March 19th, 2017

It is surprising and somewhat disappointing that movements aiming at the prevention of nuclear war are regarded throughout the West as Left-Wing movements or as inspired by some -ism which is repugnant to a majority of ordinary people. It is not in this way that opposition to nuclear warfare should be conceived. It should be conceived rather on the analogy of sanitary measures against epidemic.

Bertrand Russell, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare, London, 1959, introduction

March 18th, 2017

Clearly, Eliezer should seriously consider devoting himself more to writing fiction. But it is not clear to me how this helps us overcome biases any more than any fictional moral dilemma. Since people are inconsistent but reluctant to admit that fact, their moral beliefs can be influenced by which moral dilemmas they consider in what order, especially when written by a good writer. I expect Eliezer chose his dilemmas in order to move readers toward his preferred moral beliefs, but why should I expect those are better moral beliefs than those of all the other authors of fictional moral dilemmas? If I’m going to read a literature that might influence my moral beliefs, I’d rather read professional philosophers and other academics making more explicit arguments. In general, I better trust explicit academic argument over implicit fictional “argument.”

Robin Hanson, comment to Eliezer Yudkowsky, Epilogue: Atonement, LessWrong, February 6, 2009

March 13th, 2017

The threshold between a machine which was the intellectual inferior or superior of a man would probably be reached if the machine could do its own programming.

I. J. Good, Review of D. R. Hartree, Calculating Instruments and Machines, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A (General), vol. 114, no. 1 (1951), p. 107

March 13th, 2017

Once a machine is designed that is good enough, […] it can be put to work designing an even better machine. At this point an “explosion” will clearly occur; all the problems of science and technology will be handed over to machines and it will no longer be necessary for people to work. Whether this will lead to a Utopia or to the extermination of the human race will depend on how the problem is handled by the machines. The important thing will be to give them the aim of serving human beings.

I. J. Good, “Speculations on Perceptrons and Other Automata”, IBM Research Lecture, RC-115 (1959), p. 17

March 6th, 2017

The evidence is clear and overwhelming that both the detection of deception and often its propagation have been major forces favoring the evolution of intelligence. It is perhaps ironic that dishonesty has often been the file against which intellectual tool for truth have been sharpened.

Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, New York, 2011, p. 5

March 6th, 2017

Throughout human history, you see that the worst problems for people almost always come from other people[.]

Dario Maestripieri, quoted in Natalie Angier, ‘Political Animals (Yes, Animals)’, The New York Times, January 22, 2008

February 27th, 2017

Total and average utilitarianism are very different theories, and where they differ most is over extinction. If global warming extinguishes humanity, according to total utilitarianism, that would be an inconceivably bad disaster. The loss would be all the future wellbeing of all the people who would otherwise have lived. On the other hand, according to at least some versions of average utilitarianism, extinction might not be a very bad thing at all; it might not much affect the average wellbeing of the people who do live. So the difference between these theories makes a vast difference to the attitude we should take to global warming. According to total utilitarianism, although the chance of extinction is slight, the harm extinction would do is so enormous that it may well be the dominant consideration when we think about global warming. According to average utilitarianism, the chance of extinction may well be negligible.

John Broome, Counting the Cost of Global Warming, Cambridge, 1992, p. 121

February 24th, 2017

Our policy of fixing bugs on the fly changed the relationship between customer support people and hackers. At most software companies, support people are underpaid human shields, and hackers are little copies of God the Father, creators of the world. Whatever the procedure for reporting bugs, it is likely to be one-directional: support people who hear about bugs fill out some form that eventually gets passed on (possibly via QA) to programmers, who put it on their list of things to do. It was very different at Viaweb. Within a minute of hearing about a bug from a customer, the support people could be standing next to a programmer hearing him say “Shit, you’re right, it’s a bug.” It delighted the support people to hear that “you’re right” from the hackers. They used to bring us bugs with the same expectant air as a cat bringing you a mouse it has just killed.

Paul Graham, ‘The Other Road Ahead’, September, 2001

February 24th, 2017

There is good pain and bad pain. You want the kind of pain you get from going running, not the kind you get from stepping on a nail.

Paul Graham, ‘Taste for Makers’, February, 2002

February 24th, 2017

Good design resembles nature. It’s not so much that resembling nature is intrinsically good as that nature has had a long time to work on the problem. It’s a good sign when your answer resembles nature’s.

