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How I Became More Ambitious

60 Swimmer963 04 July 2013 11:34PM

Follow-up to How I Ended Up Non-Ambitious

Living with yourself is a bit like having a preteen and watching them get taller; the changes happen so slowly that it's almost impossible to notice them, until you stumble across an old point of comparison and it becomes blindingly obvious. I hit that point a few days ago, while planning what I might want to talk about during an OkCupid date. My brain produced the following thought: "well, if this topic comes up, it might sound like I'm trying to take over the world, and that's intimidating- Wait. What?"

I'm not trying to take over the world. It sounds like a lot of work, and not my comparative advantage. If it seemed necessary, I would point out the problems that needed solving and delegate them to CFAR alumni with more domain-specific expertise than me.

However, I went back and reread the post linked at the beginning, and I no longer feel much kinship with that person. This is a change that happened maybe 25-50% deliberately, and the rest by drift, but I still changed my mind, so I will try to detail the particular changes, and what I think led to them. Introspection is unreliable, so I'll probably be at least 50% wrong, but what can you do?

1. Idealism versus practicality

I would still call myself practical, but I no longer think that this comes at the expense of idealism. Idealism is absolutely essential, if you want to have a world that changes because someone wanted it to, as opposed to just by drift. Lately in the rationalist/CFAR/LW community, there's been a lot of emphasis on agency and agentiness, which basically mean the ability to change the world and/or yourself deliberately, on purpose, through planned actions. This is hard. The first step is idealism-being able to imagine a state of affairs that is different and better. Then comes practicality, the part where you sit down and work hard and actually get something done.

It's still true that idealism without practicality doesn't get much done, and practicality without idealism can get a lot done, but it matters what problems you're working on, too. Are you being strategic? Are you even thinking, at all, about whether your actions are helping to accomplish your goals? One of the big things I've learned, a year and a half and two CFAR workshops later, is how automatic and easy this lack of strategy really is.

I had a limited sort of idealism in high school; I wanted to do work that was important and relevant; but I was lazy about it. I wanted someone to tell me what was important to be doing right now. Nursing seemed like an awesome solution. It still seems like a solution, but recently I've admitted to myself, with a painful twinge, that it might not be the best way for me, personally, to help the greatest number of people using my current and potential skill set. It's worth spending a few minutes or hours looking for interesting and important problems to work on.

I don't think I had the mental vocabulary to think that thought a year and a half ago. Some of the change comes from having dated an economics student. Come to think of it, I expect some of his general ambition rubbed off on me, too. The rest of the change comes from hanging out with the effective altruism and similar communities.

I'm still practical. I exercise, eat well, go to bed on time, work lots of hours, spend my money wisely, and maintain my social circle mostly on autopilot; it requires effort but not deliberate effort. I'm lucky to have this skill. But I no longer think it's a virtue over and above idealism. Practical idealists make the biggest difference, and they're pretty cool to hang out with. I want to be one when I grow up.

2. Fear of failure

Don't get me wrong. If there's one deep, gripping, soul-crushing terror in my life, one thing that gives me literal nightmares, it's failure. Making mistakes. Not being good enough. Et cetera.

In the past few years, the main change has been admitting to myself that this terror doesn't make a lot of sense. First of all, it's completely miscalibrated. As Eliezer pointed out during a conversation on this, I don't fail at things very often. Far from being a success, this is likely a sign that the things I'm trying aren't nearly challenging enough.

My threshold for what constitutes failure is also fairly low. I made a couple of embarrassing mistakes during my spring clinical. Some part of my brain is convinced that this equals permanent failure; I wasn't perfect during the placement, and I can't go back and change the past, thus I have failed. Forever.

I passed the clinical, wrote the provincial exam (results aren't in but I'm >99% confident I passed) (EDIT: Passed! YEAAHHH!!!), and I'm currently working in the intensive care unit, which has been my dream since I was about fifteen. The part of my brain that keeps telling me I failed permanently obviously isn't saying anything useful.

I think 'embarrassing' is a keyword here. The first thing I thought, on the several occasions that I made mistakes, was "oh my god did I just kill someone... Phew, no, no harm done." The second thought was "oh my god, my preceptor will think I'm stupid forever and she'll never respect me and no one wants me around, I'm not good enough..." This line of thought never goes anywhere good. It says something about me, though, that "I'm not good enough" is very directly connected to people wanting me around, to belonging somewhere. For several personality-formative years of my life, people didn't want me around. Probably for good reason; my ten-year-old self was prickly and socially inept and miserable. I think a lot of my determination not to seek status comes from the "uncool kids trying to be cool are pathetic" meme that was so rampant when I was in sixth grade.

