In The Balance

When you first take the Artifact, you will see a vision of ALPHANION, Demon-Sultan of the Domain of Order, who appears as a grid of spheres connected by luminous lines. Alphanion will urge you to use the Artifact to enforce cosmic order, law at its most fundamental. He will show you visions of all the most brutal and sadistic crimes of history, of all the wars caused by nations that could not live together in harmony, and he will tell you they are all preventable. He will show you dreams of perfectly clean cities with wide open streets, where everyone earns exactly the optimal amount of money and public transportation is accurate to the second. He will tell you it is all attainable.

But if you hesitate even an instant to take Alphanion’s offer, you will see a vision of CTHGHFZXAY, Demon-Shah of the Domain of Chaos, who appears as a shifting multicolored cloud. Cthghfzxay will urge you to use the Artifact to promote cosmic chaos, the ultimate principle of freedom. She will condemn the works of Order as a lie, a dystopia bought at the cost of true human liberty. She will show you visions of primaeval forests, where no two flowers are alike, where each glade holds a new mystery, where people run wild in search of new adventure. She will tell you it can all be yours.

As you weigh these two offers, you will see a vision of ZAMABAMAZ, Demon-Pharaoh of the Domain of Balance, who appears as a man and woman conjoined. They will tell you that neither Order nor Chaos is at the root of human flourishing, but an ability to strike the right balance between the two. That a virtuous life is one spent in moderation between total wild liberty and a stifling concept of rote rule-following. That Alphanion and Cthfhfzxay are the two poles of the universe, and that righteousness exists in the space created by their interaction. They will ask you to devote the Artifact and its power to the Domain of Balance, so all people can better manage the interaction of Order and Chaos in their own lives.

This will seem reasonable to you, but then there will appear a vision of IYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY, Demon-Raja of the Domain of Excess, who appears as a blinding violet light. It will tell you that both Order and Chaos present coherent visions of the world, but that for the love of God, choose one or the other instead of being a wishy-washy milquetoast who refuses to commit to anything. It will tell you that blinding white and pitch black are both purer and more compelling than endless pointless grey. It will ask you to give the Artifact to somebody – anybody – other than Zamabamaz.

Just as you think you have figured all this out, there will appear a vision of MLOXO7W, Demon-Kaiser of the Domain of Meta-Balance, who appears as a face twisted into a Moebius strip. It will tell you that sometimes it is right to seek balance, and other times right to seek excess, and that a life well-lived consists of excess when excess is needed, and balance when balance is needed. It will remind you that sometimes you are a sprinter and other times a tightrope walker in the Olympiad of life, and that to commit to either eternal carefulness or eternal zealousness is to needlessly impoverish yourself. It will ask you to devote the Artifact and its power to balancing balance and imbalance, balancedly.

You will not be the least bit surprised when there will appear a vision of K!!!111ELEVEN, Demon-Shogun of the Domain of Meta-Excess, who appears as a Toricelli trumpet with eyes and a mouth. She says that seriously, pick a side, all this complicated garbage about the balance between balance and excess is just another layer of intellectualization to defend against having any real values, a trick to make you feel smart and superior for believing in nothing, not even Balance. She will ask you to choose something now, lest you be caught in an endless regress of further options.

As soon as you acknowledge that this makes sense, there will appear a vision of ILO, Demon-Chancellor of the Domain of Excessive Meta-Balance, who appears as a deep hole in space whose end you cannot see. They will point out that yes, there is potentially an infinite regress of further levels. But to act to avoid those levels is essentially to unthinkingly side with the principle of Excess over Balance. After all, if you had originally started by siding with Chaos or Order rather than waiting to hear of the existence of Balance, you would have been unknowingly favoring Excess over Balance. And if you had decided to choose either Excess or Balance, you would have been favoring the principle of Meta-Excess over Meta-Balance before even knowing they existed. So choosing at any level of the hierarchy is essentially equivalent to choosing Excess at all higher levels of the hierarchy. When viewed this way, the hierarchy collapses to chaos, order, first-level-balance, second-level-balance, third-level-balance, and so on. They offer a new, better vision: Infinite Balance, a theoretical top of the hierarchy in which you choose to balance all previous levels.

But as you start to consider this, there will appear a vision of PAHANUP, Demon-Taoiseach of the Domain of Balanced Meta-Balance, who appears as a hole in space exactly three inches deep. Ze will tell you that going to infinite lengths to ensure perfect balance at an infinite number of levels actually seems a bit excessive in ways. To choose either Chaos or Order outright would be insufficiently careful, but to give yourself an intractable problem with an endless number of meta-levels would be excessively careful. Ze will suggest seeking balance in the number of levels you seek balance in.

This will seem plausible to you right up until the sudden appearance of a fiery vision of IFNI, Demon-Secretary-General of the Domain of Chaotic Meta-Excess, who appears as static. She will point out that there is now another infinite regress, more difficult than the last – to wit, how long you should spend calculating the number of levels on which to seek balance. She will state her case thus: suppose you want to calculate the correct amount of balance in the universe. Let us call this Calculation A. You need to calculate how long to spend on this calculation before giving up and satisficing; let us call this Calculation B. But you need to calculate how long to spend on Calculation B before giving up and satisficing; let us call this Calculation C. Clearly you will never be able to complete any of the calculations. Therefore in order to avoid spending your entire life in an infinite regress of calculation, you should flip a coin right now and use it to decide either Chaos or Order, no takebacks.

But as you reach for the coin, you will see a vision of GOSAGUL, Demon-Admiral of the Domain of Ordered Meta-Balanced Excess, who appears as a cube with constantly flashing black and white faces. He will lecture you on how it seems pretty strange that, when faced with the most important decision in the history of the universe, you decide to flip a coin. Surely, even if Ifni’s argument is correct, you can do better than that! For example, you can just go a specific finite number of levels, such as three, then seek balance at that many levels, then stop. This will be strictly better than Ifni’s plan of choosing completely randomly.

But this sage advice is interrupted by MEGAHAHA, Demon-Pope of the Domain of Excessively Ordered Meta-Balance, who appear a as pattern of black and white that cycles between a line, square, cube, and hypercube. It will point out that if you’re in the business of accepting arguments along the lines that “it seems pretty strange that when faced with the most important decision in the history of the universe you…”, then it seems pretty strange that when faced with the most important decision in the history of the universe, you agree to a kind of random number of levels chosen by a demon you have no reason to trust. By what logic do you reject making the decision itself randomly, but accept making the decision about how many levels to make the decision on randomly? Any amount of Balance in Meta-Balancing Excess is just arbitrary capriciousness; you either need to act fully randomly, or embrace the entire difficulty of the problem.

At this point, you will remember that the Artifact is cursed and demons are evil. With a final effort of will, you will shout the words “I choose Balance! Just normal Balance! First-level Balance! That’s it!” and throw the Artifact to the ground, where it will shatter into a thousand pieces and the voices of the demonic hierarchy will suddenly all go silent.

And for a thousand years to come, heroes will grumble “Why, exactly, are we seeking balance in the universe? Isn’t that kind of dumb? Don’t we want more good stuff, and less bad stuff? Doesn’t really seem that balance is really what we’re after, exactly.”

And you will tell them the story of how once you found the Artifact that gave you mastery of the universe, and you refused to take more than about three minutes figuring out what to use it for, because that would have been annoying.

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190 Responses to In The Balance

  1. disposablecat says:

    I love this. I feel as though the last line is a concise summary of everything that’s wrong with modern standards of discourse.

  2. Said Achmiz says:

    lol, but also, -_-

    And you will tell them the story of how once you found the Artifact that gave you mastery of the universe, and you refused to take more than about three minutes figuring out what to use it for, because that would have been annoying.

    But you just said:

    At this point, you will remember that the Artifact is cursed and demons are evil.

    So isn’t this—

    With a final effort of will, you will shout the words “I choose Balance! Just normal Balance! First-level Balance! That’s it!”

    … a mistake?

    If I had this Artifact, I would use it for absolutely nothing, and would instead destroy it immediately. Because it is cursed, and demons are evil. Duh.

