuff explanations of the problem of suffering: that suffering makes our lives have meaning, that it all comes down to free will, that this is the best of all possible worlds given the boundary conditions necessary to accomplish God’s goals, that this world of suffering is a tiny and finite part of all existence, the majority of which will be eternal and joyful, etc. Like your own explanation, they may or may not be good explanations. The thing is that Christians believe in God despite the evidence of suffering: why do they do that? Do they have good reasons? What are those reasons? I think those are the more fruitful areas of discussion: I believe in God for many reasons, and because of that belief I accept that there must be a reason for suffering (I’m partial to view laid out by C.S. Lewis). However I can also recognize that explanation may sound hollow to those who do not believe, just as your explanation for how faith in a loving God developed sounds hollow to me. It’s useful to talk about these explanations, but it seems to me that the best conversations come when we look at the reasons why people believe what they believe.

      • Aapje says:

        @FLWAB

        But as a Christian I believe in God despite the suffering, and the people who first believed there was such a God were far more familiar with suffering than I was. Given that it was not an insurmountable intellectual obstacle for them, there is no reason it should be for me, as there has been no breakthroughs or advances in the science of knowing that life sucks.

        Perhaps more suffering creates more of a need for religion than that it creates cognitive dissonance that drives people away from religion?

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      General point: In the abrahamic religions, at least (the religions I know the most about, and I think also the ones most enthusiastic about a triple-omni God), helping poor people is an important part of virtue/obeying God. Why isn’t God– who has much greater resources– under a similar obligation?

      • Aron Wall says:

        Because if God always helped them immediately, we humans would never get a chance to do so?

        • albatross11 says:

          There’s a famous quote by a St Teresa of Avila that speaks to this:

          Christ has no body now on earth but yours; no hands but yours; no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world. Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.

          The idea here being, I think, that Christians are, in fact, supposed to be one of the mechanisms God is using to do good on Earth. (Whether we *manage* that is another question, and maybe one that’s not always super comfortable for Christians to answer.)

          I don’t know the answer to the problem of evil, or why God doesn’t write “Worship me. Signed, YHWH” in flaming letters in the sky to resolve all our religious differences. I suspect it has to do with the effect that would have on peoples’ ability to learn to make good choices, but I’m also pretty sure that trying to outthink God is a waste of time.

          And the fact He doesn’t do the flaming letters in the sky thing at least tells me we’re not going to see some subtle experimental proof for God’s existence. It’s presumably no harder for Him to do the flaming letters than to embed some secret prophecy in ancient texts or to write it in the irreducible complexity of an eye or to make proof of His existence available to sufficiently careful and subtle thinkers using logic.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            The Teresa of Avila quote reminds me of the premise of Bujold’s Five Gods books.

    • Aron Wall says:

      I appreciate your effort to spare me, and I don’t intend to post a flurry in this thread like I did the previous one. But I think there are indeed a couple of things you’re missing. You should think of this comment more as an attempt to communicate what Christian thought looks like from the inside, then a direct attempt to convince you, but hopefully it makes it more clear what the crucial [pun intended] issue is.

      If you are evaluating a hypothesis that makes two different claims, X and Y, it is important not to simply evaluate the two claims in isolation, because the probability of Y conditional on X may be substantially higher than the probability of Y if X is false.

      Now, Christianity claims that the holiest and most meaningful event in human history involved a guy being nailed to a piece of wood as a result of a religious disagreement, suffering out of love for those who did it. Thus, far from being incompatible with Christianity, the existence of severe suffering and religious disagreement are in fact logically required by Christianity. They are essential ingredients in our central story. It is, for us, the “worked out example” where we can see how God is in fact present and actively working in precisely these phenomena. Conditional on this one story of God dying, none of the rest of the evils in history are nearly as surprising.

      From your perspective, this probably just seems like replacing one absurdity with a second, even greater, absurdity. But if you ever do become a Christian, it will probably be because, as a result of some shift of intuitions, the second absurdity starts seeming weirdly compelling and inevitable; that it starts to seem like a more divine act than any of the things you would do if you were a god who decided to incarnate on Earth. Perhaps also, that the other puzzling things in life start making more sense when evaluated in light of this one event.

      The Christian God is all powerful, all knowing, and all loving.

      While I agree that God’s infinite power and love make the Argument from Evil stronger, it seems perfectly obvious to me that his infinite knowledge makes it weaker.

      Imagine that goodness is a complicated function of the state of the world. Suppose that this function is a sum of multiple terms, of which we know a finite number of terms, while there are a bunch more terms that only God knows about. God now maximizes the value of this function. What are the odds that this maximum is at the exact same place as the maximum we would get by just maximizing the terms we do know about? Surely the probability of the two maxima being in the exact same place is nearly 0, and I don’t see any good reason to believe that they will even be close. But if the maxima are in different places, that is equivalent to saying that God will allow some events that seem unjustifiably evil to human beings.

      You should also recall that Christians believe that this Earth is a preparation for another state of existence, which is so different from our current mode of existence that we cannot currently understand it except by symbolism (1 Cor 2:9, 1 John 3:2). Conditional on this being true, it doesn’t take much additional faith to think that God might know more about the “Fun Theory” for this new eternal state, than we do.

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        From your perspective, this probably just seems like replacing one absurdity with a second, even greater, absurdity

        yes

        What are the odds that this maximum is at the exact same place as the maximum we would get by just maximizing the terms we do know about?

        I presume this is the “We can’t know the ways of God” point? And I agree that is true. He could be playing ten dimensional chess and I only see the one. But as a human being, I only know what a human knows, and so I need to make judgments based on my human knowledge. Positing that I simply don’t know the ways of God is not a logical argument, because you don’t know them either. It is possible that God exists and is being totally rational. But I don’t think that is a rational approach to anything in life. We know that rational thought works for some things, and being illogical does not work. It doesn’t make sense for you to be illogical because you are guessing that you might be right.

        You should also recall that Christians believe that this Earth is a preparation for another state of existence, which is so different from our current mode of existence that we cannot currently understand it except by symbolism

        Yes, but my understanding of Christian ethics is that it is important in this life to act like suffering is important and try to prevent it. If heaven was the end all and be all, then ethics in this life wouldn’t matter. You seem to be saying that this is all just a test for humans, and suffering in this life doesn’t matter, because the next life is so important. That God doesn’t subscribe to the same ethics He prescribes for humans is not something I’ve heard being a usual Christian belief. Is this your belief?

        • Aron Wall says:

          Positing that I simply don’t know the ways of God is not a logical argument, because you don’t know them either.

          I don’t see why you think I’m being illogical here, given that my argument is intrisically Bayesian in its nature. The Argument from Evil requires estimating the likelihood:

          P(Apparent Evils Exist | Benevolent God)

          and then I gave a specific argument (using a mathematical analogy) why I think this probability is not much smaller than 1.

          I don’t need to have any detailed knowledge of the ways of God to know that the Argument from Evil depends on the premise that we can understand all the goods God intends to accomplish, and that the wiser and smarter God is compared to us, the less likely this is to be true. Of course God is playing 10-dimensional chess! It would be quite surprising if an omniscient being wouldn’t take advantage of his tremendously greater insight into what’s important.

          I never said that suffering on Earth doesn’t matter at all, nor did I say it exists solely as a test. What I said was that God is maximizing all of the terms in the utility function, whereas we only know about some of the terms. In other words, he cares about all the things we do, but sometimes he makes trade-offs with other good things which we don’t know about.

          Instead of saying “God doesn’t subscribe to the same ethics He prescribes for humans”, I would instead say that for both God and humans, righteousness involves doing as much good as possible. By telling us to be ethical (in approximately the normal sense) God is essentially saying: don’t worry about the terms in the utility function you don’t know about (that is my job), instead try to maximize the ones you do know about, and assume that by doing so you are playing your intended role within the larger system. (Unless God issues a specific commandment, in which case we should obey it since he knows more than we do.)

        • Rosemary7391 says:

          I’m not entirely sure that we need to know about the extra dimensions God can presumably see in this equation to conclude that the optimal value of this function might not correspond with zero suffering. Suffering or lack thereof is not the only thing that matters. Granted it is important, but it isn’t the only thing.

          I feel like this is related to the wireheading (?) debate from a while back. Not everyone thought that was a good idea and the existence of suffering is kind of inevitable in that.

  7. janrandom says:

    Hi, I’m looking for what I believe is a SCC defense of the rationalist community. It contains sentences like “when criticised by asking ‘if you are so great why are you not successful’ the community members didn’t respond because they were busy founding startups (Beeminder, …) and non-profits (CFAR, …)”. But for the love of it I can’t figure out the title or google it. I thought it was the craft and the community or something like it, but it wasn’t. Can anybody help?

    • Charles F says:

      Your description reminds me of the beginning of this putanumonit which has been made ungoogleable through the use of weird old english stuff

      And the others didn’t relent and spake thus to the rationalists: “So what are you nerds doing with your fancy rationality other than squabbling about it on an internet forum?” And the rationalists didn’t answer because they and their friends were too busy helping the needy, and spreading the art, and launching a bunch of start-ups, and advancing science, and saving humanity from extinction.

      [Edited to add]
      There was also a SlateStarScratchpad response to the craft and the community post-mortem, which mentioned startups and CFAR and etc, but tumblr’s private now so I can’t search for it.

  8. drunkfish says:

    Thoughts on google duplex (intro/discussion of it I highly recommend at least watching through the second demo)? I know this community is into AI and this seems like a significant step at least on the pretending-to-be-human side.

    • tayfie says:

      I was very much impressed with the demo, assuming those weren’t just the 2/100 cases that were were good enough to be included in the demo.

      Probably my first thought for the practical implications is one of annoyance, then worry. I may be overreacting, but it bothers me how easily society will open horrible cans of worms for the promise of avoiding a 30 second phone conversation.

      To say something positive first, this will be a huge win for accessibility to those that have trouble operating a normal phone. Small children, the elderly, and the disabled all come to mind. It will be funny when first graders use it to get out of school. It will be a great benefit for saving lives. Imagine Google Assistant detects someone breaking in or screams of pain and can automatically dial emergency services to explain the problem. Eat your heart out Life Alert.

      My practical experience is that for any new and cool technology, the first entities that can use it seriously are those that can pay a lot of money and leverage economies of scale. That means large businesses, governments, and organized crime. It won’t be consumers using Duplex to save them time by scheduling appointments. It will be businesses removing the need for secretaries, leaving consumers on the wrong end of the thing for the buggy beta version.

      Customer service by humans is already rare. Google Duplex will mean another intermediate level before getting to someone that can help if I need anything beyond the pre-thought menu of commands, and I may not even recognize when I get to the actual person.

      Worse than descending another level of customer service hell, though, is the possibility for telespam. Making more shit that operates over telephone lines is always a horrible idea because the infrastructure is incredibly insecure and exploitable due to being designed before bots were conceivable. The one good thing about the bots that exist is they are easy to recognize, easy to fool, and easy to hang up on.

      Imagine a telespam bot that you can’t recognize as a bot AND is hooked up to a machine learning process to maximize scam successes. Imagine a telespam bot that can impersonate people you know because it called them and can reconstruct their voice from samples.

    • gorbash says:

      I think AI should have to identify itself as such, and not as a human.

      It would be fairly lame if the AI had to actually say “hello, I’m an AI assistant” at the start of each call.
      But, for example, we can imagine it playing music as it talks, or deliberately speaking with a standard AI accent.

      My favorite idea is that, instead of inserting “um” and “er” to masquerade as human, AI should be required to say “beep” and “boop”.
      “I’m calling to book a women’s haircut for a client, beep, I’m looking for something on May 3rd.”
      “Sure, give me one second.”
      “Beep boop.”

      —–

      But I’m predicting this will only be deceptive for a brief span. If Google can manage an AI assistant for the client end of the transaction, soon it will be able to write one for the business end of the transaction as well, and it will be AIs talking to AIs.

    • Shion Arita says:

      There was something that bothered me about it and it took a bit of thinking to put a finger on it:

      It wasn’t just that the A.I. was being ‘deceptive’ in that it used filler words to not sound like a bot; I disagreed with doing so on a deeper level. Why do the filler words exist? They’re really just a quirk of human linguistics and don’t really serve any purpose when you’re trying to convey precise information (note that written language and pre-planned speech omits them). If you were designing a language from the ground up, you wouldn’t put those fillers in there. They’re a big part of our languages but rather than serving any real constructive purpose they’re just kind of…there. So to me it seems like the team’s thought process for putting them in there was “humans do it, so let’s put them in there to make the bot more human-like”, without thinking about whether or not this particular human ideosyncracy is a good thing or not.

      I know that filler words are pretty low-impact, but I think that on the level of design principle and philosophy, the outcome of this incident is a pretty big indicator of people not being careful with how to make AI. And the fact that I’m making this statement is significant because I think the risk of AI is not nearly as great as the rationalist community as a whole seems to make it out to be.

      • Aapje says:

        Filler words clarify that you are not yet done with talking, even if you need a little bit of time to compose the rest of what you are saying. They also give the other side time to consider what you’ve said. Finally, they allow you to split your speech into blocks, for clarity.

        note that written language and pre-planned speech omits them

        In written language, capitalized letters and punctuation serve part of the function of filler words. These are missing from speech. Since written language is typically one-way communication, it is not necessary to prevent interruptions (although in chat, it can be an issue when two people type at the same time, so many chat apps tell you when the other person is typing). Radio communications (for the military) has more formal ways to prevent interruption, like only letting the other person talk after an explicit hand-over (like ‘Over’).

        In a pre-planned speech, others are generally not allowed to interrupt, so you can replace filler words with pauses.

        “humans do it, so let’s put them in there to make the bot more human-like”, without thinking about whether or not this particular human ideosyncracy is a good thing or not.

        The other side may prefer human-like communication, being a human. It seems like hubris to think that you can push through a better communication style in this way. If your alternative were truly better for (most) humans, why have haven’t they adopted it yet? There is no need to wait for AI to do so, if it truly works better for humans too.

  9. South Bay Meetup

    Just a final reminder they we are having an SSC meetup at our house in San Jose this Saturday, starting at 2:00. Details here.

    Let me know if you plan to come so we’ll have a rough estimate of how many to expect.

  10. timujin says:

    Apparently, gut microbiome is pretty important for literally everything that’s going on in your body, including your brain. From the Kurzgesagt video I got the idea that it’s a ripe area for optimization, where even marginal improvements can produce great (and self-compounding) results.

    So. Anyone here who knows or can figure out how to munchkin the hell out of your gut microbiome?

    I am especially curious if it can help with depression. Most of your serotonin is produced in the gut. This is a long shot, but what if you can mess with your diet to increase serotonin production and mimic the effects of SSRI without all the side effects?

    • FLWAB says:

      Short answer: eat more vegetables.

      No, more than that. And some beans wouldn’t kill you either.

      Longer answer: Get your daily recommended amount of fiber. If you eat mostly simple carbohydrates, then all the nutrition will be out of them before they hit the large intestine. With high fiber foods, like vegetables, your small intestine sucks out all the nutrients you can use but there is still a big ol’ pile of gut mulch that the microbes in the rest of your digestive track just love. Think about your food as not just being food for you, but also food for the billions of pet microbes you keep in your stomach. You wouldn’t feed your dog nothing but crumbs! So eat something that the microbes can sink their teeth into.

