Category Archives: 1

The ecology of conviction

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Supposing that sincerity has declined, why?

It feels natural to me that sincere enthusiasms should be rare relative to criticism and half-heartedness. But I would have thought this was born of fairly basic features of the situation, and so wouldn’t change over time.

It seems clearly easier and less socially risky to be critical of things, or non-committal, than to stand for a positive vision. It is easier to produce a valid criticism than an idea immune to valid criticism (and easier again to say, ‘this is very simplistic – the situation is subtle’). And if an idea is criticized, the critic gets to seem sophisticated, while the holder of the idea gets to seem naïve. A criticism is smaller than a positive vision, so a critic is usually not staking their reputation on their criticism as much, or claiming that it is good, in the way that the enthusiast is.

But there are also rewards for positive visions and for sincere enthusiasm that aren’t had by critics and routine doubters. So for things to change over time, you really just need the scale of these incentives to change, whether in a basic way or because the situation is changing.

One way this could have happened is that the internet (or even earlier change in the information economy) somehow changed the ecology of enthusiasts and doubters, pushing the incentives away from enthusiasm. e.g. The ease, convenience and anonymity of criticizing and doubting on the internet puts a given positive vision in contact with many more critics, making it basically impossible for an idea to emerge not substantially marred by doubt and teeming with uncertainties and summarizable as ‘maybe X, but I don’t know, it’s complicated’. This makes presenting positive visions less appealing, reducing the population of positive vision havers, and making them either less confident or more the kinds of people whose confidence isn’t affected by the volume of doubt other people might have about what they are saying. Which all make them even easier targets for criticism, and make confident enthusiasm for an idea increasingly correlated with being some kind of arrogant fool. Which decreases the basic respect offered by society for someone seeming to have a positive vision.

This is a very speculative story, but something like these kinds of dynamics seems plausible.

These thoughts were inspired by a conversation I had with Nick Beckstead.

In balance and flux

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Someone more familiar with ecology recently noted to me that it used to be a popular view that nature was ‘in balance’ and had some equilibrium state, that it should be returned to. Whereas the new understanding is that there was never an equilibrium state. Natural systems are always changing. Another friend who works in natural management also recently told me that their role in the past might have been trying to restore things to their ‘natural state’, but now the goal was to prepare yourself for what your ecology was becoming. A brief Googling returns this National Geographic article by Tik Root, The ‘balance of nature’ is an enduring concept. But it’s wrong. along the same lines. In fairness, they seem to be arguing against both the idea that nature is in a balance so intense that you can easily disrupt it, and the idea that nature is in a balance so sturdy that it will correct anything you do to it, which sounds plausible. But they don’t say that ecosystems are probably in some kind of intermediately sturdy balance, in many dimensions at least. They say that nature is ‘in flux’ and that the notion of balance is a misconception.

It seems to me though that there is very often equilibrium in some dimensions, even in a system that is in motion in other dimensions, and that that balance can be very important to maintain.

Some examples:

  • bicycle
  • society with citizens with a variety of demeanors, undergoing broad social change
  • human growing older, moving to Germany, and getting pregnant, while maintaining a narrow range of temperatures and blood concentrations of different chemicals

So the observation that a system is in flux seems fairly irrelevant to whether it is in equilibrium.

Any system designed to go somewhere relies on some of its parameters remaining within narrow windows. Nature isn’t designed to go somewhere, so the issue of what ‘should’ happen with it is non-obvious. But the fact that ecosystems always gradually change along some dimensions (e.g. grassland becoming forest) doesn’t seem to imply that there are not still balance in other dimensions, where they don’t change so much, and where changing is more liable to lead to very different and arguably less good states.

For instance, as a grassland gradually reforests, it might continue to have a large number of plant eating bugs, and bug-eating birds, such that the plant eating bugs would destroy the plants entirely if there were ever too many of them, but as there become more of them, the birds also flourish, and then eat them. As the forest grows, the tree-eating bugs become more common relative to the grass-eating bugs, but the rough equilibrium of plants, bugs, and birds remains. If the modern world was disrupting the reproduction of the birds, so that they were diminishing even while the bugs to eat were plentiful, threatening a bug-explosion-collapse in which the trees and grass would be destroyed by the brief insect plague, I think it would be reasonable to say that the modern world was disrupting the equilibrium, or putting nature out of balance.

The fact that your bike has been moving forward for miles doesn’t mean that leaning a foot to the left suddenly is meaningless, in systems terms.

What is going on in the world?