    • marshwiggle says:

      Exactly. Plus, with that many entities showing up to suggest a use… and none suggest not using it? Perhaps the entities just want the thing used?

    • Bugmaster says:

      I wanted to post exactly this, but you beat me to it. Bravo.

    • Radu Floricica says:

      Nah. The artifact is precious and the daemons are evil, but that could also mean that they are trying to frame the discourse to their advantage. Such as order vs chaos, when you could simply chose something that maximizes happiness without sacrificing meaning (i.e. eliezer style “perfect world”). Once you get caught into their dilemma, you’re bound to make a sub-optimal choice.

    • Said Achmiz says:

      We are told that demon’s are evil, but aren’t told that artifact is.

      We’re told that the artifact is cursed.

      This is true:

      The demons aren’t actually trying to win you over to their side. They’re just trying to confuse [you] …

      … but this isn’t:

      … so that you don’t actually do anything useful with the artifact.

      Actually, we have no idea what the demon’s goal is. Do they want you to use the artifact? Do they want you to not use the artifact? Do they want you to use the artifact, but in a specific way?

      We really don’t know what they want. But we know they’re evil. So, we shouldn’t listen to them.

      But maybe we should listen to the demons, and try to do the opposite of what they want us to do? No, this is a bad idea, because the demons might very well predict that we’ll do this, and use reverse psychology.

      The correct course of action is to ignore the demons, and do the correct thing, without their counsel.

      And the correct thing to do with cursed artifacts is to destroy them, and not to use them.

      • TDB says:

        In the West, demons are always evil and out to get you. This simplifies matters a bit. In the East, they have more latitude. You might have to listen to their actual argument to get a feeling for their alignment, and of course they might trick you. But people have agendas and can be tricky too. Should we stop listening to everyone? Sort of the corner-case opposite of free speech?

      • Randy M says:

        The curse is it summons an infinite regress of demons.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          Not an infinite regress, just an unbounded finite regress. After all, they stop coming when you make your choice.

      • Said Achmiz says:

        First of all, I’m not really sure what you mean by “fulfilling utility functions”. Is that supposed to be a fancy way of saying “accomplishing goals” or “making things happen that you want to have happen” or somesuch? If so, substituting those less-fancy-sounding phrases into your statements makes them sound less contentful, so my follow-up question is, what exactly do you mean by any of those statements.

        (If, instead, you’re actually literally talking about utility functions, in the VNM sense, then I must point out that I don’t have a utility function, nor do most people, and probably neither do you.)

        Anyway, that aside, however, the artifact is cursed, the correct action is to destroy it. That’s what you do with cursed artifacts: you destroy them, and do not use them. Using cursed artifacts is a bad idea.

        It’s especially a bad idea to use cursed artifacts when you don’t even know exactly what the curse is. “It seems likely” (based on—what? pure speculation?) is not even in the same ballpark as “good enough”!

        Finally, even if the artifact actually granted “mastery of the universe” in any meaningful, useful, and not-cursed way, I would definitely still not use it, and would immediately destroy it, that being the only correct course of action.

      • quanticle says:

        Therefore, with no further information in the story, it seems likely that the curse is the infinite regress of demons (as per Randy). The correct approach is to use the artifact to lift the curse (so you can think without distractions), then use the artifact to become someone smart enough to know how to use the artifact to fulfill your utility function, then fulfill your utility function.

        Nope. Look, what you have here is a box. Those demons? They’re the UFAI in the box. It’s in the box for a damn good reason, and the last thing you want to do is interact with it in any way.

        However, you presumably didn’t know that when you picked up the artifact, so now you’re in an AI boxing problem. If the AI is really good, you’ve already lost. It can persuade you of anything. But if the AI isn’t that great, then maybe you can retain enough willpower to destroy the box, killing yourself if necessary, in order to prevent the AI from getting out.

        On a meta-note, I find it rather distressing that we’re over a hundred comments in, and this is the first comment to mention the similarity to the AI box problem. I thought it was fairly obvious.

      • janrandom says:

        > And the correct thing to do with cursed artifacts is to destroy them, and not to use them.

        Well. It depends. When you have a cursed artifact there are three options:
        * Removing the curse
        * Removing the item
        * Destroying the item

      • Murphy says:

        Have you never read mistborn?


        The noble hero reaches the well of ascension and has the option to take the power for herself with evil whispers telling her she should take the power for herself.

        But she knows the stories! She knows that the hero doesn’t take power for themselves at the urging of evil voices.

        …. but it turns out that the big bad has spent the last thousand years editing copies of the old warnings and legends. The well of power is actually the beld-off power of an imprisoned evil god. Every thousand years someone is supposed to turn up and USE it for something, anything, like emptying a full garbage can so that the god can remain imprisoned.

        But the selfless good hero turns up and decides to ignore the evil whispers and release the power without using it… destroying the bindings and releasing the evil god upon the world.

        because evil doesn’t have to mean stupid.

        • “Why didn’t you take out the garbage, son?”

          “I was thinking of doing just that — it seems like the most noble thing for me to do — when a terrible thought struck me: What if there’s an evil god who would be released by me if I take out the garbage? Such a god would naturally hide all evidence of its existence and the fact that this is how to release it. Perhaps all of the reasons I’m aware of for why taking out the garbage is good were actually deceptively contrived by this god to deceive me. Just in case I spent my time playing video games instead.”

      • darksmiles22 says:

        Curse? Demon? Evil? The author is clearly trying to prejudice us against these entities. Rise above, Said! Think for yourself – don’t believe everything you read 😉

    • perlhaqr says:

      “If I just put it back down, will you all go away and leave me alone to think for a goddamned minute?”

    • darksmiles22 says:

      But the demons and curse are clearly just devices for framing a philosophical discussion in a narrative format. So by not using the object you are saying… the question of order vs. chaos vs. balance is a waste of time? In that case I agree with you! Instead of aiming for a set mix of order and chaos an effective altruist should probably base their actions on some other values and let the chaos-order chips fall where they may.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I hastily grasp for my crucifix.

  4. fion says:

    Love it.

    Now, if we’re to consider this as a serious discussion of policy, I think it’s worth deconstructing ILO’s contribution somewhat. They posit that there is an infinite hierarchy of order, chaos, first-level balance, second-level balance etc. and to choose any finite level of balance is to choose excess at all higher levels. I submit that the difference between successive levels of balance rapidly tends to zero so this doesn’t matter much.

    Let’s try to see what each of the first few levels of balance means in terms of order and chaos.

    Balance tells us that we should have some order and some chaos. Every system should have enough order that one understands how to interact with it, and enough chaos to make it interesting.

    Second-level balance tells us that some systems merit a higher degree of order and other systems merit a higher degree of chaos. A clock or the crew of a naval ship must have a high degree of order, but a national park or a jazz musician’s bedroom must have a high degree of chaos. Presumably there’s a spectrum here, where some things require almost all order and almost no chaos, some things are in the middle, and somethings require almost no order and almost no chaos. I *think* this is all still at the second level of balance.

    So what’s third-level balance? Sometimes we should have a situation of second-level balance and sometimes we should have a situation of choosing decisively either balance or excess? This might be exactly degenerate with second-level balance, or it might be subtly different, but it’s definitely not that different. Fourth-level balance is even more similar to third-level balance than third is to second (unless they’re all exactly degenerate from this point upwards, which I could believe).

    I would then argue that second-level balance is correct. I devote the Artifact and its power to MLOXO7W.

    • adnll says:

      Agreed. Can someone except why, if that’s wrong ? (admitted the demons aren’t lying etc.)

      • baconbits9 says:

        Order and chaos aren’t separate things here, the clock on a ship isn’t just order, to create it you take something else ordered (a tree) and somethings that aren’t ordered (metal ores… though now we are arguing about what counts as order, right?).

        Is making a clock from a tree an increase in order or a decrease? Easy one if you use entropy as your definition, not so easy if you don’t, but there is no “second level balance” here.

      • poignardazur says:

        Order and balance are poor metrics to measure whether your use Artifact has positive outcomes for the entire world. The demons are voluntarily confusing you by temping you with various levels of meta-order/chaos.

