Oct 05

Kill the Buddha

There’s a Zen maxim that commands this: “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”

There are several closely related interpretations of this maxim in Buddhist tradition. The most obvious one is that worship of the Buddha interferes with comprehending what he actually said – that religious fetishization is the enemy of enlightenment.

While I completely agree with this interpretation, I’m writing to argue for a more subtle and epistemological one. I interpret Zen Buddhism as a set of practices for not tripping over your own mind – avoiding our tendency to bin experiences into categories so swiftly and completely that we stop actually paying attention to them, not becoming imprisoned by fixed beliefs, not mistaking maps for territories, always remaining attentive to what actually is. Perhaps the most elegant expression of this interpretation is this koan setting forth the problem: “The mind is like a dog. His master points at the moon, but he barks at the hand.”

In this sense, Zen is discipline that assists instrumental rationalism by teaching important forms of self-monitoring and mental hygiene – in effect very similar to General Semantics.

In this interpretation of Zen, “killing the Buddha” can be taken to stand for a very specific practice or mental habit. Here’s how it works:

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Aug 24

Three kinds of teleology

Some comments on my last post sidetracked into a discussion of evolution, teleology and design and under what circumstances the language of “purpose” or “intention” can reasonably applied to a natural system. I’ve had a new insight while thinking about that discussion, so I’m going to write about it a bit more. And yes, I am aware that this discussion may appear to overlap with Daniel Dennett’s notion of the intentional stance, but I’m actually addressing a different set of issues.

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Jul 18

Kafkatrapping

Good causes sometimes have bad consequences. Blacks, women, and other historical out-groups were right to demand equality before the law and the full respect and liberties due to any member of our civilization; but the tactics they used to “raise consciousness” have sometimes veered into the creepy and pathological, borrowing the least sane features of religious evangelism.

One very notable pathology is a form of argument that, reduced to essence, runs like this: “Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}.” I’ve been presented with enough instances of this recently that I’ve decided that it needs a name. I call this general style of argument “kafkatrapping”, and the above the Model A kafkatrap. In this essay, I will show that the kafkatrap is a form of argument that is so fallacious and manipulative that those subjected to it are entitled to reject it based entirely on the form of the argument, without reference to whatever particular sin or thoughtcrime is being alleged. I will also attempt to show that kafkatrapping is so self-destructive to the causes that employ it that change activists should root it out of their own speech and thoughts.

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Jul 07

What is truth?

[This may become part of a book.]

What is truth? There are complicated ways of explaining “truth” that get all tangled up in questions about reality and perception, but we’re going to use a very simple one: truth is what makes the future less surprising.

No matter what you think you are and no matter what “reality” may be, the experience that you have to deal with (like every other human being) is of being thrown into a surrounding that does things independently of your thoughts. Shit happens, and you have to deal with it. The first step to dealing with it is to be able to predict it.

So, for example, if somebody says to you “It’s raining outside,” the meaning of that claim is a bundle of implied predictions, including “If you go outside without a hat, hood, or umbrella your head will get wet.” You test the truth of that claim by checking if those predictions are true. You don’t have to know what water “really is”, or for that matter what “reality” is. (We’ll get to what “reality” is later; it’s not actually very complicated when you start from here.)

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Jul 06

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

Oh Thoth Trismegistus, oh Ma’at, oh Ganesha, oh sweet lady Eris…I have not laughed so hard in years!

Eliezer Yudkowsky is one of the brightest people I’ve ever met in a lifetime of seeking out gifted- to genius-grade thinkers because people who aren’t usually bore me pretty quickly. Eliezer has spent years studying the deep structure of rationality and probably understands the systematic sources of bias and irrationality in the shared architecture of the human mind as comprehensively as anyone alive. I have previously commented on some of his writings.

Usually Eliezer thinks about questions like how to build human-compatible ethical reasoning into AIs. Serious, deep stuff. When he turns the vast and imponderable force of his intellect to writing, of all things, Harry Potter fanfic, a quite unexpected degree of hilarity ensues.

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Feb 19

On being against torture

I’m against the horror of therdiglob. All right-thinking people should be against therdiglob; civilized societies have long abandoned the practice. Therdiglob makes us look bad in the eyes of the world. If you’re not against therdiglob, someone may do it to you someday.

Eh…what?