Oh, and then there's the traumatic swim team experience. Somewhere, in a part of my brain where I don't go very often nowadays, there a bottomless whirlpool of powerless rage and despair around the phrase "no matter how hard I try, I'll never be good enough." So when I make an embarrassing mistake, my ten-year-old self is screaming at me "no wonder everyone hates you!" and my fourteen-year-old self is sadly muttering that "you know, maybe you just don't have enough natural talent," and none of it is at all useful.

The thing about those phrases is that they refer to complex and value-laden concepts, in a way that makes them seem like innate attributes, à la Fundamental Attribution Error. "Not good enough" isn't a yes-or-no attribute of a person; it's a magical category that only sounds simple because it's a three-word phrase. I've gotten somewhat better at propagating this to my emotional self. Slightly. It's a work in progress.

During a conversation about this with Anna Salamon, she noted that she likes to approach her own emotions and ask them what they want. It sounds weird, but it's helpful. "Dear crushing sense of despair and unworthiness, what do you want? ...Oh, you're worried that you're going to end up an outcast from your tribe and starve to death in the wilderness because you accidentally gave an extra dose of digoxin? You want to signal remorse and regret and make sure everyone knows you're taking your failure seriously so that maybe they'll forgive you? Thank you for trying to protect me. But really, you don't need to worry about the starving-outcast thing. No one was harmed and no one is mad at you personally. Your friends and family couldn't care less. This mistake is data, but it's just as much data about the environment as it is about your attributes. These hand-copied medication records are the perfect medium for human error. Instead of signalling remorse, let's put some mental energy into getting rid of the environmental conditions that led to this mistake."

Rejection therapy and having a general CoZE [Comfort Zone Expansion] mindset helped remove some of the sting of "but I'll look stupid if I try something too hard and fail at it!" I still worry about the pain of future embarrassment, but I'm more likely to point out to myself that it's not a valid objection and I should do X anyway. Making "I want to become stronger" an explicit motto is new to the last year and a half, too, and helps by giving me ammunition for why potential embarrassment isn't a reason not to do something.

In conclusion: failure still sucks. I'm a perfectionist. But I failed in a lot of small ways during my spring clinical, and passed/got a job anyway, which seems to have helped me propagate to my emotional self that it's okay to try hard things, where I'm almost certain to make mistakes, because mistakes don't equal instant damnation and hatred from all of my friends.

3. The morality of ambition

While I was in San Francisco a month ago, volunteering at the CFAR workshop and generally spending my time surrounded by smart, passionate, and ambitious people (thus convincing my emotional system that this is normal and okay), I had a conversation with Eliezer. He asked me to list ten areas in which I was above average.

This was a lot more painful than it had any reason to be. After bouncing off various poorly-formed objections in my mind, I said to myself "you know, having trouble admitting what you're good at doesn't make you virtuous." This was painful; losing a source of feeling-virtuous always is. But it was helpful. Yeah, talking all the time about how awesome you are at X, Y, Z makes you a bit of a bore. People might even avoid you (oh! the horror!). However, this doesn't mean that blocking even the thought of being above average makes you a good person. In fact, it's counterproductive. How are you supposed to know what problems you're capable of solving in the world if you can't be honest with yourself about your capabilities?

This conversation helped. (Even if some of the effect was "high status person says X -> I believe X," who cares? I endorsed myself changing my mind about this a year and a half ago. It's about time.)

HPMOR helped, too; specifically, the idea that there are four houses which have different positive qualities. Slytherins are demonized in canon, but in HPMOR their skills are recognized as essential. I can easily recognize the Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff and even the Gryffindor in myself, but not much of Slytherin. Having a word for the ambition-cunning-strategic concept cluster is helpful. I can ask myself "now what would a Slytherin do with this information:?" I can think thoughts that feel very un-virtuous. "I'm young and prettier than average. What's a Slytherin way to use this... Oh, I suppose I can leverage it to get high-status men to pay attention to me long enough for me to explain the merits of an idea I have." This thought feels yuck, but the universe doesn't explode.

