Near-Deathness

In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, when someone attempts a submission—say they extend your arm and exert pressure onto the rear of your elbow joint—you have three options. The first, and the most desirable, is escape. Find a way out and continue to fight on. The second, either virtuous or stupid depending on the situation and your outlook, is refusal. Choose not to surrender. Recent examples include Romulo Barral getting his ankle snapped at the 2017 BJJ World Championship and Holly Holmes being choked into unconsciousness at UFC 196. The third option is to tap.

Roberto Abreu with a double collar choke in the 2009 Pan American Championship.

To tap is to admit defeat. It’s an acknowledgement that your opponent has you in a position that is either too painful to endure or too dominant to escape from. It’s also a consequence of the realisation that your adversary could do some serious damage.

Consider chokes, a common occurrence in BJJ bouts. They fall into two categories: blood chokes and air chokes. Air chokes occur when pressure is applied directly to the upper airway. Blood chokes occur when pressure is applied to the carotid arteries and/or the jugular vein. The former is much rougher and takes longer to come into effect than the latter, but the end result of both is unconsciousness, via restricted air flow or via restricted blood flow to the brain. Of course, depriving the brain of its essential nutrients is not something to be done lightly. Maintained for too long, chokes can result in permanent damage to the brain, and even death. That’s why you tap out. That’s why you submit. You’re asking your opponent to preserve the integrity of your anatomy and your existence. You’re issuing a polite request for the rest of your life back.

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Chekov’s Gun and the Principle of Sufficient Reason

I have a sneaky trick I use to figure out the murderer when watching mystery shows. If there’s a random background character — say a doorman or a random neighbor — who gets insufficiently motivated screen time and lines in an early scene, they’re the murderer. If the role is being played by a mildly famous actor rather than a bit-part nobody, then you can be doubly sure. My hack exploits a human-character special case of the fact that good storytellers tend to follow, the Chekov’s gun principle:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

This isn’t an entirely fair trick of course, especially if you use the mildly famous actor clue, since it’s an extrinsic structural clue that’s outside the narrative proper, and one that won’t necessarily lead you to further guess the motive, or means. The lesson of the trick though, is that the assumption that there are no insignificant details in a story (or equivalently, that there is a good author behind the story) is an extremely powerful one. One that allows you to solve the mystery faster than if you had to sort out the significant details (as you would have to in a real murder). Of course, a great author, as opposed to a merely good one will distract you with a plausible alternative explanation for the Chekov’s gun that will lead you astray,.

The fact that Chekov’s gun can be used as a cheat points to why the corresponding idea in metaphysics, the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), made famous by Leibniz, is so controversial.

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Reality Maintenance

The idea that reality is something that is constructed by our minds out of sense experience, and therefore requires design, programming, and maintenance, is a curiously divisive one. To some people — myself included — it is the most obvious, even banal idea in the world; a basic starting assumption required to do any sort of interesting metaphysical thinking. As I’ve argued before, all realities are escaped realities, and the interesting question is, what is the direction/degree of escape?

To others, it is a horrendously toxic attack on all that is Good and True and a French Cultural Marxist Conspiracy Against Enlightenment Values. These people are known as normies.

Setting aside these debates, it’s interesting to try and trace how we construct and maintain realities. Here’s my picture.

Turns out, if you start with sense experience as primary (the blue/gold dress is just the tip of that iceberg of worms) there are at least three distinct well-posed notions of reality — objective, subjective, and social — each of which is best understood in terms of a particular experience of time, or to use a bigger word, a particular kind of temporality. In my previous post on escaped realties linked above, I associated the three with atoms, qualia and bits, but the three kinds of temporality is a more satisfying mapping.

As you might expect, there are Greek gods for all three. Very roughly, you have Chronos for objective time, Kairos for subjective time, and the least-known, Aion, for a sort of outside-of-time eternalism. With each of these notions you get a particular manner of constructing the self (material, introspective, and social), and from that, everything else in the reality gets bootstrapped.

Of course, each of us inhabits a reality that’s a mix of the three kinds of escapism and temporality, so reality maintenance involves ongoing non-degenerate action along all three vectors. Falsification and update of material beliefs is the most familiar kind of reality maintenance (more narrowly referred to as truth maintenance). The other two might be called stream of consciousness maintenance and recognition maintenance.

It is perhaps simplest to think of each kind of reality construction in terms of its associated kind of reality destruction, or death. So you have material death, death by loss of appetite for life (or will to live), and social death by loss of being seen by others in a social reality matrix. I

This gives us 7 degrees of death, based on whether 1, 2 or all 3 kinds of reality maintenance processes have collapsed for you. So there are 6 kinds of zombie, 1 kind of fully alive person, and 1 kind of complete corpse. I’ll leave you to work out the details.

