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.