Probably the biggest factor was going to the CFAR workshops in the first place. Not from any of the curriculum, particularly, although the mindset of goal factoring helped me to realize that the mental action of "feeling unvirtuous for thinking in ambitious or calculating ways" wasn't accomplishing anything I wanted. Mostly the change came from social normalization, from hanging out with people who talked openly about their strengths and weaknesses, and no one got shunned.

[Silly plan for taking over the world: Arrange to meet high status-people and offer to give their children swimming lessons. Gain their trust. Proceed from there.]

4. Laziness

Nope. Still lazy. If anything, akrasia and procrastination are more of a problem now that I'm trying to do harder things more deliberately.

I've been keeping written goals for about a year now. This means I actually notice when I don't accomplish them.

I use Remember the Milk as a GTD system, and some other productivity/organization software (rescuetime, Mint.com, etc). I finally switched to Gmail, where I can use Boomerang and other useful tools. My current openness to trying new organization methods is high.

My general interest in trying things is higher, mainly because I have lots of community-endorsed-warm-fuzzies positive affect around that phrase. I want to be someone who's open to new experiences; I've had enough new experiences to realize how exhilarating they can be. 


I now have a wider range of potentially high-value personal projects ongoing. I now have an explicit goal of being well-known for non-fiction writing, probably in a blog form, in the next five years. (Do I have enough interesting things to say to make this a reality? We'll see. Is this goal vague? Yes. Working on it. I used to reject goals if they weren't utterly concrete, but even vague goals are something to build on).

I'm more explicit with myself about what I want from CFAR curriculum skills. (The general problem of critical thinking in nursing? Solvable! Why not?)

I think I've finally admitted to myself that "well, I'll just live in a cozy little house near my parents and work in the ICU and raise kids for the next forty years" might not be particularly virtuous or fun. There are things I would prefer to be different in the world, even if I can only completely specify a few of them. There are exciting scary opportunities happening all the time. I'm lucky enough to belong to a community of people that can help me find them.

I don't have plans for much beyond the next year. But here's to the next decade being interesting!

My Greatest Achievement

31 Swimmer963 12 September 2011 07:26PM

[warning: this is another gooey self-disclosure in the spirit of Alicorn and lukeprog’s recent posts, except more so.]

According to my submissions summary, my first top-level post dates back to February 18th, 2011. (I don’t know exactly when I started commenting, but I don’t feel like clicking through dozens of pages of old comments to find out.) By then, it had already been a month since I embarked on the most deliberate and probably the most difficult act of self-modification that I’ve ever attempted, and definitely the one I’m proudest of. At this point, I think I can say confidently that I’ve fixed one of the most irrational facets of my behaviour. A few people here know quite a bit about this, namely molybdenumblue.

[Aside: some people might find this article very personal. I’ve never had a strong privacy instinct, and since in this case it’s all my personal information*, and I talk openly about most of it with my friends and family, I have no qualms about publishing it. If it makes you uncomfortable, please feel free to stop reading.]

My New Year’s resolution for 2011, which I clearly remember making in my parents’ kitchen, was to experiment more with relationships. I had been in 2 relationships by my 19th birthday: one at age 14 with a much older recent immigrant to Canada who went to my high school, and one at age 17 with a boy who I worshipped when I was 12. Neither of them led anywhere interesting, in either an emotional or a physical sense. After breaking up with my second boyfriend, I was about ready to give up and start calling myself asexual. But since I had very little data to go on, an experiment seemed like a good idea.

I chose my experimental subject carefully: Billy, a boy I met through competitive lifeguarding, who was my age and seemed to share some of my values; he was in good shape, anyway; and whom I found moderately attractive. (I’ve been attracted to girls in the past, but that seemed like a more complicated experiment to set up.) I found him interesting without being too intimidating.

I had had some success in the past with getting boys’ initial attention, and I felt like I knew what I was doing. I started a conversation one evening when I came to swim at the campus pool and he was the lifeguard on duty, and I made an effort to be my friendliest and chattiest self. The next day I added him on Facebook, and suggested via the chat function that maybe we could hang out after guard team practice…The message must have gone though, because less than a week later, after he made me dinner at his apartment, he walked me home and kissed me outside the shared house where I was living. I went inside, shaking all over and not really sure whether I’d enjoyed it, but triumphant: success!

