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Cynical About Cynicism

18 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 February 2009 12:49AM

I'm cynical about cynicism.  I don't believe that most cynicism is really about knowing better.  When I see someone being cynical, my first thought is that they're trying to show off their sophistication and assert superiority over the naive.  As opposed to, say, sharing their uncommon insight about not-widely-understood flaws in human nature.

There are two obvious exceptions to this rule.  One is if the speaker has something serious and realistic to say about how to improve matters.  Claiming that problems can be fixed will instantly lose you all your world-weary street cred and mark you as another starry-eyed idealistic fool.  (Conversely, any "solution" that manages not to disrupt the general atmosphere of doom, does not make me less skeptical:  "Humans are evil creatures who slaughter and destroy, but eventually we'll die out from poisoning the environment, so it's all to the good, really.")

No, not every problem is solvable.  But by and large, if someone achieves uncommon insight into darkness - if they know more than I do about human nature and its flaws - then it's not unreasonable to expect that they might have a suggestion or two to make about remedy, patching, or minor deflection.  If, you know, the problem is one that they really would prefer solved, rather than gloom being milked for a feeling of superiority to the naive herd.

The other obvious exception is for science that has something to say about human nature.  A testable hypothesis is a testable hypothesis and the thing to do with it is test it.  Though here one must be very careful not to go beyond the letter of the experiment for the sake of signaling hard-headed realism:

Consider the hash that some people make of evolutionary psychology in trying to be cynical - assuming that humans have a subconscious motive to promote their inclusive genetic fitness.  Consider the hash that some neuroscientists make of the results of their brain scans, supposing that if a brain potential is visible before the moment of reported decision, this proves the nonexistence of free willIt's not you who chooses, it's your brain!

The facts are one thing, but feeling cynical about those facts is another matter entirely.  In some cases it can lead people to overrun the facts - to construct new, unproven, or even outright disproven glooms in the name of signaling realism.  Behaviorism probably had this problem - signaling hardheaded realism about human nature was probably one of the reasons they asserted we don't have minds.

I'm especially on guard against cynicism because it seems to be a standard corruption of rationality in particular.  If many people are optimists, then true rationalists will occasionally have to say things that sound pessimistic by contrast.  If people are trying to signal virtue through their beliefs, then a rationalist may have to advocate contrasting beliefs that don't signal virtue.

Which in turn means that rationalists, and especially apprentice rationalists watching other rationalists at work, are especially at-risk for absorbing cynicism as though it were a virtue in its own right - assuming that whosoever speaks of ulterior motives is probably a wise rationalist with uncommon insight; or believing that it is an entitled benefit of realism to feel superior to the naive herd that still has a shred of hope.

And this is a fearsome mistake indeed, because you can't propose ways to meliorate problems and still come off as world-weary.

TV Tropes proposes a Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism.  It looks to me like Robin tends to focus his suspicions on that which might be signaling idealism, virtue, or righteousness; while I tend to focus my own skepticism on that which might signal cynicism, world-weary sophistication, or sage maturity.

Comments (27)

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Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 17 February 2009 01:25:54AM 15 points [-]

Quoting myself:

The cynic's conundrum is that while a cynic might prefer that others believe an idealistic theory of his cynical mood, his own cynical beliefs should lead him to believe a cynical theory of his cynical mood. That is, cynics should think that rude complainers tend to be losers, rather than altruists.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 February 2009 01:31:24AM 12 points [-]

I don't know, Robin, that sounds a bit too cynical to me.

Comment author: TGGP4 17 February 2009 02:39:11AM 0 points [-]

I had been thinking of Hanson's above-mentioned metacynicism recently when he discussed the signalling that he engaged in. I don't actually have as much trust for people that claim to be Guardians of the Truth as for those who admit to having other motives in which truth may be incidental. I'm more willing to listen to Hopefully Anonymous even as he proclaims that he engages in mythmaking for his own advantage, and one of the things I liked about Der Ego was Stirner proclaiming in the opening that he owes no more duty to Truth than Truth does to him, and elsewhere that you are not reading his book for your own betterment (presumably through enlightenment) but his. I am now reminded of Barack Obama's ingratiating acknowledgment of the differing views of others as a sort of pre-emptive neutralizer of opposing arguments that didn't actually grapple with them head on. I could be granting too much credibility to people who have lowered my guard by being honest about their lack of commitment to honesty.