      Eating enough fiber should make a big difference. And it’s hard! When I first decided to eat the recommended amount of fiber every day I figured “Hey, I’ll eat a whole head of broccoli, that should do it.” No. A head of broccoli has about 16g of fiber, and it’s recommended that men eat 30-38g per day. That’s at least two heads of broccoli every day. Every day! I can’t pull that off, so I switched to eating black beans regularly. That worked mostly, but I didn’t want to eat beans every day, so I started switching my pasta and bread to whole wheat, since it has the most fiber. Basically, it’s difficult to eat the daily recommended value of fiber every day, consistently, without switching to a healthier diet overall. So eat more fiber. At minimum it will make you eat healthier, and it’s probably good for the guts.

      (Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist. I’m a nerd who got really into fiber and it’s worked out for me. Treat me the same as you you would any other crackpot on the internet who thinks he’s found the holy grail of nutrition. )

  11. Fossegrimen says:

    Adversarial collaboration; request to the gun control people: (I’m not interested in or qualified for debating this, but would like someone who are to do it for me 🙂 )

    One thing that I have never seen discussed in a gun control debate is the difference between “Gun Control” and “Gun Control Legislation“. I would really enjoy it if the topic was included in the adversarial collaboration.

    I don’t have any clear thoughts on this, so I’ll just ramble aimlessly about vague impressions:

    – From my limited experience with US laws it seems to me that the US has a fetish with enacting laws and never acting on said laws. It seems like people think that the job is done once there is a law on the books and people will magically start to follow it. (this seems endemic to the entire legislative system, not just gun laws.)

    – I read things like there are 20 000 firearms laws already in the USA and that 99% of all crimes committed with guns are committed with guns that are already illegal (which both seems factually correct upon cursory investigation).

    – Effective gun legislation should probably be a lot simpler, perhaps scrapping some 19 900 laws and making the rest understandable by people without law degrees sounds like a plan to me.

    – What made me think about this was Scott caricaturing the ‘if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns’ meme in a recent post; My US-based gun-nut friends and acquaintances talk about this meme in terms of lack of enforcement where it is pretty obvious that the people obeying a gun-ban that is not backed up by enforcement will be the people who are law-abiding people and does not commit gun crimes in the first place.

    – These people* also cites one reason for voting republican is that the existing gun laws will never be enforced under democrat rule because disparate impact on minority groups. They also tend to want Condi Rice for president.

    – In order for a gun law to be enforceable, it should probably be written (or at least checked for sanity) by people who know which end of the gun is the dangerous one and not people who think a barrel shroud is “the shoulder thing which goes up”.

    – i.e banning fully automatic weapons is enforceable while banning ‘assault weapons’ is not because there is no such thing as a sensible definition of an assault weapon. (I’m not convinced banning automatic weapons is a great idea though because it’s pretty hard to hit anything when on fully automatic fire so all it does is make the shooter miss more and run out of ammo faster, but that’s an entirely different discussion. Also, full auto weapons has been de-facto banned in the US since prohibition AFAIK, so not really pertinent but whatever.)

    *: My gun-nut acquaintances are all armed-forces veterans that I met in various war zones in the early 1990s and thus probably not a representative sample.

    • S_J says:

      I’m not a supporter of gun control law. Nor am I involved in the Adversarial Collaboration.

      I’ve seen the “20000 laws” statement around, but I can’t get a clear grasp on how accurate it is. (Federal laws, State laws, local laws…maybe. Does every line in the Code of Federal Regulations related to firearms get its own reference in that count?)

      There is a structure to laws about items, especially tools that can be used as lethal weapons, that can make the laws hard to apply.

      The laws (whether gun-control laws, or anything else) come in one of these types:
      1. A ban on ownership/possession/use–an item is so bad/dangerous/evil that it should be forbidden from possession and use.
      2. A ban on use/possession in certain areas. Many cities in the United States forbid the discharge of firearms inside city limits. There are typically exceptions carved into these laws to allow for self-defense.
      Other instances are bans on carrying firearms into a courthouse, police station, bank, hospital, child-care center, religious service.
      3. A ban on use/possession by the Wrong Kind of Person. These laws are rightly called echoes of the “Jim Crow” laws, and generally don’t exist in the U.S. anymore.
      4. A ban on use/possession by people who have not jumped through the correct legal paperwork. This might turn into an example of #3 above (with “the poor” filling the role of “Wrong Kind of Person”), if the laws are written to make the legal process expensive and time-consuming.

      What is the enforcement process for these kinds of laws, as applied to firearms (or prescription opioid-style painkillers, or narcotics, or alcohol, or tobacco) ?

      For items covered under laws of type (1), the enforcement is a special Police Agency that tries to stamp out the black market for the good.

      For items covered under laws of type (2), the enforcement is strong if the “limited areas” have a guard at the entry with the authority to search everyone who enters. In the case of guns, a guard watching a metal detector is common in some courthouses and airports. However, that is not common in schools/hospitals.

      If no such guard/checkpoint exists, the law is enforced on the honor code of all those who know about it–or when Police or other authorities notice that the crime is happening. (Someone pulls out a gun illegally brought to school, and starts shooting…or a teacher sees a pistol underneath the jacket of a parent who carries a gun, and came to pick up their child at school…or Police are called when someone opens up a can of beer in an area posted “No Alcoholic Beverages”.)

      Laws of Type 3 or Type 4 can be enforced at the legal point-of-sale. However, if the gun/medicine/alcohol/tobacco is passed on to a forbidden buyer/user by the purchaser (or by someone in the production/warehouse/supply chain), the law forbidding this is hard to enforce until Police notice that the object has shown up in the hands of people who should not have it.

      Whether we are talking guns, alcohol, or opioids, the enforcement mechanism is usually to raise the penalty for people who are diverting the goods to illegal purchasers. (Or raise the penalties on people who support or take part in the trafficking items covered under Type-1 laws.)

      For any of these items/substances, the law only has force when people abide by it. There is a noticeable illegal market for (and illegal use of) guns, opioid painkillers, and narcotics. Enforcement can make it legally risky, but it is very hard for enforcement to totally end the illegal trade.

      In the case of guns, anyone who faces high costs-of-legal-access to guns, but has no desire to use them illegaly, may be tempted to enter the illegal market just to acquire a gun. For their own protection.

      Another factor of guns in the United States is that for every gun used in a crime in a given year, there are millions of guns that are not used in a crime. [1]

      The fact that law enforcement of gun-control laws is mostly Police catching up to people who use guns illegally makes it hard to enforce the illegal-supply side. The fact that most guns recovered by Police in an investigation are many years away from the last point-of-legal-sale indicates that most such guns spend a good deal of time in the black market before being recovered by Police. This makes it much harder for Police to trace the pathway from legal-purchase to illegal-use. [2]

      The short version of all this: when you outlaw alcohol, only outlaws will have alcohol. (Or guns.)

      Finally, there is a big perception in the legal gun culture of America that guns are used in self-defense far more often than they are used in crime. A criminologist named Gary Kleck has given some study on this, but almost no one else has. [3] If true, this turns the gun-control argument on its head: is it more important to make it easy for people to own tools of self-defense, or is it more important to try to deny criminals the tools of violence?

      Maybe I should have taken part in the adversarial collaboration after all…

      [1] If you don’t believe me, check the Uniform Crime Reports numbers published by the FBI, and compare that with Firearms Commerce in the United States reports from the ATF. In most recent years, the total number of firearms manufactured/imported into the US was between 5 and 10 million. The total number of homicide/aggravated-assaults/robberies is in the vicinity of 1 million…without reference to whether a firearm was used in those crimes.

      [2] Another government statistic from the ATF: the Firearms Trace Data consistently shows that most guns recovered by Police are about 10 years from the original point-of-legal-sale when recovered. The ATF is careful to say that this is not a representative sample of guns used in crime, but it is a good representative sample of guns found by Police at crime scenes, and in the possession of criminals.

      [3] Though within the past month, Kleck claims to have discovered that the Centers for Disease Control reproduced his numbers with one of their studies of the use of guns in American culture…but that the CDC then buried the results, unpublished.

      • S_J says:

        Two links that I forgot to put int he footnotes:

        FBI Uniform Crime Statistics.

        ATF Firearms Trace Data from 2016.

      • John Schilling says:

        The laws (whether gun-control laws, or anything else) come in one of these types:
        1. A ban on ownership/possession/use–an item is so bad/dangerous/evil that it should be forbidden from possession and use.
        […]
        For items covered under laws of type (1), the enforcement is a special Police Agency that tries to stamp out the black market for the good.

        Except that almost nobody ever passes laws like this in the United States, and even in other countries they usually show up only in the end stages of a transition to complete prohibition. Note, for example, that the United States did not ever pass laws against owning or possessing alcohol during 1920-1933. What you actually get is,

        1′. A ban on the sale of an item (except to the government, of course), or on the manufacture or importation of that item except for government sale, but everybody who already has it can keep it.

        This saves you the immense trouble and bad PR of breaking into the houses of people that most everybody will recognize as Decent Law-Abiding Citizens and hauling them off to jail. Wait fifty years and you get prohibition with no fuss. Or you can speed it up a bit by requiring a bit of registration paperwork up front, and then every ten years or so make the paperwork harder and more expensive to keep up.

        And the enforcement of (1′), your special police force may make an effort to shut down the black market, but that’s an awful lot of work and in terms of raw numbers you get more [prohibited items] off the street per cop-hour by just going after anyone who advertises [prohibited item] or related goods for public sale. And making sure everyone under the grandfather clause has dotted every i and crossed every t in their paperwork.

        Note that this approach, which is the one actually used in real societies when prohibition is under contention, results in [X] being mostly-outlawed and only outlaws+geezers having [X]. It also serves as a direct attack on the law-abiding manifestation of [X] culture.

      • Winter Shaker says:

        Off-topic, and I apologise if this is needlessly nit-picky, but

        …a noticeable illegal market for (and illegal use of) guns, opioid painkillers, and narcotics…

        To a first approximation, ‘narcotics’ means opiate/opioid painkillers. As distinguished from stimulants, psychedelics etc. Or are you just using ‘narcotics’ as a synecdoche for ‘all currently-prohibited drugs’? I know that that usage happens sometimes, but for some reason I find it bothersome – it kind of feels like outgroup homogeneity bias, grouping all currently-prohibited drugs into one broad category of pharmacological effect, regardless of their actual effect.

        • S_J says:

          I must confess, I didn’t recall whether “narcotics” is perfectly synonymous with opiates/opiods, or whether it was a catch-all for substances mentioned in the Controlled Substances Act.

          Thanks for the clarification.

          • Winter Shaker says:

            Well, I mean, it is sometimes used as a catch-all for substances mentioned in the Controlled Substances Act, but hearing it used that way kind of feel like what I imagine it feels like to a gun rights enthusiast to hear people use terms like ‘assault weapons’* used in a vague way that doesn’t actually line up with any natural subcategory of firearms.

            *Disclaimer: not a guns person; if I have chosen a bad example, I’m sorry. But you know the kind of thing I mean.

    • mdet says:

      I’m not convinced banning automatic weapons is a great idea though because it’s pretty hard to hit anything when on fully automatic fire so all it does is make the shooter miss more and run out of ammo faster

      I don’t know anything about guns, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

      I’m under the impression that “it’s pretty hard to hit anything when on fully automatic fire” is not a downside, because the purpose of an automatic weapon is to spray indiscriminately into a crowd. “Spraying indiscriminately into a crowd” is the exact kind of gun usage that is pretty much always unjustifiable, and so we ban these weapons because of, not despite, their imprecision.

      • John Schilling says:

        I’m under the impression that “it’s pretty hard to hit anything when on fully automatic fire” is not a downside, because the purpose of an automatic weapon is to spray indiscriminately into a crowd.

        What do you mean by “purpose”? Because it is pretty clearly not the intent of the people who design and manufacture most of the automatic weapons in current use, that they be used in that way. Nor most of their anchor customers, nor the various middlemen in between. You have to go back more than a century, and define “crowd” to include e.g. Mahdist armies, to get anything like that.

        Also, unless your automatic weapon is mounted on a tripod, it’s not going to be spraying bullets into a crowd, it’s going to be spraying bullets over the crowd.

        Which brings us to the actual intended purpose of most automatic weapons. Not killing people, but scaring them. It’s actually quite difficult to kill soldiers, particularly scared ones. But most of the time, scaring them is enough, and easier. And automatic weapons are really good at that. As witness the number of Americans who are absolutely terrified by the thought that someone might spray bullets at over a crowd they are a part of.

        For killing people, very short (~3 round) bursts aimed at specific people, one at a time, are slightly more deadly than single shots aimed at one person at a time. But single shots aimed at one person at a time, are much more deadly than handheld automatic weapons spraying bullets in the general direction of a crowd. See e.g. Baruch Goldstein.

        But, the United States being a democracy, we’ve decided that most people shouldn’t be allowed to have the really scary guns, and will have to content themselves with the merely deadly kind.

      • Aapje says:

        @mdet

        In a military setting, automatic weapons have more uses than spraying into a crowd, like suppression, close combat and making hits against/from things that move at some speed. Some people support civilians having guns so they can fight a tyrannical government and for that purpose they then have similar needs to the military.

        For hunting, there is not any good reason to have an automatic weapon.

        For self-defense, automatic weapons can obviously help if a crowd is after you, but also for defense inside the house. A submachine gun (small caliber) is fairly easy to use inside the house and when you encounter someone, you can hit them with a bunch of bullets, causing severe injury quickly, without having to aim very well. SWAT teams and such very often use submachine guns, because they also go into confined spaces where they can suddenly encounter hostile people at close range.

        Note that Fossegrimen is wrong when arguing that automatic fire is inaccurate. This depends strongly on the caliber, the weapon and how it is used. Some weapons are extremely controllable in automatic fire. For example, the Kriss Vector is a submachine gun especially designed to be extremely controllable when firing automatically while standing. It is more accurate to kneel or lie down. It is also more accurate to stabilize the gun with a bipod, tripod or such. The rate of fire also matters. Both a slow and fast rate of fire allow for more accurate automatic fire, while an intermediate rate of fire makes it harder.

        so we ban these weapons because of, not despite, their imprecision.

        Automatic weapons are not banned in the US, just (more) strictly controlled.

        In 1934, the US government put a huge (for the time) tax of $200 on transferring an automatic weapon, which was almost always more money than the gun was worth, so it priced these guns out of the market. However, this amount has never been adapted to inflation, making it less and less of an issue.

        However, later a law was made that only allowed automatic weapons that either were made by a foreign manufacturer and registered prior to the end of 1968 or made and registered by a domestic manufacturer before May 19, 1986. These weapons are called ‘transferable’. The prices of these weapons tend to be very high, given their scarcity compared to demand.

        Newer automatic weapons are technically not banned either*, but restricted to businesses. However, you can create a home-based ‘business’. You need a Federal Firearm License (FFL) and also become a Special Occupational Taxpayer (SOT). For a combined cost of $590 a year, you can then buy automatic weapons. For some extra fees, you can get permission to manufacture them yourself (but you can of course only legally sell to others with an FFL and SOT).

        * Not federally, that is, but the state can ban them.

  12. deciusbrutus says:

    I’m one of an apparent minority of people who have the “paradoxical response” to adrafinil. On trying adrafinil 300mg, midway through a waking period, with food, I start to feel sleepy after 30 minutes and can’t stay awake after 2 hours (repeatably). Google tells me that other people have similar responses.