The only problem was that now that I had my result, I couldn’t end the experiment as easily as I’d started it. Some making out ensued, at my place and at his place. I found all of it vaguely embarrassing and a bit freaky, too; my only previous experience was with my first boyfriend, and at fourteen it had seriously grossed me out. By the end of the week, we ended up back at his apartment after some alcohol consumption, and clothes came off. I tried really hard to be okay with it. After all, it was part of my experiment, and I’d thought it was something I wanted. But irrational fears aren’t turned off that easily. When he told me that I drove him crazy, I wasn’t flattered: I was completely terrified.

I spent the next week or so putting on my game face and pretending everything was awesome, while crying on the phone with my younger sister every other night. (I can honestly say that although she’s five years younger, her social skills are much better than mine.)

I thought over and rejected various solutions because, ultimately, I liked Billy okay and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Open communication hadn’t existed in my previous relationships, so I didn’t know what to do. I was also more and more sleep deprived; my schedule had already been busy before, juggling school with two part-time jobs, and now it was unsustainable. The emotions built up, and I ended up handling it in what was probably the worst possible way: walking home from guard team practice, I started crying when he asked me if I was okay. (Bursting into tears when I don’t want to talk about something or do something and someone pushes me is a bad habit I picked up during my days of swim team performance anxiety.) It took at least an hour to get everything out: that I didn’t know what my feelings were, that it freaked me out when he touched me, and that if I had to sacrifice another night’s sleep to hang out I would probably go insane. And also the part I’d been too embarrassed to tell him earlier: I had a condition called vaginismus, and I wouldn’t be able to have sex even if I wanted to and felt ready. He walked me back to my house, carefully not touching, and I went upstairs to bed, feeling like a terrible person but also relieved. At least that was over.

I can’t really take the credit for this next part; if I hadn’t heard from him again, I think I would have walked away from it, not happily exactly, but determined never to get myself into a mess like that again. But I woke up at 6:30 to a text: Check your email. He had written me a long, fairly incoherent message, full of grammatical mistakes, but probably the sweetest thing that anyone had ever written to me, ever, in my whole life. Ending with: “With all that said, I realize that I am not just about ready to give up on us. [...] For now, I see what we have together is worth fighting for.”

I cried, felt trapped, felt miserable, and finally made myself a cup of tea, sat in my living room, decided that I’d gotten myself into this situation in the first place and I would have to cope with it. I phrased my reply carefully.

“I wanted to be everything you wanted me to be, and as soon as I knew for sure that I couldn't be that, I was terrified that you would find out and you wouldn't want me anymore. [...] I'm scared that as soon as I open myself to you, you'll reject me for being such a freak and then I'll lose you AND be hurt. [...] I kinda wish we could just start over, and go more slowly, and I wouldn't get scared and I'd be able to act maturely and not like a 13-year-old in over her head.” The problem wasn’t that I didn’t like him. I liked him as much as I’d liked any other boy. That was the scary part. 

A few weeks later we went out for his birthday. I baked a cake and he blew out the candles. Later he told me that he had made a wish; that our relationship would work out. It was a lot of pressure, and I tried to hide the fact that it still freaked me out when he said things like that. But part of me found it romantic, and that was the part I tried hard to focus on.

I don’t remember the timeline as clearly for the next few months. We hung out regularly, swam together and worked out together, and spent an entire guard team competition getting in trouble with the coach (“no touching!”). I brought him Tupperwares of food when he worked Saturday afternoon shifts at the pool. We did our homework together (him doing economics math problems, me making a colorful cardboard poster for my nursing placement in a daycare, probably the first time in my life I felt like the non-nerd in the room). We both said, “I love you.”

We fought about a lot of things, too, mainly the fact that he always wanted to see me more and I always wanted more time to read, write, swim, and sleep. But we talked everything through and usually came to some kind of compromise. I started sleeping over at his apartment once or twice a week, which I resented because sharing a single bed meant that I didn’t so much sleep as lie awkwardly awake for almost the whole night. We did our grocery shopping together. Gradually we started touching again, and I habituated to it, although some things still freaked me out. I only felt comfortable making out if the lights were on. I didn’t want to do anything at my place, because I was afraid my roommates would judge me. (They probably did.) In short, those months weren’t exactly the happiest of my life: I was stressed, exhausted, and under pressure all the time.      

