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eli_sennesh comments on Sapiens - Less Wrong

31 Post author: Vaniver 08 April 2015 02:56AM

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Comment author: [deleted] 20 April 2015 11:00:36PM *  0 points [-]

Harari attributes the cognitive revolution to the ability of Sapiens language (and brains) to communicate about fictions. From an individual perspective, this seems problematic: an individual who only believes true things seems strictly less fit than an individual who believes both true and false things.

But from a collective perspective, fictions can allow cooperation on a much broader scale.

Firstly, I think you mean "strictly more fit". Secondly, I don't think fictions evolved because they were socially useful.

(For one thing, this presupposes that no priest of Zeus ever really believed that thunderstorms came by the hand of a god.)

Given what I've read about causal modeling, I don't think you can actually make a cognitive algorithm which assigns probability 1.0 to the truth and 0.0 to all fictions. In fact, I think that you really can't model the world causally, the better to anticipate it and interact with it, without computing plausible counterfactuals. While I really don't know if Harari knew this much, I am already disappointed that cynicism about societies is being used to explain a phenomenon which plain cognitive necessity explains just fine.

People easily understand that 'primitives' cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis.

Well of course they do! How else does anyone expect them to function? I mean, yes, occasionally you get an institution functioning on the basis of an idea that's actually true, but "institutions are corporeal forms given by masses of people to ideas" is a fairly standard observation in anthropology.

And so viewed from Mars, the story of history after agriculture is the story of collectives trading off individual satisfaction for collective power time and time again. Since collective power is what determines survival of a culture, we are left with an immensely strong culture that holds the entire world in its grasp--but, to the individual people living in it, may not actually be any more satisfying than life as a nomad. When we broaden our view to other organisms, domesticated and wild animals make the story even more clear and extreme. Industrially managed cattle are more 'collectively powerful' (in the sense of being economically useful to Sapiens) than wild aurochs herds, but by almost any scale their lives are tremendously miserable compared to their undomesticated ancestors. Sapiens today are not quite industrially managed and only partially domesticated, but potential futures where there is more management and more domestication strike most moderns with horror.

I wish to officially Find It Curious that everyone believes, with little evidence in view, that cultures always gain power by suppressing individual humans and their happiness. Sometimes they will, sometimes they won't, but I don't expect to see a universal sociological Law of Decreasing Happiness.

I also think that similarly to "archetypical figure of the modern world", the phrase "strikes most moderns/people with horror" should be stricken from the record as mostly useless. Not only will you often find a noticeable percentage of real people simply fail to be horrified by what you think ought to horrify them, and not only will a substantial portion of the population signal horror that they don't really feel, but lots and lots of "horrible" things are only horrible when novelists are beating you over the head with the Horror Stick, rather than when you reflect on actually living with them.

I mean, just to give an example, there are lots of "moderns", ie: real people, right now, who are really and truly horrified at the prospect that the government will make them get their children vaccinated. Speaking from a factual basis, of course, those people are delusional nutjobs, and vaccinations are a good idea.

It is perhaps surprising that we live in a universe that seems mechanical and orderly, with universal laws closely related to fairly simple mathematics.

Why is that surprising? Do you think life forms would come to exist in a universe of infinite random chaos?

It is also perhaps surprising that we live in a universe with tremendous amounts of suffering and wickedness.

Not at all. Every time you try to reduce suffering and wickedness, and increase happiness and companionability instead, three soccer moms, two McCarthyist film-makers, and one blogger from a certain group scream in the aforementioned existential horror. Once you've spotted that state-reward association learners will tend to consider themselves islands of candlelight in a sea of darkness regardless of their objective well-being, their Anti-Spiral tendencies become unsurprising.

But Harari is no techno-optimist who assumes that everything will turn out well; if anything, he draws the trendline towards dystopia. He recognizes the value problem as perhaps the most important issue of the near future.

Oh, great, so he's scared. Is he doing something about it?

But, much like Robin Hanson thinking that Ems will lead lives they consider worthwhile, Harari spends about a chapter pointing out that we live in a dystopia relative to our ancestors, alienated from many deep relationships that they would have trouble imagining a worthwhile life without.