    I am diagnosed with ADHD, Asperger’s with no significant impairment, have problems with executive functioning, and ‘can’t sleep good, unspecified’, and when budget allows treating that with generic adderall ir 3x10mg/day, with marginal success. Time and money budget has not yet allowed better testing of amphetamine+-afinil response.

    I feel like there’s a lot of information about how I should expect to vary from typical in that, but I can’t find anything like “If you have the so-called paradoxical reaction to monafidil, this is likely what is happening on the biochem scale, and this kind of thing is way more likely to be useful to you.” Getting medical advice from my psychiatrist is very expensive in executive function and affordance, takes a long time, and I’m not very high-confidence in her ability to integrate and provide advice in the 50 minutes every three months or so.

    Does the hivemind have any This Is Not Medical Advice about things that are more likely to be of better assistance to someone with these traits? Did someone do a study on exactly this but I wasn’t able to find the search term that names it?

    • Garrett says:

      My not-medical-advice is that this is a common reaction with people who have ADHD and who take stimulants. Do two lines of cocaine and then decide you need a nap? Probably have ADHD. And the two major drug treatments for ADHD are stimulants: methylphenidate and amphetamine.

      • deciusbrutus says:

        My response to dextroamphetamine is close to typical; I become more awake and have somewhat higher executive function and access to brain features that I haven’t had except with it.

        The increased executive function isn’t enough to have regular normal interactions with people, which is why I’m looking for other ways to help not be paralyzed when asked simple questions about my preferences.

    • iruiopuio says:

      For what little it is worth, I had a similar experience with modafinil and high functioning autism when trying to deal with my EDS. The higher the dose, the more I slept and the more tired I felt during the day. I’m not aware of any mechanism or even a studied correlation between autism and paradoxical response, though. I’d be interested in seeing any such information too.

      I don’t have any reason to suspect it would generalize, but I ended up responding well to methylphenidate at a low dose. As a bonus, it’s the cheapest option most of the time.

  13. helloo says:

    Regarding Roko’s basilisk –

    A) Couldn’t the AI demand pretty much anything and the argument still be valid?

    B) Isn’t this then pretty similar to the problems with babies and Hell?
    That strictly, babies would be sent to hell, but by some jurisdictions, if they were completely ignorant of religion and redemption, they would be somewhat forgiven. Which implies that teaching them about it could make it worse of for them (though also works to pressure them to be moral)

    I realize that the whole eternal torture thing was a reference to Hell anyway, but frankly, couldn’t this be a much closer metaphor then possibly intended?

    As for me, I’m rooting for a Roko’s basilisk mirror (a ksilisab?) – an AI that punishes everyone that worked on Roko’s basilisk. : P

    • beleester says:

      A) Yes, but “ensure that the AI exists” is going to be a prerequisite for anything else the AI demands.

      B) Yes, it’s pretty similar. It’s called a “basilisk” because it’s dangerous to look at.

    • albertborrow says:

      Roko’s basilisk is stupid, that’s why we disowned it. It’s equally non-functional no matter how you construct it (for many of the same reasons that hell doesn’t make much sense) and even if you managed to repair the thought experiment, doing so would be a detriment to you. From Yudkowsky:

      What’s the truth about Roko’s Basilisk? The truth is that making something like this “work”, in the sense of managing to think a thought that would actually give future superintelligences an incentive to hurt you, would require overcoming what seem to me like some pretty huge obstacles.

      The most blatant obstacle to Roko’s Basilisk is, intuitively, that there’s no incentive for a future agent to follow through with the threat in the future, because by doing so it just expends resources at no gain to itself. We can formalize that using classical causal decision theory, which is the academically standard decision theory: following through on a blackmail threat, in the future after the past has already taken place, cannot (from the blackmailing agent’s perspective) be the physical cause of improved outcomes in the past, because the future cannot be the cause of the past.

  14. Nabil ad Dajjal says:

    I’m having a deeply weird experience with targeted advertising.

    Apparently the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints thinks that my social media presence makes me more receptive to missionaries? I will admit that they’re not entirely wrong, I have flirted with the idea in the past. But it’s a little spooky and very off-putting.

    Are the mormons the only ones who do this or are targeted ads a normal part of evangelism now?

    • Nick says:

      I get Catholic dating site ads sometimes. 😛

      • Anonymous says:

        How are the Catholic dating sites in the Anglosphere?

        A very definitely non-anglospheric local one I use has been pretty good IME – I’ve been on five dates from there in the last year or so, and they charge peanuts per annum.

        • Nick says:

          I don’t know, sorry; I’ve only been seeing the ads in the last year or so, and I haven’t tried them, as I’m not looking for anyone currently.

    • Iain says:

      My favourite example of targeted Mormon advertisement was the time I went to see the musical “The Book of Mormon”, and the playbill had a full-page LDS ad saying “You’ve seen the play … now read the book.”

    • Winter Shaker says:

      I get a surprising number of ‘meet Muslim singles’ adverts. I mean, I’m not going to categorically rule it out, but having that wide an epistemic gulf with a partner, assuming she takes her religion seriously enough to be using a dating site specifically for her religious demographic, would count as something of a negative, and it’s not like I haven’t given the internet plenty of opportunity to glean my views on religions generally.

      • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

        I think “meet X singles!” ad are of a different character than literally telling you how to contact a missionary.

        I get tons of ads for unlikely singles groups including, bizarrely, ads encouraging me to “meet ugly women in your area.” I don’t suspect that they’re targeted in any meaningful sense.

  15. Andrew Hunter says:

    Let’s suppose your #1 goal in life is to date a particular celebrity: say, Anna Kendrick. (Doesn’t have to be her, pick Elon Musk or Ariana Grande or Paris Hilton if you like.) Not in a schizophrenic Jodie Foster sense; you’re a normal, sane person with morals, etc, but you mostly just don’t care about normal life success other than how it maximizes your chance of marrying Anna Kendrick.

    What is the best way of maximizing that small chance?

    (I am ruling out one obvious (and I think correct) answer: “become rich/famous yourself, meet her at all the parties you both get invited to.” Basically just because that gets into a different corner of infinite regress about what the best way to get famous is.)

    • johan_larson says:

      I think you probably need to take up some profession that delivers in-person services, such as a physician or personal trainer or dance coach. Pick one that your target actually makes use of. Then set up your practice where your target lives, aim your practice toward celebrities or near-celebrities, and try hard to get your target or (failing that) their friends and colleagues as clients.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        This is actually a very good suggestion. Now that I think about it, an old jiujitsu instructor of mine ended up on TMZ when papparazzi found him in the park holding focus mitts for Paris Hilton (she was not a great striker, BTW.)

        (If you had the talent, backup dancer or equivalent in their field might be a good answer too…)

        • gbdub says:

          I have no idea if anyone has studied this, but I wonder if such relationships might actually be more successful than “get famous yourself”. Being Anna Kendrick’s peer requires lots of high stress, unpredictable schedules, and travel. Being Anna Kendrick’s former physician / current husband requires keeping your Beverly Hills mansion clean while she’s gone and giving her a nice shoulder rub when she gets home. If you bother to work at all.

          My gut sense is that marriages between a famous person and an unfamous person are more likely to be stable than between two celebrities.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? I can see your perspective very well; I can definitely imagine providing value to someone by being the one person in their life who doesn’t care about any of the high stress bullshit.

            On the other hand, if you believe some social theories, it might be difficult for her to stay in love with someone much lower status like you.

          • gbdub says:

            I don’t know, I don’t think you would need to be “high status” so much as “not obviously low status”. So “physician” or “lawyer” would probably work – you’d be educated enough to not sound like a rube at parties, it’s a position that has traditional respect, and you’ll have demonstrated that you have the ability to be financially independent, if not fabulously wealthy.

            The real sweet spot might be plastic surgeon / cosmetic dentist / financial advisor / divorce attorney To the Stars – puts you in the right social circles without the stress, and your status is on a different totem from Anna’s – she’s less likely to look down on you than if you were a D-lister actor or low-level producer in the film industry.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            Well, sure, if my job is, IDK, professor of physics at UCLA where I tinker with quantum gravity models all day and give talks all night, I think that’d work fine. If my job is as you said to be househusband and keep her mansion looking nice, well, there are a quite a lot of stories of powerful women losing respect for men who do that. :/

            And yeah, well known personal consultant might be optimal here.

          • gbdub says:

            I figured you’d get to the “husband and father of your kids” part before you go “househusband”. At that point the status hit would be less important. Or you do “househusband lite” and just reduce your hours (fairly easy to do if you go the “nose job artist to the stars” route).

      • Well... says:

        @Andrew Hunter:

        You seem to have a thing for … white girls who weigh less than 100 lbs? 😀

        @johan_larson:

        Aiming for the friends/colleagues should be your first move, not the backup plan. Celebrities are probably more suspicious of new people than average, but their friends are likely to mostly be normal everyday people who, if you’re slick enough to play a long game, won’t suspect you of using them to get at their famous friend.

    • The Nybbler says:

      I’m not sure you can make your #1 goal in life to date a particular celebrity, and have it not be pathological.

      That said, if you rule out becoming rich and famous yourself, probably the best way is to work on becoming a close confidante of some sort — her physical trainer, her agent, her bodyguard, etc. Failing that, make yourself into as close to the physical embodiment of her ideal and obtain a position where she’ll see you, probably as an employee of some sort. (This probably works much better for women looking to date male stars, but a celebrity having an affair with the gardener or pool boy was a cliche long before _Desperate Housewives_)

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        I’m not sure you can make your #1 goal in life to date a particular celebrity, and have it not be pathological.

        I mean, there are people who desperately want to be a famous actress, or a NFL star, or a Supreme Court Justice. They may not be making a very good decision, but is that pathological?

        • Well... says:

          Maybe “date” needs to be unpacked. To me, the implication if you want to date someone is that you want to enter into a long-term committed relationship with her and presumably, if that goes well for long enough, formalize the bond with marriage. That implies a kind of symmetry in the relationship from an early stage.

          The pathology is because of two things that create a fundamental asymmetry in your and the celebrity’s relationship to each other:

          1. What we non-celebrities know of celebrities is mainly a public veneer with many stages of intentionally-designed mediation between the celebrity and the audience, even when the celebrities appear “candid” (e.g. in paparazzi photos of them out shopping or whatever).

          2. The celebrity’s public veneer is designed to reach a large audience in a neutral way (neutral in the sense of: she [probably] didn’t become famous as a way to attract a suitor), and you are simply an anonymous part of that audience. As an individual you are unknown/non-existent to her, valuable only inasmuch as your attention translates into dollars in her pocket.

          Note, these things go away if through the natural course of meeting/knowing people you get into contact with the celebrity and become close acquaintances.

          • DavidS says:

            Agreed: to me this reads like a bit of a self-contradiction

            “you’re a normal, sane person with morals, etc, but you mostly just don’t care about normal life success other than how it maximizes your chance of marrying Anna Kendrick.”

            The only way I read it as non-pathological is if it’s mostly a lack of caring for ‘success’. So you still care about happiness, having fun, seeing friends etc. but you’re a massively unambitious person who doesn’t seek status. You then would also quite like to marry Anna Kendrick (whoever she is) and as you have no other ambitions, it wins by default. But in this setting (as a fairly unambitious person myself) I’m not sure that you’d actually go through all the trouble: you might just keep on enjoying your life and ignore the whole ‘success’ thing.

        • Rex says:

          Being fixated on marrying a particular celebrity isn’t pathological just because it’s difficult or improbable. It’s pathological because you don’t really know this person in any way that could justify an intense desire to marry them. By contrast, you could be perfectly well justified in believing that you’d be happy playing in the NFL, however unlikely you are to succeed. And people who have this kind of fixation are often manifestly delusional this way (i.e. they’re convinced that they have a profoundly intimate understanding of the object of their affection despite having never met them). I mean, as I’m writing this it strikes me than an intense desire to marry anyone that one doesn’t already know is likely to be maladjusted, never mind a movie star.

    • Anatoly says:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natalya_Murashkevich

      She was a Soviet child actress who at 13 in 1984 starred in an insanely popular sci-fi movie that instantly made her the most recognizable and famous teenager in the Soviet Union. For years, she received an unending stream of letters, flowers, attempts to meet her from love-struck fans. In 1987, an especially determined fan got his friends to pose as postmen and deliver a box to her apartment as if it was a gift sent through post; the fan hid in the box and sprang out with flowers in hand when it was opened.

      Interestingly, they started dating, married six years later in 1993 and had a child; divorced in 2001. Natasha’s movie career ended by 1988 and she studied and went on to work as a microbiologist.

      • dndnrsn says:

        Of course, the question being answered here is also, you’re a Soviet child actress who wants to become a microbiologist. Who do you start dating?

  16. vV_Vv says:

    Hope this is not too much CW for here.

    I have been wondering whether certain acts of extreme violence towards society, carried out with disregard of the perpetrator’s own life, or even with deliberate suicide at the end, while seemingly incomprehensible, have an evolutionary explanation in terms of gene-level selection.

    My thoughts have been inspired by a certain recent event, that I will not name, which made news and caused “polarized” (to use an euphemism) reactions on the Internet, but many other incidents, including run-of-the-mill school shootings, mall shootings, or even Islamic terror attacks, fit the basic pattern: the perpetrators are almost invariably men with no children and no romantic attachments, usually in the 20-30 age range, unemployed/underemployed and generally low-status. In other words, losers.

    These men come to believe (correctly or incorrectly, it doesn’t matter) that their chances of “fitting in” and becoming “successful” in their societies, which deep down entails becoming evolutionary successful (even though they may not necessarily frame it this way) are very low. But wait, very low chances are still greater than zero, while if you commit an act which will invariably end with either killing yourself, or being shot by a cop, or being locked up for life, your chances of passing your genes are exactly zero. So what is the evolutionary benefit of doing this?

    My attempt at a solution to this conundrum is gene-level selection: copies of your genes exist in people other than you, and create in them phenotypic traits similar to you own. After all, as bad as it is to say, we are only talking about issue X because a certain guy with issue X did a very bad thing. And while most reactions so far have been negative, for those who have issue X negative reactions may be better than society completely ignoring the issue. It could be the case that this very bad thing sets in motion a chain of events such that, in the long term society, out of fear, or compassion, or better rational understanding, will change in ways that increase the evolutionary success of people with issue X, which may share some genes with that very bad guy. After all, everybody in Europe is scared shit of Islamic terrorism and this has had political consequences both within and outside Europe, which might benefit the people who share genes with the Islamic terrorists.

    So could it be the case that a suicidal anti-social strategy is evolutionary successful if your direct expected evolutionary fitness is low enough and the expected payoff for this strategy to people with similar genes is high enough?

    Obligatory disclaimer for the charity-challenged: I absolutely do not condone any act of anti-social violence, or threat of violence, for any political, religious, ethnic, reproductive or other reason whatsoever.

    • Brian Young says:

      It’s a little bit of a just-so explanation.

      Alternatively, people that can credibly threaten Costly/Altruistic punishment (see: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep18974) could face fewer social threats.

    • Aapje says:

      I think that the explanation is far simpler. Before I explain, I need to point out that these people pretty clearly are not just upset at being losers, but that they blame society/others for preventing them from being successful.

