Thursday, December 23, 2010

Towards a New Republic

I find it amazing, the way that people can synchronize and create incredible experiences like these together. My question is whether this is something that can be brought about not just in isolated incidents, but over the course of life as a whole.

A lot of it has to do with a common goal. The difference between a team and a group is that a team has a common goal. Because of this, the individual members are willing to depend upon and work with each other to achieve it. A group merely has members who are pursing their individual interests.

However, that last sentence should throw up a flag, because the members of a team are pursuing their individual interests as well. They just realize that the best thing for them is for the team as a whole to perform well.

It's a pretty simple distinction really, but the moment I really thought about that, I realized how simple so much of what I've been working towards really is. Nearly all meaningful portions of my life have been about getting the people around me, and ultimately all of humanity to work as a team instead of as a group.

My synthesis paper last year was my first huge attempt to figure out a coherent belief system that covered all aspects of my life. I started out with a very strong individualist foundation. I felt that all belief systems had to have a justification from self-interest, but I had to try and figure out what that meant for me. What really was in my self-interest?

I initially started out trying to determine what my actions and concerns would be to best achieve my existing interests. The more of these I wanted to achieve and the more thoroughly I wanted to achieve them, the more my actions and concerns extended outwards into the world. If I really wanted to get everything I wanted, I was going to have to change the entire world anyway. Even more importantly however, was a nagging thought that came into my head. Why do I want these things I want? I began to realize that many of them were completely arbitrary.

This was heavy, and I had to seriously reconsider. I could either set out for an objective basis for what my goals should be, or try to subjectively harmonize them so that I could at least live a happy life if they were all ultimately just arbitrary.

I figured that the only way there could be an objective end goal is if there is an ultimate point to the universe (because individual lives in a pointless universe necessarily don't have a point outside of themselves). The only conclusion I could come to on this line of thought is that if the universe has no objective point, then the only action that could possibly have a point at all is searching for one. Obviously this puts a big priority on avoiding the destruction of humanity, because it cannot continue the search if annihilated (existential risks). Likewise, it puts an emphasis on the search for new discoveries that might bring us closer to finding a purpose (science), and the constructive tasks needed to support, nourish, and inspire everyone as we pursue the endeavor (industry, culture).

On the front of subjective harmonization, I found that having an overarching purpose for humanity led to a much more satisfying life with much less contradictory goals. It allowed me to consider situations in a detached way, and bring about much more joy and happiness in my life. I know where I am going. I know that I have reasons for everything I do. I never become bored, and enjoy a nearly constant state of productive flow. I've found that many complex dilemmas people find themselves in, particularly social ones, are like Gordian Knots that can be cut through most expediently with an integrated value system.

Now, of course, those values of happiness and harmony are probably ultimately set by evolutionary trends, as there is no particular reason that a mind would come to value and be fulfilled by them better than any others. We know that a "paperclip optimizer" is not an invalid possibility, nor do we have any standard to determine that it would be wrong to optimize the universe for paperclips while optimizing for our values would be right. A perspective of objective value fails on that front.

However, I think it is possible that almost every human on the planet shares the core values that can justify adopting a certain kind of value system. Thus, even if there might be no goal that can integrate the value system of every possible sentient mind allowing them to successfully cooperate on a team, I think there exists a real possibility that all minds which could possibly occupy the humane portion of mindspace may have values for which this is the case.

The task that lies before us then, is that of finding a way to harmonize all humane value systems so that they can achieve the fullness of their potential. There are two main elements of this endeavor. The first is understanding how the cognitive evaluation systems of minds work, and particularly how they work in humane minds. The second is understanding how the interpersonal relations between minds can be structured so that their values can be achieved. In short, the tasks of the cognitive-behavorial and the socio-economic sciences.

This is not a new goal, it's been around for a long time. Plato's Republic is the most notable attempt that comes to mind. He was trying to figure out the complex and often contradictory nature of human value systems so that he could create an optimal society. While many of his methodologies may be flawed, his science dismal, and the results unworkable, this is cause for hope rather than despair. We can use the findings of cognitive science and economics, both of which didn’t even exist in the time of Plato. Likewise, we can postulate the achievement of goals using technological means that Plato could never even dream of.

