Link #81 – The Story of Us

https://waitbutwhy.com/2019/08/story-of-us.html

Warning: very, very, very long. As of writing it’s not even done yet (10 of a putative 12 posts have been published). That said, it’s a fascinating read so far and highly recommended. If you’re a long-time reader of a certain part of the internet (this blog, Slate Star Codex, 538, etc) then it retreads a lot of familiar ground at first. However chapter 10 (and from the sounds of it the as-yet-unpublished chapter 11) contains more interesting and new thoughts. I’m not sure if it’s possible to just start there, since it builds on a lot of metaphors introduced in earlier chapters, but it would be interesting to try.

One point really stood out to me since I’ve been assuming the opposite. Previously I would have drawn on Haidt and argued that the competing factions of the current American culture war have fundamentally different values, but the linked articles make an interesting claim that they actually share a pretty mixed bag of values – the real conflict is because they share fundamentally different empirical beliefs about reality thanks to increasing media polarization, The Big Sort, etc.

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

Two More Weird Moral Rules

In my previous post I unpacked a number of moral rules I’d developed as a child trying to be clever and hack adult morality. What I didn’t quite realize when I published it was that the list incomplete – now that I’m actively paying attention to my moral intuitions I keep running across additional things which belong on the list. Here are more things that are still part of my psyche in some way.

Weigh the long-term more than the short-term. I’d originally just edited this into the previous post after the fact, but now that I’ve found more rules it deserves a proper write-up too. This one is really interesting because in practice I’m sure I still hyperbolically discount my choices a lot of the time. However it has led to some weirder personal choices which I’m still not sure are entirely wrong. For example, I don’t drink coffee for largely the same reason I don’t do heroin: the long-term costs of an addiction seem to outweigh the temporary benefits. Clearly most people don’t think this way (or at least don’t bother to think this way), and the cost-benefit analysis for coffee is not as clearly one-sided as it is for heroin, but… it still makes sense in my head. It’s also worth noting that I do drink coffee occasionally, as a tool to stay awake when e.g. driving long distances late at night. But this is reasonable because caffeine is much less addictive than heroin, so it can be more safely used as a tool in certain situations without developing a habit.

Another weird one this short-term-long-term rule has affected is how I listen to music. I’ve noticed that I tend to listen to my music at a much lower volume than other people, I never use earbuds (in-ear headphones) if I can avoid it, and if I’m in an environment that is noisy such as an airplane, I tend to prefer turning my music off rather than turning it up to compensate. My brain tells me I do this because I strongly value my future hearing much more than whatever marginal enjoyment I’d get from slightly louder music. I imagine this is mediated in part because, as a fairly musical person, half the music I “listen to” is entirely in my head anyway.

Never seek status or be seen to be seeking status. My brain argues that it’s a waste of resources since it actually lowers your status among the people who do the real work. I need to get my hair cut right now (it is getting sufficiently shaggy to start being a problem) and I was avoiding it because it felt wrong. Digging into this made me realize that the barber I’ve been going to was “too fancy”, and that I was actively making myself feel guilty for spending money on “status” services that weren’t “practical” enough. There’s a clear kernel of truth behind this one; “shallow”, “vain”, etc. are all pejorative for a reason. And I’m sure a lot of it can be traced back to this Paul Graham essay which I have probably referenced way too much in the history of this blog now. But still, I’m clearly taking this rule too far. A haircut is a haircut.

Beyond those two additions, I want to leave one more thought on a group that showed up in my previous post: don’t cheat, don’t lie, don’t double down, don’t learn things the hard way. These four rules are all underpinned by a pretty fundamental intuition which is: you are not as smart as the system. Other people know what’s what, and if you try and cheat them (or even just ignore their advice) it will go badly for you. What’s weird about this one is how false it seems to be in practice now. It was certainly true when I developed it (I was a kid, my parents are both very smart, and my mother at least is also very perceptive (hey dad!)) but now I’m fairly certain that I could lie and cheat circles around most people without getting caught. I don’t. And anyway the people I actively spend time with tend to be just as clever as me and unlikely to be fooled. But it’s weird to think of an alternative evil version of myself that has a very different social circle and is a creepy manipulative bastard, and gets away with it. I don’t want that life, but it seems achievable, which is scary enough.

A Meta-Morality Tale

As a child, you hear a lot of fables and morality tales. Most stories aimed at children have a moral of some sort, and even stories that aren’t explicitly aimed at kids typically have some sort of morality baked in. It’s hard to avoid when writing.

As a child, I noticed this and thought I was being very clever by trying to pattern-match my way from the collection of these morality tales to “general rules for life”. I didn’t frame it in quite this way at the time, but it seemed obvious that adults were trying to teach kids certain things about the world using repetition and variation on a theme, and I didn’t understand why they couldn’t just formulate the rules into English and tell me them already. But I liked puzzles and so if they wouldn’t tell me I’d just figure it out myself. As I formulated my rules, I promised myself that I would follow them unconditionally. After all, I was being clever and unlocking the secrets to life “early” somehow, so if I just always did the right thing that should clearly be an advantage. Spoiler: it wasn’t.

