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Prerequisite reading which you will probably want open in another tab for reference: 31 Laws of Fun
Unprefaced, this post might sound a lot like I'm just picking on Eliezer, or Eliezer's particular set of "laws". I'm sort of doing that, but only as a template for ways to pick on Laws of Fun in general. The correct response to this post is not "Here is my new, different list of N things that will satisfy everyone".
(Well, it would be if you could do that. I'm skeptical.)
If I purported to come up with general laws of fun, I might or might not do a better job. Probably I'd do a better job coming up with a framework for myself; I might also be more cautious about assuming human homogeneity, but I doubt I'd do an unassailable job. And an unassailable job is probably necessary, if everyone will abide by Laws of Fun forever. An unassailable job of Legislating Fun is needed make sure that some people aren't caught between unwanted mental tampering and, probably not Hell, but a world that is subtly (or glaringly) wrong, wrong, wrong.
Please do not assume that I outright endorse unmentioned laws; these are just the ones I can pick at most obviously.
I fully expect to be told that I have misunderstood at least half of these items.
6 sits uncomfortably. The savannah is where we were designed to survive, but evolution is miserly; it is not where we were designed to thrive gloriously. (Any species designed to thrive gloriously there which was actually put there would find its descendants getting away with more and more corner-cutting until they found a more efficient frontier. Creatures that can fly don't keep flight just because flying is awesome; they must also need it.) I want a home designed for me to thrive gloriously in, not one that takes its cues from the environment my ancestors eked out a living in. I suspect this is more like a temperate-clime park than a baking savannah, and it might be more like an architecturally excellent house than either. "Windowless office" is not the fair comparison. That is not how we design places to put people we like.
It is perhaps the best-kept secret on Less Wrong that the New York City community has been meeting regularly for almost two years. For nearly a year we've been meeting weekly or more. The rest of this post is going to be a practical guide to the benefits of group rationality, but first I will do something that is still too rare on this blog: make it clear how strongly I feel about this. Before this community took off, I did not believe that life could be this much fun or that I could possibly achieve such a sustained level of happiness.
Being rational in an irrational world is incredibly lonely. Every interaction reveals that our thought processes differ widely from those around us, and I had accepted that such a divide would always exist. For the first time in my life I have dozens of people with whom I can act freely and revel in the joy of rationality without any social concern - hell, it's actively rewarded! Until the NYC Less Wrong community formed, I didn't realize that I was a forager lost without a tribe...
Rationalists are still human, and we still have basic human needs. lukeprog summarizes the literature on subjective well-being, and the only factors which correlate to any degree are genetics, health, work satisfaction and social life - which actually gets listed three separate times as social activity, relationship satisfaction and religiosity. Rationalists tend to be less socially adept on average, and this can make it difficult to obtain the full rewards of social interaction. However, once rationalists learn to socialize with each other, they also become increasingly social towards everyone more generally. This improves your life. A lot.
We are a group of friends to enjoy life alongside, while we try miracle fruit, dance ecstatically until sunrise, actively embarrass ourselves at karaoke, get lost in the woods, and jump off waterfalls. Poker, paintball, parties, go-karts, concerts, camping... I have a community where I can live in truth and be accepted as I am, where I can give and receive feedback and get help becoming stronger. I am immensely grateful to have all of these people in my life, and I look forward to every moment I spend with them. To love and be loved is an unparalleled experience in this world, once you actually try it.
So, you ask, how did all of this get started...?
Long-time readers will recall that I've long been uncomfortable with the idea that you can adopt a Cause as a hedonic accessory:
"Unhappy people are told that they need a 'purpose in life', so they should pick out an altruistic cause that goes well with their personality, like picking out nice living-room drapes, and this will brighten up their days by adding some color, like nice living-room drapes."
But conversely it's also a fact that having a Purpose In Life consistently shows up as something that increases happiness, as measured by reported subjective well-being.
One presumes that this works equally well hedonically no matter how misguided that Purpose In Life may be—no matter if it is actually doing harm—no matter if the means are as cheap as prayer. Presumably, all that matters for your happiness is that you believe in it. So you had better not question overmuch whether you're really being effective; that would disturb the warm glow of satisfaction you paid for.
And here we verge on Zen, because you can't deliberately pursue "a purpose that takes you outside yourself", in order to take yourself outside yourself. That's still all about you.
Which is the whole Western concept of "spirituality" that I despise: You need a higher purpose so that you can be emotionally healthy. The external world is just a stream of victims for you to rescue.