Certainly there is an element of hubris here. Utopia means "no place" for good reason. However, we have learned from past attempts to not take rigid structures of society as the ideal. We have learned that we do not know everything, and cannot ever know everything. However, while better understanding our limitations, we can simultaneously identify with much more precision and scope the basic laws and principles that underlie cognition and social interaction. We know the powers of deontological rules that allow for the development, evolution, and emergence of complex systems. We also have new ways of communicating, entirely new sciences, and breakthroughs across the board.

There have certainly been people since Plato who gave their best shot at the project, but I have yet to see anyone who looked at it in quite this perspective. I believe it not only holds the potential for outstandingly fruitful results, but also deep edification for those who pursue it.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Life as an Optimization Problem

I've always been very concerned with the concept of what constitutes a good life. Having good goals is difficult enough, but actually achieving them is at least several levels of difficulty above that. The way I see it, there are two primary kinds of optimization that help to achieve goals. One is highly personal, building up the patterns of thought, behavior and action that lead to a greater capability for growth. However, this is not enough. We are both limited and empowered by our environment, by the people and situations around us. Even the brightest person cannot grow in a vacuum, and the good a single person can do unaided is extremely limited. Thus becoming extraordinarily adept at both aspects of optimization is vital, and being acutely aware of the ways they play off of each other is a huge part of that.

The two best resources I can think of for individual optimization are the posts and sequences on less wrong and economics, particularly Austrian Economics. The tools of rationality and meta-cognition on less wrong can work wonders for anyone if well understood and practiced. Seriously, it's brilliant stuff. Economics studies the most efficient use of scarce resources and thus is obviously going to be useful for optimization. The Austrian School is a goldmine for individual optimization, because the focus is entirely on how individuals make decisions to best achieve their goals. Mises called the science of human action "praxeology". Combining an understanding of praxeology with the knowledge of epistemology, rationality, and biases on less wrong gives you the analytical capabilities to really make some progress on optimizing your life and attaining your goals.

Optimizing everything around you is in many ways more challenging than merely optimizing yourself. Some things simply can't be changed, or would require more effort than it's worth to be changed. Recognize these things and let them be. Wu-wei is your friend. When you are building yourself, being smart about things matters, but raw focus and determination will probably bear the brunt of the work. However, when dealing with the outside world, particularly social situations, it is necessary to be more clever. Communication theory and practice is always helpful. You can also study cases of success in whatever area will help with achieving your goals. For example, I read biographies of great economists that focus on the factors that contributed to the development of their ideas. I also read things on the sociology of intellectuals.

Reflection is absolutely crucial the entire time you are on this endeavor. If you aren't lucidly aware of your own mental state and abilities, don't know what is happening in the world around you that affects you, and don't carefully consider the options available to you, failure is pretty much guaranteed. In fact, despite any pleasant reassurances, failure is the norm even if you do all those things. Think about it, how many people really, truly, absolutely achieve their goals? Quite possibly none. How many come close? Very few. True success is not only hard, it's perhaps the most difficult thing in the universe.

If at this point you are ready to give up your goals, do so. Because if you are ready to give them up they didn't really mean anything to you anyway. If they really matter, it doesn't matter how hard they are to achieve. It doesn't matter if the probability of success is only a shade above zero. There are goals like that. Ones that matter that much, and if you don't have one yet I suggest you start searching.

Subgoals are fluid. They change based on probabilities. If your goal is to help everyone, you might think the best plan is to go to Africa. It might turn out that going to Russia actually has a greater probability of helping people so you recalibrate your subgoal to go there. On further reflection, it might be more effective to become a CPA, work a standard desk job, and donate all your spare income to good charities. The point is that regardless of the subgoals that most effectively optimize for your main goal, your main goal is not going to change. Even if people tell you that there's a 0.00001% chance of helping everyone, you're still going to try. Otherwise that goal is not your true main goal, just a really important subgoal.

So for people who have goals that truly matter, the fact that they are almost impossible to achieve only means that more effort should be put into doing so. Every applicable resource, every ounce of intelligence and effort, every single conscious moment will be put towards increasing that sliver of probability, and the smaller it is the more herculean the effort will be. They will optimize like their life depends upon it. This post should be beneficial to anyone, but it is to those who really have something that matters to them that I hope it proves most useful.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Question on Property Rights

This was a question I wrote to kick off a recent Society of Economic Thought meeting:

In many ways the very reality of an economic system depends upon how ownership is structured. It is the existence of property rights and the way they function in a society that determine who gets to make decisions and how those decisions are made, and since economics is fundamentally about decisions, this of course affects how the entire economy will work.