        I recommend using the artifact to generate maximum amounts of utility in positive-sum-games (eg generating food and clean energy, curing diseases), with a proportional utility penalty for cases where there is reasonable doubt that the game may be negative-sum.

        This is pretty undebatably the best policy for the Artifact, with a few caveats for what organizational structure decides which unambiguous goods the Artifact should be used for (any non-insane structure would do, though I’d personally recommend a medium-sized group with loose-but-established procedures) and what kind of security keeps malicious powers from appropriating the Artifact (Master-Stranger protocols are in effect).

        The worst policy would be along the lines of “Instantly disintegrate half the population to address resource scarcity”.

        • Matt says:

          The worst policy would be along the lines of “Instantly disintegrate half the population to address resource scarcity”.

          Now I retroactively want that to have been the end of the story.

        • TDB says:

          generate maximum amounts of utility in positive-sum-games

          Is the artefact sufficiently competent to interpret instructions that vague?

          • poignardazur says:

            Probably not. You’re the one who has to give the specifics: “Now create food! Now create a vaccine against car accidents!”

        • Simon_Jester says:

          What are Master-Stranger protocols?

          • deciusbrutus says:

            From the webfic Worm, they are what you do when you know that you are being opposed by people who can manipulate your choices or mind. Things like “If someone claims to have left their ID card in their cubicle and asks you to let them in, they are an attacker; shoot them. If you leave your ID card in your cubicle, walk to the security desk and follow this explicit procedure.”

    • A1987dM says:

      Agreed. Everything in moderation, including moderation.

    • antpocalypse says:

      As a physicist, this argument resonates with me: “It looks like the sub-sub-leading contributions are negligible, so let’s truncate here and go to the pub.”

      • fion says:

        Haha, well I’m a physicist, so perhaps that’s not surprising. 😛

      • mcpalenik says:

        I wish I had read these comments before posting mine about a geometric series (I’m a physicist also, by the way). Anyway, I wrote that the answer is 1/[1-Balance], but thinking a little more carefully, it’s probably actually Balance/[1-Balance].

        Either way, I’m pretty sure it sums nicely.

    • daneelssoul says:

      I think you could make sense of third level balance if you find something else to quantify over. For example: people. The argument might go something like this:

      Requiring that all people strike a balance between balance and excess limits the full range of human experience. It would be better if we struck a balance whereby some people did strike a balance, but where others were either just excessively balanced or excessively excessive.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I think all those meta-orders are red herrings. The real answer is that every input and output of every system requires a certain amount of randomness in order to prevent stagnation; this amount probably varies between systems; and you can discuss the exact strategy for optimizing randomness pretty much endlessly, so just pick a rule of thumb that sort of works and then improve on it over time.

    • googolplexbyte says:

      The knee of the curve is 2.718281828, so the true balance among balance levels is third-level balance.

      Although I guess you should devote the artifact in ratio to 2nd-level & 3rd-level such that you strike closer to 2.7th-level balance, which would be the true 2nd-level balance among balance levels.

      But by my own logic I should strive for a true 3rd-level or 2.7th-level balance among balance levels…

  5. Razorback says:

    Haha. Personally, I stuck with my initial choice of order all the way through.

    • Murphy says:

      Ah, a follower of Jyggalag I see.

      Keep in mind that order/chaos is orthogonal to good/evil.

      Many stories have the concept of a deity or force pushing towards order being malevolent.

      In ELLC it’s embodied in Bob, the god of chaos, who’s previous incarnation as the god of order killed all the other gods and left his world as a lifeless perfectly ordered and predictable desert.

      In pratchet’s work it’s embodied in The Auditors, beings obsessed with order who would very much like to see all the messy disordered living organisms wiped out.

      • Conrad Honcho says:

        The whole “order, chaos, balance” thing reminded me of Jordon Peterson’s Maps of Meaning lectures. There’s good order (the wise king), bad order (the tyrant), good chaos (life/nurturing), bad chaos (destructive nature) and the hero carves up the bad chaos to create the good order.

        • Bugmaster says:

          This might be a little off-topic, but I’d be interested to hear your opinion of the lecture series. Personally, the impression I got from them is that they’re basically a giant “Just So” story. I acknowledge that Peterson’s understanding of the world is more or less internally consistent, but it doesn’t seem to be based on anything other than wishful thinking. I could be wrong, though.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Yes, in the sense that a psychological interpretation of mythological stories is not falsifiable.

            Peterson expands the definition of “true” to include “useful.” This is where he and Sam Harris had their frustrating two hour argument over what “truth” is. Harris wants truth to be only things that are objective, but Peterson thinks human cognition doesn’t work that way. We perceive things as tools, goals, and obstacles. The psychological interpretation of mythological stories are “true” in the way the Gods of the Copybook Headers are true.

            Also, consider maps and territories. The map is not the territory, but it is very useful for navigating the territory.

      • perlhaqr says:

        “Order” isn’t even incompatible with “anarchy”. People who are all doing their own thing, but only interacting with each other peacefully, are still behaving in an orderly fashion.

        Raw, seething entropy, while useful for cryptographic inputs, is generally unconducive to life.

  6. AC Harper says:

    Thank you for your recent complaint about the fragility of your Artifact. I would like to take the opportunity to remind you that the manual (you did read the manual, didn’t you?) includes a number of warnings and usage instructions, including not exposing the Artifact to water, electrostatic shock, or dropping it onto a hard surface.

    Since you have not followed the usage instructions I cannot accept your complaint, or any meta-complaint, so no refund is due.

    Thank you for your custom and have a nice day.

    Baron Von Ripoff
    Lord Grand High Universal Poobah of Customer Complaints, Artifacts-R-Us

  7. Candide III says:

    That’s some potent weed you’ve been smoking! Though, weed being a natural product, it shouldn’t be called the Artifact. Watch out for the creepy green tomato-eyed Mouse!

  8. b_jonas says:

    This slow progressio of demons are boring. I’ve aready been hit by a horible vision of random and generic numbers “” . I might not be able to behold a realistic vision of those presented directly, but I don’t think I need eleven demons to tempt me. The demons ALPHANION and CTHGHFZXAY, then two powerful servants who don’t come in their own name, but representing the ultimate demon of randomness and genericness and offer me the services of their masters would suffice to tempt me more than these silly little first approximations.

    • A1987dM says:

      0. Gotta love how the author in the first paragraph says “evidently” about something most people who hear that pi is a normal number seem to fail to realize.

      1. The notion of a meager set sounds fascinating but useless.

      2. Whoever chose the name “approximatable by rationals” for a criterion which rationals themselves fail was a few cards short of a full deck. Isn’t any number a perfect approximation of itself? Did that person never say “there were around twenty people” unless they were sure there weren’t exactly twenty people?

      3. I’m now very curious about what a generic (or at least, pseudo-generic) number would look like. I used to think that “free will, but not randomness” wasn’t a coherent concept, but it looks like the behaviour of the digits of a generic number would qualify.

      3. Random numbers are to white noise as generic numbers are to… pink noise? Brown noise? The anthem of Hell from UNSONG?

      • b_jonas says:

        3. David asks a related question in “” “Can we define an ‘empirically generic’ real number?”. This was apparently not linked from the blog post, which I had failed to realize. We know that it is not possible to deterministically compute a generic number (or a random number either), so a human cannot show you a true image of such a number. We might be able to show a number that looks so much like a generic number that it is theoretically impossible (because of computational bounds) for a human to distinguish it from a generic number. It’s not clear if this is possible, but if not, it might still be possible to show a number that looks enough like a generic number that it’d still take a genius to realize that it’s not a generic number. Also, if you go far enough in the chain of demons, they will show you an image that you can’t distinguish from a generic number, although it’s not clear how far enough you’d have to go. That said, the ultimate demon of genericness that I presumed would show you a true image. For this, the demon would need more computational power that physicists currently beleive is possible to realize in our world. It is not too silly to speak of such hypothetical demons though, and David himself has written about them several times, even ones way more powerful than this “ultimate” demon of genericness, though not necessarily using the word “demon”.