Previously in series: Sympathetic Minds
Today I shall criticize yet another Utopia. This Utopia isn't famous in the literature. But it's considerably superior to many better-known Utopias—more fun than the Christian Heaven, or Greg Egan's upload societies, for example. And so the main flaw is well worth pointing out.
This Utopia consists of a one-line remark on an IRC channel:
<reedspacer> living in your volcano lair with catgirls is probably a vast increase in standard of living for most of humanity
I've come to think of this as Reedspacer's Lower Bound.
Sure, it sounds silly. But if your grand vision of the future isn't at least as much fun as a volcano lair with catpersons of the appropriate gender, you should just go with that instead. This rules out a surprising number of proposals.
But today I am here to criticize Reedspacer's Lower Bound—the problem being the catgirls.
I've joked about the subject, now and then—"Donate now, and get a free catgirl or catboy after the Singularity!"—but I think it would actually be a terrible idea. In fact, today's post could have been entitled "Why Fun Theorists Don't Believe In Catgirls."
Followup to: Humans in Funny Suits
"Mirror neurons" are neurons that are active both when performing an action and observing the same action—for example, a neuron that fires when you hold up a finger or see someone else holding up a finger. Such neurons have been directly recorded in primates, and consistent neuroimaging evidence has been found for humans.
You may recall from my previous writing on "empathic inference" the idea that brains are so complex that the only way to simulate them is by forcing a similar brain to behave similarly. A brain is so complex that if a human tried to understand brains the way that we understand e.g. gravity or a car—observing the whole, observing the parts, building up a theory from scratch—then we would be unable to invent good hypotheses in our mere mortal lifetimes. The only possible way you can hit on an "Aha!" that describes a system as incredibly complex as an Other Mind, is if you happen to run across something amazingly similar to the Other Mind—namely your own brain—which you can actually force to behave similarly and use as a hypothesis, yielding predictions.
So that is what I would call "empathy".
And then "sympathy" is something else on top of this—to smile when you see someone else smile, to hurt when you see someone else hurt. It goes beyond the realm of prediction into the realm of reinforcement.
If I were to make a short list of the most important human qualities—
—and yes, this is a fool's errand, because human nature is immensely complicated, and we don't even notice all the tiny tweaks that fine-tune our moral categories, and who knows how our attractors would change shape if we eliminated a single human emotion—
—but even so, if I had to point to just a few things and say, "If you lose just one of these things, you lose most of the expected value of the Future; but conversely if an alien species independently evolved just these few things, we might even want to be friends"—
—then the top three items on the list would be sympathy, boredom and consciousness.
Boredom is a subtle-splendored thing. You wouldn't want to get bored with breathing, for example—even though it's the same motions over and over and over and over again for minutes and hours and years and decades.
Now I know some of you out there are thinking, "Actually, I'm quite bored with breathing and I wish I didn't have to," but then you wouldn't want to get bored with switching transistors.
According to the human value of boredom, some things are allowed to be highly repetitive without being boring—like obeying the same laws of physics every day.
Conversely, other repetitions are supposed to be boring, like playing the same level of Super Mario Brothers over and over and over again until the end of time. And let us note that if the pixels in the game level have a slightly different color each time, that is not sufficient to prevent it from being "the same damn thing, over and over and over again".
Once you take a closer look, it turns out that boredom is quite interesting.
Previously in series: Justified Expectation of Pleasant Surprises
"Vagueness" usually has a bad name in rationality—connoting skipped steps in reasoning and attempts to avoid falsification. But a rational view of the Future should be vague, because the information we have about the Future is weak. Yesterday I argued that justified vague hopes might also be better hedonically than specific foreknowledge—the power of pleasant surprises.
But there's also a more severe warning that I must deliver: It's not a good idea to dwell much on imagined pleasant futures, since you can't actually dwell in them. It can suck the emotional energy out of your actual, current, ongoing life.
Epistemically, we know the Past much more specifically than the Future. But also on emotional grounds, it's probably wiser to compare yourself to Earth's past, so you can see how far we've come, and how much better we're doing. Rather than comparing your life to an imagined future, and thinking about how awful you've got it Now.
Having set out to explain George Orwell's observation that no one can seem to write about a Utopia where anyone would want to live—having laid out the various Laws of Fun that I believe are being violated in these dreary Heavens—I am now explaining why you shouldn't apply this knowledge to invent an extremely seductive Utopia and write stories set there. That may suck out your soul like an emotional vacuum cleaner.
I recently tried playing a computer game that made a major fun-theoretic error. (At least I strongly suspect it's an error, though they are game designers and I am not.)
