My Top Ten Slate Star Codex Posts

2019-10-07

For my group of middle school friends, a popular lunchtime activity was to create “funny” top ten lists in the tradition of David Letterman. Mercifully, I remember almost nothing about the content of these lists, except for our (my?) inexplicable habit of trying to include then-Attorney-General Janet Reno in each of them (clearly r/iamveryrandom).

Last weekend I attended the Slate Star Codex (SSC) meetup in Chicago, and got to (briefly) meet one of my personal heroes, Scott Alexander. My excitement about this has been difficult to convey to others, since few of my friends, family, and coworkers even know who he is. And that’s a shame, because his forward-thinking, creative, humorous, and comprehensive style of writing is a great antidote for… well, the rest of the internet.

One difficulty in becoming a new SSC reader is that Scott is prolific, somehow averaging a post every other day (compare that to a post every other month on this blog), and it can be hard to know where to begin. And so, in the spirit of a middle school lunch period (sans Janet Reno, RIP), I present my top ten favorite SSC posts.

10. Book Review: The Secret Of Our Success

This review is part of a sprawling series of posts about cultural evolution, covering everything from Epistemic Learned Helplessness to Asymmetric Weapons Gone Bad. Specifically, Scott’s review of Joseph Henrich’s 2015 book gave me a new appreciation for evolved cultural knowledge, encoded as tradition and protected by Chesterton’s fence. For example, on the preparation of manioc root:

A reasonable person would have asked why everyone was wasting so much time preparing manioc. When told “Because that’s how we’ve always done it”, they would have been unsatisfied with that answer. They would have done some experiments, and found that a simpler process of boiling it worked just as well. They would have saved lots of time, maybe converted all their friends to the new and easier method. Twenty years later, they would have gotten sick and died, in a way so causally distant from their decision to change manioc processing methods that nobody would ever have been able to link the two together.

9. The Hour I First Believed

As atheist who was raised Catholic, I’ve always had mixed feelings about religion, but they got considerably more complicated after reading this post. Scott starts by introducing five concepts (Acausal trade, Value handshakes, Counterfactual mugging, Simulation capture, and The Tegmarkian multiverse), and combines them to form the most compelling argument for the existence of a moral God that I’ve ever encountered (though not as concise as Douglas Adams’s proof of the non-exitence of God). From the section on Simulation capture:

…you have created a superintelligent AI and trapped it in a box. All it can do is compute and talk to you. How does it convince you to let it out?

It might say “I’m currently simulating a million copies of you in such high fidelity that they’re conscious. If you don’t let me out of the box, I’ll torture the copies.”

You say “I don’t really care about copies of myself, whatever.”

It says “No, I mean, I did this five minutes ago. There are a million simulated yous, and one real you. They’re all hearing this message. What’s the probability that you’re the real you?”

Since (if it’s telling the truth) you are most likely a simulated copy of yourself, all million-and-one versions of you will probably want to do what the AI says, including the real one.

8. Meditations On Moloch

In recent political news, Pastor (and member of Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board) Robert Jeffress accused Democrats of worshipping “the pagan god of the Old Testament Moloch, who allowed for child sacrifice” in response to the opening of an impeachment inquiry. This oddly specific accusation has, in the way of the internet, been taken up as a badge of honor among actual godless liberal elites. And I’m not sure whether this has anything to do with Meditations On Moloch, but if I listen hard enough I can almost hear Ginsberg’s saccharine voice (or maybe Glass’s weird chorus) on the wind:

Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!

(Note: consider listening to the podcast version of this one, which splices in a live recording of Ginsberg reading Howl II.)

7. A Thrive/Survive Theory Of The Political Spectrum

Political compass memes are popular in my corner of the internet, and while the actual website might be a joke (I bet you didn’t realize that Elizabeth Warren is a right-wing authoritarian), it does raise an interesting question: if liberals are left and conservatives are right, what does the up and down axis represent? Thrive/Survive begins to answer that question (more below in Conflict Vs. Mistake), and also provides a visceral example of conservative thinking that I actually empathized with:

I propose that the best way for leftists to get themselves in a rightist frame of mind is to imagine there is a zombie apocalypse tomorrow. It is a very big zombie apocalypse and it doesn’t look like it’s going to be one of those ones where a plucky band just has to keep themselves alive until the cavalry ride in and restore order. This is going to be one of your long-term zombie apocalypses. What are you going to want?

First and most important, guns. Lots and lots of guns.

6. Introducing Unsong

This one is cheating, because it’s just the first chapter of Scott’s magical serialized novel Unsong. While it is, at times, clearly the unedited first effort of an hobbyist fiction writer, Unsong is also my favorite science fiction story in years. Starting with the premise that the bible is literally true, Scott expands a proto-love story into an adventure that explores everything from asexuality to telepathy to AI to actual hell, and winds up providing the most convincing universal origin story since Asimov’s The Last Question. Even as an atheist, by the end I wanted it to be true.

Two minutes left till lunar sunrise broke the connection. The astronauts’ only orders from NASA had been to “do something appropriate”

“In the beginning,” read Bill Anders, “God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.”

So for two minutes on Christmas Eve, while a billion people listened, three astronauts read the Book of Genesis from a tiny metal can a hundred miles above the surface of the moon.

Then, mid-sentence, they crashed into the crystal sphere surrounding the world, because it turned out there were far fewer things in Heaven and Earth than were dreamt of in almost anyone’s philosophy.

5. Nobody Is Perfect, Everything Is Commensurable

At the SSC Meetup in Chicago, I had a conversation with a fellow reader about EA cause prioritization, and specifically Moral Circle Expansion. My enthusiasm for MCE as a kind of meta-cause (positively influencing other present and future causes) was met with some skepticism, and I had a hard time conjuring non-axiomatic arguments in its defense.