I think everyone in this room is acutely aware of the fact that there are some huge differences in how we all think economies should be structured, and I think that most of these differences ultimately boil down to questions about how ownership should work. There are an incredible amount of viewpoints on the matter. There are people who think that everything should be owned by the state because it's efficient, like in socialism or fascism. Communists think that property should be abolished completely in its current form, and everyone should be able to use everything. Some people think that workers should own the capital they use to produce goods, which is called syndicalism. Noam Chomsky is a famous modern advocate of this view.

Many people think that individuals should privately own property and that's basically your conventional capitalist viewpoint, but even within that viewpoint there are many shades of gray as to how firm individual property rights should be, as well as a multitude of ways that that private ownership of property can be done. You can have it as a trust from the state to individuals because that's the most productive way to generate resources for the state, which is effectively the mercantilist viewpoint. Or, you could make it so that one king effectively owns everything but leases it out for the same reason a mercantilist state would... because it increases his wealth and power. Sometimes people hold that individuals are the fundamental owners of their property, but that there can be exceptions to that if the situation requires them. In other words, many of us believe that ownership isn't absolute. And even if we do hold that individual property rights are absolute, which system do we use to justify that and determine who owns what?

Does each person own their property by mixing their labor with it, like Locke argued? Is property ultimately just about who has the biggest guns? Or like my uncle says, are we kidding ourselves because possession is 9/10 of the law? Is all property just theft? How far back do property rights go? Should we be concerned with say, giving the property we stole from the Native Americans back to them, or is there a certain point where we just accept the current distribution of property because it’s expedient to do so? Are property rights ultimately subject to a sort of practical truncation after restoring them becomes costly and difficult? I mean, these are only a few ways to think about and justify individual property rights, but I think you get the idea… it’s complicated. What even qualifies as property has changed over time. For example, people used to be able to own other people. You can’t do that anymore. And whether people should be able to own ideas is still an extremely contentious issue today.

So what I want you to really think about is.... how historically has property been structured, and why did past societies structure it that way? How is property structured in today’s world, and why is it structured this way? And most importantly, how should property be structured, and why should we structure it that way?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Harmony

Harmony is something that never ceases to amaze me, because it involves the synthesis of almost everything in a very deep and fundamental way, including the different motives of people. It is really remarkable how much we can get to fit together and align, and the deeper the analysis is, the easier it usually is to fit things together. That deep feeling seems to stem from structure, because of the power good structure lends to concepts. Maybe that is the core of sound synthesis, there has to be some kind of structure there for it to happen. Otherwise things can't fit together. At the risk of sounding crazy, it's sort of like jello. You can't really fit together two pieces of jello --it's just awkward and never quite happens right. Yet you can fit together puzzle pieces with clearly defined edges in a much more satisfying way. However, sometimes you just have to fit the pieces of jello together in a fuzzy way, even if that doesn't give the satisfaction of a deep conceptual fit. Because, ultimately, to fuse the jello correctly, you would have to go to the underlying structure of the atoms, and that is too complex for a human mind to comprehend the particulars of, so you have to just be happy with the sketchy union between the two ideas. This is the problem, that harmony requires knowing so many things at such a deep level that it is impossible to properly do it with many things in the human mind. Specialization is easy, and can allow us to bring greater levels of harmony to little parts of the universe, but harmony over broad swaths of subject area, which is perhaps the most valuable to have, can only be achieved pretty superficially, even by the most powerful of minds. People who can develop and present a deep structure of some element of reality in a very lucid way are thus serving an incredibly valuable service to those who seek harmony. They give a way for us to stand on the shoulders of giants and synthesize ever greater parts of our life into powerful structures that allow us to act much more effectively with the world around us and with each other. When two things seem irreconcilable, go deeper into their structure because that's where the solution will lie.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Extended Personhood