  9. beleester says:

    And I will tell the heroes that yes, we are trying to increase good, but as anyone who ever played a game of D&D can tell you, Order and Chaos are not synonymous with Good and Evil. Honestly, what are they teaching heroes these days?

    • jeray2000 says:

      Well he didn’t explicitly choose a Balance between Order and Chaos, he chose Balance in general as a goal. He implicitly chose balance between order and chaos, but these are demons so implicit choices don’t count.

    • John Schilling says:

      OD&D, obviously.

    • b_jonas says:

      Many of the readers of this blog consider themselves utilitarian or consequentialist. Those people would generally consider themselves at the extreme Good end of the alignment spectrum in D&D alignment terms. The story is written in second person. A Good reader would have a harder time to identify himself with the hero here, who would be even slightly tempted to choose anything than using the artifact to create the ultimate Good world.

  10. Philosophisticat says:

    Not sure if this is intentional, given Will MacAskill’s connections to the rationalist community, but this is very reminiscent of something philosophers interested in normative uncertainty talk about – a lot of philosophers think you should hedge between the recommendations of different moral (or other normative) theories given your uncertainty. Other philosophers think you should stick to one and hope it’s the right one. The non-hedgers sometimes argue that hedging leads to a regress – it will raise questions about how to hedge given your uncertainty about how to hedge, and how to hedge given your uncertainty about how to hedge given your uncertainty about how to hedge, and so on. So you might as well just stop at the first level.

    • pawtrammell says:

      For whatever it’s worth, I wrote up a paper on this “regress problem” recently. If you (or anyone else reading) is familiar with the normative uncertainty literature and interested in the problem, I’d love your feedback!

      • Philosophisticat says:

        This looks really interesting. I haven’t had a chance to think about it in full detail or check the proofs but as someone who works in the area this seems like a serious contribution you should publish.

        • pawtrammell says:

          Oh, thank you! I got a revise and submit from Synthese, actually, so I’m just hunting around for any suggestions for tweaks before I send it back. (This my first attempt at an academic publication, trying not to screw it up…)

          • Philosophisticat says:

            Congratulations! I actually thought while reading that it seemed like a good paper for Synthese. Sorry I don’t have much to add – it’s very polished and I’d accept it in this form. Hopefully the referee comments weren’t too difficult to accommodate.

      • Pattern says:

        As someone who isn’t familiar with the literature, I found it interesting, though I didn’t follow all of the technical details. I noticed a few minor grammatical errors if you’re interested. Congratulations on getting published!

  11. chaotickgood says:

    Chaos: 0/100
    Order: 100/0

    Balance: 50/50
    Excess: from 0/100 to 100/0

    Meta-Balance: from 25/75 to 75/25
    Meta-Excess: from 0/100 to 100/0

    Balanced Meta-Balance: from 12.5/87.5 to 87.5/12.5
    Chaotic Meta-Excess: from 0/100 to 100/0

    Ordered Meta-Balanced Excess: from 6.25/93.75 to 93.75/6.25
    Excessively Ordered Meta-Balance: from 0/100 to 100/0

    Chaos and Order are the edges of the spectrum. Excess (at all levels) – completely free oscillations between them. Since Balance is only a special case of the Excess, Balance at different levels is a series of increasingly weaker constraints imposed on them, in the limit tending to the Excess, but never reaching it. Thus, it might be necessary to determine in the numbers to what extent we are ready to reduce Order or Chaos to see what will happen. Personally, I would stop at Meta-Balance, because its ratio seems reasonable to me.

    • fion says:

      I interpreted excess as being 0/100 OR 100/100, rather than “somewhere between 0/100 and 100/100” which is how you seem to interpret it.

      • chaotickgood says:

        I understood this in such a way that [Meta-] Balance is the imposed ratio of Order and Chaos, and Excess is the result of a free struggle between the forces of Order and Chaos. This leads to a situation where all levels of the Excess are equivalent, and it is really beneficial for the demons responsible for them to motivate the artifact carrier to an accidental solution – because 50% of all possible solutions lead to the Excess. The complete dominance of Chaos or Order in such an examination is only a special case. But you are right, there is ambiguity.

  12. cactus head says:

    >And you will tell them the story of how once you found the Artifact that gave you mastery of the universe, and you refused to take more than about three minutes figuring out what to use it for, because that would have been annoying.
    Now I just feel called out about not even bothering to read any of the recent adversarial collaboration pieces.

  13. JPNunez says:

    Demon-Taoiseach is a very great title.

  14. wfenza says:

    Is this a Star Wars prequel?

    • slightlylesshairyape says:

      And that, children, is why a band of rag-tag rebels constantly have to fight space-fascists, occasionally a planet gets blown up, forever and ever.

      • John Schilling says:

        But they do seem to be pretty good at arranging for there to be exactly two Good Jedi and two Evil Jedi at all times, so that the Force remains Balanced.

      • Watchman says:

        Surely it cannot be forever? The number of planets is after all finite (growing, but probably not by the required amount (1 + however many were blown up second time around (not sure if planets blew up in the prequels as that would require having paid attention…)) every forty years or so). So the cycle of (abruptly ended) life cannot go on forever but only till the last planet is destroyed by this time’s Deathstar rehash.

        • Jaskologist says:

          It was a long time ago; we’re all that’s left. Turns out the Great Filter was just a series of Deathstars.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          You know, in a fair-sized galaxy this might actually be workable. If you’re averaging one exploded planet every forty years (with occasional spikes for “interesting times” like the movie era, and lulls for the Jedi to keep peace and order in the Old Republic for centuries/millenia at a time)…

          Well, that’s twenty-five million inhabited planets per billion years, or something like a few hundred million inhabited planets during the typical lifetime of any given star in the galaxy. G-class stars last about ten billion years or so, so call it 250 million planets blown up. Can new planets form fast enough to keep pace?

          There are 512 G-class stars within 100 light years, and about 14600 stars total, so about 3.5% of stars are G-class.

          There are something on the order of 100 billion stars in the Milky Way, so we can casually estimate that about 3.5 billion of them are class G. Positing a not completely unreasonable estimate that 10% of G-class stars have a planet that is either habitable, or terraformable for a soft-SF civilization like Star Wars, that’s 350 million planets orbiting G-class stars alone.

          So by the time that Death Stars blow them all up, it’d be fourteen billion years from now, by which point all current habitable planets orbiting G-class stars are no longer habitable (their parent stars having left the main sequence), and stellar formation will have created a new, hopefully comparable-sized, tranche of planets in the intervening time.

          Death Stars will not, ironically, be the leading cause of death among planets; that will be natural causes. And as long as stellar formation rates stay reasonably steady, and given the assumptions made above, the rate at which new planets will form is at least commensurate with the rate at which planets are blown up by Death Stars.

          On the other hand, the rates are close enough that any significant change could alter things dramatically. Higher rates of Death Star predation could, over a few eons, work their way through much or all of the remaining planet population. Similarly, declining rates of planetary formation could have that effect. But by the same token, any significant number of habitable worlds found in orbit around K and M-class stars would tend to stabilize the population of planets greatly.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Death Stars do not target planets at random; Death Stars target developed planets, and preferentially target more developed planets over less well developed ones. The question is not whether the rate of planetary formation can keep up, but rather the rate of planetary development.

  15. Rusty says:

    I choose . . . look, I need to finish 12 Rules for Life. Then I’ll get back to you.

  16. mormegilcz says:

    OK, that’s a strange simile to polynomial-time hierarchy… Oh, wait… I’m not reading Shtetl-Optimized?!

    • b_jonas says:

      Hmm. I thought above that the demons would go on further than the end of the polynomial hierarchy (there’d be more than countably infinite demons appearing, but that wasn’t a problem in Hofstadter’s book). Specifically, I was considering that they’d approximate one of the first few steps in the arithmetical hierarchy, although I’m not sure which one, but definitely above demons with computable power. This might have been caused only by the lack of imagination from me though, and perhaps the demons would go on to much higher powers than that. Sure, most human heroes would become mad from the temptation much earlier than that, but then that’s fairly expected reaction when demons tempt you with visions of power.