The game showed me—right from the start of play—what abilities I could purchase as I increased in level. Worse, there were many different choices; still worse, you had to pay a cost in fungible points to acquire them, making you feel like you were losing a resource... But today, I'd just like to focus on the problem of telling me, right at the start of the game, about all the nice things that might happen to me later.
I can't think of a good experimental result that backs this up; but I'd expect that a pleasant surprise would have a greater hedonic impact, than being told about the same gift in advance. Sure, the moment you were first told about the gift would be good news, a moment of pleasure in the moment of being told. But you wouldn't have the gift in hand at that moment, which limits the pleasure. And then you have to wait. And then when you finally get the gift—it's pleasant to go from not having it to having it, if you didn't wait too long; but a surprise would have a larger momentary impact, I would think.
This particular game had a status screen that showed all my future class abilities at the start of the game—inactive and dark but with full information still displayed. From a hedonic standpoint this seems like miserable fun theory. All the "good news" is lumped into a gigantic package; the items of news would have much greater impact if encountered separately. And then I have to wait a long time to actually acquire the abilities, so I get an extended period of comparing my current weak game-self to all the wonderful abilities I could have but don't.
Imagine living in two possible worlds. Both worlds are otherwise rich in challenge, novelty, and other aspects of Fun. In both worlds, you get smarter with age and acquire more abilities over time, so that your life is always getting better.
But in one world, the abilities that come with seniority are openly discussed, hence widely known; you know what you have to look forward to.
In the other world, anyone older than you will refuse to talk about certain aspects of growing up; you'll just have to wait and find out.
Followup to: Eutopia is Scary
"Two roads diverged in the woods. I took the one less traveled, and had to eat bugs until Park rangers rescued me."
Utopia and Dystopia have something in common: they both confirm the moral sensibilities you started with. Whether the world is a libertarian utopia of the non-initiation of violence and everyone free to start their own business, or a hellish dystopia of government regulation and intrusion—you might like to find yourself in the first, and hate to find yourself in the second; but either way you nod and say, "Guess I was right all along."
So as an exercise in creativity, try writing them down side by side: Utopia, Dystopia, and Weirdtopia. The zig, the zag and the zog.
I'll start off with a worked example for public understanding of science:
- Utopia: Most people have the equivalent of an undergrad degree in something; everyone reads the popular science books (and they're good books); everyone over the age of nine understands evolutionary theory and Newtonian physics; scientists who make major contributions are publicly adulated like rock stars.
- Dystopia: Science is considered boring and possibly treasonous; public discourse elevates religion or crackpot theories; stem cell research is banned.
- Weirdtopia: Science is kept secret to avoid spoiling the surprises; no public discussion but intense private pursuit; cooperative ventures surrounded by fearsome initiation rituals because that's what it takes for people to feel like they've actually learned a Secret of the Universe and be satisfied; someone you meet may only know extremely basic science, but they'll have personally done revolutionary-level work in it, just like you. Too bad you can't compare notes.
Followup to: Why is the Future So Absurd?
"The big thing to remember about far-future cyberpunk is that it will be truly ultra-tech. The mind and body changes available to a 23rd-century Solid Citizen would probably amaze, disgust and frighten that 2050 netrunner!"
Pick up someone from the 18th century—a smart someone. Ben Franklin, say. Drop them into the early 21st century.
We, in our time, think our life has improved in the last two or three hundred years. Ben Franklin is probably smart and forward-looking enough to agree that life has improved. But if you don't think Ben Franklin would be amazed, disgusted, and frightened, then I think you far overestimate the "normality" of your own time. You can think of reasons why Ben should find our world compatible, but Ben himself might not do the same.
Movies that were made in say the 40s or 50s, seem much more alien—to me—than modern movies allegedly set hundreds of years in the future, or in different universes. Watch a movie from 1950 and you may see a man slapping a woman. Doesn't happen a lot in Lord of the Rings, does it? Drop back to the 16th century and one popular entertainment was setting a cat on fire. Ever see that in any moving picture, no matter how "lowbrow"?
("But," you say, "that's showing how discomforting the Past's culture was, not how scary the Future is." Of which I wrote, "When we look over history, we see changes away from absurd conditions such as everyone being a peasant farmer and women not having the vote, toward normal conditions like a majority middle class and equal rights...")
Something about the Future will shock we 21st-century folk, if we were dropped in without slow adaptation. This is not because the Future is cold and gloomy—I am speaking of a positive, successful Future; the negative outcomes are probably just blank. Nor am I speaking of the idea that every Utopia has some dark hidden flaw. I am saying that the Future would discomfort us because it is better.
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