Extended personhood is something that seems to unify a surprising amount of the ideas and research I've been mulling over lately. For example, the Tao Te Ching to me was largely about extending your sense of purpose into the entire universe. I've been in doubt about the validity and utility of the ego or self for some time now after reading the Cosmist Manifesto. This was reinforced by meditation on what I would sacrifice myself for. It would have to be to save something or someone in a way that advances my goals better than I could by continuing my existence, and that situation, while unlikely, is not implausible. I still hold that individualism is a very powerful philosophy, particularly in the ethical systems it is able to generate, but there is clearly a theoretical shear here that I'll hopefully be able to better identify and rectify soon. The simple fact of that matter is that the existence of my ego and its need for status and other things often hinders the optimal achievement of my highest goals. The biases are often very slight, which makes them even harder to properly correct for, but I can tell they are there. This is a significant problem because they are pervasive across an enormous range of situations and crucial decisions. I know that I am generally much happier in the long run if I act in the more neutral decision making mode. It simply allows you to make much better decisions, largely because of the wu-wei principle. You are no longer fighting with the universe, but instead working with it. I still need to re-read Reasons and Persons to refine my grasp of what personhood is and then of course The Extended Mind Hypothesis naturally comes to mind (haha), although an extended mind is not quite the same as an extended person. Yet, my understanding seems to fuse the two, so I think they may ultimately be isomorphic at some level. I'll have to borrow it from Alex sometime. When I finally order a copy of MITECS I can play around with philosophical psychology even further. I'm excited about Player of Games, because so far it seems to be grappling in a very useful way about problems of self and purpose. Man: The Moral Animal is fantastic because of the beastly analytic framework it gives for identifying sources of bias and emotion that prevent coherent action. Ultimately, more and more things seem to be fusing together, and that's extremely exciting. Even more promising however, are the ripples of wrongness that some of those fusions are creating in my mental structure. The most productive thoughts usually come out of those. I just wish school would let up a little bit, because I've got an enormous amount of work before me without all the suboptimal additions.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Purpose

I was asked today if I ever do anything for the fun of it. After some consideration, my answer was no. I wondered how this could be possible... how could I not do anything for the sheer fun of it? Not even sheer fun, but it seems as though I do not even consider fun as a factor.
I thought that I must be tricking myself, surely there was something I was forgetting or some loophole in my formulation of the problem that I was accidentally exploiting.
It turns out that I do a great many fun things, and I enjoy them as much as or sometimes even more than most people, but I never do them for the fun of it. It always comes down to a consideration of social bonding, or occasionally just loosening up my mind. This is the kind of productive play that Ben Goertzel describes. When I make decisions, fun is just never a primary factor at all in my mind. It's a side effect.
As my friend who asked me the original question pointed out, this is not even remotely normal. However, I wouldn't have it any other way. This is not the defense of some stressed out workaholic who insists that they are happy either. Living my life without fun as a goal allows me to constantly choose only purposeful activities that build up me and the people around me, allowing me to do an enormous amount of good in the world. Furthermore, while my goal is to do good, not have fun, a side effect of this mentality is that I have tons of fun. Knowing that you are always doing your best assessment of what you ideally should be doing ensures that you never have to worry about what you are passing up to do it. You can take the experience as it comes and really have fun with it. Furthermore, after a fun night, there's no regret. You spent it in a completely productive way and often had a great time doing so. Since it allows you to improve the general conditions of your world and abilities of your self, it opens up opportunities to have great times that wouldn't otherwise be available. I've done so many incredible things with friends and been able to participate in so many fun things because of it (like Academic Bowl, for a recent example).

As a side note, I'm now even more eager to read Eliezer's posts on fun theory when I get the chance!

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Natural Aristocracy

So this is an idea that is not fully developed, but I'm just exploring it a little. Most people take the book Outliers to be an argument for equalizing opportunities. They want to give the huge environmental advantages successful people need in the early stages of their life to everyone in order to help them. However, as an economist, I know that it is necessary to divert resources to do this (true, there may be some technological advantage in the mere knowledge of compounding advantages itself, but ultimately the opportunities are going to come down to a reallocation of resources). However, it may not make sense to do this. Thanks to the law of association (comparative advantage) we know that it is to our advantage ceteris paribus for our neighbor to be as successful as possible (I hold jealousy and envy to be philosophically misguided, hence discounting those as possible exceptions). Naturally we would want to leverage the benefits of concentrated resources as much as possible for the socially optimal outcome. A few geniuses might well outweigh a great amount of moderately successful people. Thus the most efficient social outcome might very well be a huge concentration of wealth and opportunities among a few people. Should it be done using force? No. But letting people leverage the advantages that they do have should take priority over equalizing advantages. Letting those who have demonstrated the best judgement in how to use resources distribute them is also a good idea. The need to equalize opportunity has led to a lot of static and dull conformity in our society (look at the school system), whereas a system that's more privatized would likely be much more dynamic and diverse.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Recent Economic Thought (The Beauty of Teamwork)