Comment author: mitchell_porter2 17 February 2009 05:10:43AM 4 points [-]

Cynicism is fundamentally about self-defense from future pain. What is the basic message of a cynic? "You'll be disappointed." The cynic, having themselves been painfully disappointed by life, preempts a repeat of the experience by anticipating it everywhere they can, steering clear of hope in general, and advising others to do the same. Some cynics may seek the weakly compensating satisfaction of vanity by trying to perform their cynicism so as to impress, but that is not the essence of the attitude.

Comment author: frelkins 17 February 2009 05:38:42AM 0 points [-]

@mitchell

"Cynicism is fundamentally about self-defense from future pain"

I find this confusing. Aren't cynics actually Idealists? That is, their fundamental position is that there is Virtue to be found once the falsity of fame, power, wealth, vanity, and pomp are cast aside? They don't seem to be defending themselves from pain, rather the almost seem to seek it - that's why they wandered homeless like wild dogs (cynic, from cyne, Greek for dog) or at best lived unwashed in barrels?

Comment author: Matt5 17 February 2009 07:39:36AM 0 points [-]

I am considered a cynical person, but I also understand that some ignoble intentions might be transparent if I am too cynical. So even having that in mind, I still feel the need to be cynical. I feel the need to burst peoples' bubbles when they are overly optimistic about an idea, or that it looks like they didn't put much thought in what they believe. I don't know why I have such an urge to force people to be more rigorous with their belief-forming processes. Maybe it is just a pet peeve of mine.

Comment author: pnrjulius 12 June 2012 03:45:28AM 2 points [-]

The key is to burst bubbles when people are overly optimistic---but not when they are just as optimistic as they ought to be.

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 17 February 2009 08:26:10AM 6 points [-]

>>> Cynicism is fundamentally about self-defense from future pain.

I agree with this. In my experience, the highest proportion of cynics was among medics. These people deal with life-or-death situations on everyday basis, and their cynicism seems to be a way of anaesthetising their own mirror neurons, which otherwise would cause them too much pain.

As for the relationship of evolutionary psychology and cynicism, my own experience was quite interesting. The moment I understood evolution at the gut level, the moment I saw life as a purely physical phenomenon, my cynicism towards humanity just disappeared completely. How can one be cynical about rain, wind or gravity?

(It's been a while since that moment, and now cynicism started to surface again, from time to time. Maintaining the True Sight does require effort.)

Comment author: Vladimir_Golovin 17 February 2009 09:07:27AM 2 points [-]

I forgot to add another observation about medics -- some of the best high-rank medics I've ever met were not cynical at all. They occupied high positions, up to the chief of staff, but it didn't seem to me that they got there via internal politics -- or at least their political ability was visibly overshadowed by their medical skill.

Comment author: Richard11 17 February 2009 10:27:40AM 3 points [-]

Good call! Scepticism is often conflated with cynicism but there's a crucial difference. Cynics tend always to assume the worst - of people and things - while sceptics try to make as few assumptions as possible. To the extent that the cynic will, all other things being equal, choose to believe the most negative possible interpretation, cynicism is arguably a particular form of bias.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 17 February 2009 01:16:54PM 2 points [-]

Although I think you're overstating and misapplying your case, Eliezer (like Robin implies, a "cynical" critique of both cynicism and idealism seems to me to yield more fruit than an idealist critique of both), I agree with Richard that cynicism is a poorer epistemological framework than skepticism.

I think it's also worth noting that it's a common play for status to admonish people not to be so cynical, I think because (1) the crowd seems to award higher status to people who perform optimism as a general rule, and (2) there's an element of power alignment, and (if one is powerful) power maintenance to convincing less powerful people not to be cynical about the reasons for power variance in a social group.