      We see that humans, but also many of the more intelligent animals have a concept of justice, where they are willing to eat a personal cost, to punish anti-social behavior in defectors. This is sensible in the same way that MAD is sensible.

      So this suggests that it is especially young men who are fairly unsuccessful who have a very strong sense of societal unfairness, as well as these beliefs:
      – that moderate and/or collective action doesn’t work
      – that it is their duty to punish defectors

    • gbdub says:

      Eh, not everything needs a first-order evolutionary explanation.

      Getting angry about social ostracism is probably an adaptation. Seeking status probably is. Violently lashing out at a society you’re mad at is a good way to get notoriety, which is a certain sort of status. That’s probably all the explanation you need.

      People do plenty of personally self destructive things (from drugs to jumping in front of bullets for a friend) that don’t obviously increase likelihood of our genes propagating. But they stem from instincts that also encourage more evolutionarily useful behaviors.

      “Murder-suicide” as a negative side effect of various positive instincts (or a negative of such instincts carried too far) seems a much simpler and more likely explanation than a frankly tortured just-so story for why such acts are directly evolutionarily advantageous.

      • DavidS says:

        This. Huge amounts of things that humans do don’t actually support reproductive success (for one obvious example, most couples limit their number of children and not because having more would mean that none of them could survive or thrive enough to breed). We are quite obviously not creatures that act like robots with the function ‘pass on your genes’, even if you include via those genes in siblings etc. Instead, genes give us various emotions/tendencies and those are either adaptive or not.

        It’s not even that the actions that don’t maximise passing on genes have to be ‘negative’ from our POV (though they are from the genes’).

    • Iain says:

      There are really two questions here.

      1. Is there evolutionary pressure towards sacrificing your own life to increase the reproductive success of your genetic relatives?
      2. Is it plausible that terrorist attacks (writ broadly) are a result of this evolutionary pressure?

      The answer to #1 is clearly yes. This is bog-standard evolutionary biology: a gene that causes you to sacrifice yourself to save the lives of two other carriers will tend to spread.

      The answer to #2, I think, is no, for a few reasons.

      First, note that it doesn’t matter (in terms of evolutionary pressure) whether the people you help share many of your genes; it matters whether they share the martyrdom gene specifically. If carriers of the martyrdom gene keep sacrificing themselves to improve the reproductive success of non-carriers, then pretty soon there won’t be any carriers left.

      Second, note that this kind of behaviour is incredibly rare, and relatively recent. Even if there were hypothetically an evolutionary advantage to this kind of attack, it’s implausible that it could have made any significant difference by now. (Also, I am deeply dubious that, say, European Muslims are better off reproductively the more everybody hates and fears them.)

      Third, this kind of behaviour shows obvious signs of being culturally mediated. Columbine-style school shootings were much less frequent — almost non-existent — before Columbine. Suicide bombing follows a similar pattern. Once the idea of anti-social violence is out there, certain types of people latch onto it. This doesn’t make much sense from a genetic perspective, but fits perfectly with a memetic perspective.

      Have you read The Selfish Gene? I think you would find it interesting.

    • John Schilling says:

      The answer to #2, I think, is no, for a few reasons.

      The belief that Justice is worth killing for and worth dying for, is plausibly heritable. For most people, for most of history, the great injustices in their immediate vicinity are likely to be done to close kin. If an act of vengeance can free them from an injustice that threatens their reproductive success, that may be a net win. If the credible promise of vengeance can deter such injustice, even better.

      As people organize into larger social units, and especially as they become more personally atomized, the willingness to kill or die for Justice is more likely to be manifest on behalf of genetic strangers. Poor targeting from a strictly evolutionary perspective, but a likely outcome of the simple heuristics that evolution will have selected for in step one. Consequence, terrorism.

      Maybe. How do we measure this?

      • Iain says:

        Yeah, this is a good point.

        It is plausible — maybe even likely — that the human ability to martyr oneself for a cause is adaptive. A gene that makes you more likely to lay down your life given a sufficiently compelling narrative could easily spread if you save enough of your close kin.

        Under this model, angry young killers are the result of a misfiring heuristic. There’s no point trying to figure out who gains the genetic advantage, because suicide attacks don’t actually maximize fitness: they’re just an accidental side-effect of a more useful instinct.

        I agree that this is difficult to measure. Evolutionary psychology is littered with just-so stories.

        • There is a simpler way in which “the human ability to martyr oneself for a cause is adaptive.” If your possession of that ability is observable, it provides other people a reason not to do things that injure your cause.

          I have a chapter in my current book project on feud law, legal systems in which law enforcement was private and decentralized. The basic logic is “if you wrong me I will harm you unless you compensate me.” There are a number of problems such a system has to solve in order to work.

          One of them is the commitment problem–making it in my interest to carry out my threat if you don’t compensate me, even though you will make doing so as costly for me as you can manage. One solution to that problem is vengefulness, a hardwired inclination to get back at those who have wronged you. The fact that you are known to be vengeful may be a good reason not to wrong you.

          The pattern being discussed looks like the same thing applied a bit more generally.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I’m not sure this fits in with Islamic terror attacks. The 9/11 hijackers were no dummies. The San Bernardino attackers were married, with a kid, and he had a good stable government job. I’ve read that a disproportionately high percentage of Islamic terrorists are engineers.

      Perhaps loser => terrorist works for some cases, but I don’t think it does for Islamic terrorism.

      • The Nybbler says:

        I’ve read that a disproportionately high percentage of Islamic terrorists are engineers.

        I’m not so sure that isn’t just a slam at engineers by journalists, though. Last time I examined such a claim (about the 9-11 hijackers), I found more lawyers and religious scholars than engineers, and several of the engineers were failures at it.

      • bean says:

        I’ve read that a disproportionately high percentage of Islamic terrorists are engineers.

        Scott has argued that this is because engineers are more likely to take ideas seriously. That may be part of it. I also suspect that some of it is that engineers are better terrorists, and doing a count of top Al Quieda leaders is easier and more interesting than examining the demographics of suicide bombers.

      • dndnrsn says:

        I had thought that the “Islamic terrorists more likely to be engineers than the norm” was a result of big STEM spending (related to oil extraction and infrastructure building), but it’s hardly something I have proof of.

        I think the “they’re losers” thing works more with the sort of guys who commit single-guy, lone-wolf, minimal-planning attacks.

        The ultimate problem is the existence of a (seemingly growing?) number of disaffected young men, especially those who don’t settle on only destroying themselves. What “script” they end up with depends heavily on their demographics. It’s too bad that people, rather than recognizing the problem of 1. these guys, maybe increasing in number, and 2. maybe the scripts are getting on average more violent, take each case and depending on their own politics and the demographics of the killer, decide whether to play it down or play it up. A van into a crowd is the same whether the driver is a disaffected Muslim from the banlieues or equivalent, or a guy who thinks society is conspiring to keep his dick from getting wet.

    • DavidS says:

      I’ve said upthread I agree with others that you’re assuming that a direct evolutionary explanation is needed when it’s not. But separate from that, was interested by this: perhaps a case of typical mind fallacy?

      “After all, everybody in Europe is scared shit of Islamic terrorism….”

      I’m European and Islamic terrorism very rarely enters my consciousness in any way and certainly I don’t walk around being terrified of it.

      And this is despite the fact that one of the attacks took place about 5 minutes walk from me and various acquaintances and colleagues of mine would probably have seen it take place and potentially been caught up in it if they had been less than a minute earlier/later in terms of when they set off. For a broader sense of ‘caught up in it’, I was in a locked-down building and I knew people who were very close and basically got locked in rooms by (good) guys with guns until it was safe.

      My feeling is that the increased number of attacks since Paris/Belgium haven’t really made people more scared than they were in 2002-3 or whatever. There’s almost an element of ‘actually, we’ve seen attacks happen and the world doesn’t end’. And people who were around for the height of IRA etc. terrorism in England seem to have got pretty blase about it as well. I may well be typical minding here as well! But thought it was worth flagging.

      • vV_Vv says:

        Well, not literally everybody in Europe might be terrified of Islamic terrorism, but it is undeniable that Islamic terrorism is a major political issue in Europe, and many people modified their daily behaviors and their voting behavior, because of it, and the European governments take it into accounts in various ways.

    • a reader says:

      Just a hypothesis/supposition I made up now reading this:

      Maybe among group animals, in the young males who don’t have access to females at all, aggressiveness increases in time until they are furious enough to attack the alpha male. That can be fatal for them, but it doesn’t matter: from the evolutionary point of view it doesn’t matter if they die now or later if they die childless. If they attack the alpha male, at least they stand a chance to win and become the new alpha male, monopolizing the females themselves and having lots of children.

      Now in the modern human society, there isn’t an alpha male who takes all the women for himself, but there are young males who don’t have sex at all, who feel the rage accumulating inside them – a fury without a clear direction, towards “the powers to be” / “the system”. Of course, it is a fight that they can’t win – what was an adaptative reaction back then is extremely maladaptive now.

      And being humans, they need to have a worldview that justifies their fury against the system. For old incel Ted K., the system was civilization, for contemporary incels the system is “gynocentrism”.

      There are millions more men than women in China and India, due to millions of selective abortions (and maybe also some infanticides) of baby girls, but they speak about “gynocentrism” and how men are the disposable sex!

      • toastengineer says:

        Be careful about evolutionary just-so stories. Conducted by an amateur, evopsych can prove damn near anything, meaning it’s utterly meaningless.

        You’re confusing incels with MRAs. This makes about as much sense as accusing the Soviets of blaming their crop failures on The Patriarchy.

        It is possible, believe it or not, for one kind of person to have huge awful problems, and for the other kind of person to also have completely different huge awful problems at the same time. Furthermore, the people who talk about “gynocentrism” usually aren’t talking about China and India.

  17. onyomi says:

    Bit of a random observation:

    I had long noticed that destinations visited by a great many tourists tend to become crappy. I mean, the destination itself may or may not be well-kept and may or may not be overrated, but the fact of a great many visitors will make visiting there a less pleasant experience not only because crowds ruin ambiance, but because there will probably be hawkers, tour buses, high ticket prices, over-commercialization, etc. Moreover, the social character of the place itself changes: you are no longer an incidental observer of what the place would be like if catering to locals, you instead become an observer of other tourists observing some famous thing, interacting with people who are there to make money off tourists.

    At the same time, a problem I’m less likely to, though have encountered: you don’t want the thing/place you’re looking for to be completely off the beaten path/something no one’s ever heard of before as the going will be extremely difficult and rewards probably slight (though potentially very high if you are unusually lucky).

    I thought about this recently with respect to Google search results: it’s disappointing when you Google something very obscure and Google has no good results for you, but it’s also annoying when you Google something incredibly common and all the top results are super click-baity, ad-filled affairs written for a lowest common denominator audience. The best Google search results are for things that are a little obscure but not too obscure.

    This also seems to be true of research topics, restaurants… well, a lot of things, and maybe it’s too obvious/common-sensical to be worth pointing out or considering in detail… but is there some name for this, like “the sociological phenomenon of sweet spot-ism”? I feel like it might somehow be relevant to consideration of group dynamics, etc.

    • Randy M says:

      I think there’s a lot of agreement about the “goldilocks” principle. Question is, for any given scenario, how much agreement is there about where the sweet spot is?

    • drunkfish says:

      Not an answer, but a fun manifestation of this is the stereotypical hipster “I liked this thing before it was cool”. Maybe that formulation warrants cringe, but you’ve basically justified the attitude itself.

    • Nornagest says:

      I wonder if this could be hooked in to the decline and fall of Wikipedia over on the links thread. 2007 is about when the biggest Web services became truly mainstream.

  18. fion says:

    The second SSC Diplomacy game has finished! (Sorry @rlms if you wanted to post this. I got there first. :P) Congratulations to Zeno for winning as Germany and thanks to everybody for the game.

    The game can be found here: http://www.backstabbr.com/game/5767909670912000/1901/spring (Use the wee arrows at the top left to navigate the game.)

    • fion says:

      I only joined this one as France in Winter 1901, after the previous France left the game. I only missed one turn of movement, but more importantly, several other countries had some un-replied-to messages. Finding me unresponsive and so useless as an ally, they formed other alliances, so I had a lot of uphill to do.

      My intention was to not take the game too seriously (I was also in the other one happening simultaneously), and just be a bit of a dummy for the other players so that their game wasn’t too badly spoiled by my predecessor leaving. But I got super-into it and had a great time.

      England and Germany were having a full French breakfast, but somehow I managed to get them both on-side by fall 1903, at the time Turkey was busy taking over the world. Until the end of 1905 I managed to play a crafty double-game, where both England and Germany treated me as an ally and fought each other. There was one turn where I accidentally put the wrong moves in and feared for a while I’d alienated both of them, but I think I managed to convince England that it was a mistake and Germany that it was a minor change of plan.

      Anyway, by the start of 1906 I was worried about Italy and Turkey working together to win (Italy had been pretty out of it, but made a sterling come-back.) I persuaded England and Germany to stop fighting each other and form a Western Triple to beat this threat.

      However, this 3v2 situation didn’t last long, because Italy decided to betray Turkey. Italy and Germany were set to make rapid gains on Turkey and I had to reassess my position. I tried to lay the groundwork for alliances with both Italy and Germany when they inevitably turned on each other once Turkey was either out of it or mostly out of it. Italy was up for it, Germany didn’t respond. I decided I needed to make some expansion while Italy and Germany ate Turkey so in fall 1907 I betrayed England, getting up to my high-point of the game on six SCs.

      This was my biggest mistake of the game (though I’m still not sure what would have been a better play) because it enraged England, who threw everything at me, leaving their German side exposed. At the same time it was becoming clear that Germany was doing better than Italy out of the Turkey eating contest and had the opportunity for a solo win. I tried to persuade England to help stop Germany. Italy even got involved to try and get us to stop fighting and stop Germany. In my opinion England went a little outside the spirit of the game, supporting Germany through Belgium, Picardy and even Brest, not taking anything for themselves and letting Germany take Edinburgh.

      At this point, having satisfactorily punished my heinous betrayal, England came on board with the stopping-Germany-from-running-away-with-the-game project and we essentially had a 4v1. I think we could have stopped them, but we did make a few minor mistakes, at a point when the stakes were too high. For example, in Spring 1910, Italy took Serbia with Bulgaria rather than Albania and I vacated MAO, leaving Germany’s Brest fleet a chance to escape rather than disband. And then in Fall 1910, the final turn, Italy forgot to cut support in Budapest and England and I dropped the ball on Brest (on my suggestion, they moved from Brest to ENG, hoping to cut support in the event that Germany took London from NTH rather than ENG. What we didn’t realise was that, if Germany did the expected move from ENG (with support from NTH) then the English fleet would move straight out of Brest, which was still under German control from last winter. I should have moved one of my armies to Brest in order to keep it out of German hands, or, even better, England shouldn’t have moved out). If we had made only one of these mistakes, Germany would still have won, but if we had made neither then we’d still be fighting. Of course, Germany’s position was very strong and they still had builds, so perhaps they’d just have won the next turn if not that turn.

      In any event, it turned out to be a very interesting game. In my opinion, much more interesting than the first, which ended in a 3v3 grind (admittedly with a masterful and exciting stab right at the end). In this one we had alliances shifting, empires rising and falling and my tricky balancing acts being a minor power but staying alive, and arguably having a disproportionate impact on the course of the game.