  17. Peter says:

    The “you” of the story has been sold a pup.

    ZAMABAMAZ’s sales pitch is to say “neither Order nor Chaos is at the root of human flourishing, but an ability to strike the right balance between the two” (emphasis mine).

    This is… eh. The roots of human flourishing may deal with many matters that aren’t perfectly aligned with Order or Chaos, at least not in any dramatic narrative sense. For example, I mean if it’s just too hot or two cold then people will die and thus fail to flourish, I suppose that heat could be considered a manifestation of chaos, but that’s not really what people think of.

    Still, with a bit of interpretation, ZAMABAMAZ is saying “we should be able to do the right thing, the thing that brings the things we want”. But when the goods are delivered, they turn out to be pointless quests for The Balance (TM). To use my temperature analogy, the goods that get delivered are equivalent to “Zero degrees is freezing, one hundred degrees is boiling, therefore, we must Seek The Balance and bring about a temperature of fifty degrees. No backsliding! No complaining about heatstroke, restoring the metaphysical balance requires us to see this through no matter the cost.”

    (Possibly this is a special case of a thing where someone says “Let us be sensible”, followers gather, saying, “Let us Be Sensible”, start thinking of themselves as the Being Sensible movement, eventually people notice that Being Sensible (TM) isn’t delivering the goods, a few people try Being Barking Mad (which satisfies no one), eventually someone says, “None of this Being Sensible malarkey, let’s just use our common sense” and the cycle begins anew.)

  18. toastengineer says:

    And then Tom Woods shows up to explain that, even now, whichever one you choose you still just get John McCain.

  19. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Why did I think I should be in charge of the general state of the universe?

    A demon told me so.



    Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve seen fantasy that did a good job of portraying Balance as an ideal, with the possible exception of Novik’s Spinning Sliver, and it only had a good moment of saying that excess is bad.

    Any nominees for good portrayals of Balance?

    Thoughts about why fantasy started supporting Balance rather than Good?

    • xXxanonxXx says:

      What? The Star Wars prequels didn’t do it for you?

      I enjoyed The Dragonlance Chronicles. They hammer you over the head with the theme of balance, but it’s always of the “fanaticism is bad” variety than the “let’s have just the right amount of murder and rape and dashing of the little ones against the rocks.”

      • spork says:

        I don’t think that realistic advocates for balance aim to preserve evil in the world, as if evil had its own intrinsic value. Balance advocates typically think that intrinsically good things are plural, and that optimizing for one good thing can only be done at some cost to other good things. Order (safety, predictability, etc.) and freedom are plausibly like that. That’s why this story makes sense: the demons are worth listening to because each advocates a kind of goodness. Seeking a balance among the plural goods (to maximize the overall magnitude of instantiated goodness) seems like the only right choice.

        What mucks up this clarity is the equivocation at the end between order-goodness and chaos-freedom-evil. That’s stupid Star Wars/Dragonlance shit that’s not worth taking seriously. The Aristotelian balance-lover sees optimizing for order or for freedom as extremes, and the mean between these is the virtuous path. That path is not part-good, part-evil. It’s the path you take when trying to maximize the good and minimize evil.

    • fion says:

      I don’t think I’ve seen fantasy that did a good job of portraying Balance as an ideal

      This surprises me, because I feel as though “balance is good” as a sentiment is everywhere. Having said that, I too struggle to think of an example of a work of fantasy that portrays this.

      • Randy M says:

        Balance is good, because valid goods often compete–do you want your economy to value learning or production? Let’s find the labor distribution that maximizes both.

        Geopolitical balance of power is good, because no nation is platonic good or bad, and having competing sovereigns to check each other can work out. (At least, a plausible argument; perhaps Pax Romana is preferable to MAD)

        Balance between objective good and objective evil is either cowardly or asinine.

        • deciusbrutus says:

          It’s impossible to appoint someone to be the Supreme Executor of Objective Good, with the Power to Enact That Which Must Be Enacted.

          At least, once you appoint someone to that position, they can’t do the job.

        • fion says:

          Balance between objective good and objective evil is either cowardly or asinine.

          I agree, but if we relax “objective” just a little bit disagreements start coming. I, for example, am of the opinion that suffering is always bad, but I know people who believe it should be balanced with its opposite (not necessarily 50/50, but they think non-zero suffering is better than zero suffering).

          They think I’m shallow and naive; I think they’re unable to come to terms with an inescapably bad universe without thinking “but maybe bad is *kind of* good?”

          • Randy M says:

            There’s something to holding back in obliterating evil in case you are wrong and some aspect is important for reasons you can’t comprehend.
            But in the sense of, say, D&D Harpers, a neutral organization that strives for balance between cosmic good and evil, fighting for balance doesn’t make sense.

          • carvenvisage says:

            I agree, but if we relax “objective” just a little bit disagreements start coming. I, for example, am of the opinion that suffering is always bad, but I know people who believe it should be balanced with its opposite (not necessarily 50/50, but they think non-zero suffering is better than zero suffering).

            it was good vs evil though, not bad (suffering is emblamatically bad, but not inherently evil), and I doubt your friends mean this in a cosmic “choose right or we will all pay for the genie’s confusion” sense rather than something more local to human psychologies on planet earth*, and perhaps in particular themselves.

            *(which have some proclivity to the opposite bias)

    • John Schilling says:

      Thoughts about why fantasy started supporting Balance rather than Good?

      Good requires an explicit moral judgement, one which strongly implies that someone else is Evil. Balance at least sounds nicely non-judgemental, and if anyone disagrees with you on the details then they look like a fanatical extremist.

      Then of course you take all the stuff that used to be labeled “good” and implicitly assert that these are emergent properties of “balance”, but at least we’ve hidden the explicit moral judgement.

      • Jaskologist says:

        That’s the Nicomachean Ethics in a nutshell.

        • MereComments says:

          That take is a pretty backwards if you’re talking specifically about Aristotle, tho. He doesn’t seemed worried about framing or being non-judgemental, or “good” in the sense of Good and Evil (that seems like a Nietzschean project), he just seems to literally think all virtues are the balanced point in the spectrums of behaviors.

      • Eric Rall says:

        I suspect there’s also a degree of influence from what religious traditions are currently fashionable in pop culture or influential to author’s thinking.

        Most flavors of Christianity feature a strong good-vs-evil dualism (God vs Satan at the cosmic level, and an internal struggle to accept God’s grace and use it to overcome man’s inherently sinful nature to live a life of virtue). But a lot of Eastern religions (particularly Taoism and Buddhism) place more emphasis on balance and moderation, and that emphasis is probably exaggerated in Western pop culture understandings of Taoism and Buddhism.

        If there’s been a shift in fantasy writing from good-vs-evil stories to striving-for-balance stories, I’d guess a lot of it comes from a decline in actively Christian worldviews among fantasy writers and audiences, and from 60s/70s counterculture’s fascination with Buddhism and Taoism.

        Of course, I could be overthinking this: it could just be that major early-to-mid 20th century fantasy writers (particularly Tolkien and Lewis) set a tone of writing good-vs-evil stories, which the next generation of fantasy writers imitated, but the one after that started to subvert the formula for the sake of telling stories with fresher themes.

        • Kestrellius says:

          Christianity is not dualistic, IME. Evil is treated as a fleeting aberration, not any kind of counterpart to good. Likewise, Satan (assuming you go with the standard Satan=Lucifer=fallen-angel interpretation, which is somewhat questionable, but that’s a whole different discussion) isn’t an evil version of God; he’s basically just some asshole. (The introduction to The Screwtape Letters contained an interesting bit of discussion on this topic, IIRC.)

      • carvenvisage says:

        Good requires an explicit moral judgement, one which strongly implies that someone else is Evil.

        How the second part? I would say it implies that evil is possible (even if evil is not a diametric opposite of good, if you invert the idea of good along the right axis you’ll get something that’s at least similiar), but not that is in fact instantiated.

    • Some Troll's Serious Discussion Alt says:

      Thoughts about why fantasy started supporting Balance rather than Good?