Paul Graham, ‘Taste for Makers’, February, 2002

February 24th, 2017

I don’t think it works to cultivate strangeness. The best you can do is not squash it if it starts to appear. Einstein didn’t try to make relativity strange. He tried to make it true, and the truth turned out to be strange.

At an art school where I once studied, the students wanted most of all to develop a personal style. But if you just try to make good things, you’ll inevitably do it in a distinctive way, just as each person walks in a distinctive way. Michelangelo was not trying to paint like Michelangelo. He was just trying to paint well; he couldn’t help painting like Michelangelo.

The only style worth having is the one you can’t help. And this is especially true for strangeness. There is no shortcut to it. The Northwest Passage that the Mannerists, the Romantics, and two generations of American high school students have searched for does not seem to exist. The only way to get there is to go through good and come out the other side.

Paul Graham, ‘Taste for Makers’, February, 2002

February 22nd, 2017

Neoreactionaries are obsessed with taking down what Moldbug refers to as “the Cathedral”: a complex of Ivy League universities, the New York Times and other elite media institutions, Hollywood, and more that function to craft and mold public opinion so as to silence opposing viewpoints.

Park MacDougald, in an excellent piece on Nick Land’s brand of neoreaction, describes the Cathedral as a “media-academic mind-control apparatus.” I actually think the best analogy is to the role the patriarchy plays in radical feminist epistemology, or the role of “ideology” in Marxism. Neo-reaction demands a total rethinking of the way the world works, and such attempts generally only succeed if they can attack the sources of knowledge in society and offer a theory for why they’re systematically fallible.

That’s how feminist scholars have (I think correctly) undermined pseudoscientific attempts to paint female servility as natural, or male aggression and violence as inevitable and ultimately acceptable. Yes, the argument goes, these ideas have had elite supporters in the past, but those elites were tainted by institutional sexism. Similarly, Marxists are always alert to how media produced by big corporations can be tilted to serve those corporations’ class interests. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur once helpfully dubbed this kind of argument the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

Neoreaction takes this approach and flips it on its head. No, it’s not institutional sexism or bourgeois class interest that’s perverting our knowledge base. It’s institutional progressivism, and fear of the revival of monarchism, tribalism, and prejudice.

That makes it a lot easier for neoreactionaries to defend their narrative of Western decline and democratic failure. If you look at the numbers, the Whig theory of history — with some faults and starts, everything’s getting better — appears to be basically right. Extreme poverty is at historic lows, hunger and infant mortality are plummeting, life expectancy is going up, war is on the decline, education is more available, homicide rates are down, etc.

But what if those numbers are all lies produced by biased Cathedral sources in academia and propagated by Cathedral tools in the media like Vox? What then?

Dylan Matthews, ‘The Alt-right Is More than Warmed-over White Supremacy. It’s That, but Way Way Weirder’, Vox, August, 25, 2016

February 21st, 2017

Even if we think the prior existence view is more plausible than the total view, we should recognize that we could be mistaken about this and therefore give some value to the life of a possible future—let’s say, for example, 10 per cent of the value we give to the similar life of a presently existing being. The number of human beings who will come into existence only if we can avoid extinction is so huge that even with that relatively low value, reducing the risk of human extinction will often be a highly cost-effective strategy for maximizing utility, as long as we have some understanding of what will reduce that risk.

Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek & Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, Oxford, 2014, pp. 376-377

February 14th, 2017

There may be a temptation to regard one life as trivial when compared with seven million. What difference will a choice of life or death for Smith make when compared with the millions who will surely die whatever you choose? Or perhaps we could say that it is not so much that one more life is trivial compared with several million, but rather than morality should not have anything to say about such a difference. Bernard Williams could be taken to be describing such a view when he talks of a moral agent for whom ‘there are certain situations so monstruous that the idea that the processes of moral rationality could yield an answer in them is insane: they are situations which so transcend in enormity the human business of moral deliberation that from a moral point of view it cannot matter any more what happens’. Williams constrats such a view with consequentialism, which ‘will have something to say even on the difference between massacring seven million, and massacring seven million and one’. One can certainly sypmathize with the agent who is so horrified at the scale of a massacre that she fhinds it difficult to deliberate rationally in the circumstances. This does not, however, support the view that from a moral point of view it cannot matter anymore what happens. If there really is no moral difference between massacring seven million and massacring seven million and one, the allied soldier arriving at Auschwitz can have no moral reason for preventing the murder of one last Jew before the Nazi surrender. The Nazi himself can have no moral reason for refraining from one last murder. While Williams’s moral agent is berating the universe for transcending the bounds of rationality, the consequentialist is saving a life. It is not hard to guess which of these agents I would rather have on my side.