Considerably rephrased for clarity, this is what I remember coming up with:

  • Always put the tribe first (I was later delighted when I found out that Star Trek did in fact state this explicitly as “the good of the many outweighs the good of the few”).
  • Always default to trust. Many more problems are caused by good people not trusting each other than are caused by bad actors.
  • Never try to cheat any system, you will be found out and punished.
  • Never lie, you will be found out and punished.
  • Never double down on a sin. Fess up and accept the smaller punishment instead of having to deal with the bigger punishment that inevitable comes when your house of cards collapses.
  • Never learn things the hard way (In other words always trust other peoples’ tales of their own experiences and lessons learned. If they say it was a bad idea, it really was a bad idea).
  • Weigh the long-term more than the short-term. [edited to add, then just moved to a whole new post]

Seeing them written out like this I’m still kinda impressed with young me. Some of these are actually pretty solid and most of them I still follow to some degree (I was and still am more of a deontologist than a utilitarian). But I’ve run into enough problems with them that of course I was not nearly as clever as I thought I was. In particular the issues I’ve run into most are:

  • “Put the tribe first” has led me down a fairly guilt-ridden self-sacrificing route a few too many times. If I had to pick a better alternative I’d hazard a guess that “Always cooperate” would address the same kinds of morality tales and prisoner’s dilemmas without casting as wide a net.
  • “Never lie” hasn’t caused me so many direct problems, but mostly because I did figure out pretty early that in fact there are higher ethical concerns. I’d still wager that I lie a lot less than the average person, but I am capable.
  • “Never learn things the hard way” has been a big problem in practice, though fairly subtly. The problems are that a) Not everyone has the same set of values, so what may be a bad idea for you might be a good idea for me, and b) Second-hand knowledge may substitute well for first-hand knowledge in abstract decision making, but it really doesn’t substitute at all in terms of life skills or self-actualization.

In summary: ethics is hard. If my parents had known this was going through my head at the time they probably could have saved a lot of trouble by just giving me Kant and Hume to read.

P.S. Now that I’ve given this a title I wish I had the energy to go back and rewrite it in the actual structure of a morality tale. Alas it is late and I am lazy.

Patience

The window on the second floor
Glows gently deep into the night.
The icy wind outside the door
Cannot extinguish candle’s light.

The river, freezing, creaks and cracks,
The swirling snow falls crystalline.
The midnight sky in blues and blacks
Appears whene’er the clouds align.

The window on the second floor
Keeps watch forever and a day.
Whoever it is waiting for,
Has yet to come this way.

Choices

The icy river far below.
The winter wind that warns of snow.
The angry iron stormclouds glow.
The bridge goes everywhere.

The city skyline sparks and burns.
The hungry heart escaping yearns.
A vulture makes its lazy turns.
The bridge goes everywhere.

The shattered pillars shriek and groan.
The marching dead reclaim their own.
A million prayers cannot atone.
The bridge goes everywhere.

They say the bridge goes everywhere,
And takes each soul a separate path.
But I have found the same despair
In every choice; the aftermath
Of chasing futures o’er the span
And never looking back to see
The desolation I outran.
The bridge goes just one place for me.

Possibility Days

I had one of those weird bursts of inspiration and wrote most of the first chapter of a potential novel. Nothing is likely to come of it as I don’t really know where to take it from here, but I’m pretty happy with the prose and the mood, so I figured I’d share. It is definitely a bit on the odd side of course, I hope you’d expect that from me by now. Anyway, here you go, chapter one of Possibility Days:


There were days when the world was empty, when time stood still, and when accomplishing anything seemed almost as monumental as accomplishing nothing. There were days when the world was on fire, when the edge between success and failure seemed thin and sharp, and when the only possible emotion was a panicked, manic, make-believe optimism.

There were days in the middle.

As Andrew woke up each morning, he always had a gut feeling about what kind of day it was going to be. Those feelings weren’t always accurate of course; the days always seemed to be playing tricks on him worse than the weather forecast. But it made him feel better to pretend he had some control over things. Today, for example, had started out like a distinctly middle day, but had unexpectedly sagged towards the end before picking up sharply at the last minute. The pattern reminded him of the bass drop in a particularly formulaic pop song.

Now it was starting to sag again, but that was OK. It was late, he was tired, and as long as he didn’t fall all the way into paranoia a little bit of fade at the end of the day made it easier to get to sleep. It was probably natural, something to do with melatonin or testosterone levels or some other hormonal thing.

Standing in the bathroom brushing his teeth, he made half an effort to recall all of the things he had accomplished today, but the idea seemed just a little out of reach; he was fading fast then. Some of those things had seemed interesting or valuable at the time, but now they were just… there. Mechanistic results of a boring, predictable universe. Like the toothbrush, travelling hypnotically back and forth over his teeth, its position ever-changing but its motion always exactly the same. Andrew paused, and spit, then rinsed off the toothbrush, gargled briefly, and spit again. Tomorrow would be different, he knew, even if it would also be exactly the same. Life was funny like that.

As he made his way out of the bathroom and into the big, open, mostly-empty room that served as his bedroom, his hand batted the wall near the bathroom light switch. He hit the fan switch by accident, turned that off again, then fumbled left automatically until he could kill the lights. The room was plunged into grey, the glow of the city still sneaking around the edges of the big bay window.

Everything about this condo had seemed like a good idea originally: the massive rooms, the floor-to-ceiling windows; even the oddly-located light switches had seemed more cool than frustrating. It was still an impressive place to show off to friends and family, but if he was being honest he’d trade it all back for a bedroom that got properly dark at night. The simple things were underrated.

Crossing the shadows to his bed, Andrew knelt to pray and tried to sink into the comforting thought of all the other people who were praying at that moment. They formed a vast network of humanity in his mind, united by ritual, and reaching out toward something greater than themselves. Andrew didn’t even believe in god anymore, and hadn’t for a long time, but he still believed in the universe, and in humanity, and that was enough to pray to in his opinion. No matter what kind of day it had been, the reminder that he was somehow not alone in the world was usually a comforting one.

This night, praying to the universe quickly turned into a muttered reassurance that tomorrow would be another day, and that things always seemed brighter in the morning. It was time to stop. Giving up on the universe for one more day, he unbent his knees and crawled into bed, pulling the covers up to just under his nose and folding his hands over his stomach. The day finally complete, Andrew waited for sleep to come.