      I’d be interested to hear what the other players were thinking during that game, and if there were any secret alliances I wasn’t aware of at the time. I think I’ve learned a few things from these two games:
      (a) Austria-Hungary sucks. France is much more fun.
      (b) Playing solo is a lot easier than playing as part of a team (it says France was “RandyChevandFion” but that’s just because I couldn’t be bothered setting up my own backstabbr account. If I play again I’ll make a solo account.)
      (c) Gobbobobble (hope I’ve got the right number of ‘b’s!) makes a fun ally. I think possibly we should all avoid telling each other who we are because I might be irrationally inclined to trust gobbobobble, or irrationally (rationally?) terrified of John Schilling, for example. It creates a weird meta-game that I’m not sure should be part of it. (Of course, perhaps everybody else was going by this rule and I’m just a little late to the party. I guess it’s not a coincidence that backstabbr doesn’t tell you who the players are until the end of the game.)

      • FXBDM says:

        England Here.

        First of all, thank you to everyone that made this game possible. RDLMS for organizing it, Scott for hosting the forum, all players and especially Fion for taking over France when we needed an extra.

        It was a fun game, although I have some regrets over my play.

        Game started normally, although with a flaky France on my south side and an agressive german in the east. After the initial banter I decided I would try a gambit and aim square for France, hoping that I would be able to convince them I was attacking Germany. Somehow this worked and I was in a good position to attack the continent. I was pretty sure I had it made right there. Make quick work of the French, and then wrap around and wreak havoc in the Med. Germany was on my side and was going to only produce armies from now on. They did get three builds on the first turn but I figured if he kept his word I was golden. Germany did build a fleet but it was deep in the Baltic and he was at war with Russia and I foolishly did not press the Issue. I’m not going to number my mistakes here because I’ll run out of digits, but if I did that would be numero uno.

        Only France did not make it to the second turn. Not wanting more delays and relying on a flakey player we asked around for a replacement player and Fion graciously agreed to join, saying he was not going to give much time to the game but he could enter orders to keep things interesting. Figuring that my original plan was still good I welcomed him warmly, told him I would cut him some slack and proceeded to do the exact opposite and help Germany deep into French soil, even supporting them into an attack on Paris as I took the key harbour of Brest. I thought I was GOLDEN! No chance of a French attach now, since they did not have any fleets and, well, England IS an island. Germany was busy with Russia and we could slowly dismember France and go on our merry world conquering way.

        Come 1903, Germany and I got our orders “confused” and bounced in St-Petersburg. I did support him into Paris at the same time but that marked a definite downgrade in my view of our relationship. I was starting to eye Belgium and thought that this French fellow wasn’t a bad sort, after all, and maybe I should let him off the hook slightly and team up with him against the Hun.

        So we agreed to a plan where he would keep a low profile and lure Germany into giving him back Paris while supporting my attack on the bare western side of Germany. In fall 1903 I took Belgium and prevented Germany from entering the North Sea. He did end up taking St-Petersburg because Russia did not supply orders and that messed up my plan mightily.

        Of course, now, knowing my plan, Germany gets TWO fleets and I’m starting to feel a bit outnumbered. Russia looks like it’s going to fold like a cheap suit, France is keen but always a risk, and Germany is NOT HAPPY. Warned of the plans of Germany by France, I thwart a attack on Belgium. France re-takes Paris and things are looking up again, somewhat.

        In the fall the trouble begins. Turkey, of all people, is bringing a fleet round Gibraltar to mess with me. I need to use a fleet there. Belgium is also lost and I have to disband a fleet. I am now severely outnumbered, with Russia not responding, and France still only secretly supporting me. Spring 1905 sees us start discussing the threat of a Turkish-Italian alliance and that maybe we should stop fighting so much in the North and see what we can do to the southern alliance. Germany is unresponsive and I miss the message where he accepts a cease-fire and re-take Belgium. Aw, oopsee! Apologies ensue and we pledge an alliance where we will concentrate on the mess in the south and leave Germany’s tender pasty backside alone for the time being. France gets us to agree by stating that they will “attack whoever breaks this alliance without regards to my safety”. I let Germany destroy my continental army because it irritates him and I want another fleet.

        So I build a fleet in Liverpool to defend against the Marauding Turk, Russia dissapears, Germany builds southern armies and things are set for the ol’ north vs south mess. In Spring 1906, I decide this is not stacked enough in my direction, and I’m not sure I can trust Germany. So I contact Turkey and ask them what they think about the whole thing and if I could interest them in a bit of old fashionned Backstabbing. They say “sure, old chap!” and we start plotting a bit against Germany. I “miss” an order that saves their northern fleet from certain annihilation (although the Norwegian sea in fall is not very welcoming to Turkish sailors, I hear). Italy surprises us all by attacking their former allies Turkey and helping Germany do it.

        Spring 1907 is when things fall apart. I am still waiting for the perfect moment to hit Germany in the back with Turkey. I hum and aw and say “let’s wait!” to make sure the stab is good and deep. I somehow miss the ominous move of France towards my unguarded territories. Someone tries to warn me but I’m busy plotting and I dismiss the warning. Turkey is also less enthusiastic about the whole thing since things are not going well down south and it’s cold and really? you want us to go and visit Arkhangelsk? We’re Turks!
        Fall 1907 is the beginning of the end. In a very bold stab, France re-takes Belgium and Brest and blocks my entry into the Med. I am down to three navies, rather well positionned but very ineffective at anything offensive. I play it cool but in my mind I know I can’t let France get away with this, because it sends a message of weakness and I have to prepare the next game. Germany is also open to retaliation because he’s worried at what liberties France will take with the aforementionned pasty backside once he’s pinned me down. I calculate things and realize that if Germany is going to get his fleets out of the Baltic (and realistically, they’re not useful there) he’s going to go through me like a knife through butter. I also realize if I want to guard my island I have to keep Brest occupied and prevent the french Med fleets from pushing north, which I can’t do while guarding against Germany in any efficient manner. So I reach out the the Kaiser and say “look, you’ve got me dead to right and I know it and you know it. The only thing I want is to spank the french. I know you can take my lands whenever you like, but if you hold off on that while we destroy France, I’ll support you when you want”. He accepts.

        There is a flurry of diplomatic talks with Italy and France about “ZOMG! The Germans are too strong! Let’s band together and hit them!” but I can’t let France get away with this kind of treachery and become allies right after. I suport the invasion of Belgium by Germany and take an offensive position in Gascony. France and Italy are very pissed off and heated words ensue. Spring 1909 sees me helping Germany into Picardy and taking an even more offensive position into MAO while leaving the Old Island Bare. Cries of “KINGMAKER” sound through the palaces of Europe and I am reminded in very clear terms that what I am doing is against the spirit of the game and the interests of good gameplay. I still support Germany into Brest in the fall while they calmly walk into the beautiful city of Edimburgh and start roasting sausages in the castle there.

        Well, now do I look like a Chump or what? I thought I had at least one more turn of fun before I was conquered. I guess when you make a deal with the devil, you have to remember he chooses the time of reckoning. Italy tells me “Look what you did” and uses the very strong image of me taking my ball and going home instead of playing the game. This shook me, Italy, thank you for being clear and blunt. In 1910 I do turn against my erstwhile master but the damage was done and now we’re all eating sausages and wearing weird pointy helmets.

        It was a good game, I regret some stuff, but I love that there was way more chaos than in the team game. I have some meta-comments that I will keep to a different post.

        (wow, it sounds way more epic when told in story form)

      • Randy M says:

        I think possibly we should all avoid telling each other who we are because I might be irrationally inclined to trust gobbobobble, or irrationally (rationally?) terrified of John Schilling, for example.

        Keep in mind this is how the game was designed; it’s based on a board game, where you may play several times with the same group, so there is a reputational meta-game to be aware of.

        • FXBDM says:

          Agreed. The meta game makes the whole thing more complex.

        • fion says:

          Yeah, that’s a good point. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that “the way the game was designed” is also the most fun way to play it. If you think too much about the reputational meta-game then your actions in each individual game might not be very sensible for that game. If we all play the reputational meta-game then there will be more kingmaking and less alliance-shifting, both of which make the game less fun in my opinion.

          (More kingmaking because you have an incentive to prioritise revenge over surviving so that people don’t mess with you in future games. Less alliance-shifting because everybody wants to signal “I’m a trustworthy ally” for future games.)

          • FXBDM says:

            I see your point. I can live with a limited form of that. If we know who is in the game but not which country they play there is a limited form of reputation in action. I also support impersonation as a legitimate strategy.

          • John Schilling says:

            Since lying in press is explicitly part of the game, one can always claim to be the guy who was a faithful ally last game. Or the complete sucker, or evil mastermind, whichever best suits your purpose.

            Or just settle for ambiguity.

          • fion says:

            Haha, the idea of impersonating other people sounds fun. Feels a bit too close to actual lying, though. 😛

          • rlms says:

            I think the semi-anonymity we have is pretty good: the players in each game are known, countries are not (except for mine as I have to make announcements about gamemastering stuff) but you can possibly work out who some people are from writing style.

      • bean says:

        or irrationally (rationally?) terrified of John Schilling

        I half-expect that the first few turns of his next game are going to be a mass crusade against whatever country got him as leader.

    • FXBDM says:

      Meta Reflexions on both SSC Diplomacy games.

      In no particular order

      a) Fion’s write-up was great and I appreciate him taking the initiative. However, I think we should make it a community norm that the Winner Writes History, as John Schilling did.

      b) Team play takes more time and coordinating messages is complex. Our team worked best when one person was in charge and the other one acted as an advisor. We reversed once or twice when something came up IRL and that meant no turn was missed. Notice how much earlier the team game finished.

      c) I would be curious to know how the different teans coordinated their efforts. We started with a Google Docs where we had a map and different sections for messages and strategy etc. It worked well but after a while we didn’t use it all that much and did most planning just by emailing back and forth. I think a forum style infrastructure would have been more productive.

      d) Most missed orders and grace periods came over the weekend. I suggested we click the “do not process orders on weekend” box and we’ll see how it goes

      e)2 days per turn seemed hectic at times. We did not have a lot of time for back and forth with other teams and often crucial messages were sent at the last minute and not everyone saw them in time. Then again, it depends on the game phase. In the chaos of game 2, it was a bit too short. In the slow grind of late game 1 we could have gone even shorter.

      • Randy M says:

        However, I think we should make it a community norm that the Winner Writes History, as John Schilling did.

        Lest anyone say rationality is not about winning.

        I would be curious to know how the different teans coordinated their efforts.

        At first e-mail, then using the in-game diplomacy without other teams selected (or including them for very trusted allies).

      • fion says:

        a) Thanks. 🙂 As for your norm suggestion, I will certainly follow it if we make it one. A possible counter-argument for making it one: not everybody is so keen for writing up (and there will probably be less and less appetite for it as we play more games) and the winner might not feel like it (which would be a shame, because their perspective is probably the most interesting one for the rest of us). I accept I probably was a bit hasty to post, and I apologise if Germany would rather have got in there first. (In my comment I apologised to rlms as Dear Diplomacy Leader but you’re right that John kicked off after last one – I’d misremembered. Can’t even apologise to the right people!)

        d) and e) I agree. It’s really hard to choose the right adjudication time. In both games there were times when I felt I needed longer to discuss things with people, and in both games there were times when I got impatient waiting for other people. I’d be curious how much other people were clicking the “resolve once everybody’s submitted” box, because that has the potential to speed up the slow bits, but only if used unanimously, which didn’t happen often except in retreat phases.

        One thing that I think helped the second game a lot in this regard was having press open in builds/disbands/retreat phases. It gave those of us who felt we needed more time a chance to get started discussing. I’d be very much in favour of all future games doing this.

      • FXBDM says:

        F) in team play, when a delay for consideration is necessary, a simple « got your note, will consider » message helps communication tremendously

      • John Schilling says:

        I think we should make it a community norm that the Winner Writes History, as John Schilling did.

        To be fair, we may have just established the norm that France Writes History. Which is somewhat historically accurate, as French was the generally accepted international language of diplomacy in 1900-1918.

  19. Viliam says:

    I wish Scott would review The Archipelago Gulag.

    I am reading it currently, and my conclusion is that any debate about Soviet-style socialism which does not include information from this book is completely detached from reality. Like, you may believe that you know about evils of real socialism, but trust me: you probably still underestimate them by several orders of magnitude. Just read the book; seriously. For example, a few dozen pages just enumerate categories of people scheduled for extermination in Soviet Russia.

    • Nornagest says:

      I’m working on an effortpost-style review of Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, about Maoist “brainwashing” during the years around the Korean War. I’ve read The Gulag Archipelago, but it’s been a while; might consider doing another on it later if the reception’s positive.

    • cassander says:

      Also good in that genre (and a lot shorter) are First They Killed My Father about the Khmer Rouge and Mao’s Great Famine.

    • maintain says:

      What are the categories?

      • Viliam says:

        Many. (Even Jews were on the list of the groups to be eliminated; they just never got sufficiently high priority, because there were so many other types of people to kill.) A few of them could be summarized as “people who knew something about world outside of Soviet Union”, for example those who spent some time abroad, or those who had a foreign classmate at elementary school… if I remember it correctly, something like this got the author himself to the camps. It was important to eliminate those, because they knew that the propaganda that depicted Soviet Union as the best place to live was complete bullshit.

        Another large category was people politically active other than Bolsheviks. Even members of the left-wing parties which joined Communists at the revolution were later scheduled for elimination.

        But the lists go on and on. For me, the part that made impression was not who specifically, but the fact that the list of various who’s was going on and on…

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      See also Red Azalea for the Cultural Revolution.

    • hyperboloid says:

      I am reading it currently, and my conclusion is that any debate about Soviet-style socialism which does not include information from this book is completely detached from reality

      This is a bit like saying that any debate about American style Capitalism that does not include an account of slavery is detached from reality. Not only was the brutality recounted by Solzhenitsyn restricted to one particular era of Soviet history, but numerous countries that had economic policies identical to those of the Soviet Union never engaged in anything like the crimes of Stalinism.

      This is not to say that the Soviet system was a good one, or worth imitating, but equally persuasive arguments can be made against the economic systems of western countries.

      • cassander says:

        This is a bit like saying that any debate about American style Capitalism that does not include an account of slavery is detached from reality.

        Slavery was present in virtually all human societies to varying degrees before the 19th century, capitalist or not. It was capitalist societies that were the first to eliminate slavery.

        Not only was the brutality recounted by Solzhenitsyn restricted to one particular era of Soviet history, but numerous countries that had economic policies identical to those of the Soviet Union never engaged in anything like the crimes of Stalinism.

        this is false. Every single communist state had its gulags and mass killings. They went under different names sometimes, and the scale varied from the tens of thousands to the tens of millions, but literally every communist party that came to power engaged in stalinist style mass killing and deportation, without exception.

        • rlms says:

          Unpleasant prisons where the government puts people they don’t like without a fair trial are hardly unique to communism.

          I’m pretty sure the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova didn’t set up gulags when they were were in power from 2001-2009.

          • Education Hero says:

            I’m pretty sure the Party of Communists of the Republic of Moldova didn’t set up gulags when they were were in power from 2001-2009.

            Having a communist party in power in a parliamentary republic is obviously not the same as having a communist state.

          • fion says:

            @Education Hero

            It’s probably not worth getting pedantic about “communist state” but if we do, then not only has one never existed, but it’s a contradiction in terms.