At some point during the spring, I can’t remember the month exactly, I had my first orgasm when he was touching me. It was a huge surprise: “my body can do that?” Molybdenumblue and my mother both recommended that I practice, so I started masturbating for the first time in my life. But sex was still the main thing we fought about. Eventually we worked out a routine where I could at least satisfy his needs without too much time or effort. The semester was nearly over by now, and at some point we had decided that we wanted to try living together in the summer. We had been dating for less than four months. All of my roommates and many of my friends thought it was a terrible idea. My mother approved wholeheartedly, though, and I trusted her judgment. We moved into a subletted apartment on campus at the beginning of May.

It could have gone badly, but it went incredibly well. We had a double bed and I was actually able to sleep well nearly every night. I was working a lot, usually more than 45 hours a week, and juggling my mandatory exercise routines, but seeing each other at night was the default, rather than another commitment to slot into my schedule. Sex still wasn’t happening, so I went to see my family doctor and she recommended a physiotherapy routine that I could practice at home, and we were having sex maybe three weeks later. About the only thing I liked was that it was over quickly, but it still felt like an incredible accomplishment. My mother bought me chocolate as a reward for my hard work.

It seemed to be the end of the last snag in our relationship, the last obstacle that would have kept us from staying together long-term. We talk about everything, from the possibility of having kids someday (though definitely not soon, even though kids are uber-cute and I have to work with them every day at the pool and I want one too) to my crush on a girl at work. (When I was planning to go for a swim with her at the campus pool: “Aww, have fun on your lesbian date!”)

Conclusion: Billy left for a four-month exchange in France at the end of September, just before I went back to school for another semester of madly juggling school, work, and exercise, hoping that I would be able to cut back on my workaholic-ism; it’s irrational to think I’ll actually go bankrupt if I only work one shift a week. I was optimistic.

...And that was when I realized that I don’t feel like a scared thirteen-year-old girl anymore. I don’t feel like a freak and I don’t feel inadequate. I don’t find the day-to-day of a relationship stressful. I’ve made a ton of compromises, smoothed off some of the stubbornly contrarian aspects of my personality, and I don’t resent it; I feel good about it. My feelings are no longer as unpredictable as the weather, and when something does upset me, I almost always understand why and know how to fix it.

I couldn’t have achieved this on my own. I’ve relied on my mother, my sister, my best friend, and molybdenumblue. Not to mention one of the most incredibly patient, open-minded, and persistent people I’ve met in my life: Billy himself. But it’s a success story for me, even so. I wanted to be stronger, so I tried to change myself, and it was harder than anything I had ever done before, and I could have given up and walked away, but I decided to keep trying. And that's what makes it my greatest achievement.

*Billy has read this and ok'd everything I wrote, too.

Verifying Rationality via RationalPoker.com

32 Louie 25 March 2011 04:32PM

Related to: Problem of verifying rationality

We're excited to announce the (soft) launch of RationalPoker.com! It's a new guide developed by me, Zvi, Kevin, and patrissimo detailing how to use online poker as rationality training to conquer your cognitive biases. We want our community to go from knowing a lot about cognitive biases to actually having a training method that allows us to integrate that knowledge into our habits -- truly reducing biases instead of just leaving us perpetually lamenting our flawed brain-ware. In the coming weeks, we'll be making the case that online poker is a useful rationalist pursuit along with developing introductory "How To" material that allows those who join us to play profitably.

We want to make sure we aren’t wasting our time practicing an ungrounded art with methods that don’t work. Poker gives us an objective way to test x-rationality. The difference between winning and losing in poker once you know a small amount of domain-specific knowledge is due to differing levels of rationality. Our site will be presenting the case that a strong rationalist who can act on their knowledge of cognitive biases (a defining feature of x-rationality but not traditional rationality) should have a distinct advantage. We'll be offering the connecting material between the sequences and online poker to teach you how to apply knowledge of cognitive biases to poker in a way that verifies your current level of rationality and naturally teaches you to improve your rationality over time.

Incidentally, this also presents a solution for those of us looking to earn money from anywhere with a flexible schedule that leaves time for outside interests.

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Play for a Cause

7 brian_jaress 28 January 2010 08:52PM

Some of you have been trying to raise money for the Singularity Institute, and I have an idea that may help.