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 17 February 2009 01:57:28PM -1 points [-]

Consider the hash that some people make of evolutionary psychology in trying to be cynical - assuming that humans have a subconscious motive to promote their inclusive genetic fitness.

What is "cynical" about that? It is a central organising principle in biology that organisms tend to act in such a way to promote their own inclusive genetic fitness. There are a few caveats - but why would viewing people like that be "cynical"? I do not see anything wrong with promoting your own genetic fitness - rather it seems like a perfectly natural thing to do to me.

Looking at the population explosion, I would say that the world appears to be full of people who are acting in a manner that is highly effective at promoting their own genetic fitness. They are doing something wrong? What makes you think that?

Comment author: pnrjulius 12 June 2012 03:47:03AM 2 points [-]

The cynicism lies in thinking that this is a motive (it's not, not in any ordinary sense; do I have a "motive" of being drawn toward the center of the Earth?), and also in thinking that this somehow devalues actual human capacities for rationality, love, altruism, etc.

Comment author: Shay_Guy 17 February 2009 06:51:44PM 0 points [-]

I tend to be at least a little grumpy, but on the whole, and in the long run, I do think humanity is getting better. (See the chart on historical homicide rates in "Freakonomics.")

Comment author: this_has_been_discussed_many_times_in_this_blog 17 February 2009 11:44:27PM 3 points [-]

Tim Tyler:

The cynicism is assuming that people are following a motive which leads them to promote their own genetic fitness.

They're not. This motive isn't explicitly represented anywhere in their brains, for the most part. People usually don't, consciously or subconsciously, worry about whether what they're doing increases their genetic fitness. They follow a variety of emotions - fear and anger, love and friendship and loyalty, hate and curiosity and a host of others. Now, it's quite likely true that those emotions are what they are because, in an ancestral environment, they promoted genetic fitness. But the link is indirect. If some of them no longer promote genetic fitness, that's not going to make them go away. People can still fall in love and enjoy sex even when they consciously know they are infertile or when they decide to use birth control. If there are other things to do in the modern world which would promote genetic fitness even more, those emotions aren't going to magically appear. Guys don't fall in love with sperm banks.

The cynical, and incorrect, part is in assuming that "genetic fitness" is actually a motive of any present-day human.

Comment author: mitchell_porter2 18 February 2009 11:27:45AM 0 points [-]

frelkins - that might have been true of the original Cynical movement in antiquity, but that's not what the word means now, surely. Though perhaps even the common cynic has some trace of that will to live truthfully and that boredom with considerations of life, death, and happiness.

When I wrote my comment yesterday, this post seemed to be an idealist's gambit, designed to attenuate the impact of cynicism by associating it with status-seeking rather than with truth, and I wanted to produce an emphatic reminder of the reality of everything bad in life. Even as I wrote it, I knew I was deviating from cautious empiricism into aphoristic intuition, and was therefore at risk of producing propaganda rather than truth. Today I cannot be bothered trying to assess how true it is, but in the spirit of something-or-other, I thought I would at least note these psychological facts.

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 18 February 2009 01:43:48PM 1 point [-]

Anon, you are arguing for "incorrect", not "cynical". Please consider the difference.

Like it or not, biologists are basically correct in identifying the primary goal of organisms as self-reproduction. That is the nature of the attractor to which all organisms' goal systems are drawn (though see also this essay of mine). Yes, some organisms break, and other organisms find themselves in unfamiliar environments - but if anything can be said to be the goal of organisms, then that is it. The exceptions (like your contraceptives) just prove the rule. Such organisms are acting in a way that is intended to promote their genetic fitness. It is just that some of their assumptions about the environment might be wrong. Alas, contraceptives are not a very good example, because they prevent disease, make sex easier (thus helping to create pair bonds), and have other positive effects.