So this is a blog post that serves as a record of an excellent conversation I just had with Alex. We discussed the odd fact that in the so called "empirical" sciences, a priori reasoning is accepted as completely valid and thought experiments are a legitimate form of inquiry, as in the case of Einstein's relativity. The entire enlightenment was largely based off of a priori reasoning because there were simply no liberal states to empirically justify the ideas off of. That does not make the ideas any less legitimate. True, all thought experiments appear to be necessarily inspired by reality, and this could be the basis of Rothbard's Neo-Aristotelean view (although I really think we need to do more research into what exactly a Neo-Aristotelean view entails as opposed to Mises' Neo-Kantian epistemological framework). We also fleshed out what seems to be a very powerful theory for interpreting modern economic thought that I will be testing out on the new books I have to read. We know economic history fairly well up until the point of the Keynesian Revolution, then the econometricians came in largely building off of the Neoclassical Synthesis assumptions of how an economic system works. After this, the Chicago School came onto the scene, but the Chicago school was basically just the current system given some theoretically superficial (at least from an economics perspective) free market logic and fervor (possibly because of Hayek's inability at the University of Chicago to convince Friedman and the others of the validity of the mental frameworks necessary to comprehend deep Austrian theory... without that they could only go so far, and it would explain why their system appears so eclectic). Although the good thing about the Chicago school is that it paved the way socially for the free market views of the Austrians... there is little acceptance of a purely Keynesian theory, although the defenses against it must always be maintained. The main challenge to the school now is the methodological debate, because that is the block that seems to keep the Chicago people from comprehending the Austrian theory at the level of depth necessary to truly have really productive intellectual discussions. Our combined research over the last few weeks is proving to be enormously productive.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tough Love

My ideas about compassion might seem at first glance to be something counterintuitive, and indeed they may be. Yet, at the same time we all know a good example of when compassion needs to be overridden in the light of reason. Take the case of a child throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store. Clearly he wants something badly (even if it's just attention) and is in a pretty severe state of emotional suffering over the lack of it. However, as any good psychologist will tell you, the correct response is to ignore the temper tantrum and resist giving him what he wants. Doing otherwise will only reinforce the behavior, and that will not help him grow up into a more adult pattern of negotiating and acting to fulfill his wants. This is a simple example of reason over-riding compassion in everyday life.

A more complex example involves many people and pain that is more severe and long lasting. I encounter dilemmas of this nature all the time when discussing economic theory. Most people have very strong feelings of compassion for the poor. Indeed, it is overwhelmingly difficult not to. Particularly when specific cases of poverty are presented, where through no fault of their own people are put in enormously difficult situations. Naturally, we as human beings want to help these people. However, the solutions usually given, while they would often help the people currently being empathized with, hurt society much more than the benefit to those people. Furthermore, fallacies of composition are often committed. A strategy that would be sustainable for one impoverished working mother (say, giving her 90,000 dollars) would wreck loads of destruction on the economic system if enacted for EVERY impoverished working mother.

Compassion can bias the debate. Time and time again the people who are most compassionate about the people they are trying to help make the worst mistakes in economic reasoning. Furthermore, they will often intellectually agree to an error, but then proceed on their current course of action as if they have not learned anything from the argument. It doesn't stick. Compassion that covers all the parties involved helps. If you have compassion and understanding for the capitalist as well as the worker it is much easier to construct sound economic policy. Thus, calls for broad compassion make more sense than some might think.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why?

It seems to me most appropriate to discuss what this blog is and why you should spend your time reading it as my first post. While I have no fears about blogging about anything that I find important or interesting, my special areas of interest and expertise are Economics, Transhumanism, Rationality, Science, and Philosophy. I am ultimately trying to create the best world possible, and I take that very seriously. That means a very careful examination of what "good" is as well as analysis of how to actualize that good. I am a huge believer in the power of dialectic discussion, and I will change my ideas on a dime if I can be proven wrong. I love people who disagree, because it is out of discussions with them that the most can be learned. So that's what this blog is really about --throwing around ideas, discovering new ones, challenging everything, and in the process hopefully contributing a little to the growth of all the people involved and therefore the advancement of humanity itself. I look forward to it.