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The Sin of Underconfidence

55 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 April 2009 06:30AM

There are three great besetting sins of rationalists in particular, and the third of these is underconfidence.  Michael Vassar regularly accuses me of this sin, which makes him unique among the entire population of the Earth.

But he's actually quite right to worry, and I worry too, and any adept rationalist will probably spend a fair amount of time worying about it.  When subjects know about a bias or are warned about a bias, overcorrection is not unheard of as an experimental result.  That's what makes a lot of cognitive subtasks so troublesome—you know you're biased but you're not sure how much, and you don't know if you're correcting enough—and so perhaps you ought to correct a little more, and then a little more, but is that enough?  Or have you, perhaps, far overshot?  Are you now perhaps worse off than if you hadn't tried any correction?

You contemplate the matter, feeling more and more lost, and the very task of estimation begins to feel increasingly futile...

And when it comes to the particular questions of confidence, overconfidence, and underconfidence—being interpreted now in the broader sense, not just calibrated confidence intervals—then there is a natural tendency to cast overconfidence as the sin of pride, out of that other list which never warned against the improper use of humility or the abuse of doubt.  To place yourself too high—to overreach your proper place—to think too much of yourself—to put yourself forward—to put down your fellows by implicit comparison—and the consequences of humiliation and being cast down, perhaps publicly—are these not loathesome and fearsome things?

To be too modest—seems lighter by comparison; it wouldn't be so humiliating to be called on it publicly, indeed, finding out that you're better than you imagined might come as a warm surprise; and to put yourself down, and others implicitly above, has a positive tinge of niceness about it, it's the sort of thing that Gandalf would do.

So if you have learned a thousand ways that humans fall into error and read a hundred experimental results in which anonymous subjects are humiliated of their overconfidence—heck, even if you've just read a couple of dozen—and you don't know exactly how overconfident you are—then yes, you might genuinely be in danger of nudging yourself a step too far down.

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Whining-Based Communities

60 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 07 April 2009 08:31PM

Previously in seriesSelecting Rationalist Groups
Followup toRationality is Systematized Winning, Extenuating Circumstances

Why emphasize the connection between rationality and winning?  Well... that is what decision theory is for.  But also to place a Go stone to block becoming a whining-based community.

Let's be fair to Ayn Rand:  There were legitimate messages in Atlas Shrugged that many readers had never heard before, and this lent the book a part of its compelling power over them.  The message that it's all right to excel—that it's okay to be, not just good, but better than others—of this the Competitive Conspiracy would approve.

But this is only part of Rand's message, and the other part is the poison pill, a deadlier appeal:  It's those looters who don't approve of excellence who are keeping you down.  Surely you would be rich and famous and high-status like you deserve if not for them, those unappreciative bastards and their conspiracy of mediocrity.

If you consider the reasonableness-based conception of rationality rather than the winning-based conception of rationality—well, you can easily imagine some community of people congratulating themselves on how reasonable they were, while blaming the surrounding unreasonable society for keeping them down.  Wrapping themselves up in their own bitterness for reality refusing to comply with the greatness they thought they should have.

But this is not how decision theory works—the "rational" strategy adapts to the other players' strategies, it does not depend on the other players being rational.  If a rational agent believes the other players are irrational then it takes that expectation into account in maximizing expected utility.  Van Vogt got this one right: his rationalist protagonists are formidable from accepting reality swiftly and adapting to it swiftly, without reluctance or attachment.

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Extenuating Circumstances

34 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 April 2009 10:57PM

Followup toTsuyoku Naritai

"Just remember, there but for a massive genetic difference, environmental factors, and conscious choices, go you or I." -- Justin Corwin

Failures don't have single causes.  We choose single causes to focus on, but nothing in the universe emerges from a single parent event.  Every assassination ever committed is the fault of every asteroid that wasn't in the right place to hit the assassin.

What good, then, does it do to blame circumstances for your failure?  What good does it do? - to look over a huge causal lattice in which your own decisions played a part, and point to something you can't control, and say:  "There is where it failed."  It might be that a surgical intervention on the past, altering some node outside yourself, would have let you succeed instead of fail.  But what good does this counterfactual do you?  Will you choose that outside reality be different on your next try?