Survival of the Mediocre Mediocre

I have a theory about why the notion of an arms race between human and machine intelligences is fundamentally ill-posed: the way to survive and thrive in an environment of AIs and robots is not to be smarter than them, but to be more mediocre than them. Mediocrity, understood this way, is an independent meta-trait, not a qualifier you put on some other trait, like intelligence.

I came to this idea in a roundabout way. It started when Nate Eliot emailed me, pitching an article built around the idea of humans as premium mediocre robots. That struck me as conceptually off somehow, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the problem with the idea. I mean, R2D2 is an excellent robot, and C3PO is a premium mediocre android, but humans are not robots at all. They’re just intrinsically mediocre without reference to any function in particular, not just when used as robots.

Then I remembered that the genesis form of the Turing test also invokes mediocrity in this context-free intrinsic sense. When Turing originally framed it (as a snarky remark in a cafeteria) his precise words were:

“No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.”

That clarified it: Turing, like most of us, was conceptualizing mediocrity as merely an average performance point on some sort of functional spectrum, with an excellent high end, and a low, basic-performance end. That is, we tend to think of “mediocre” as merely a satisfyingly insulting way of saying “average” in some specific way.

This, I am now convinced, is wrong. Mediocrity is in fact the sine qua non of survival itself. It is not just any old trait. It is the trait that comes closest to a general, constructive understanding of evolutionary adaptive “fitness” in a changing landscape. In other words, evolution is survival, not of the most mediocre (that would lead to paradox), but survival of the mediocre mediocre.

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The Key to Act Two

How do you top life rules? With a life script, that’s how. Here’s an absolutely minimalist 2-step one. Guaranteed to work for 90% of humanity. Across all neurotypes, astrological signs, preferred pronouns, quadrants of the political compass, and Myers-Briggs types. Tested across multiple scenarios, utopian and dystopian, decentralized and centralized. Constructed to be compatible with blockchain futures, rated to survive Category 5 culture wars, and resilient to climate change. Here it is, in picture form first, ready?

And now in words:

First become a key, then go look for a lock. 

This script picks up where the first-stage parental booster gives up, at around age 21, marking the beginning of Act 1. The becoming-a-key Act 1 phase lasts 3-21 years. Then there is a bit of an intermission of about 2 years, which for most people is a very confusing, unscripted time, like an inter-airport transfer in a strange foreign city with sketchy-looking shuttle buses that you are reluctant to get on, and long queues at the bathroom.

And then you’re in Act 2, which begins at age 42 on average. In a previous post, I argued that immortality begins at 40. Act 2 is about unlocking the immortality levels of the game of life. The essential truth about Act 2, which you must recognize in order to navigate it well, is this: Unless you make a special effort, you are probably not going to get damaged enough in Act 1 to become a key.

So to work this script, you are going to have to undergo some trials. In double-quick time if you’re already pushing 40.

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Make Your Own Rules

We seem to be in the middle of a renaissance of rules for life. Not since Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten (1987) and Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits (1989) has there been such a peak of interest in such rules. Then, as now, we were going through a period of deep global changes, and everybody was very anxious because nobody knew what the new rules for the new normal were.

The proximal trigger of this current wave is I think, Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules, as well as the late John Perry Barlow’s 25 principles, which have both been doing the rounds. But the root cause is growing market demand for anomie-busting.

Well of course if there’s a gold rush of this sort on, I have to sell pickaxes. And my pickaxe is a DIY template for making your own set of life rules. Here’s an in-progress snapshot of the pickaxe in action in my own notebook (cleaned-up version with readable annotations key further down, but I wanted to share the working version, which includes several technical mistakes). My model may be a bit hard to grok if you haven’t been reading me for a few years, but the good news is, it’s color-by-numbers easy to use. And all it takes is pen and paper.

I only have one actual imitable rule to offer in the marketplace of life rules: Make Your Own Rules. But I do think I have a good theory of life rules, and a meaningfully systematic procedure for generating them that I’m hoping to sell to the Deep Mind team for making well-behaved AIs.

In the short term, other people’s rules can get you through a rough patch. In the medium term, you have to at least adapt them to your own life. But in the long term, only making your own rules works.

Because, to snowclone what Eisenhower said about plans, rules are nothing, but rule-making is everything.

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The Unapologetic Case For Bullshit

In 1986 Harry Frankfurt published the first edition of On Bullshit, the essay that, in the years that followed, was to become the authoritative take on the topic. In it, he lamented the amount of bullshit plaguing every aspect of public life, arguing that production of bullshit was tightly correlated with the increase in opportunities and (perceived) obligations for people to speak their mind, even in the absence of a strong “apprehension of reality”.