One of the problems with advocating for altruism, generally, is that people understand the first-mover disadvantage on a gut level, and it’s hard to persuade them to act individually without a guarantee that others will do the same. This has the side effect of deflating moral circles, and causing others to help only those with whom they expect reciprocity.

In this post, Scott makes the argument for taking the Giving What We Can pledge as a way of circumventing the problem by conforming to the achievable, effective giving threshold of 10%:

Nobody is perfect. This gives us license not to be perfect either. Instead of aiming for an impossible goal, falling short, and not doing anything at all, we set an arbitrary but achievable goal designed to encourage the most people to do as much as possible. That goal is ten percent.

Everything is commensurable. This gives us license to determine exactly how we fulfill that ten percent goal. Some people are triggered and terrified by politics. Other people are too sick to volunteer. Still others are poor and cannot give very much money. But money is a constant reminder that everything goes into the same pot, and that you can fulfill obligations in multiple equivalent ways.

4. Conflict Vs. Mistake

In the Conflict Vs. Mistake dichotomy (a companion piece to Thrive/Survive above), Scott provides a critical insight into the last three years of American politics; the correct vertical axis of the political compass:

Mistake theorists think a Revolution is stupid. After the proletariat (or the True Patriotic Americans, or whoever) have seized power, they’re still faced with the same set of policy problems we have today, and no additional options. Communism is intellectually bankrupt since it has no good policy prescriptions for a communist state. If it did have good policy prescriptions for a communist state, we could test and implement those policies now, without a revolution. Karl Marx could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by being Bernie Sanders instead.

Conflict theorists think a technocracy is stupid. Whatever the right policy package is, the powerful will never let anyone implement it. Either they’ll bribe the technocrats to parrot their own preferences, or they’ll prevent their recommendations from carrying any force. The only way around this is to organize the powerless to defeat the powerful by force – after which a technocracy will be unnecessary. Bernie Sanders could have saved himself a lot of trouble by realizing everything was rigged against him from the start and becoming Karl Marx

(Other candidates for the vertical axis include System 1 and 2, de/couplers, and game theory cooperators/defectors. I think these are all basically the same thing, and that Thrive/Survive is the “Conflict/System 1/coupler/defector” response on the left/right.)

3. The Whole City Is Center

It’s not a coincidence that we hold people responsible for traits and actions that are precisely the traits and actions that, through praise and blame, we can modify.

Paul Bloom

Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only disease you can get yelled at for having. “God damnit, Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” “God damnit, Otto, you have lupus!” One of those two doesn’t sound right.

Mitch Hedberg

If you like Socratic dialogues and have ever had the thought “there is no such thing as blank, it’s just an outdated social construct that causes harm” then this post is for you:

Simplicio: If there were such a thing as laziness, but it was rare, then it would make sense to argue “most people aren’t lazy”, since lazy would be pointing at a particular quality that most people don’t have. But if you say there’s no such thing as laziness, then it sounds like maybe you’re kind of weird to insist on defining “laziness” to refer a quality that nobody has, yet refuse to use any word to refer to the quality that many people do have. It would be like wanting our language to have a word for “unicorn” but not for “horse”.

2. Social Justice And Words, Words, Words

I’m actively involved in several social-justice-adjacent organizations and friend groups, but (ironically) I didn’t have the words to describe my frustrations with certain aspects the movement until reading this post. Scott introduces the (immensely useful) Motte and Bailey Doctrine as an analogy for the type of bait-and-switch language games that some social justice proponents deploy (alongside call-out culture) as a brute-force tactic for acquiring power.

For sports fans, this is akin to offsides in soccer, where the defensive back line will lure the offense downfield, only to simultaneously charge forward, leaving the opposition stranded at the critical moment:

By this metaphor, statements like “God is an extremely powerful supernatural being who punishes my enemies” or “The Sky Ox theory and the nuclear furnace theory are equally legitimate” or “Men should not be allowed to participate in discussions about gender” are the bailey – not defensible at all, but if you can manage to hold them you’ve got it made.

Statements like “God is just the order and love in the universe” and “No one perceives reality perfectly directly” and “Men should not interject into safe spaces for women” are the motte – extremely defensible, but useless.

As long as nobody’s challenging you, you spend time in the bailey reaping the rewards of occupying such useful territory. As soon as someone challenges you, you retreat to the impregnable motte and glare at them until they get annoyed and go away. Then you go back to the bailey.

1. Fear And Loathing At Effective Altruism Global 2017

Nominally a review of a two-year-old conference (thrilling stuff), this post is actually a defense of everything that I hold dear. I find myself reading it every few months as a reminder that there is good in the world, and that smart people are working on making things better. I think it’s the most moving of Scott’s posts to date, especially his treatment of the EA movement’s underlying utilitarian philosophy, which is often stereotyped as cold and calculating:

But every so often, I can see the world as they have to. Where the very existence of suffering, any suffering at all, is an immense cosmic wrongness, an intolerable gash in the world, distressing and enraging. Where a single human lifetime seems frighteningly inadequate compared to the magnitude of the problem. Where all the normal interpersonal squabbles look trivial in the face of a colossal war against suffering itself, one that requires a soldier’s discipline and a general’s eye for strategy.

All of these Effecting Effective Effectiveness people don’t obsess over efficiency out of bloodlessness. They obsess because the struggle is so desperate, and the resources so few. Their efficiency is military efficiency. Their cooperation is military discipline. Their unity is the unity of people facing a common enemy. And they are winning. Very slowly, WWI trench-warfare-style. But they really are.

Honorable Mentions

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