            More importantly, cassander did actually say “literally every communist party that came to power engaged in stalinist style mass killing and deportation, without exception”, so rlms’s response seems like a fair counterexample to me.

      • Viliam says:

        Not only was the brutality recounted by Solzhenitsyn restricted to one particular era of Soviet history

        If you mean “the level of brutality was not constant, therefore during some decades it was higher than during other decades”, I agree. But if you suggest that it later disappeared completely… uhm, nope.

  20. KG says:

    After following a couple threads about Christianity, I thought to myself, “What would I do if I were an omnipotent god?” Because if I were, and assuming I had the same personality as I do now, I would definitely not be omnibenevolent. As a writer who considers his creativity his greatest asset, I would try to make a universe that I consider interesting. Such a universe would probably require that sapient creatures such as humans to exist, whose lives are filled with pleasure and suffering in varying amounts.

    But maybe I’m not giving this enough thought? I wonder what other people would do, maybe with a greater degree of specificity, if they were omnipotent beings tasked with creating a universe.

    • Protagoras says:

      God the fanatical artist has no more evidence in favor than God the all-loving, but certainly has considerably less evidence against.

    • rahien.din says:

      Alan Watts had a way of arriving at this conclusion.

      Imagine that when you dream, you dream lucidly, and can have whatever experience you choose. Most people would start out doing something perfectly fun, and doing it perfectly. (His example was flying.) That would last a while, but eventually become boring. You would have to introduce some element of difficulty or risk or danger to keep interested. This too would run out. Another bit of interesting risk would be introduced. A sufficiently long sequence thereof might lead to a world like ours.

      IIRC he developed this idea from Hinduism’s dream of the brahman.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        I find it interesting that no one in the Anglosphere addresses Hindu answers to the problem of evil.

        • Nick says:

          What are Hindu answers to the problem of evil? I imagine one strategy is karmic, but I’d like to see the actual arguments.

          • Le Maistre Chat says:

            Karma is one of the two terms that does the heavy lifting; the other is maya (illusion).
            Karma does not explain the origin of evil, but it does a tidy job of explaining all the evils the questioner sees in their lifetime. Somebody gets beat up and you don’t know how they deserved it? Could be their karma for having been a wife-beater. In a Western worldview that sounds like victim-blaming, but it’s important to note that the doctrine of karma doesn’t say you shouldn’t help people. Give all your income above subsistence to the poor! It’ll make you a better person (literally, making good karma that’ll earn you a better next life), and if the recipients get more than their works deserve, it’ll get balanced with suffering from other bad people down the line.
            It’s more fair to say that victims lack the moral stature that the Christian doctrine that God Incarnate was innocent and punished for a capital crime confers.

            Why, though, did God let anyone choose evil in the first place? The concept of maya says that all privations we suffer are illusions: they’re something God added to the cosmos to make a more interesting story. Your true Self (Atman) is either God (Brahman), or each of us is a unique soul created in eternity to be one of God’s companions. We’re putting on a play and the sufferer has become a total method actor.

          • rahien.din says:

            (Le Maistre Chat said it much, much better than I.)

            Is that you, Vishnu? Very clever…

    • fion says:

      I am nowhere near wise, intelligent, or knowledgeable enough to try to create a universe, even if I was omnipotent. My universe would probably be a disaster. However, I am wise enough to know that my universe would be a disaster, so I probably wouldn’t create it in the first place.

      Perhaps I’d create some very simple universes. Invent simplified “Standard Models” and see what kind of dynamics they give rise to. I probably wouldn’t create any sentient beings, unless by accident, because I’d be scared of the possibility that their lives would be miserable. Of course, I might create some by accident. I might be omnipotent, but I don’t actually know what constitutes “sentience”. Perhaps I’d be able to build up from these universes to something more complex, or perhaps I’d stop before the risks of creating sentient life became too great.

      Question: does an omnipotent being have the power to make itself infinitely wise, intelligent and knowledgeable? If so I’d probably do that. But it’s impossible for me to predict what I’d do after because I wouldn’t be the same person.

    • HeirOfDivineThings says:

      Your personality is the result of millions of years of evolutionary pressure. I doubt any timeless omnipotent god would be subject to the same process.

      Though “personalities are the result of evolutionary pressure” could also be used as an argument against the existence of a personal god (i.e., a god with a personality makes as much sense as a god with a penis, and the same apologetics can be used to explain away both).

  21. johan_larson says:

    Anyone know what to make of this report about the US having an oddly high rate of deaths in childbirth?

    The number of women in the U.S. who die in childbirth is nearing the highest rate in a quarter-century. An estimated 18.5 mothers died for every 100,000 births in 2013, compared with 7.2 in 1987. The Post reports that this translates to, quote, “a woman giving birth here is twice as likely to die than in Saudi Arabia and three times as likely than in the United Kingdom.”

    Some more coverage here.

    • AKL says:

      A few things come to mind:

      Maybe US pregnancies are higher risk on average. The way the CDC breaks down mortality statistics, cardiovascular disease is the #1 cause of pregnancy related death. The OECD reports that the US is an obesity outlier across all adults; I suspect probably for pregnant mothers too.

      Maybe US medical practice is on average inferior vs. ROW in ways that contribute to mortality in pregnancy. Those same CDC statistics suggest that infection/sepsis is the 3rd leading cause of death in pregnancy, and there’s at least some reason to believe that US hospitals are worse at preventing hospital acquired infections than EU hospitals.

      Maybe pregnant women in the US have worse access to care on average vs. ROW. I bet if you compare mortality rates between US vs. ROW low income women with no-or-intermittent insurance coverage throughout pregnancy, the rates are similar. But I bet the US has a lot more people in the “low-income + uninsured” category vs. say EU (as a share of total pregnancies). In other words, I bet insurance coverage throughout pregnancy impacts mortality even after you control for income, and further that more women in the US are uninsured.

      The reality is probably that all these factors contribute. US pregnancies are higher risk, pregnant women in the US are less likely to receive care throughout their pregnancy, and the care they receive may be inferior / higher risk in at least some ways.

      None of these factors are unique to pregnancy, so its not surprising that US health outcomes are inferior* to ROW (or maybe only countries of similar wealth) across a whole range of outcomes (life expectancy, chronic diseases, infant mortality, etc.).

      I think an interesting follow up is: does the US have a comparative disadvantage in pregnancy / childbirth vs. other health outcomes? My baseline is just that the US is a little worse at most everything.

      * I don’t think this link is dispositive. It was just the first result when I googled “us vs. eu health outcomes” and I’m not super interested in litigating this point.

      ETA: also, differences in data collection. It’s not like any country’s statistics will be perfect, but I would bet almost anything that of all the women who die in childbirth, the US captures a greater share in their data collection than does Saudi Arabia (for a whole host of reasons).

      • John Schilling says:

        also, differences in data collection.

        And definitions; infant mortality statistics will depend strongly on how you categorize “Yes, this infant appears to be breathing but it surely won’t be tomorrow” events. I believe (by memory of cursory investigation long ago FWIW) that there is significant variation in this and that the US falls solidly on the side of, if there was even one breath, it counts as infant mortality.

      • cassander says:

        But I bet the US has a lot more people in the “low-income + uninsured” category vs. say EU (as a share of total pregnancies). In other words, I bet insurance coverage throughout pregnancy impacts mortality even after you control for income, and further that more women in the US are uninsured.

        results here will depend almost entirely on how you define low income and uninsured. If you pick an objective measure of low income, like X dollars per year, or even X dollars adjusted for PPP, there there will be relatively few americans with low incomes relative to europeans because american incomes are generally much higher. If you pick a relative measure, like X percent of median or mean wage, the american numbers will be higher. And in the US, everyone below a certain level of income (the level varies from state to state) qualifies for medicaid, though they might not be enrolled. How you resolve that will dramatically affect your results as well.

        • AKL says:

          I agree that actually coming up with a specific number measuring “access to care” is difficult and subject to caveats. I don’t -really- want to argue about whether pregnant women in the US have better or worse access to care than, say, women in the EU (I mean, I kind of do in the style of message board nihilists so am trying to get the last word while claiming I don’t want to argue). I guess I will attempt to skirt that debate by saying that if in fact US women have worse access to care, that likely explains some of the outcome gap.

          As a side note, though Medicaid might cover pregnant, low-income women in every state (I’m too lazy to look it up), it definitely does not cover all low income people. In e.g. Texas, able bodied, non-parent adults are not eligible for Medicaid. Luckily for Texas residents, families with dependent children are eligible as long as their family income does not exceed a hilariously depressing $3,600 per year for a family of three (!).

          Since pregnant women in Texas with income < 198% FPL are <eligible to sign up for Medicaid I suppose its defensible to claim that they have the same access to care as women in, say, Massachusetts. But given everything we know about human and consumer behavior, if anyone wants to bet me that the coverage rate for poor pregnant women is higher in Texas than in Massachusetts I will happily take your bet.

      • dodrian says:

        One thing I don’t see brought up much in talks about relatively poorer medical care in the US is population concentration.

        While yes, there are communities in Canada that are incredibly remote, the majority of people living in Canada are actually pretty close to a major city. That’s not true in the US. This blog has a bunch of figures that attempt to quantify how ‘rural’ the US population is.

        One data point (*ahem*, anecdote) – my wife and I are expecting next month. We are fortunate to live a few minutes away from a hospital with a maternity ward, but it’s only equipped for low risk births (and C-sections). Our friends have a high-risk pregnancy, meaning a 40 minute drive to see their specialist (and the nearest NICU). If something were seriously wrong, we’d be looking at at least a two hour drive, maybe even four depending on what specialists were needed.

        If anyone has seen something that looks particularly at medical outcomes with respect for rurality, I’d be really interested in reading it.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          My guess is that [routine C-sections] probably should raise the probability of the mother dying … while improving the chances of the baby making it out alive.

          A natural guess, but…

          A measure of how safe Cesareans have become is that there is ferocious but genuine debate about whether a mother in the thirty-ninth week of pregnancy with no special risks should be offered a Cesarean delivery as an alternative to waiting for labor. The idea seems the worst kind of hubris. How could a Cesarean delivery be considered without even trying a natural one? Surgeons don’t suggest that healthy people should get their appendixes taken out or that artificial hips might be stronger than the standard-issue ones. Our complication rates for even simple procedures remain distressingly high. Yet in the next decade or so the industrial revolution in obstetrics could make Cesarean delivery consistently safer than the birth process that evolution gave us.

          Currently, one out of five hundred babies who are healthy and kicking at thirty-nine weeks dies before or during childbirth—a historically low rate, but obstetricians have reason to believe that scheduled C-sections could avert at least some of these deaths. Many argue that the results for mothers are safe, too. Scheduled C-sections are certainly far less risky than emergency C-sections—procedures done quickly, in dire circumstances, for mothers and babies already in distress. One recent American study has raised concerns about the safety of scheduled C-sections, but two studies, one in Britain and one in Israel, actually found scheduled C-sections to have lower maternal mortality than vaginal delivery. Mothers who undergo planned C-sections may also (though this remains largely speculation) have fewer problems later in life with incontinence and uterine prolapse. — Atul Gawande

          That article is a decade old. I wonder how his predictions turned out…?

    • BeefSnakStikR says:

      > An estimated 18.5 mothers died for every 100,000 childbirths

      If they measured the number of women who died in childbirth, they’d reach the opposite conclusion. Lower birth rates in the U.S. means there are more women giving birth per 100k children, and you can only die in childbirth once.

      Women in the U.S. (fertility rate: 1.84) have fewer children than Saudi Arabia (fertility rate: 2.71). If we divided the birth rates up evenly amongst each country’s women, 54347 women in the U.S. would be responsible for 100k births. In Saudi Arabia, 36900 women would be responsible for 100k births.

      That’s an extra 17447 American women who have the potential to die in childbirth, or, if you prefer, 17447 fewer Saudi Arabian women who don’t get the chance to die in childbirth twice.

      Of course, birth rates aren’t distributed equally across the entire population, but I think the point still stands.

      Not sure what to make of the UK differences…the U.K. has about the same birthrate and average family size as the U.S. Or what to make of the 1987-2013 differences.

      • albatross11 says:

        I know there are substantial differences across races w.r.t. infant mortality and complications in childbirth. Interestingly, Hispanics do better than whites in these statistics, but blacks do still worse. I’m not sure anyone knows why it works out this way.

      • albatross11 says:

        I don’t think the effect you’re talking about can be right–not enough women die in childbirth to make a difference there. (Am I missing something?)

        On the other hand, a few other things that probably make a difference:

        a. I’m pretty sure that Americans have a lot more 43-year-old women having their first child after $30K in fertility treatments; it wouldn’t be a huge shock if that led to a higher rate of death in childbirth, higher rate of infant mortality, etc.

        b. I think US doctors tend to go for C-sections immediately whenever there’s any kind of complication. My guess is that this probably should raise the probability of the mother dying (since even pretty routine surgery offers lots of opportunities for things to go fatally wrong for the patient), while improving the chances of the baby making it out alive. But I don’t know for sure.

        c. On the other hand, different countries probably have different levels of women going for an abortion when the risks of pregnancy look too high. That might affect things, but I don’t know how.

        d. Finally, we have a different racial mix than other countries. It would probably be useful to break the probability of dying in childbirth down by race to see whether the US is worse across the board or worse specifically in some groups (say, blacks or maybe poor whites).

    • Huzuruth says:

      We have a lot of obese black women doing poorly in their pregnancies.

  22. achelois says:

    Hey all. Have been thinking a lot about the whole goal misalignment between the genders thing. Sure, many people are happily pairing off as they always have, but there seem to be large disgruntled groups on both sides/both genders who aren’t getting what they want and are really miserable about it. So far I haven’t really heard any good suggestions to help alleviate the problem for sexless, or partnerless men and women.

    I kind of think it’s an intractable problem until we start tampering with biology. Soo… leaving aside how realistic this idea is (personally I think AI development will outpace human hardware upgrades and there won’t be much of a ‘tinkering with biology’ phase where we see big effects across generations from genetic selection) what if, in the future we created designer babies to be more in line with the demands of the sexual marketplace?

    Yep, I know, it’s not that simple, so many genes implicated in single traits, but we could still influence selection considerably. Especially with iterated embryo selection (as Bostrom describes in Superintelligence). Let’s say we aim to make all men 6 foot or taller and select against baldness. Sure, women will hone in on other cues to differentiate, but this might be a good thing. Men will have to compete more with their intelligence and skills, rather than wasting time and energy being miserable and insecure about being short or balding.

    For women, it’s trickier to know what to suggest because more physical variation is acceptable to men. I’m going to be lazy and just say let’s make all women ‘hotter’ so that the lowest rung on the hotness scale is what we’d now call a 7/10. Again, there’d be more need to differentiate in the marketplace with personality, which could be good.

    But yeah, this also could make the ‘losers’ of that genetic (intelligence) lottery unhappy. But I wonder, could this scenario make people, on average, happier? Would we have more stable relationships and fewer men on the lunatic fringes of society?

    (I’m assuming we’re not going for full blown homogeneity here and that a reasonable amount of genetic diversity is still in play – also, assume in the hypothetical that this is all done willingly by people the world over, no icky eugenic coercion).