Organisms tend to act as though their number one motive is self-reproduction. Philosophers may be able to debate whether that motive is "explicitly represented in their brains" - but if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, whether philosophers are prepared to call it a duck seems like a side issue.

It is the same as with Deep Blue. Deep Blue acts as though its number one motive is to win games of chess (thus inflating IBM's stock price). That is the single most helpful simple way in which to understand its behaviour. If you actually look at its utility function, it has thousands of elements, not one of which refers to winning games of chess - but so what? It is not "cynical" to treat Deep Blue as trying to win games of chess. That is what it is doing!

Comment author: notsonewuser 24 January 2014 07:51:29PM *  1 point [-]

What about religious people who take vows of celibacy?

I think people care more about self-preservation than reproduction, honestly. I know I do!

Edit: Upon reflection, and receiving some replies here, I actually think Tim made a pretty strong case. However, though "playing chess" may be the "single most helpful simple way to understand" Deep Blue's behavior, it is wrong to say this of "trying to reproduce" for human behavior. You could predict only a very small percentage of my behavior using that information (I've never kissed a girl or had sex, despite wanting to) - whereas, using "self-preservation" and "seeking novelty", you could predict quite a bit of it. I suspect this is not just true of me, but of many people.

Edit 2: Though you could poke holes in my first edit. Like, maybe the reason I don't try to reproduce now is only because I've failed in the past. But this hinges on being a violation of Tim's point. Also, see this later comment I made, which I think is pretty much a knockdown refutation.

Edit 3: See this comment by memoridem for a succinct summary of my position. Somehow, none of my comments in this conversation came out clearly.

Comment author: Prismattic 25 January 2014 12:19:19AM 2 points [-]

I think people care more about self-preservation than reproduction,

True in the abstract, but once people actually have offspring, they don't hesitate to, for example, interpose themselves between an aggressor and their children.

Comment author: [deleted] 25 January 2014 08:48:07AM 0 points [-]

Also, airlines constantly remind people that in case of emergency they should put their own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs, from which I guess that people would otherwise do otherwise.

Comment author: memoridem 25 January 2014 07:05:05AM *  0 points [-]

What about religious people who take vows of celibacy?

Consider that many of them probably fail and some of them probably take the vow after having children. Those who don't are so rare you might want to consider them defective from the perspective of propagation of genes. People have genetically inherited diseases too.

I think people care more about self-preservation than reproduction

It's reasonable to assume that the value of self-preservation declines with age and the number of children. Self-preservation in most instances seems to be instrumental to reproduction.

Comment author: notsonewuser 25 January 2014 01:47:57PM *  0 points [-]

What about people who adopt children from a foreign country, rather than having their own biological children? I personally know a couple who did that. (I plan on doing the same if I get married - maybe not from a foreign country, but definitely adopting.)

Comment author: memoridem 25 January 2014 11:07:34PM *  0 points [-]

Does it matter really? From my perspective Tim proposes an economical tool for thinking about a system's goals, but probably won't lead to much insight and will cause bias compared to more labor intensive methods.

I think this post could clear most of your confusion about the connection between your genes and your goals.

Comment author: notsonewuser 26 January 2014 01:27:44AM 0 points [-]

What do I seem confused about to you?

Comment author: memoridem 26 January 2014 06:51:49AM *  1 point [-]

People usually ask questions to clarify some confusion. I don't know what yours is, but thought the article might be helpful since it elucidates this subject. Have you read it?

Organisms obviously don't directly optimize their genetic fitness. Deep Blue obviously doesn't directly optimize winning chess. If you want to economically predict their actions however, finding something they seem to optimize works as a rough model. This is easy if you know the process that made them. It's the nature of a rough model you can poke holes to it by finding exceptions, but this doesn't make the model useless.

Tim might be making a stronger claim than this. If that's the case I probably don't agree with it.

Comment author: notsonewuser 26 January 2014 02:12:52PM 0 points [-]

OK, I'm in complete agreement with you.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 November 2013 06:42:43PM 3 points [-]