The above statement is meaningless, because “therdiglob” is undefined. It has the form of moral indignation, but it is not morally serious. Actually, it’s vacuous except as a way of conveying the speaker’s desire to sound high-minded and morally superior. As read, it is actually faintly ridiculous — indignation without substance, tone without content, pure posturing.

Everything depends on the extensional meaning of “therdiglob”. If “therdiglob” were defined as “flaying the subject alive”, it would be difficult to object to the above. On the other hand, if “therdiglob” were defined as “giving the subject cotton candy”, it would become utterly rather than faintly ridiculous.

Now consider this:

I’m against the horror of torture. All right-thinking people should be against torture; civilized societies have long abandoned the practice. Torture makes us look bad in the eyes of the world. If you’re not against torture, someone may do it to you someday.

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Feb 10

If God is dead, is anything permissible?

One of my regular commenters asked, in a previous thread, “If everyone was truly released from the shackles of religion, and got beyond the false moral codes imposed on them, would society collapse in a heap of nihilism?” This question needs a longer answer that will fit in a reply comment.

The shortest summary is “No!”. The less short answer is: “No, because religious moral codes are epiphenomenal.” And it is on point to add that the question reveals serious ignorance of the actual traits of most religions over most of history.

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Feb 04

Error cascade: a definition and examples

I’ve used the term “error cascade” on this blog several times, notably in referring to AGW hysteria. A commenter has asked me to explain it, and I think that’s a good idea as (a) the web sources on the concept are a bit confusing, and (b) I’ll probably use the term again — error cascades are all too common where science meets public policy.

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Oct 23

Fearing what might be true

I am not generally unhappy with my model of how the universe works. Yes, it would be pleasant if there really were a beneficient creator-god and an afterlife; it would be nice if “good government” were actually a sustainable possibility rather than a fond but deluded hope in the minds of statists; it would be just peachy if wishes were horses and everybody could be happy and rich. But I’m reconciled to these things being not true because it seems to me they are necessarily not true – that is, for example, I cannot imagine a universe in which the actual existence of an intervening creator-god is actually compatible with the observed regularity of natural law, nor a universe in which scarcity and agency problems do not imply that governments are subject to the iron laws of political economics.

Other people can imagine theism or statism to be true, and so could I at one time – before I understood enough to grok the contradictions they would entail. But I’m not actually writing to argue for anarchism or atheism today; I brought those up as examples to make a more subtle point. It seems to me it’s actually more difficult to deal with unpleasant possible truths that are only contingent, because you can imagine how things could be different if you lived in a universe that was slightly different but recognizable.

I’ll give two examples of this that I’m still struggling with. One: I fear feminism may be dangerously wrong. Two: I fear that the crowd calling for the abolition of all forms of intellectual property may be dangerously right.

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Sep 02

Let these two asses be set to grind corn!

In The Book of Lies, the diabolically brilliant occultist Alesteir Crowley once wrote:

“Explain this happening!”

“It must have a natural cause!”
“It must have a supernatural cause!”

Let these two asses be set to grind corn!

In the original, there is a sort of grouping bracket connecting the second and third lines lines and pointing at the fourth. Crowley was asserting, in both lucid and poetic terms, that to the understanding mind the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” is meaningless, an argument conducted about language categories with no predictive value.

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Aug 20

Quiddity has a qualia all its own

I changed my mind about a significant philosophical issue today, and in the process parted ways with a thinker I’ve been a serious fan of for a couple of decades now. The issue is raised by a thought experiment, of which I was previously unaware, called Mary’s Room. The simplest way of getting involved the dispute is to ask “How can I know that my experience of (say) the color ‘red’ is the same as yours? Is it even possible to have such knowledge?”

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Jun 19

Responding to Eliezer Yudkowsky’s “Overcoming Bias”

This was originally email to Eliezer Yudkowsky about his excellent and thought-provoking blog Overcoming Bias (actually, the links here are to the older newer Less Wrong, which has been re-indexed at Overcoming Bias). Eliezer encouraged me to publish this commentary; I have provided HTML markup and fixed some typos. Warning: the following may be heavy sledding if you are not philosophically literate.

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Aug 25

Why I hate identity politics

I was born with a congenital defect. That’s a value-free statement that nobody can conceivably insult me by repeating. It is a fact that I have cerebral palsy, probably caused by neonatal oxygen deprivation. It is a fact that my central nervous system (specifically the motor-control areas of my right temporal lobe) does not function as in quite the same way as that of a a developmentally normal human being.