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Here’s a list of alternative high level narratives about what is importantly going on in the world—the central plot, as it were—for the purpose of thinking about what role in a plot to take:

  • The US is falling apart rapidly (on the scale of years), as evident in US politics departing from sanity and honor, sharp polarization, violent civil unrest, hopeless pandemic responses, ensuing economic catastrophe, one in a thousand Americans dying by infectious disease in 2020, and the abiding popularity of Trump in spite of it all.
  • Western civilization is declining on the scale of half a century, as evidenced by its inability to build things it used to be able to build, and the ceasing of apparent economic acceleration toward a singularity.
  • AI agents will control the future, and which ones we create is the only thing about our time that will matter in the long run. Major subplots:
    • ‘Aligned’ AI is necessary for a non-doom outcome, and hard.
    • Arms races worsen things a lot.
    • The order of technologies matters a lot / who gets things first matters a lot, and many groups will develop or do things as a matter of local incentives, with no regard for the larger consequences.
    • Seeing more clearly what’s going on ahead of time helps all efforts, especially in the very unclear and speculative circumstances (e.g. this has a decent chance of replacing subplots here with truer ones, moving large sections of AI-risk effort to better endeavors).
    • The main task is finding levers that can be pulled at all.
    • Bringing in people with energy to pull levers is where it’s at.
  • Institutions could be way better across the board, and these are key to large numbers of people positively interacting, which is critical to the bounty of our times. Improvement could make a big difference to swathes of endeavors, and well-picked improvements would make a difference to endeavors that matter.
  • Most people are suffering or drastically undershooting their potential, for tractable reasons.
  • Most human effort is being wasted on endeavors with no abiding value.
  • If we take anthropic reasoning and our observations about space seriously, we appear very likely to be in a ‘Great Filter’, which appears likely to kill us (and unlikely to be AI).
  • Everyone is going to die, the way things stand.
  • Most of the resources ever available are in space, not subject to property rights, and in danger of being ultimately had by the most effective stuff-grabbers. This could begin fairly soon in historical terms.
  • Nothing we do matters for any of several reasons (moral non-realism, infinite ethics, living in a simulation, being a Boltzmann brain, ..?)
  • There are vast quantum worlds that we are not considering in any of our dealings.
  • There is a strong chance that we live in a simulation, making the relevance of each of our actions different from that which we assume.
  • There is reason to think that acausal trade should be a major factor in what we do, long term, and we are not focusing on it much and ill prepared.
  • Expected utility theory is the basis of our best understanding of how best to behave, and there is reason to think that it does not represent what we want. Namely, Pascal’s mugging, or the option of destroying the world with all but one in a trillion chance for a proportionately greater utopia, etc.
  • Consciousness is a substantial component of what we care about, and we not only don’t understand it, but are frequently convinced that it is impossible to understand satisfactorily. At the same time, we are on the verge of creating things that are very likely conscious, and so being able to affect the set of conscious experiences in the world tremendously. Very little attention is being given to doing this well.
  • We have weapons that could destroy civilization immediately, which are under the control of various not-perfectly-reliable people. We don’t have a strong guarantee of this not going badly.
  • Biotechnology is advancing rapidly, and threatens to put extremely dangerous tools in the hands of personal labs, possibly bringing about a ‘vulnerable world’ scenario.
  • Technology keeps advancing, and we may be in a vulnerable world scenario.
  • The world is utterly full of un-internalized externalities and they are wrecking everything.
  • There are lots of things to do in the world, we can only do a minuscule fraction, and we are hardly systematically evaluating them at all. Meanwhile massive well-intentioned efforts are going into doing things that are probably much less good than they could be.
  • AI is powerful force for good, and if it doesn’t pose an existential risk, the earlier we make progress on it, the faster we can move to a world of unprecedented awesomeness, health and prosperity.
  • There are risks to the future of humanity (‘existential risks’), and vastly more is at stake in these than in anything else going on (if we also include catastrophic trajectory changes). Meanwhile the world’s thinking and responsiveness to these risks is incredibly minor and they are taken unseriously.
  • The world is controlled by governments, and really awesome governance seems to be scarce and terrible governance common. Yet we probably have a lot of academic theorizing on governance institutions, and a single excellent government based on scalable principles might have influence beyond its own state.
  • The world is hiding, immobilized and wasted by a raging pandemic.

It’s a draft. What should I add? (If, in life, you’ve chosen among ways to improve the world, is there a simple story within which your choices make particular sense?)

Condition-directedness

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

In chess, you can’t play by picking a desired end of the game and backward chaining to the first move, because there are vastly more possible chains of moves than your brain can deal with, and the good ones are few. Instead, chess players steer by heuristic senses of the worth of situations. I assume they still back-chain a few moves (‘if I go there, she’ll have to move her rook, freeing my queen’) but just leading from a heuristically worse to a heuristically better situation a short hop away.

In life, it is often taken for granted that one should pursue goals, not just very locally, but over scales of decades. The alternative is taken to be being unambitious and directionless.

But there should also be an alternative that is equivalent to the chess one: heuristically improving the situation, without setting your eye on a particular pathway to a particular end-state.