And yet... when I look at other people, not myself, I find myself taking "extenuating circumstances" into account a great deal.  I go to great lengths to "save the world" (as I believe from my epistemic vantage point).  When I consider doing less, I consider that this would make me a horrible awful unforgivable person.  And then I cheerfully shake hands with others who aren't trying at all to save the world.  I seem to want to have my cake and eat it too - to instantiate Goetz's Paradox:  "Society tells you to work to make yourself more valuable.  Then it tells you that when you reason morally, you must assume that all lives are equally valuable.  You can't have it both ways."

Is this an inherent subjective asymmetry - does morality just look different from the outside than inside?  If so, is that okay, or is it a sign of self-contradiction?  Or is it condescension on my part - that I think less of others and so hold them to lower standards?

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Guardians of Ayn Rand

58 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 18 December 2007 06:24AM

Followup toEvery Cause Wants To Be A Cult, Guardians of the Truth

"For skeptics, the idea that reason can lead to a cult is absurd.  The characteristics of a cult are 180 degrees out of phase with reason.  But as I will demonstrate, not only can it happen, it has happened, and to a group that would have to be considered the unlikeliest cult in history.  It is a lesson in what happens when the truth becomes more important than the search for truth..."
                 —Michael Shermer, "The Unlikeliest Cult in History"

I think Michael Shermer is over-explaining Objectivism.  I'll get around to amplifying on that.

Ayn Rand's novels glorify technology, capitalism, individual defiance of the System, limited government, private property, selfishness. Her ultimate fictional hero, John Galt, was <SPOILER>a scientist who invented a new form of cheap renewable energy; but then refuses to give it to the world since the profits will only be stolen to prop up corrupt governments.</SPOILER>

And then—somehow—it all turned into a moral and philosophical "closed system" with Ayn Rand at the center.  The term "closed system" is not my own accusation; it's the term the Ayn Rand Institute uses to describe Objectivism.  Objectivism is defined by the works of Ayn Rand.  Now that Rand is dead, Objectivism is closed.  If you disagree with Rand's works in any respect, you cannot be an Objectivist.

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Guardians of the Truth

31 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 15 December 2007 06:44PM

Followup toTsuyoku Naritai, Reversed Stupidity is not Intelligence

The criticism is sometimes leveled against rationalists:  "The Inquisition thought they had the truth!  Clearly this 'truth' business is dangerous."

There are many obvious responses, such as "If you think that possessing the truth would license you to torture and kill, you're making a mistake that has nothing to do with epistemology."  Or, "So that historical statement you just made about the Inquisition—is it true?"

Reversed stupidity is not intelligence:  "If your current computer stops working, you can't conclude that everything about the current system is wrong and that you need a new system without an AMD processor, an ATI video card... even though your current system has all these things and it doesn't work.  Maybe you just need a new power cord."  To arrive at a poor conclusion requires only one wrong step, not every step wrong.  The Inquisitors believed that 2 + 2 = 4, but that wasn't the source of their madness.  Maybe epistemological realism wasn't the problem either?

It does seem plausible that if the Inquisition had been made up of relativists, professing that nothing was true and nothing mattered, they would have mustered less enthusiasm for their torture.  They would also have had been less enthusiastic if lobotomized.  I think that's a fair analogy.

And yet... I think the Inquisition's attitude toward truth played a role.  The Inquisition believed that there was such a thing as truth, and that it was important; well, likewise Richard Feynman.  But the Inquisitors were not Truth-Seekers.  They were Truth-Guardians.

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Tsuyoku vs. the Egalitarian Instinct

26 Eliezer_Yudkowsky 28 March 2007 05:49PM

Followup to:  Tsuyoku naritai! (I Want To Become Stronger)

Hunter-gatherer tribes are usually highly egalitarian (at least if you're male)—the all-powerful tribal chieftain is found mostly in agricultural societies, rarely in the ancestral environment.  Among most hunter-gatherer tribes, a hunter who brings in a spectacular kill will carefully downplay the accomplishment to avoid envy.

Maybe, if you start out below average, you can improve yourself without daring to pull ahead of the crowd.  But sooner or later, if you aim to do the best you can, you will set your aim above the average.

If you can't admit to yourself that you've done better than others—or if you're ashamed of wanting to do better than others—then the median will forever be your concrete wall, the place where you stop moving forward.  And what about people who are below average?  Do you dare say you intend to do better than them?  How prideful of you!

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