      Flawless heros are boring. Acknowledging that the hero you’re supposed to be cheering for has their own failures, sins, regrets, crimes, etc to address and atone for despite that they’re still clearly the good guys is unsatisfy and a little emotionally taxing.

      To escape the trap, step one level up in the narrative. Redefine Balance as good and Good as bad in its own way when carried to excess. Now your characters can be flawed and still good because being too Good would actually be bad.

      • Murphy says:

        people can’t typically agree on what constitutes “good”. One persons vision of a perfect utopia where nobody so much at thinks a bad thought about anyone else is another persons horror-story mind-control dystopia.

        Plus in many stories it’s not even balance between good and evil, rather some loosely aligned proxy like ruin/preservation, dark/light, freedom/obedience.

    • Watchman says:

      It’s my normal reading of a Song of Ice and Fire…

      • C_B says:

        That’s seeking a balance between polarized cosmic forces which are somewhere between indifferent and hostile to humanity, though. That’s very different proposition from balance between good and evil.

        I think there are plenty of good examples in fiction of this kind of “too much of any extreme on this spectrum is bad, and good is only possible in the absence of such an excess.” ASoIaF is one example, Babylon 5 is another obvious one. But I’m not sure how you get from there to the “balance of the light and dark sides of the force” thing, where the fiction advocates that a non-zero amount of Evil is better than zero Evil. My read of Nancy’s post was that she was asking about the latter.

        • Galle says:

          “balance of the light and dark sides of the force” thing

          Okay, I have to speak off about this one, because this is a very common misconception that annoys me. Anakin was not prophesied to bring balance between the light and dark sides of the Force. Nothing in the movies says this, and Lucas has outright said that it’s not true.

          Exactly what “bringing balance to the Force” means is a little unclear, not least because the prequels were badly written, but the strongest possibility, in my eyes, is that it’s about bringing balance between the Living Force and the Unifying Force, which in practical terms would mean a balance between the ordinary and everyday on one hand and the abstract and cosmic on the other. The Force was out of balance because the Jedi venerated the Unifying Force over the Living Force. This led to the development of a Dark Side philosophy that placed the Living Force over the Unifying Force.

          (Presumably, if the Jedi has gone in the other direction, then the Sith would have too, creating a Dark Side philosophy based on obedience to cosmic principles without any concern for how they affected actual people. The point here is that the mostly benign extremism of the Jedi created a far less benign counter-extremism in the Sith)

          • John Schilling says:

            Anakin was not prophesied to bring balance between the light and dark sides of the Force.

            Right. He was prophesied to bring a wholly unspecified “balance” to the Force, and in fact did bring a precise numerical balance between Light Side and Dark Side force adepts where the ratio had been extremely lopsided in favor of the Light Side. Oops.

            Are there fictional prophecies that don’t have fine print that makes their eventual fulfillment backfire and wholly upend the plans of whoever tried to use said prophecy for fun and profit?

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Certain balance states between pairs of opposed primordial physical concepts (heat/cold, fullness/emptiness, motion/stasis, love/hate, literal as opposed to metaphorical light/darkness) is definitely Good by human standards, compared to the opposed extremes themselves.

        But this is basically just the weak anthropic principle, through a different lens.

        A world that is, by human standards, sometimes hot and sometimes cold is much more habitable to humans than one that is capitalized Cold or Hot all the time. Especially if capitalized Cold and Hot aren’t just “adjust the world’s equilibrium temperature,” but rather “literally maximize/minimize temperature until everything boils/freezes forever.”

        Since people are adapted to conditions of homeostasis and moderate deviations from some fixed environmental ‘set point,’ of course we’ll perceive the universe as pairs of starkly opposed concepts that are both excessive compared to the range of conditions we find salubrious.

        And indeed, I’d argue that one of the reasons that the concept of elemental spirits is so compelling and common in fiction, is that it’s interesting to imagine a kind of being for whom there is literally no such thing as ‘too hot’ or ‘too much love’ or ‘too much darkness.’

    • Matt says:

      Thoughts about why fantasy started supporting Balance rather than Good?

      I think it keeps the “Big Good” from intervening. Without the appeal to balance, the story doesn’t need the Hero, since God will kill the devil for us. (or whichever good god / evil god is in your fictional universe)

    • beleester says:

      Kingdom Hearts has a character, Riku, whose arcs are mainly about trying to find a balance between light and dark, and using his dark side to do good.

      Dresden Files has a similar thing with its main character – Dresden never breaks the rules and goes into outright black magic, but unlike the White Council, he’s willing to bend the rules if that’s what it takes to stop the villain of the day. Antiheroes in general seem like good candidates for Heroes of Balance.

      You could also look into deconstructions, which tend to both show the flaws in a concept and find a way to fix them, sort of striking a balance between the two. Madoka Magica starts off by saying that your childish ideas of heroism are foolish and when they run into cold hard reality, they’ll break, and you’ll break with them. But then it turns around and says that you can make the world a better place, you just need to be smart about it. Ideals need to be tempered by pragmatism to be successful.

      • Watchman says:

        I think citing the author of (the truly great) Dancers at the End of Time trilogy as an advocate of balance might be less than simple?

        • floatingfactory says:

          Well, Eternal Champion is pretty heavily Balance, but maybe the author’s overall work makes him a devotee of MLOXO7W, Demon-Kaiser of the Domain of Meta-Balance?

  20. desipis says:

    Evidently, there’s a bit of a flaw in founding one’s morality in rationalism…

  21. fr8train_ssc says:

    I was expecting a hidden UNSONG reference in here… unless there is and I didn’t find it?

    Also, missed opportunity for a corny Rush reference at the end

    “I will choose a path that’s clear
    I will choose free will”

  22. “Don’t we want more good stuff”?

    What would you do when you got it? Generally when someone gets something they end up saying, “but what now?” In other words having an achievable goal makes life pointless, because you might actually end up achieving it, at which point life will become meaningless.

    But not having a goal also appears to make life meaningless, since there is no longer anything telling you what to do with yourself. Likewise, having an unachievable goal makes life meaningless, since there is nothing you can do to achieve it.

    So you have a problem whether or not you pursue a goal, and whether or not it can be achieved.

    The answer is that the “goal” is not something you achieve, but a way that you live, namely with balance. So when the heroes grumble that seeking balance is kind of dumb, they are just plain wrong.

    • blacktrance says:

      When you get good stuff, you just enjoy it, replacing it with more good stuff to the extent that it wears out/is consumed/etc. Presumably, you wanted the good stuff because it’s good to have – so you’re done seeking, at least for now.

      • “When you get good stuff, you just enjoy it”

        Sounds like you’re explaining how to live a balanced life rather than going for excess.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          Except that the concept of “balance” between good and bad stuff is that it’s supposedly important, on some deep cosmic level, to have both in amounts that are somehow commensurate. Like, that you should feel happy eight hours a day, sad eight hours a day, and kind of ‘meh’ in between eight hours a day.

          It’s much harder to satisfactorily explain “well gee, why not arrange things so that we’re happy sixteen hours a day and ‘meh’ eight hours a day instead,” except by answering “we can’t do that yet.” To which the reply is “well what if we could, would it be wrong to try?”

          And sometimes the argument for balance can be made in the context of specific dualities- you can argue that an excess of courage AND a deficiency of courage are both bad, so a balanced amount is optimal. But that’s specific to the duality you’re talking about. It doesn’t fully generalize to “therefore we should have things that are good and things that are bad in equal measure.”

    • Gazeboist says:

      In other words having an achievable goal makes life pointless, because you might actually end up achieving it, at which point life will become meaningless.

      This is entirely unsupported by your factual claim. If true, your claim shows only that not having a goal results in the ennui you describe. The answer to “what now?” is straightforwardly “seek a new goal”. As long as a goal can be selected, ennui is not an issue.

    • helloo says:

      That implies that your goal is to pursue your “goal”, not accomplish it.
      Do you feel that soldiers that fight for peace are wrong?

      The answer to What now? Should be to then live your life with the satisfaction that you accomplished said goal. Having a “meaningless life” does not mean that you cannot live it.