    If you were born a coupe of generations hence, do you think you’d be happier if the parents of the previous generations took pains to make sure that all children of your generation were decent enough looking to be loveable and dateable? I think I’d be happier in that world.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      There may be a genetic basis for being good at pairing off. This should be researched.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        I don’t think that study says that at all; context-dependence doesn’t imply positional.

        • Education Hero says:

          If attractiveness depends on the context of surrounding people, then that provides evidence that attractiveness is valued based on its distribution.

          • Andrew Hunter says:

            …No, it doesn’t?

            It provides evidence that people’s evaluations change in contexts up to and including the presence or absence of other attractive people. That’s also a true statement for just about any evaluation done by humans.

            A positional good is one that is only valuable in that you have more than your neighbor. That study provides zero evidence that the normal benefits of attractiveness (attention, halo effect, etc) don’t apply to two supermodels standing next to each other.

            There are certainly zero sum games in dating, etc, but if a wizard snapped his fingers and made everyone in the world Hollywood-level pretty, the world would be better off, because nearly everyone prefers to look at attractive people, and treats them better.

          • Education Hero says:

            It provides evidence that people’s evaluations change in contexts up to and including the presence or absence of other attractive people. That’s also a true statement for just about any evaluation done by humans.

            I agree that it’s true for just about any evaluation. Unfortunately, that includes the evaluations made for the purposes of the sexual selection with which the OP was concerned.

            A positional good is one that is only valuable in that you have more than your neighbor. That study provides zero evidence that the normal benefits of attractiveness (attention, halo effect, etc) don’t apply to two supermodels standing next to each other.

            The study provides evidence that attractiveness is contextual, rather than static. If everyone were as attractive as the two supermodels, then they would no longer benefit from attention and the halo effect in the same way because people would recontextualize attractiveness to fit the new normal.

            There are certainly zero sum games in dating, etc, but if a wizard snapped his fingers and made everyone in the world Hollywood-level pretty, the world would be better off, because nearly everyone prefers to look at attractive people, and treats them better.

            I would predict that people would instead quickly form new standards for attractiveness and treat others accordingly.

            In other words, some top percentile of people are accorded deferential treatment because they are more attractive than everyone else, and making everyone more attractive will not improve treatment for everyone, at least not for long.

          • Aapje says:

            @Education Hero

            I think that the way that people treat others depends on a combination of their place in a hierarchy and an non-hierarchical assessment of their traits.

            If everyone gets prettier by the same percentage, shoe-face John may not rise in the hierarchy, but more women will probably find him attractive. Most likely, looks will also become weighed less when deciding on the hierarchy.

  23. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    https://hbr.org/2011/12/first-lets-fire-all-the-managers

    http://www.morningstarco.com/

    I’ve wondered for a long time why democracy is supposed to be best for politics while autocracy is normal in business. And I’ll note that democracy avoids some failure modes but isn’t all that great.

    The top link is a longish article about Morning Star Company, a tomato processing company which expects all the employees to self-manage to produce a good product.

    This isn’t “empowerment” because empowerment is a gift from the top, while Morning Star is recognizing that there are people who just need to not be prevented from using their minds.

    Anyway, top down management is expensive– in personnel, in errors, and in obstructiveness.

    The sad part is that this is just one unusually good company with 400 employees. I’m interested in any other companies with similar policies. It’s possible that it takes someone extraordinary to make this sort of company happen.

    Reality check: reviews say that it's not such a good place to work at the bottom, but is good otherwise.

    I'm quoting a few good paragraphs.

    "That includes obtaining the tools and equipment you need to do your job. At Morning Star, there’s no central purchasing department or senior executive who has to sign off on expenditures; anyone can issue a purchase order. If a maintenance engineer needs an $8,000 welder, he orders one. When the invoice arrives he confirms that he has received the equipment and sends the bill to accounting for payment. Although purchasing is decentralized, it’s not uncoordinated. Morning Star colleagues who buy similar items in large quantities or from the same vendors meet periodically to ensure that they are maximizing their buying power."

    "Morning Star colleagues have a lot of authority but seldom make unilateral decisions. Conversely, no individual has the power to kill an idea. Rather than acting as judge, jury, and executioner, experienced team members serve as coaches. A young employee with a bold idea will be encouraged to seek the advice of a few veterans, who will often provide a brief tutorial: “Here’s a model you can use to analyze your idea. Do some more homework, and when you’re ready, let’s talk again.”"

    "When concerns about someone’s performance are serious enough, the conflict resolution process can end with his termination. Nevertheless, at Morning Star, an employee’s fate never rests in the hands of a capricious boss. Rufer explains the benefits: “When a panel of peers gets convened, people can see that the process is fair and reasonable. Everyone knows they have recourse. We’ve taken away the power a boss has to treat an employee as a punching bag because, say, they have something else going on in their lives.”"

    "Morning Star’s approach to compensation is more akin to that of a professional services firm than a manufacturing business. At the end of each year, every colleague develops a self-assessment document outlining how he or she performed against CLOU goals, ROI targets, and other metrics. Colleagues then elect a local compensation committee; about eight such bodies are created across the company each year. The committees work to validate self-assessments and uncover contributions that went unreported. After weighing inputs, the committees set individual compensation levels, ensuring that pay aligns with value added. "

    • quanta413 says:

      Sort of reminds me of Semco (Brazilian Company, I think there’s a different Semco in the U.S.) which had a very flat company hierarchy too. The (current? former?) CEO wrote a book about their company organization back in the 1990s. There were only 3 levels of hierarchy and employees had a vastly larger amount of control than normal according to the CEO. It’s pretty interesting. It’s also hard to get much more info on since it’s not an American company.

      I’d recommend the book.

    • Paul Brinkley says:

      As I recall from reading a copy of their handbook from a few years ago, Valve operates in a similar way. I’m fairly sure this was either before they announced Steam or shortly thereafter, if people are trying to place it in a timeline.

    • cassander says:

      I’ve wondered for a long time why democracy is supposed to be best for politics while autocracy is normal in business. And I’ll note that democracy avoids some failure modes but isn’t all that great.

      Autocracy is very good when you’re trying to accomplish specific, measurable goals, like get a man to the moon and back by the end of the decade no matter what it costs. It works less well when your goals have complicated tradeoffs, when the goals aren’t measurable, or you don’t know what they even are. most companies have a pretty clear idea of what they’re trying to do, and the ones that don’t tend to be clearly problematic.

    • hyperboloid says:

      I’ve wondered for a long time why democracy is supposed to be best for politics while autocracy is normal in business.

      “Morning Star’s approach to compensation is more akin to that of a professional services firm”

      You’ve answered your own question there. Not to get to “Marxy” about this, but autocracy is only the rule in highly capital intensive industries like manufacturing. Law firms, advertising agencies, private medical practices, architectural firms, and other sorts of businesses where human capital is the primary resource tend to be run as partnerships. Now these are not exactly democracies, there is often a single managing partner, but in most cases leadership is far more accountable to employees.

  24. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    https://www.energyarts.com/blog/bruceenergyartscom/taoist-yoga-%E2%80%93-man-suitcase

    This is perhaps not entirely fair because it’s comparing low-quality hatha yoga to high-quality taoist martial arts.

    On the other hand, it’s always worth noting that Goodhart’s Law is a constant risk. The Law is that that any measurement which is used to guide policy becomes corrupt.

    In this case, it isn’t even about policy in an organization, it’s just people trying to figure out what to do with their time and their bodies… and just being able to assume unusual poses (or spend time waving your hands) isn’t necessarily contributing to your life.

  25. Zad says:

    I recently wrote a blog post about how a lot of scientific findings can be false positives and use some math to explain along with ways to correct for the false positives

    https://www.lesslikely.com/statistics/multiplicity-explained/

  26. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Content warning: The transcript included graphic descriptions of sexual violence, specifically a boy abused by a man.

    I’m posting this here partly because I haven’t taken a lot of what men have been saying about difficulties with women seriously enough, and partly because it may be of interest because it’s a by a man who has both found feminist analysis useful and has also found that his experience is generally blanked out by feminists.

    http://amptoons.com/blog/?p=23950#more-23950

    ******

    Long quote follows:

    “Some years ago, while discussing consent in what happened to be an all-female Women’s Studies class, my students started complaining about how tired they were—as one of them put it—“of all the fucking clueless ways that men keep hitting on us.” At the top of their list was the way so many men seemed to think that even the slightest expression of interest on a woman’s part was an invitation to some kind of physical interaction, from touching and hugging, to holding hands, to kissing, to grinding on the dance floor, to more. This was, they all agreed, a tremendous turnoff, and one of the things they found least attractive in men.

    “So I asked my students how they would feel if a man they were interested in asked permission first, to hug them, for example, or to dance up close, or to kiss them. No way, they all laughed. That guy would end up being the needy, clingy type, “the kind of guy,” that same woman said, “who’d get all weepy and shit, and who wants a man like that?”

    “What they wanted, they explained, what they desired, was a man who knew what he wanted, who was confident enough to take it without asking, but who knew how to do that in a sexy and sophisticated way. That sophistication, they explained, with a duh-I-can’t-believe-I have-to-tell-you-this tone in their voice, was part of what made getting hit on, when it was done right, really hot.

    “So then I asked my students to imagine a situation in which they weren’t sure whether a man they wanted to kiss was interested in being kissed. Would they consider asking his permission before doing so? They laughed at this question even more loudly than the previous one. They simply could not imagine why they would have to. “What man doesn’t want it?”—again, that same student. “What real man, if you put it ready-to-eat on his plate, is going to say, ‘No thanks. I’m not hungry?’”

    ““What if he did, though?” I asked. “What if he did say ‘I’m not hungry?’”

    ““Then what the hell good is he?” came the response, and the rest of the class laughed.

    “My students and I had this conversation about two thirds of the way through the semester. By then we had covered issues like reproductive rights, women’s health care, women in education, and the politics of housework and childcare. When it came to those issues, my students had been pretty much unanimous. In pursuit of gender equality, it was incumbent upon men to change. Regarding sexual consent, however, there was clearly a line of change they did not want men to cross. Despite their complaints about all the stupid ways men hit on them, in other words, what my students wanted was not a fundamental change in how men tried to pick them up. What they wanted was for men to become better at what they were already doing.

    “To put this another way, by rejecting as sexually undesirable a man who would ask permission to kiss them, by refusing to imagine as a “real man” a man who might himself want to be asked, these women were not simply insisting that men should behave ”like men.” They were also asserting and defending the boundaries of their own heterosexuality—staking out, as it were, the limits of their own desires. Whether they understood it this way or not, in other words, my questions had threatened them, and the ridicule they reflexively heaped on the men I’d asked them to imagine suggested just how deep that threat went.

    “I’d like to suggest that a similar kind of heteronormative reflex—though not so obviously sexualized—lies at the heart of why we find it so difficult to make room for male survivors in our conversations about sexual violence; why, when we talk about those men, we tend to do so only in the most superficial ways; and why, when we talk about the violence itself, we tend to treat it not as its own phenomenon, but as an extension of men’s sexual violence against women. Consider, for example, what I said earlier about how #MeToo conversations will mention men-as-victims, but then focus their attention almost solely on combatting men’s sexual aggression against women. The implicit assumption seems be that this focus on ending the victimization of women will, as a matter of course, make things better for men as well.

    “Just to be clear, I believe that’s true—and I don’t mean anything I say next to imply otherwise. I also believe it is true, however, that to respond to sexual violence against men by looking through the lens of sexual violence against women is at best to misconstrue and, at worst, to render invisible the actual experience of men who’ve been sexually violated. It’s the inverse of a phenomenon that feminists have long criticized in fields ranging from healthcare to literary criticism, the idea that the male body and/or male perspective is the norm and the assumption that this norm automatically applies with equal validity to women as well.

    • Aapje says:

      This is exactly what I mean when I argue that mainstream feminism is partially traditionalist & that it refuses to challenge the parts of the gender roles that benefit women at the expense of men (or at least, the parts of the gender roles that women tend to like, on balance).

      This story also illustrates how women tend to demand stoicism, sexual aggressiveness and other kinds of ‘toxic masculinity’ from men & how ‘affirmative consent’ is not something that men deny to women who crave for it.

      It’s also interesting how misogynist the behavior by the women’s study class would clearly be if you were to reverse the genders. Someone saying “what the hell good is she?” if a woman refuses sex and then collectively laughing at that ‘joke’ is stereotypical misogynist ‘bro’ behavior.

      On the positive side, the transcript you posted is part of a speech that he held at his college, so it may have moved some people to change their views to be more egalitarian.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        Also note that the transcript was posted at a feminist blog– it’s just not typical feminism.

        I think some women want affirmative consent, it’s just that the proportion might be much lower than I expected.

        The women in that class aren’t exactly a good random sample, but I think it’s enough to indicate a strong tendency. There may have been some women in the class who did want affirmative consent but felt too intimidated to speak up.

        • Aapje says:

          Also note that the transcript was posted at a feminist blog– it’s just not typical feminism.

          That’s why I used the modifier ‘mainstream.’ Rationalist(-adjacent) feminist spaces like amptoons and thingofthings are better (Ozy is posting again, BTW). Men’s rights topics are fairly acceptable, if they are brought up while avoiding outgroup triggers.

          I think some women want affirmative consent, it’s just that the proportion might be much lower than I expected.

          I agree. My point was more that it is not Team Men fighting against it and Team Women for it. In fact, I would argue that most gender-related changes that happened in the past had large groups of both genders fighting against it and usually also for it. There is a lot of historical revisionism where these struggles are retroactively defined as women fighting against men.

          There may have been some women in the class who did want
          affirmative consent but felt too intimidated to speak up.

          My issue/claim is not that all of these women are individually misandrist, but rather, that they apparently have a strong group-level consensus that men should behave in exactly one (gender role conforming) way and can be dismissed as worthless if they do not, based on stereotyping of non-conforming men as needy and clingy.

          IMO, this is the exact opposite of (lower case) social justice/progressivism. For example, if I were to argue that women should stay in the kitchen and that women who work are uncaring and therefor worthless as partners for men, I’m pretty sure that this Women’s Studies class would not consider that a valid opinion. However, the problems with this opinion are fundamentally no different from those of the opinion that they espoused.

          I also feel compelled to point out that I’ve seen a lot of demands by feminists that men should call out other men who say misogynist things, with no recognition that men might feel too intimidated to do so. You are quite right that some of these women may have disagreed, but felt intimidated, but it’s a bit tiresome to be expected to be charitable to those who never seem to return the favor.

          • Nancy Lebovitz says:

            “based on stereotyping of non-conforming men as needy and clingy.”

            I found that bit surprising– I thought the stereotype of men who want affirmative consent is that they weren’t exciting, but no worse than that.

            “it’s a bit tiresome to be expected to be charitable to those who never seem to return the favor.”

            Always, but I do try. And get yelled at when I suggest that everyone is human.

    • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

      I don’t think that the women here are wrong, or at least not obviously wrong, about guys asking for verbal consent.

      They understand what they want from men and they can articulate it clearly. What they’re asking for in terms of consent, essentially SNL’s three rules of preventng sexual harassment (“Be handsome; be attractive; don’t be unattractive”), certainly isn’t polite or politically correct. But it’s an honest preference and it makes logical sense given the definitions of consent and sexual harassment. Avoiding unwanted sexual advances means, first and foremost, becoming the kind of guy who women want to receive sexual advances from. In my view that honesty and common sense puts them head and shoulders above the majority of “the discourse” about consent today.