Alastair Norcross, ‘Consequentialism and the Future’, Analysis, vol. 50, no. 4 (October, 1990), p. 255

February 10th, 2017

[P]eople who rely heavily on sequence thinking often seem to have inferior understanding of subjects they aren’t familiar with, and to ask naive questions, but as their familiarity increases they eventually reach greater depth of understanding; by contrast, cluster-thinking-reliant people often have reasonable beliefs even when knowing little about a topic, but don’t improve nearly as much with more study.

Holden Karnofsky, ‘Sequence Thinking vs. Cluster Thinking’, The GiveWell Blog, June 10, 2014

February 8th, 2017

[C]onsider the convention against the use of ad hominem arguments in science and many other arenas of disciplined discussion. The nominal justification for this rule is that the validity of a scientific claim is independent of the personal attributes of the person or the group who puts it forward. Construed as a narrow point about logic, this comment about ad hominem arguments is obviously correct. But it overlooks the epistemic significance of heuristics that rely on information about how something was said and by whom in order to evaluate the credibility of a statement. In reality, no scientist adopts or rejects scientific assertions solely on the basis of an independent examination of the primary evidence. Cumulative scientific progress is possible only because scientists take on trust statements made by other scientists—statements encountered in textbooks, journal articles, and informal conversations around the coffee machine. In deciding whether to trust such statements, an assessment has to be made of the reliability of the source. Clues about source reliability come in many forms—including information about factors, such as funding sources, peer esteem, academic affiliation, career incentives, and personal attributes, such as honesty, expertise, cognitive ability, and possible ideological biases. Taking that kind of information into account when evaluating the plausibility of a scientific hypothesis need involve no error of logic.

Why is it, then, that restrictions on the use of the ad hominem command such wide support? Why should arguments that highlight potentially relevant information be singled out for suspicion? I would suggest that this is because experience has demonstrated the potential for abuse. For reasons that may have to do with human psychology, discourses that tolerate the unrestricted use of ad hominem arguments manifest an enhanced tendency to degenerate into personal feuds in which the spirit of collaborative, reasoned inquiry is quickly extinguished. Ad hominem arguments bring out our inner Neanderthal.

Nick Bostrom, ‘Technological Revolutions: Ethics and Policy in the Dark’, in Nigel Cameron & Ellen Mitchell (eds.), Nanoscale: Issues and Perspectives for the Nano Century, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2007, pp. 141-142

February 6th, 2017

In each case where X is commonly said to be about Y, but is really X is more about Z, many are well aware of this but say we are better off pretending X is about Y.  You may be called a cynic to say so, but if honesty is important to you, join me in calling a spade a spade.

Robin Hanson, ‘Politics isn’t about Policy‘, Overcoming Bias, September 21, 2008

January 26th, 2017

At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty. I, at the age of fifty-eight, can no longer take that view.

Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, London, 1930, p. 61

January 13th, 2017

The key to being more innovative as a nonprofit, is to think of everything you do as an experiment – whether or not you wanted it to be an experiment. It’s very liberating. Focus on learning the most you can. Get the most learning to run the next experiment. I found that is a relief compared to the burden of perfect.

Eric Ries, in Beth Kanter, ‘Q&A: Eric Ries on Lean Start Up Principles for Nonprofits’, LinkedIn, December 17, 2013

January 13th, 2017

Pero ¿qué libro es ese que está junto a él?

La Galatea de Miguel de Cervantes—dijo el barbero.

—Muchos años ha que es grande amigo mío ese Cervantes, y sé que es más versado en desdichas que en versos. Su libro tiene algo de buena invención; propone algo, y no concluye nada: es menester esperar la segunda parte que promete; quizá con la emienda alcanzará del todo la misericordia que ahora se le niega; y entretanto que esto se ve, tenedle recluso en vuestra posada, señor compadre.