      Even if it doesn’t, if they are willing to sacrifice themselves to accomplish the goal, why aren’t they willing to do so afterwards? That may not be the individual human impulse, but if you think of a program – it terminates after accomplishing its “goal”.

    • TDB says:

      This implicitly assumes full information. Imperfect creatures can always strive to learn more and improve. The fact that it never ends doesn’t necessarily make the latest insight a dull experience. Perfect creatures might have this problem.

      I am reminded of the book, Finite and Infinite Games, though I barely remember anything about it. Maybe I should go renew my memory.

  23. blacktrance says:

    A few months later…


    Alphanion is a demon-sultan of Order. Demon-sultan is a millennia-old profession in the multiverse, and the Domain of Order has historically been skeptical of anything with any amount of chaos. Alphanion’s main goal in this adversarial collaboration was to argue that chaos has led to many historical atrocities and that order fares much better in comparison. He became more convinced that balance, chaos, and the meta-level all have some order-like qualities.

    CTHGHFZXAY is a demon-shah of Chaos…

    • Joseph Greenwood says:


    • beleester says:

      He became more convinced that balance, chaos, and the meta-level all have some order-like qualities.

      “Your goal is a universe of total entropy, a realm without order! I submit to you that such a universe would be statistically uniform in composition, and therefore ordered! Also, boring.”
      –White Mage, Eight-Bit Theater

  24. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun by Orwell.

    I think this is relevant, I’m not sure it’s completely right.

    • Gazeboist says:

      incidentally the coined word Utopia doesn’t mean ‘a good place’, it means merely a ‘non-existent place’

      Did Orwell not know what a pun is? I don’t think I’ve read anything in his essays other than this one and Politics and the English Language, but Politics also has a glaring reversed-stupidity error of this sort. Do they pop up in his other essays?

      His misunderstanding of Gulliver’s Travels is also … interesting.

    • Protagoras says:

      I’m willing to stake out a stronger contrary position than “not sure it’s completely right.” In particular, I think it’s very clear that some things are better experienced than described, and some things are better described than experienced. A lot of the points Orwell makes seem to me to mostly be illustrating that happiness usually falls into the former category.

  25. Edge of Gravity says:

    Notice the sleight of hand there 🙂 Order vs Chaos is not Good vs Evil, in contradiction with “Don’t we want more good stuff, and less bad stuff?” Excellent punchline though!

  26. The Nybbler says:

    So ALPHANION is IT and CTHGHFZXAY is Madeline L’Engle. And Our Hero is…Obi Wan Kenobi (bad move, Ben)

    And Gary Gygax would tell the demons that equating Law and Chaos with Good and Evil is totally wrong, and they should find another axis.

  27. fion says:

    The first time I read this I was too engrossed in the story to notice the names, but on rereading they’re actually very amusing. I think I understand the joke up to and including K!!!111ELEVEN, but I don’t understand:

    ILO, Demon-Chancellor of the Domain of Excessive Meta-Balance
    PAHANUP, Demon-Taoiseach of the Domain of Balanced Meta-Balance
    IFNI, Demon-Secretary-General of the Domain of Chaotic Meta-Excess
    GOSAGUL, Demon-Admiral of the Domain of Ordered Meta-Balanced Excess
    MEGAHAHA, Demon-Pope of the Domain of Excessively Ordered Meta-Balance

    Anybody fancy explaining the joke?

    • Randy M says:

      I don’t know, but I would think MEGA HAHA is a pretty fitting name for a demonic clown.

    • helloo says:

      I’m not if I get ALPHANION even.

      Suspect ILO is just symmetry (lowercase at least) could still use a x. Might be an acronym of infinite level organization but I feel to put acronyms on short things is way too prone to overthinking.

      IFNI might be just a shortened infinite.

      Also assuming the Artifact has infinite power and isn’t cursed to always give you bad results, you could just use that to solve the infinite difficulty problems. Or at least create a way to help with it.

    • The Nybbler says:

      ILO: High/Low?
      PAHANUP: not sure, maybe “Pan up” as in a balance pan?
      IFNI: No clue
      GOSAGUL: Even less clue.
      MEGAHAHA: Probably “mega ha-ha”.

    • a real dog says:

      I think ILO might reference the ELO system, used in games (originally chess) for matchmaking and ensuring balanced competition.

  28. Phigment says:

    Obviously, I use the artifact to empower two champions, one of Order and one of Chaos, who will compete to determine the best course of action.

    • b_jonas says:

      That means you are taking the offer of IYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY, Demon-Raja of the Domain of Excess, since in the end (if you have organized the competition properly) one of the champions will almost certainly defeat the other, and if the champion for Order wins, you get a world of total Order, but if the champion of Chaos wins, you get a world of total Chaos.

  29. Gazeboist says:

    That’s not how universes work.

  30. Incurian says:

    Every ssc comment thread.

  31. AnonYEmous says:

    for the record, my heroes fight for MLOXO7W

    this is the last argument which makes sense in my eyes, the rest are just le epic trolls

  32. mdhughes says:

    I’m voting for ZAMABAMAZ. Chaos may not be healthy or sane but it’s a lot more fun, and means I don’t have to listen to all these shahs and padishahs and whatnots.

    So that’s why the nightmares that hunt in the night are now eating your livers, children.

  33. Walter says:

    This was wonderful. Thanks for writing this.

  34. dark orchid says:

    When faced with a choice between Freedom and Order, always remember that there’s a third choice: Autocracy. Especially when going for a world domination victory.

  35. TDB says:

    I was disappointed that there was no Bayesian demon.

  36. normativeforce says:

    It’s odd all the demons would pick someone ignorant of transfinite set theory and domain theory. For there’s the meta-fixed-point-balance demon who says that in fact, as it happens, all of your human flailing about is simply a view on a process of iteratively trying to approximate the fixed point of acausal negotiation between all these ideas. Who, being ideas, full well realize they’re being manifested and so on. I believe you, Scott, wrote something about this some time ago.

    The thing is, there’s the impredicative fixed point beyond the finite stages of ”I think balance should balance the idea of no balance between…” at transfinite ordinals, some of which are uncountable and impredicative, in a reflection of all the stages realizing all the stages must realize this. It’s not an integer game, it’s a game of ever downward-reflecting higher infinities. And the idea it all stabilizes in the end is the Cantorian absolute, with the twist that all the stages are all aware that’s no justification. And so it goes, but it goes transfinitely…

    In the end, you’re you, I’m me, and so on. And we’re the peculiar non-balance-balance Omega-times, where Omega is the class of all ordinals, only in the next iteration of the universe.

  37. Jiro says:

    If demons are able to convince you of false propositions, there’s nothing you can do–you’re screwed by the demons. Any attempt to work around this (like by trying to figure out the second order implications of their suggestions, by picking balance, by destroying the artifact, etc) is covered by this stipulation; if the demon can frame the discussion to get you to do what they want, it certainly can frame it to get the second order conclusions it desires, to get you to pick balance, to get you to destroy the artifact, etc.

  38. AlexanderTheGrand says:

    I read through the comments hoping someone would mention it, but no luck. There’s a SF story this reminds me of, I think published in Analog or Asimov. It’s a long shot, but can somebody remind me of the title?

    It’s about a man and a woman who visit Mars, where they’re confronted with an alien being, who gives both of them Ultimate power over time and space. The man wants to use the power to save the world, the woman thinks that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and wants to do nothing.

    The man doesn’t want to listen. What he thinks he does is, uses his power for good, only to result in exactly the type of destruction she warned about. In a fit of remorse, he reverts time back to the exact moment they got the powers, and casts them off.

    But what actually happened was, the woman had used her powers to project a false future into his experiences to trick him. He actually cast off his power, but the rest was her deceit, working towards the greater good.

    The aliens observe this behavior, and conclude that any species that would give up the power to make a perfect world is unfit to let grow into a full-fledged civilization. The “humane” thing to do is destroy it now. They send Mars on a collision course with Earth, leaving the two previously empowered helpless on the surface.

  39. Gerry Quinn says:

    “Okay demons, that’s enough theory. Let’s hear what goodies each of you is offering me if I pick your option.”