Thirty years later, this trend is anything but receding. The web in general, and social media in particular, have multiplied the number of channels where we can exercise our fundamental need to be consulted. At the same time, ‘reality’ is an increasingly opaque concept, challenged by fake news on one side and the genuine unintelligibility of a world in the midst of a technological, social and political revolution on the other.

How do we navigate in this situation? Frankfurt, as we will see later, argues for self-restraint in lack of certainty. In a previous post, I have also put forward what I defined a ‘precautionary principle’: when faced with common talk (a sub-category of bullshit) it is better take the safe option and trust our common sense. But the more I think about methods and tools to resist bullshit, the more I become  forgiving of it.

It is easy to dismiss bullshit as pure noise. To treat it as the inevitable, and yet insufferable, exhaust of a world in decline. In doing so, however, we risk falling in an excellence trap: the belief that progress is a smooth climb towards the highest peak.

Maybe, a perfect world would not be a world without bullshit, but rather one where there is just the right amount of it. Maybe, to reach higher peaks of truth we sometimes need to descend into bullshit valleys. Traverse a knowledge fitness landscape, in other words, where bullshit can be adaptive.

Can we make an unapologetic case for bullshit, without descending into post-truth relativism?

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The Leaning Tower of Morality

Don’t hate the player, hate the game. — Ice-T

Game theory is asleep, cooperate for no reason. — Deity of Religion

There’s an image that’s taken root in my mind recently that I can’t seem to shake. I picture humanity living in a large, rickety tower, tilting at a precarious angle to the ground — like so:

The tower represents our capacity for moral behavior. Lower levels are more base; higher levels, more virtuous. We don’t need an exact floorplan, but here’s the kind of thing I’m imagining:

  • Ground floor: Perfect zero-sum selfishness. Aggression and exploitation. The war of all against all.
  • Middle floors: Various flavors of mutualism. “I’ll help you if you help me.” Reciprocity. Tit for tat.
  • Higher floors: Empathy and compassion. Turning the other cheek. True virtue (not just signaling). A tendency to cooperate in one-shot prisoner’s dilemmas.
  • Penthouse: Perfect self-sacrificing altruism. A willingness to give time, energy, money, or even one’s life to help a stranger for nothing in return.

Now, some people inhabit higher floors than others, but with the exception of bona fide psychopaths, all of us live somewhere in the tower, happily above ground.

Here’s the question I want to explore today: How does this structure remain standing? On what ultimate explanatory principles do our moral instincts rest?

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How to Make History

In the past year, I’ve found myself repeatedly invoking, in all sorts of conversations, a hierarchy of agency with three levels: labor, making, and action. Here’s a visualization. The annotations on the left characterize the kind of agency. The annotations on the right characterize the locus where it is exercised, and the associated human condition.

The hierarchy is based on Hannah Arendt’s Human Condition, so I’ve named the visualization the Arendt hierarchy.

A mnemonic to remember the distinctions is mark time or make history. In everything you do, from posting a tweet or buying a coffee to running for President or tackling the Riemann hypothesis, you must choose between two extreme contexts: to either mark time with labor, or make history with action. In between there is a third context, where you can choose to slow time, which includes any sort of making, including art and trade (which is making in the sense of market-making). Naturally, Arendt thought (as do I) that you must choose action and history-making as much as possible. That is what it means to be fully human.

The scheme is non-intuitive, but once you’ve internalized the concepts, they turn out to be weirdly useful for thinking about what you’re doing and why, whether it is futile or meaningful, nihilistic or generative.

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Questions Are Not Just For Asking

This is a guest post by Malcolm Ocean

Are questions just for asking? It kind of seems like it. I mean, if you consider the phrase “ask me a ______”, then the blank is obviously “question”. Just like how the blank in “that boggled my _____” is obviously “mind”.

But hang on a sec—boggling is indeed a thing that is only done to minds, but minds are capable of much more than just being boggled! Similarly, asking might be a special feature of questions, but questions are actually a versatile tool that can be used in many other ways.

In order to access those uses though, first you need to know how to comfortably hold a question without immediately asking it. Questions are a kind of creature that is easily startled.

(a panel from an excellent comic by Kostas Kiriakakis on collecting questions)

Effective asking of questions is an important skill. Being able to hold questions without asking them (when that makes sense) is a further skill, much as meta-systematicity builds on systematicity. In particular, operating in the fluid mode, seems to involve a certain kind of spaciousness that’s different than the space that a question holds for an answer. It’s a spaciousness into which you can start noticing your background assumptions and perceptual blindspots.

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