Really? Like what? And why am I being asked to elevate my ancestors' extremely limited imaginative capacities to a moral guide, rather than using actual possibility as my guide?

Both are written by historians, both start their description of the universe 13 billion years ago, and both conclude with transhumanist predictions that the story of the universe from 2050 onwards will differ from the story beforehand in deep and meaningful ways. (Morris makes the claim that the two possibilities are "singularity" and "collapse," with "business as usual"--how most people expect the future to go--being entirely unreasonable on historical grounds.)

Of course, most people who actually believe in business-as-usual expect that "the Singularity" for "rationalists" will turn out rather like "the Revolution" did for "Marxists", or possibly even like "the Rapture" did for "Christians".

The parts I found weakest were when the I thought the View From Mars slipped, though that may be personal taste (and none of the points seemed egregious enough to quote and attack).

How many of those were there? I generally prefer a book that is willing to take human life seriously rather than trying to elevate itself to "objectivity" by pretending to have a View From Mars. Besides, in the real View From Mars, humanity will only become relevant to the story of Earth when we manage to acquire more total biomass than the plants, insects, and bacteria put together -- we're a footnote right now, albeit one increasing its capacities at an interestingly high rate.

Who should read it? I found it interesting, despite having come across most of its component claims before. I suspect that anyone who wants to think deeply about Moloch, values, or the project of socially determining values would benefit from reading the book, if just to see how other branches of thinkers are thinking about these issues.

I'll just go find something else then.

Comment author: Vaniver 21 April 2015 08:21:22PM 1 point [-]

Firstly, I think you mean "strictly more fit".

Indeed, fixed. Thanks for pointing that out!

(For one thing, this presupposes that no priest of Zeus ever really believed that thunderstorms came by the hand of a god.)

It does not presuppose that. By "fiction," he's talking about a class of claims removed from reality by some significant number of conceptual steps. A monkey saying "ground threat nearby!" is roughly one conceptual step away from sensory perceptions, but a person saying "Epimenides is a priest of Zeus" is some large number of conceptual steps away from sensory perceptions.

Whether or not those claims are "really believed" is different. A monkey can falsely cry "ground threat nearby!" to cause another monkey to flee, allowing the first monkey to eat food the second monkey discovered. That's communication that the communicator does not believe--but that's not what Harari means by 'fiction.' Both Epimenides and I can believe that he's a priest of Zeus; he can really believe that Zeus is the cause of thunderstorms because of long-standing tradition, and I can believe that thunderstorms are caused by moisture, unstable air, and lift because that's what Wikipedia says.

Comment author: [deleted] 22 April 2015 12:08:01AM 0 points [-]

I think I now understand what you're saying Harari means by "fiction", but I still think that's an abuse of the word, at least in present-day English. Zeus is not only different from direct sensory experience, but also from scientific explanations, yes. But he's also, and this is the key distinction usually wrapped up in the word "fiction", very different from Harry Potter.

Comment author: Vaniver 22 April 2015 01:29:53AM 2 points [-]

See legal fiction. I agree that it's not the word I would have chosen for it: something like "constructed fact" as opposed to "measured fact" seems like a cleaner distinction, but is longer to type.

Comment author: MakoYass 06 July 2016 02:56:17AM *  0 points [-]

If you dislike the way Harari abuses terms for myth, you're going to really dislike the way he abuses "religion". His definition is a very reductive "a system of human norms and values that is founded on a belief in a superhuman order". He also has a very reductive, non-theistic sense of Buddhism. He observes that Buddhism is considered a religion, so he overextends his sense of religion until it encompasses all political philosophies

Just as a Buddhist could worship Hindu deities, and just as a monotheist could believe in the existence of Satan, so the typical American nowadays is simultaneously a nationalist (she believes in the existence of an American nation with a special role to play in history), a free-market capitalist (she believes that open competition and the pursuit of self-interest are the best ways to create a prosperous society), and a liberal humanist (she believes that humans have been endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights). Nationalism will be discussed in Chapter 18. Capitalism – the most successful of the modern religions – gets a whole chapter, Chapter 16, which expounds its principal beliefs and rituals. In the remaining pages of this chapter I will address the humanist religions.

Wittgenstein would kick his ass over these abuses.