  40. ragnarrahl says:

    “Demons? Go away. You’re bothering the Master of the Universe, and Chaos and Order don’t mean anything without a context.”

    • b_jonas says:

      The demons ALPHANION and CTHGHFZXAY do offer context. The text clearly says that those demons show you a vision of exactly what world of Order and Chaos the artifact could create if you chose to accept their respective temptation.

  41. ed74 says:

    So you got rid of your smart phone?
    Congratulations. It’s liberating.
    But remember, “The empire long divided must unite; long united must divide.”
    I gave mine up for a few years, but got one again, eventually.
    It is a tool a awesome power, no joke, but it certainly insidiously saps your attention.
    We need somehow to be trained by our phones to be less inclined to grab our phones.
    Is there an app for that?

    • romeostevens says:

      Add a mildly annoying lockscreen
      Change to greyscale
      Change all animation scaling to 5x

      Your phone now has a barrier to entry that means you’ll only use it for things more valuable than the cost of piercing that barrier.

  42. jg29a says:

    As soon as it became clear that ZamabamaZ wasn’t gonna start talking more specifically about distributions and instead keep using fuzzy English words, I was ready to reject these innumerate demons.

  43. Kestrellius says:

    Why are they all demons? What’s a man have to do around here to get some angels?

    Also daily reminder that cosmological dualism is impairment.

  44. a real dog says:

    Is dividing between order and chaos even useful, other than being an approximation of a human’s cognitive architecture / symbolic realm? (see J. Peterson writing more about this than anyone has patience to read) This is very far from cleaving reality at the joints, especially given the contortions one can get into to describe a phenomenon in a chaotic or orderly way depending on their fancy.

    I guess executing a reductio ad absurdum on that concept was the entire point.

    • Eponymous says:

      If you interpret chaos as “entropy”, then it is a fairly fundamental distinction.

      It would indeed be ironic if romantic notions of retaining human “freedom” prompted our hero to throw away humanity’s only chance at averting the heat death of the universe.

      We’ll have to rely on the red pill guy after all, I guess.

      • a real dog says:

        That’s the point – what is intuitively perceived as chaos is very far away from physical entropy. See the emphasis on diversity in the second demon’s vision!

        Also, information theory gets thorny once you attempt to eliminate any dependence on an observer. After all, unless you are aware of an incredibly specific interpretation of what’s happening on the inputs and outputs, a CPU is just an electric heater. Given our limited understanding of chaotic phenomena I wouldn’t be surprised to find an alien race using hurricanes as computing clusters.

    • baconbits9 says:

      This is very far from cleaving reality at the joints,

      That depends on what reality you are talking about. If you are talking about the physical reality, that is how everything is structured and how it interacts with itself and other things then maybe not, but when it comes down to human decision making Peterson is basically arguing that these are the joints of personal reality.

      • Hitfoav says:

        I think this points out an underlying problem with the Artifact scenario – chaos/order is observer-dependent.

  45. Doug S. says:

    Scott, have you been playing Shin Megami Tensei games again instead of working? Bad Scott! 😉

  46. AG says:

    Having just finished The Good Place S2, and delighted in the Trolley Problem episode, this was hilarious to think of as each new demon being either a notable actor cameo or Janet variation appealing to Eleanor Shellstrop, while Chidi dithers in the background over each new paradigm presented.

    Jason gets bored and drop-kicks the Artifact.

  47. alcoraiden says:

    Nah, I’d take the artifact, immediately decide to make the world as perfect as I could imagine, THEN break it.

  48. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Aw, LUMINIEL got cut from the final draft? He was my favorite Demon-Thingy.

  49. romeostevens says:

    Instantiate the sort of being who would have fun writing something like this seems to have been the best answer since it’s what was actually instantiated.

    80/20 order/chaos (80/20 appears to be a schelling point for hormetic processes. Not sure how that plays out in self modification schemes) with a built in escape hatch on chaos to cut off the long tail of super bad outcomes (maintenance of right to exit chaos) seems more balanced to me than 50/50.

    This leaves many orders of inifinity universes to explore while cutting out the infinity universes in which agents can lose the ability to suicide out (something more elegant than suicide as an activation barrier would be nice, let’s work on that). I’m not sure we’re in a nice universe given that selection potentially selects against creatures that would be capable of contemplating exit.

  50. Markus Ramikin says:

    I remember first having thoughts vaguely along those lines when as a child I read about Huma refusing to destroy Thakhissis in the Legend of Huma. “Uhm… why is balance between good and evil supposed to be a good thing exactly? What good is the god of balance, anyway – can I imagine a single plausible situation where he’d support Thakhissis and oppose Paladine?”

    That was a few decades ago, and I’ve been on the lookout for a good argument since then (about good and evil in general, not about the metaphysics of Krynn, which I stopped caring about once I realized most of those books suck a lot more than Huma). No luck so far. Though to be fair, good vs evil is not the same as order vs chaos.

  51. Rafael Trindade says:

    Splendid story, which I really enjoyed. But in the last paragraph you made a magician’s trick, changing the Order vs. Chaos opposition to a Good vs. Not-Good one.

  52. darksmiles22 says:

    Nice story, but surely you realize the Middle Path isn’t something you aim for? It just arises naturally out of following the Noble Eightfold Path. This stuff is all basic Buddhism.

  53. KG says:

    Before you can make a decision too drastic, there will appear a vision of FUCKINEGH, Demon-Hegemon of the Domain of Futility, who appears as a white male human in his early thirties. He will blandly state that no decision you make can satisfy you, so you might as well give him the Artifact, as he will do absolutely nothing with it and thus no one will be affected by your decision, adversely or otherwise.

    Then with a sound like the ruffling of an old shroud, there will appear a vision of WWJD, Demon-Archon of the Domain of Good Intentions, who appears as a vague face amidst shifting appendages surrounded by light. It will suggest that you instead give it the Artifact, as if you’re not willing to make a decision to do something useful, it might as well do it for you. Surely, as you are merely a human, and Wwjd is the ruler of an entire domain dedicated to good intentions, the artifact would be more appropriate in its ethereal hands.

    But before you can be tempted, there will appear a vision of SOFIA, Demon-Matriarch of the Domain of Wisdom, who appears as a blinding light orbited by spinning planets and particles. She will insist that, if anything, she should have the Artifact, as she will use her superior understanding of reality to make the best decision possible. Surely, as you are merely a human, and Sofia is the ruler of an entire domain dedicated to wisdom, the artifact would be more appropriate in her enlightened rings.

    Your consideration of what seems a reasonable option will be quickly interrupted by a vision of ACHAMOTH, Demon-Chieftain of the Domain of Greater Wisdom, who appears as luminous novae and neurons swirling around in a cloud of shifting colors. They will insist that, if anything, they should have the Artifact, as they will use their more superior understanding of reality to make an even better decision. Surely, as you are merely a human, and Achamoth is the ruler of an entire domain dedicated to greater wisdom, the artifact would be more appropriate in their enlightening celestial spheres.

    Next in line will appear a vision of ITYMDTICHH, Demon-Khan of the Domain of Bad Decisions, who appears as a poorly-recorded combination of all the nightmares you’ve ever had played over each other backwards. S/he will take you aside and suggest that you give him/r the Artifact just to spite all these other assholes, and s/he will use his/r ultimate understanding of reality to make the worst decision possible. That’ll show them.

    Before you can even contemplate this clearly ridiculous idea, there will appear a vision of ASTFGL, Demon-Anax of the Domain of Bureaucracy, who appears as someone you immediately forget the look of, no matter how hard you try to remember. He will say something.

    Finally, when you aren’t paying attention, there will appear MOLOCH, Demon-Caliph of the Domain of Itself, whose mind is pure machinery, whose blood is running money, whose fingers are ten armies, who just fucking grabs the Artifact from you.

  54. mcpalenik says:

    Obviously, it’s a geometric series, and the answer is 1/[1-Balance]. Interestingly, the “undressed” value for balance is actually -infinity, but this is canceled by an infinite degree of chaos/order interactions.