Which seems like actually what people do a lot of the time. For instance, making your living room nice without a particular plan for it, or reading to be ‘well read’, or exercising to be ‘fit’ (at least insofar as having a nice living space and being fit and well-read are taken as generally promising situations rather than stepping stones immediately prior to some envisaged meeting, say). Even at a much higher level, spending a whole working life upholding the law or reporting on events or teaching the young because these put society in a better situation overall, not because they will lead to some very specific outcome.

In spite of its commonness, I’m not sure that I have heard of this type of action labeled as distinct from goal-directedness and undirectedness. I’ll call it condition-directedness for now. When people are asked for their five year plans, they become uncomfortable if they don’t have one, rather than proudly stating that they don’t currently subscribe to goal-oriented strategy at that scale. Maybe it’s just that I hang out in this strange Effective Altruist community, where all things are meant to be judged by their final measure on the goal, which perhaps encourages evaluating them explicitly with reference to an envisaged path to the goal, especially if it is otherwise hard to distinguish the valuable actions from doing whatever you feel like.

It seems like one could be condition-directed and yet very ambitious and not directionless. (Though your ambition would be non-specific, and your direction would be local, and maybe they are the worse for these things?) For instance, you might work tirelessly on whatever seems like it will improve the thriving of a community that you are part of, and always know in which direction you are pushing, and have no idea what you will be doing in five years.

Whether condition-directedness is a good kind of strategy would seem to depend on the game you are playing, and your resources for measuring and reasoning about it. In chess, condition-directedness seems necessary. Somehow longer term plans do seem more feasible in life than in chess though, so it is possible that they are always better in life, at the scales in question. I doubt this, especially given the observation that people often seem to be condition-directed, at least at some scales and in some parts of life.

(These thoughts currently seem confused to me – for instance, what is up with scales? How is my knowing that I do want to take the king relevant?)

Inspired by a conversation with John Salvatier.

Opposite attractions

Crossposted from world spirit sock puppet.

Is the opposite of what you love also what you love?

I think there’s a general pattern where if you value A you tend to increase the amount of it in your life, and you end feeling very positively about various opposites of A—things that are very unlike A, or partially prevent A, or undo some of A’s consequences—as well. At least some of the time, or for some parts of you, or in some aspects, or when your situation changes a bit. Especially if you contain multitudes.

Examples:

  • Alice values openness, so tends to be very open: she tells anyone who asks (and many people who don’t) what’s going on in her life, and writes about it abundantly on the internet. But when she is embarrassed about something, she feels oppressed by everyone being able to see her so easily. So then she hides in her room, works at night when nobody is awake to think of her, and writes nothing online. Because for her, interacting with someone basically equates to showing them everything, her love of openness comes with a secondary love of being totally alone in her room.
  • Bob values connecting with people, and it seems hard in the modern world, but he practices heartfelt listening and looking people in the eye, and mentally jumping into their perspectives. He often has meaningful conversations in the grocery line, which he enjoys and is proud of. He goes to Burning Man and finds thousands of people desperate to connect with him, so that his normal behavior is quickly leading to an onslaught of connecting that is more than he wants. He finds himself savoring the impediments to connection—the end of an eye-gazing activity, the chance to duck out of a conversation, the walls of his tent—in a way that nobody else at Burning Man is.
  • An extreme commitment to honesty and openness with your partner might leads to a secondary inclination away from honesty and openness with yourself.
  • A person who loves travel also loves being at home again afterward, with a pointed passion absent from a person who is a perpetual homebody.
  • A person who loves jumping in ice water is more likely to also love saunas than someone who doesn’t.
  • A person who loves snow is more likely to love roaring fires.
  • A person who loves walking has really enjoyed lying down at the end of the day.
  • A person who surrounds themselves with systems loves total abandonment of them during holiday more than he who only had an appointment calendar and an alarm clock to begin with.
  • A person with five children because they love children probably wants a babysitter for the evening more than the person who ambivalently had a single child.
  • A person who loves hanging out with people who share an interest in the principles of effective altruism is often also especially excited to hang out with people who don’t, on the occasions when they do that.
  • A person who directs most of their money to charity is more obsessed with the possibility of buying an expensive dress than their friend who cares less about charity.
  • A person who is so drawn to their partner’s company that they can’t stay away from them at home sometimes gets more out of solitary travel than someone more solitariness-focused in general.
  • A person craving danger also cares about confidence in safety mechanisms.
  • A person who loves the sun wants sunglasses and sunscreen more than a person who stays indoors.

This pattern makes sense, because people and things are multifaceted, and effects are uncertain and delayed. So some aspect of you liking some aspect of a thing at some time will often mean you ramp up that kind of thing, producing effects other than the one you liked, plus more of the effect that you liked than intended because of delay. And anyway you are a somewhat different creature by then, and maybe always had parts less amenable to the desired thing anyway. Or more simply, because in systems full of negative feedbacks, effects tend to produce opposite effects, and you and the world are such systems.