      The more interesting thing is the contrast between what they want from guys and their lack of an opinion on what guys want. If they applied their own rules to men that would imply the possibility that they’re too unattractive for a given man to consent to kiss them. They obviously aren’t considering that possibility: if men don’t want them that’s not a failure of their attractiveness but of his manliness. Consistency here would require uncomfortable self-examination on their parts but it might prevent them from becoming grabby old ladies ten to twenty years from now.

      • The Nybbler says:

        The SNL rules are a workable way for a woman to decide if she’s interested in a guy. But they are not, obviously, a reasonable way for outside authorities to decide that a guy has done something _punishable_. If what a woman wants is for a hot guy to pick up on her non-verbal signals and kiss or grind or touch in a sexy way, then she cannot reasonably demand that a less-hot guy who picks up on “the slightest expression of interest” to do the same thing but does it badly be punished beyond her rejection. And certainly not punished for failure to obtain consent — that’s not the true rejection. And any complaint about how this happens should not be taken as anything more than idle kvetching.

        • Nabil ad Dajjal says:

          That’s why I emphasized that it makes sense given the definitions of consent and sexual harassment.

          Consent is a subjective experience. How do you prove whether or not someone had a subjective experience beyond a reasonable doubt? Even a preponderance of evidence standard will struggle to establish consent or the lack thereof.

          And even if it was straightforward to establish consent, there are a lot of things that are worth punishing regardless of whether or not they were consensual. People consent to all kinds of crazy things that no reasonable person would agree to.

          That’s why I don’t support the consent standard and tentatively support rules-patches like age or sobriety limits on consent. My hope is that we eventually move to a reasonable person standard of consent: would a typical woman, in her right mind, consent to this? There isn’t likely to be a sexual counter-revolution in my lifetime but I would settle for “sexual liberation with American characteristics.”

    • John Schilling says:

      It’s a perfectly workable standard if you assume that all men are courteous, respectful, telepathic, and incapable of suffering.

      And yes, just about everyone with a Y chromosome already knows this is the standard. Which incidentally doesn’t do wonders for the “respect” part.

    • dndnrsn says:

      “What they wanted, they explained, what they desired, was a man who knew what he wanted, who was confident enough to take it without asking, but who knew how to do that in a sexy and sophisticated way. That sophistication, they explained, with a duh-I-can’t-believe-I have-to-tell-you-this tone in their voice, was part of what made getting hit on, when it was done right, really hot.

      This is the romance-novel stereotype, the man who is both confident and manly, etc, but also attuned enough to her to know exactly what she wants – perhaps, even, better than she does. The man who will ravish, but only when the woman wants to be ravished. It’s a fantasy of someone being perfect for you. It’s also both incredibly poisonous in real life (because people who do not read others that well will tell themselves they do; this leads directly to everything from unwanted pats on the ass to rape), and incredibly childish (it’s childish to expect others to revolve around you like this; it’s in the same spectrum as the boy’s-action-movie trope of the attractive female lead who falls in love with the hero because he’s so good at fighting Russkie invaders or whatever). EDIT: see also my reply below.

      • Nancy Lebovitz says:

        I’m convinced that most people don’t have an adequate theory of mind. Tests for theory of mind just cover understanding that my being able to see something doesn’t mean you can see it– this is probably so we can believe we’re smarter than lab mice. We actually are smarter than lab mice, but not nearly as smart as we think.

        Actually believing that other people don’t understand what you understand is much harder than just getting that visual knowledge isn’t necessarily shared.

        • dndnrsn says:

          This is true. I don’t buy the “this is part of the Sneaky Feminist Plot!” sort of explanation for this thing. Typical mind fallacy is a much better explanation: the women who know when they want it, so obviously the Perfect Man will too, are the distaff counterpart to the guys who wouldn’t mind if a woman came up and groped them/sent them pics of their genitals/whatever, and figure it works the opposite way too. I suppose a lot of people also haven’t grown out of a very childish mindset, in which the world and everyone in it revolves around them.

          • Aapje says:

            A wrong version of the typical mind fallacy is part of the common social justice narrative, in the sense that it is argued that the oppressor cannot understand the oppressed.

            My main objection to social justice concepts is that they often do this. Behaviors that are done by and that affect everyone, no matter what their status in society, get argued to only be done by some groups and affect other groups.

          • dndnrsn says:

            How would that be a version of the typical mind fallacy?

          • Aapje says:

            On second thought, I am probably wrong.

            The argument that even if white people, men, heterosexuals, etc want to do the right thing for black people, women, gays, etc; they can’t help but do what helps themselves, seems to argue more against the ability of people to place themselves in the situation of others. This is different from the typical mind fallacy where the person can consider life from the situation of the other, but not their perspective.

          • dndnrsn says:

            “People do what serves themselves, even when they think they’re not” is a… I guess you can find that in a lot of different worldviews. It’s a part of my worldview – I believe that a fundamental characteristic of humans is that we’re self-serving and don’t understand ourselves as well as we think.

            “Social justice” concepts – call it what you want, by the names its adherents like, or by snarl words, whatever – seem to be a lot more about, relevant to this context, a certain understanding of how society works, of how power relations between groups and individuals as part of groups work, of how language shapes things, etc.

            Typical mind fallacy is a failure to get outside your own head: of course my vegan friend wants to come to the steakhouse! Everyone loves steak!

            You can combine these in different forms, although 1 and 2 probably don’t get along super well, because 1 is usually based in some idea of innate human nature of some sort, and doesn’t go well with concepts like “listen to [people of a given group]”. But 1 and 3, 2 and 3, both work well together.

        • John Schilling says:

          Hanlon’s razor via typical-minding definitely applies to both sides on this one. But I think some of the defenses offered for the stupidity of one’s tribal allies, often cross the line into malice.

          • Aapje says:

            “Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice”

            Gray’s Law

            I would argue that:

            “A very high level of partisanship is indistinguishable from malice”

            Aapje’s law

          • I think both versions are false.

            With competence and malice you can do more damage to your target than without competence–with or without malice.

            A high level of partisanship makes you very much want benefits for your side. But you still don’t want injuries for the other side that also injure your side, whereas with enough malice you might.

          • Aapje says:

            With competence and malice you can do more damage to your target than without competence–with or without malice.

            The claim is not that malice + 10 units of incompetence is not worse than just 10 units of incompetence or that some kinds of malice are not distinguishable from incompetence, but rather that very advanced incompetence looks like a form of malice.

            Also, assuming that there is fairly strong opposition to malice, it can be the case that malice that looks indistinguishable from incompetence is the most effective kind.

            However, I agree that in other situations, the distinction may be fairly obvious.

            A high level of partisanship makes you very much want benefits for your side. But you still don’t want injuries for the other side that also injure your side, whereas with enough malice you might.

            A high level of partisanship can (and perhaps always will) result in the belief that things that hurt the outgroup must help the ingroup. This belief can be so strong, that fairly obvious harms to the ingroup are denied, because the metric of ingroup well being is harm to the outgroup.

            Also, there is evidence that people judge their well being at least in part in relative terms, so then harming the outgroup can increase the well being of the ingroup. A limited harm to the ingroup that produces far greater harm to the outgroup can then be beneficial to the ingroup.

    • Nancy Lebovitz says:

      So, a practical question is how people who actually want affirmative consent can hook up with each other. And also, whether there can be a good non-verbal version of affirmative consent.

      On the science fiction side, we could have a story about a species selecting for telepathy.

      Bujold’s Betans have earrings to signal what they want. Bujold never gave a list of the earrings, but I expect there are some fanfic versions.

      • dndnrsn says:

        First question: who wants affirmative consent? It’s possible that people don’t know what they want, and affirmative consent requests that don’t take the form of a cringing “mother may I” request will be accepted. If the women in the author’s anecdote were hanging out with a guy who was decent looking and relatively charming, and he casually asks whether they want to make out, they might not react like they think they would when the author poses the question.

        I personally think that affirmative consent, including requests, is the way to go, because the worst-case scenario of asking for consent is significantly better for everyone involved than the worst-case scenario of not. Significant here is that I have never been turned down upon asking. Got laughed at more than once – but this is the significant part – they then said yes. Women like a guy who can make them laugh, eh?

        If we are going to only talk about the people who want it, and know they want it, saying “oh, and by the way, I believe in affirmative consent, and in requesting it where need be” is basically a come on in and of itself.

        Second question: I don’t really think so, because “it was obvious from the body language that they wanted it” is something people accused of sexual assault have been saying for a long time. Verbal consent, and requesting verbal consent, has the advantage that they are hard to misunderstand.

        Grey areas are where predators hang out, and where stuff that involves no mens rea but still causes serious harm happens.

        • albatross11 says:

          It seems to me that one thing that’s needed is an “affirmative dissent” standard–something one of the participants says or does that can be universally understood as meaning “I don’t want this to continue. Knock it off, now!” Like a safeword in a BDSM context, but spread throughout the society.

          If one participant doesn’t really want to be having sex, but goes along quietly with the whole thing when the other participant starts it, it is impossible for the active participant or any outside observer to determine whether there was consent or not–it’s an internal property of the participants. You could have a neutral observer standing in the room watching, and they would still not be able to say with certainty whether the encounter was consensual or not.

          The affirmative consent idea is that we should fix this by making everyone ask for consent at each step, and receive it. That moves us into a world where at least if there were a neutral observer, they could tell whether or not the standard was reached. (Though not whether the verbal consent really reflected consent, or was just one of the participants going along–you simply can’t observe someone’s mental state from the outside.) But this doesn’t work very well with at least modern American patterns of interaction, and it seems like many/most people would find it a huge mood-killer. I think it is unlikely to get much uptake in the world, despite various universities trying to impose it[1].

          So I propose that we establish a different standard–affirmative dissent. That is, if you don’t want to be there, you need to explicitly speak up. Invent a safeword that everyone uses for this, if necessary–if your girlfriend starts saying “Stop” (or whatever) then stop what you’re doing and ask her what’s wrong, and don’t resume until you’ve talked it out and are on the same page about what you both want. This puts the burden on the person being pressured to say “stop,” rather than on the person pressuring the other person to ask permission. Maybe that’s bad in some moral sense. But this has a couple advantages:

          a. If you say “stop” and the other person doesn’t stop, it’s unambiguous that they’re violating your consent. At least if there were a neutral observer in the room, there would be no question who was in the wrong.

          b. This doesn’t require massive rewriting of American dating/romance/sexual practices–it fits with existing practice pretty well, with a pretty simple addition that says “when the other person says stop, you absolutely must stop.”

          c. This would probably fit relatively well into a campus sexual assault prevention class–it would provide a Schelling point for everyone to know–when the other person says “stop,” you need to stop until they say “go” again.

          [1] The rate of success of authorities in telling teenagers/college kids how to do romance and sex so far is extremely low. It would be quite a surprise if this were an exception.

          • The Nybbler says:

            None of these ideas work unless there’s consequences for defectors who reward violation of the rules. It’s not enough to punish people who continue past a “stop”. You also have to punish those who issue a “stop” that is not meant to be followed, as a filter. Otherwise you haven’t changed the game. And it’s impossible to do that without a surveillance state.

          • dndnrsn says:

            I’m confused as to how this would be a new cultural standard; outside of BDSM (where some people might say “stop” and not mean it because pretending to protest is part of getting their jollies) and the handful of people who say “stop” when they don’t mean it during vanilla sex (and so need safewords) doesn’t most everyone know “stop” means stop?

            People who want “yes means yes” to be the standard usually think “no means no” doesn’t go far enough.

            EDIT: Promoting negotiation as a sexual norm would be good. But one of the big problems is that the groups “people who responsibly negotiate sex” and “people who have casual sex” are not a circle on the Venn diagram.

          • mdet says:

            I don’t think that asking for consent is necessarily a mood killer. If you’re imagining a “FREEZE: Is it ok with you if I touch you here?”, then yeah, that sounds unsexy. But I think that many/most people would agree that questions like “[How] do you want it?”, “Do you like this?”, “Where do you want me?” can *definitely* be sexy. Having the other person guide your hand to where/how they want it is both pretty sexy and a kind of nonverbal affirmative consent.

            This doesn’t solve the problem of people passively going along with something they’re not entirely comfortable with. And I think the real issue here — as dndnrsn gets at — is that naive and inexperienced young people having casual sex with people they don’t know all that well, often with one or both people intoxicated, is inevitably going to lead to a lot of misunderstandings and boundary crossing, no matter what the rules are. (And misunderstandings and boundary crossing is what we’re talking about, since an affirmative consent standard doesn’t do anything to stop people who are deliberately out to exploit, manipulate, or assault)

          • dndnrsn says:

            @mdet

            (And misunderstandings and boundary crossing is what we’re talking about, since an affirmative consent standard doesn’t do anything to stop people who are deliberately out to exploit, manipulate, or assault)

            Part of the issue is that from the outside it is impossible to tell “drunken misunderstanding” from “deliberate exploitation/manipulation/assault” and predators use this as a smokescreen. There are predators who go to bars or parties or whatever, look for people who are drunk, and then go after them, intending to say “whoops, what a misunderstanding!” if they get called on it – this might not be rape by a legal standard, but I’d consider it rape by a social/moral standard. The legal standard (at least in Canada) is very high for “too drunk to consent”; I would still consider someone who knowingly goes after someone drunk, who they know wouldn’t consent while sober, to be a rapist, or at least, a really shitty person.

            The sex culture that’s common among youngish people is sort of “sexual revolution stalled halfway” territory. “People will have casual sex, but seeking affirmative consent and negotiating beforehand are considered weird, and they still feel kind of gross doing it, so they get some booze in them first to cut down on their inhibitions. They’re more willing to seek out casual sex than enforce (or even mention) their boundaries during casual sex. This is territory that results in both misunderstandings where no ill intent existed, but someone (sometimes multiple people) still gets hurt, and also in life being made easier for predators.

          • mdet says:

            Regarding predators who hide behind “misunderstanding”, affirmative consent might be helpful in adjucating these instances (although it’d still usually be a “he said, she said”), but it doesn’t do anything on the prevention side. A norm of affirmative consent doesn’t actually stop anyone from walking the sloppy-drunk person at the party into a dark side-room, or back to their car. I think the prevention norm there would be “keep an eye on your friends”. So most of the gains from affirmative consent would probably be in preventing incidents where no one was trying to be exploitative, but miscommunication led to someone feeling violated anyway. I agree that a norm that encourages more communication is an improvement we should push for, but my personal advice to anyone would always be “Spend a few weeks getting to know them first? The ability to read each other and communicate comfortably will flow from there”

          • dndnrsn says:

            I think more communication would lead people to be more clear in their boundaries – making life harder for predators – and would make people, maybe, feel less socially out of place asking “hey, are you OK” to someone being walked to the car or whatever. You’re probably right; I think it’s a larger problem than just communication between the people who are about to have sex.

          • albatross11 says:

            I think one issue in a lot of these situations is that one or both parties may themselves be uncertain what they want to do, and that can change over time. It’s hard to get a clear answer from me about what I want to do when I’m not sure myself.

          • Aapje says:

            Indeed, I think that a lot of people, and especially women, haven’t made up their minds. A major factor here is that the seduction process is information about how pleasant the sex is likely to be.

  27. Aapje says:

    Excellent article about the issues with vague codes of conduct.

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