It is not quite a fact, but a plausible inference based on statistics on other Persons Of Palsy, that I am significantly more intelligent than I would have been if un-palsied. It is not known how to permanently raise a human’s intelligence (some drugs can do it temporarily) but most people don’t drive their brains up to their personal genetic limit. Palsied people try harder; as a group, their mean intelligence is high relative to the general population.

In fact, the compensation effect is strong enough that you could argue that the sum of my palsy impairments and the compensation effects has been a net benefit to me. Imagine an Eric who walks normally but isn’t quite capable of reinventing hacker culture and blowing up the software industry and you’ll begin to see what I mean.

(It’s not necessary that you believe that; I’m not sure I do. Maybe I wasn’t required for open source to blow up the software industry, or maybe I’d have done it if I hadn’t had palsy. Doesn’t matter. It’s enough that you grasp the possibility that a congenital defect with an intelligence-boosting side effect can be a net positive.)

I have never, ever, had any interest in constructing my identity around the fact that I am technically “handicapped”. That would just be damn silly. I didn’t choose to have palsy, it was a developmental accident with no more significance or meaning than the fact that I have blue eyes.

Now let’s suppose that I had been born with a normal motor cortex system, but something else went just…slightly…wrong. I could, in that case, tell a very similar story. It would read something like this:

I was born with a congenital defect. That’s a value-free statement that nobody can conceivably insult me by repeating. It is a fact that I am compulsively sexually attracted to other males, probably due to my prenatal brain being exposed to abnormally high levels of feminizing hormones. It is a fact that that my central nervous system (specifically the amygdala and portions of the cerebellum and thalamus involved in sexual behavior) does not function as in quite the same way as that of a a developmentally normal human being.

It is not quite a fact, but a plausible inference based on statistics on other homosexuals, that I am significantly more intelligent than I would have been if I were straight. It is not known how to permanently raise a human’s intelligence (some drugs can do it temporarily) but most people don’t drive their brains up to their personal genetic limit. Gay people either try harder or gayness is allotropically linked to genes that set a high limit; as a group, their mean intelligence is high relative to the general population.

In fact, the compensation effect is strong enough that you could argue that homosexuality has been a net benefit to me. Imagine an Eric who is at near-zero risk for contracting AIDS from anal sex, but isn’t quite capable of reinventing hacker culture and blowing up the software industry and you’ll begin to see what I mean.

I have never, ever, had any interest in constructing my identity around the fact that I am “homosexual”. That would just be damn silly. I didn’t choose to be gay, it was a developmental accident with no more significance or meaning than the fact that I have blue eyes.

(Those of you who are PC-twitchy are probably screaming “WHAT MAKES GAYNESS A DEFECT?” at the monitor right now. Why, exactly the same measure that makes palsy a defect: it reduces the affected individual’s odds of reproducing significantly. “Inclusive fitness” is what biologists call it. Your problem is that I have been writing “biologically defective” and you are reading “morally defective” or “inferior” or something. That is not a useful interpretation of either palsy or gayness, so please stop now. Thank you.)

Back in observable reality, I’m heterosexual. But the point remains…

My identity is not the accidents that have happened to me. It is what I choose. What I make of myself. It is irrelevant that I have palsy; it would be equally irrelevant if I were gay.

People who construct themselves as professional victims because they have palsy disgust me. People who construct themselves as professional victims because they are gay disgust me. The choice to play professional victim is in fact a defect of character and morals, leading to self-sabotaging behavior in individuals and their societies.

Identity politics, whether it’s about the “identity” of being palsied, or gay, or white, or black, or anything else, is a symptom of deep failure at choosing for yourself, at becoming a fully individuated and fully functioning human being.

And that is why I hate identity politics.

Jul 16

Deism and the Founding Fathers

There is a belief abroad in many conservative circles that the U.S. is “a Christian nation”. This belief is found in perhaps its most extreme form in the Mormon doctrine that the Constitution of the United States is a divinely inspired document. Less extreme versions hold that Christian piety was an shaping influence on the thinking and writing of the Founding Fathers, and Christianity therefore has (or ought to have) a privileged position in the political and cultural life of the U.S.

The Mormon doctrine is unfalsifiable. But claims about the beliefs and intentions of the Founding Fathers are not, and the record is clear: they explicitly rejected the establishment of Christianity as the preferred or natural religion of their infant nation.

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