Miguel de Cervantes, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, Madrid, 1605, pt. 1, ch. 6

January 3rd, 2017

Borges me llama desde su casa y me refiere: «Madre y yo nos volvimos en taxi. Apenas subimos al automóvil, fue como andar en una montaña rusa. El hombre estaba borracho. La última vez que estuvo a punto de chocar fue en la puerta de casa, donde felizmente quedó en llanta. Madre y yo estábamos jadeantes. Entonces el destino nos deparó uno de los momentos más felices de la Historia argentina. Protestando contra todos los que pudo atropellar, el chofer, con voz aguardentera, crapulosa, recitó: “Hijos de Espejo, de Astorgano, de Perón, de Eva Perón, de Alsogaray y de todos los ladrones hijos de una tal por cual”. ¿Te das cuenta? ¡Si un hombre así está con nosotros hay esperanzas para la Patria!»

Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges, Barcelona, 2006, p. 868

December 30th, 2016

Estuve pensando que nadie me piensa. Que estoy absolutamente sola. Que nadie, nadie siente mi rostro dentro de sí ni mi nombre correr por su sangre. Nadie actúa invocándome, nadie construye su vida incluyéndome. He pensado tanto en estas cosas. He pensado que puedo morir en cualquier instante y nadie amenazará a la muerte, nadie la injuriará por haberme arrastrado, nadie velará por mi nombre. He pensado en mi soledad absoluta, en mi destierro de toda conciencia que no sea la mía. He pensado que estoy sola y que me sustento sólo en mí para sobrellevar mi vida y mi muerte. Pensar que ningún ser me necesita, que ninguno me requiere para completar su vida.

Alejandra Pizarnik, Diarios, Barcelona, 2003, February 16th, 1956

December 29th, 2016

A narcissist […], inspired by the homage paid to great painters, may become an art student; but, as painting is for him a mere means to an end, the technique never becomes interesting, and no subject can be seen except in relation to self. The result is failure and disappointment, with ridicule instead of the expected adulation. The same thing applies to those novelists whose novels always have themselves idealized as heroines. All serious success in work depends upon some genuine interest in the material with which the work is concerned. […] The man who is only interested in himself is not admirable, and is not felt to be so. Consequently the man whose sole concern with the world is that it shall admire him is not likely to achieve his object.

Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, London, 1930, p. 22

December 29th, 2016

No creo que yo sea un cara pálida ni un piel roja, pero las chicas igual se interesan por mí. Las seduzco con la palabra. Un amigo en Adrogué, Ribero, que jugaba muy bien al billar, era un soltero empedernido, siempre decía que la mayor hazaña de su vida había sido llevarse una mujer a la cama sin haberla tocado nunca. “Sólo con la voz y las palabras, la seduje”, decía.

Ricardo Piglia, Los diarios de Emilio Renzi: años de formación, Barcelona, 2015, p. 48

December 27th, 2016

Come en casa Borges. De una alumna dice: «Como no es linda, ni es fea, esa chica no es nada, logra no existir, logra la ausencia».

Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges, Barcelona, 2006, p. 495

December 22nd, 2016

Qué importa que queden mis libros. Sobrevivir espiritualmente en la obra. Qué tontería. Voy a estar muerto, me dicen, pero seguiré viviendo. Mentira. No soy tan vanidoso como para dejarme engañar.

Adolfo Bioy Casares, quoted in Silvia Renée Arias, Bioygrafía: vida y obra de Adolfo Bioy Casares, Buenos Aires, 2016, p. 21

December 15th, 2016

Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.

Thomas Schelling, ‘The Life You Save May Be Your Own’, in Samuel Chase (ed.), Problems in public Expenditure Analysis, Washington, D. C., 1968

November 29th, 2016

If we believe that there are some irreducibly normative truths, we might be believing what we ought to believe. If there are such truths, one of these truths would be that we ought to believe that there are such truths. If instead we believe that there are no such truths, we could not be believing what we ought to believe. If there were no such truths, there would be nothing that we ought to believe.

Derek Parfit, On What Matters, vol. 2, Oxford, 2011, p. 619

November 29th, 2016

Derek Parfit tells me that, if the amount of evil in the world outweighed any actual or forthcoming good, as Hardy and Schopenhauer held, then he would prefer it to be the case that nothing matters. I have to admit that I don’t understand this preference.

Guy Kahane, ‘If Nothing Matters’, Noûs, forthcoming

November 29th, 2016

There is no reason to fear nihilism. What we should fear is mistaken belief in nihilism.

Guy Kahane, ‘If Nothing Matters’, Noûs, forthcoming